20 December 2010

¡Os recibimos con alegría!

Three weeks ago there was more bad news for the socialists in Spain, this time in Catalonia, where they lost badly in a round of legislative elections. But to read about this in El País you had to turn to page 24, a long way away, and in your path stood Wikileaks. For a full week the revelations came without any sign of stopping, and it was glorious, like reading a novel. Maybe we all knew how it was to end, or rather, that it had to end, but from Monday, November 29 to Monday, December 6 we were treated to one of the better subplots of the broader scandal.

Not only had the US done nefarious things in Spain—pressured its government into war, browbeaten diplomats, meddled in the justice system—the Spanish government had eagerly (from the language of the cables) acquiesced to US demands. After three days, the Spanish procurator general, two of his subordinates, and the former vice president had all appeared in cables written by American diplomats. Each had agreed to perform some favor for the US Embassy, even after Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had chilled relations by withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq.

The biggest points of scandal were, and are, American interventions in Spanish justice. And by Tuesday, November 30, the contours of this storyline were becoming clear. Three court cases had worried the US Embassy enough for the ambassador to summon then Vice President María Teresa Fernández De la Vega and Procurator General Cándido Conde-Pumpido. The first case concerned the killing of Galician cameraman José Couso, shot dead by an American tank during the siege of Bagdad in April 2003; the second (technically two separate cases) the alleged torture of a Spanish prisoner in Guantánamo and the illegality of the prison itself; and the third, CIA rendition flights with stopovers on Spanish soil.

One of these cases, caso Couso, is still pending. It’s the only one the US hasn’t been able to derail, though not for lack of trying. The Spanish government continues to comfort the Couso family and promise further action, even though the latest revelations make clear that the government lawyers (fiscales) counseling patience have effectively been in American employ. The lines on everyone’s lips from the cables are American diplomats quoting the Spaniards that “the ministers are working so that the detention orders [to extradite three American soldiers] do not succeed” and that the procurator general will do “everything possible to shelve the case.” If the fiscales encountered difficulties, the US ambassador could count on the Zapatero government, described in the cables as “waiting in the wings” to help.

As both the Spanish and American media were quick to point out, there’s nothing quite new in these latest revelations with regard the broad strokes of Spanish-American relations. Conde-Pumpido was opposed to trying these cases from the start and so in a sense revealed the government position years ago: the US is to enjoy impunity in these matters. That said, no one had ever seen that Spanish government officials actually answered to Americans. The cables reveal that before each of Conde-Pumpido’s pronouncements on these cases, he received a stern talk from the US ambassador.

Then there were the startling facts, revealed by the cables, of what the Spanish government had concretely done to guarantee the Americans their impunity. If the cables tell the truth, the fiscales have acted illegally. They gave the US Embassy legal as well as political advice about what was and was not worth its time and worry (advisement and disclosure forbidden by law). They also agreed not to prosecute the cases (more laws broken, including aiding the subject of a current investigation). They promised to keep cases about sensitive matters like Guantánamo out of the hands of a certain judge (a breach of judicial protection and impartiality). Finally, they agreed to dismantle, through a series of legal and public statements, Spanish claims to universal jurisdiction in cases questioning the roles of high-ranking Americans. 


Over the course of the week, El País improved as storyteller of the saga. On the first two days of revelations, every confidential memo was a “confidential memo”; the scare quotes were everywhere, constantly reminding us of the exceptional nature of these sources. By mid-week, the reporters had jettisoned them. This left the problem of citation. Each cable has a number. Do you cite the number parenthetically or tack on the citation to the end of the sentence? The paper opted for the latter, and to see this, by Thursday, meant seeing the story finally hewed out of its initial awkwardness.

This mattered because of an essential narrative problem: there are almost no direct quotes available from the Spanish officials. Practically everything is paraphrased by the American diplomats writing the cables, which makes it difficult to tell the story from a Spanish perspective. The situations the cables most immediately conjure take place in an office with the sounds of ringing phones, American voices, typing, and a buzzing television. That American office—a void and shining light—pulls us away from the Spanish blunder, even though it instigated it.

Several days later, I realized that the Spanish government understood the cables’ limitations clearly. Spanish officials denied everything by shrewdly summoning up a more colorful vision of that American office. Vice President Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba explained the contents of these cables as being the “subjective” impressions of a North American diplomat who had let his imagination run wild. He goes further; it is obvious that this is the case. (The cables are “una carga de subjetividad que todo el mundo puede apreciar si lo lee.”) Rubalcaba hardly seemed to believe this subjectivity thesis himself. Photos show him looking tired and grim as he left the cabinet meeting where he presumably agreed to just that script. His statement, by the time he made it on Friday, sounded so unpersuasive after the week’s revelations that it slunk into the middle pages of the papers without comment.


It’s been three weeks now since the story broke, and the public seems resigned, even accepting of the government’s perfidy. The Spanish fiscales were obviously carrying out orders originating in Moncloa and by extension Washington. Holding them responsible would mean castigating the Socialist government for doing what Spanish governments have often done: speak one way about the US to the Spanish people, then carry on in another. At present, Zapatero is wobbling so precariously that no one (not even the center-right Partido Popular) wants to be seen giving him the final push. Better that the socialists should fall all by themselves; the press prefers civility in these matters.

In fact, the story about these fiscales, for all their unctuous double-dealing, is that they are underdogs in a way, snared by the irresistible trap of Spanish-American relations. The subtext may well be that they are collectively an international political everyman: used, discarded, and betrayed by Washington. The story no one wants to dwell on is that this level of acquiescence brings to mind the unholy alliance forged by Franco, who, with notably greater success, signed a treaty with Eisenhower in the ’50s, accepted American aid starting in the late ’60s, and badmouthed Washington anytime he needed a rousing patriotic score.

In the lower chamber of parliament, representatives of the slight but spirited United Left coalition (Izquierda Unida), have loudly called for further investigations. But theirs is a marginal effort, and the Socialists haven’t even bothered to respond. El País’s recent reporting on more trivial cables—ones detailing the US ambassador’s personal opinions of Spanish statesmen, for instance—has begun to cancel out the seriousness of the earlier revelations. This seems to have happened too swiftly and too efficiently for El País not to have known what it was doing. Before the first week was out, the reporting had turned to gossip. The former US ambassador was said to have described Zapatero as clever and devious, “like a jungle cat.”

Before long the economy lumbered back into the headlines. Spanish unemployment is now over 20 percent, austerity measures are to take effect in January, and each day brings new concerns about the nation going bankrupt. By the week’s end, the papers were awash in what was suddenly a more pressing story. A strike by air traffic controllers prompted calls for “Reaganeseque” intervention by Zapatero. Life continues apace.

Image: Spanish Procurator General Cándido Conde-Pumpido. Image from rtve.es.

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