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In Spain, A Bush Ally Pays The Price
T wo weeks after the slaughter of 190 workers, students, and immigrants—and the wounding of 1,500 others—on the suburban train line that links eastern Madrid towns to the Spanish capital, the train station in Alcalá de Henares was still covered in mourning. Black ribbons, crowds of red candles, poems by students lamenting lost friends, and printed snarls of anger to suit varied political and religious tastes covered the walls and floors outside the main entrance and beside the tracks.
No one died in this station, though many of the dead resided in this town, birthplace of Cervantes and Manuel Azaña, president of the Second Republic. But it was in Alcalá, investigators seem certain, that members of an al Qaeda-type commando team boarded trains and deposited under the seats sports bags packed with dynamite. Only when the train drew close to the main Madrid station of Atocha, perhaps half an hour later, did mobile telephones set off the horrific cargo.
Many of the dead were immigrants, several of them Romanians who in recent years had congregated in what is known as the Henares corridor and especially in Alcalá. Here, housing is a little cheaper and public transportation reliable—ideal for carrying workers to their modest cleaning and construction jobs downtown and elsewhere.
The People’s Party (PP) of José María Aznar, loser of parliamentary elections held three days after the train bombings, has been held accountable for two closely related aspects of the tragedy. Aznar and his now defeated ministers have repeatedly heard the epithet asesinos (killers) hurled their way. It was a charge they had grown used to during the invasion of Iraq, these Spanish right-wingers who, when tired of repeating the mantra about curtailing the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, confessed that their real agenda in siding with George W. Bush was to rescue Spain from a “forgotten corner” of history. The country’s right wing believed that the only sort of glory available to Madrid in the third millennium was the sort reflected off the tanks and planes of the new empire.
For in Europe, Spain could only be a second rank player. Privileged status as a special friend of the U.S., along with London, seemed to promise more. So asesino, apart from referring to the mass deaths of Iraqi innocents, means, in the opinion of those who proclaim it, that the politicians who took Spain to war also have the blood of train travelers on their hands. It is a charge that causes enormous pain among PP politicians, their families, and supporters, but it is hard to refute. The shouters of asesinos assert that the government was warned repeatedly that war (or state terror) would provoke more terror.
The other accusation, equally well publicized by the press and immortalized in cartoons of an Aznar-Pinocchio type caught with his elongated proboscis, is that between Thursday morning, when the tragedy occurred, and the Sunday of the elections, the government deliberately misled Spanish and world opinion with regard to the probable authors of the crime. That they, in the person of Interior Minister Angel Acebes, continued to insist that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible, when they knew that an al Qaeda-style outfit was most likely guilty. Certainly, it was in the government’s electoral interests for ETA, rather than Islamic fundamentalists, to have blown up the trains. For the Basque terrorists are the official enemy who, in what some have termed a sick dialectic, bestows votes on the People’s Party while drawing oxygen for itself.
From one side, ETA could, until Sunday at least, point to a Castilian nationalist government in Madrid that refuses to negotiate sovereignty with the Basque people in order to justify its own plague of murder and assassination. From the other, the PP could cite murder and assassination as a reason for citizens of good faith to rally around its unflinching standard.
Did the government really cover up during the three days in question? One of the more charitable interpretations of the cabinet’s behavior comes from perhaps its most vociferous, high-profile opponent. Gaspar Llamazares, chair of the Communist-led United Left, declared in a March 17 interview that the government had gotten “carried away by its obsessions” in the hours subsequent to the explosions. Later, as evidence began to point to perpetrators other than ETA, the PP, according to Llamazares, “sought to use the incident for its own purposes or, at least, act so that the massacre wouldn’t do them any damage.” That is, by continuing to talk as though ETA might have done the deed, a sufficient percentage of the electorate would be sufficiently confused so as not to turn its voting wrath on the incumbents.
The most telling, early indication that those blaming ETA were on the wrong track—and that they might be reluctant to get onto the right one—came in the form of a statement from Arnaldo Otegi, in which the leader of the banned party Batasuna dismissed the possibility that the Basque outfit was behind the strike. (Batasuna is essentially the equivalent of Sinn Fein in the Spanish state.)
At noon on March 11, Otegi reportedly took part in a press conference at which he and two colleagues denounced the train massacre. ETA does not carry out attacks so as not to take credit for them. As for Otegi, one might safely assume that he maintains excellent contacts within the terrorist organization. He has made an admittedly difficult political career out of justifying “hits” by the organization. The Batasuna leader pointed out at the time that ETA “always gives warnings when it places explosives;” indeed, a phone call before an explosion is the group’s habitual modus operandi.
Instead of giving the government pause to reflect, the Basque nationalist’s posture and argument seemed to infuriate Acebes, who proceeded to assert, “He didn’t have the slightest doubt” that ETA was behind the bombings. The rest of the evidence proceeded to flood in: a tape with verses from the Koran; an assumption of responsibility by the “Abu Hafs al-Masri brigade” sent to a British newspaper; discovered detonators made of copper, generally not favored by ETA. The official case was collapsing. On Saturday, the government announced that an initial string of arrests had been made; none of the detained, of course, was a Basque separatist.
