In Spain, A Bush Ally Pays The Price
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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