We’re Mexican, after all
Even the average observer can see that the Spanish political elite have little "elite" about them
One of the sights of late summer in Spain is tourists returning to the north of Europe with huge Mexican sombreros as souvenirs. This is embarrassing or, perhaps, amusing. It is another example of the ignorant habit of putting all the Latin countries in the same bag, though an ocean lies between them. For these tourists it is all the same whether Franco governs in Spain, let alone knowing Felipe González from Aznar or Zapatero. Spain is a country of sun, siestas, dance, tapas, cheap beer, nightlife, bullfights -- and crooked politicians. It matters little whether they are in Madrid or in a town hall by the beach. They are all provincial and corrupt.
The European elites -- politicians, diplomats, bankers, specialized journalists, businessmen, Brussels bureaucrats -- try harder to be informed. Some know the country well, and its history; speak good Spanish and even meet members of Spain's government. A telephone survey conducted this week among members of this group, after the recent revelations about alleged cash payments to top officials, left a disturbing conclusion. Those who buy Mexican hats as souvenirs of Spain are not necessarily so far wrong: between the endemic corruption of Mexico and that of Spain, between the customs of the old colonial power and the old colony, there is not so much difference as one might believe.
Unfortunately for Spain, the economic crisis has put a spotlight on the country as never before, at least since Franco's death. Today, in foreign circles of power, little goes unnoticed. The affair of the "envelopes" comes on top of a previous cumulus of corruption cases. As The New York Times recently put it, investigations into corruption "have tainted the upper echelons of Spanish society as well as the country's institutional fabric, from the monarchy to the Supreme Court."
When the BBC did a program on the disastrous impact of the crisis on the Valencia region, the Spanish embassy in London reacted like a banana republic
Even allowing the claim that the "envelopes" are a lie mongered by a conspiracy, and that the Popular Party is "clean and transparent," as its secretary general declared last Thursday, another phenomenon is clear enough to the average observer: the Spanish political elite have little "elite" about them. They aspire to play in the big league, but are only good for small-town use. In international forums they amount to nothing. Few of them understand that to have a voice in the "Club Europe," you have to speak languages, and have at least some concerns that are other than parochial.
An editorial writer for a financial daily comments that when our prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, speaks in public it is "as if he thought he were in a village where there wasn't any internet." Spanish diplomacy -- "catatonic," according to the same source -- is of the same order. When the BBC did a program on the disastrous impact of the crisis on the Valencia region, the Spanish embassy in London reacted like a banana republic, sending an indignant note of protest to the editor. Even more picturesque was the mayor of Valencia, who said it was the work of an Anglo-Saxon plot.
Whether all this will affect the country's economic recovery is a good question. Perhaps it will not. Statistics show that Spanish exports are now rising, and so is direct foreign investment. The corruption recently revealed in Spain is surprising only in its sheer scale. What is clear is that these things have always gone on in Spain, in times of boom and in times of bust. The stereotype the foreigners have of Spain is not far off the mark. But if the resulting product is market-competitive, money has no prejudices. The example of Mexico is encouraging. Corruption there is endemic, but the economy is growing at the enviable rate of three or four percent a year.
The real blow is to our morale. The dream that we were living in an advanced, modern European country has vanished. And what we feel is shame, humiliation, rage, disappointment. Nothing more.