A week after the bombings, and over the course of an evening, participants in an anti-globalization meeting in Madrid emphasized the role of mass mobilizations in defeating the PP government on Sunday, March 14. In part, they were referring to the gathering of a few thousand people who chanted “Tell us the truth” and other, less conciliatory slogans, outside the governing party’s headquarters on Saturday evening. Initially described as a “spontaneous” event, it has become unclear, some weeks later, whether figures prominent in the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and in pro-PSOE media outlets didn’t have a hand in provoking and/or organizing the event, if only by broadcasting the dubious news that Spain’s intelligence agency was “90 percent” certain from early Thursday (and not, say, Friday) that al Qaeda was responsible. The anti-globalizers were also referring to the mammoth gatherings all over Spain on Friday, March 12 that were, primarily, denunciations of terror and expressions of collective grief.
But while the country’s tame public television networks did their best to present these acts as apolitical—everyone together against the terror gatherings featuring ordinary citizens arm in arm with the Berlusconis, Aznars, and Blairs of the world—other sentiments were obviously simmering. Many mour- ners were denouncing all terror as they stood in the rain. Plenty were also behind the government. Two days later, after all, the PP would manage some 38 percent of the vote. But the mood, if it ever had been pro-government in the imme- diate wake of the tragedy, was turning.
Participants in the Madrid anti-globalization meeting were also referring to the huge rallies that had filled Spanish streets during the Iraq war. Demonstrators from those “March-April days,” many of them young people who had never cast a ballot before, “remembered” one year later. Just enough of them—along with older Spaniards who in 2000 and at other times had concluded that ballot boxes were of limited use or that the electoral offer was uninspiring—came out to eject an especially objectionable government. As one person present at the meeting said, “A lot of Anarchists voted Socialist on Sunday.”
So what to expect from José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his PSOE? Clearly, the prime minister- to-be understands that he got more votes than the right wing because his party opposed the Iraq war and because the government was seen to have tried to manipulate the train killings for its own political ends. On election night, joyous socialist voters chanted “Don’t fail us” outside PSOE headquarters and that meant: get Spanish troops out of Iraq.
Zapatero has some room to maneuver. Specifically, “if the United Nations assumes political leadership [in Iraq] and there are multinational forces in place in which many Arab countries—led by the Arab league—participate,” then Spanish troops could remain after June, he noted in an interview with the pro-PSOE newspaper El País a week after the election. “There’s a radical change led by the UN…or the troops return. Things would have to change a lot.” He has also made it clear that his will be a more “European” foreign policy, which means that alliance with the U.S. will be balanced with, or subordinate to, solidarity with the EU—which is to say, France and Germany. A government of peace? It can’t be forgotten that this is a party that under Felipe Gonzalez backed the first Gulf War and, with their own Javier Solana in NATO’s top chair, the Socialists were enthusiastic backers of the attack against Yugoslavia.
Then there’s domestic policy. After all, Spaniards just elected what is ostensibly a government of the left whose main tasks, arguably, won’t be foreign ones. It is instructive to note that Zapatero and his team make a clear distinction between economy and society. They will invest more, they say, in long suffering public schools and health care while pursuing a policy of “non-interference” in those realms that belong to capital. Their political “dualism” is so complete that they promised, in the election campaign, no new taxes (in a country with a degree of fiscal pressure below the EU average) and increased spending. For this, they were ridiculed from both left and right. Activists and radical organizations have few illusions. Sira del Rio, an expert in the effects of labor market deregulation with the General Confederation of Labor, Spain’s largest expression of organized anarchism, notes that the PSOE was a master at market-oriented measures when it governed between 1982 and 1996. After all, Gonzalez’s governments provoked two more general strikes than did the PP (three, if you count a half- day stoppage in 1992).
Today, employers’ organizations, who would like to imitate certain aspects of domestic U.S. policy, are demanding further labor market reform. They want to make it easier and less expensive to lay off permanent, full-time workers. Yet, with more than 30 percent of all contracts in the country presently of a temporary nature, it is abundantly clear that companies have numerous “cheap” hiring options. Del Rio doesn’t dispute the possibility that the PSOE will soon call on employers and unions to negotiate more “flexibility.” Early reports suggest the Socialists want to encourage job creation by permitting employers longer trial periods with new workers, who can then be let go without compensation if they don’t “work out.” She is also worried about the PSOE for another reason. “These people know the language of the left, so the situation will be trickier with them in power.” For example, she notes, they’ll know better how to promote part-time contracts with low pay and benefits by talking about the empowerment of women—at least those women who find it difficult to hold down one full-time job in the office and another at home.
For del Rio, the tasks for Spanish unions and social movements are essentially the same as before March 14. These include addressing precarious working and living conditions from the ground up, building organizational links between labor activists with workplace issues and poor people with housing problems, and between volunteer caregivers and people who have been injured at work. She talks about getting unions, hers first of all, to have something to say to the marginalized who aren’t in the sorts of (relatively) secure, full time jobs that collective agreements protect. No government will effectively tackle these issues. Still, she agrees, it’s nice to have tripped up one leg of the Bush coalition.
Marc B. Young is an independent journalist based in Spain. His recent work has focused on Africa.
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