Madrid mayor faces first crisis over councilor’s jokes on Twitter

Guillermo Zapata tweeted offensive messages in 2011 making fun of the Holocaust

Guillermo Zapata, the newly appointed culture councilor for the city of Madrid.
Guillermo Zapata, the newly appointed culture councilor for the city of Madrid.Claudio Alvarez / EL PAÍS

Just hours after becoming the new mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, of the leftist bloc Ahora Madrid, was already dealing with her first political crisis.

On Saturday, it emerged that Carmena’s new culture and sports councilor, Guillermo Zapata, tweeted offensive messages in 2011 making fun of the Holocaust and of victims of ETA terrorism.

The comments, which Zapata has defended as jokes made in the context of a debate about the limits of humor, immediately triggered a wave of criticism from other Twitter users and from political parties.

Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena

The Socialists, whose support was instrumental in handing Ahora Madrid the keys to City Hall – the leftist bloc had earned 20 council seats at municipal elections, compared with 21 won by the Popular Party (PP) conservatives – are now demanding the councilor’s dismissal.

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez on Monday asked Carmena to remove Zapata for his “miserable statements” that are “unbecoming of someone who wishes to be culture councilor in an open and tolerant city.”

The conservatives also demanded the councilor’s dismissal or resignation.

“No amount of apologizing is valid. Those tweets are not black humor, they are glorifying anti-semitism and terrorism. They show the moral stature of a radical and cruel figure,” said Íñigo Henríquez de Luna, the Madrid PP’s number two official.

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“If Carmena does not demand Zapata’s immediate resignation, she will be an accomplice to his barbarity,” tweeted Esperanza Aguirre, the PP mayoral nominee who was left out of office despite her narrow victory at the polls.

Jewish associations and the Victims of Terrorism Foundation have also asked for Zapata’s dismissal.

On Monday morning, Zapata himself said that he is not ruling out handing in his resignation “if that is the best thing to make those people stop suffering” and “to end the media storm.”

One of Zapata’s tweets said the following: “How would you fit five million Jews into a Fiat 600 [a tiny car popular in the 1960s and 70s]? Answer: in the ashtray.”

In another remark in the same vein, Zapata tweeted about the State of Israel, saying that “we don’t know why it needs so much space, if each person just takes up a pile of ash.”

Another message stated: “They’ve had to shut down Alcàsser cemetery so Irene Villa won’t go in to get replacement parts.”

Irene Villa is one of ETA’s best-known victims, as she lost both legs in a car bomb attack at the age of 12. Her mother had a leg and an arm ripped off. Alcàsser is a town in Valencia that made headline news in 1992 when three local teenage girls were abducted, tortured, raped and killed by two men, one of whom was never caught.

PP mayoral candidate Esperanza Aguirre

Zapata has publicly apologized, but said that the jokes were taken out of context and defended his right to use black humor. He has since closed his Twitter account.

“I think that humor has an enormous potential to heal wounds, but also to hurt,” he told EL PAÍS in a telephone conversation. “And if you do something that hurts someone else, you must apologize for it, even if it falls within the bounds of your freedom of expression.”

Meanwhile, Carmena said only that she would speak to Zapata on Monday, without clarifying whether she was planning to dismiss him or not.

“I have to speak to him first and then we’re going to have a think; black humor cannot be cruel,” she said on a televised interview on La Sexta. “Perhaps I am clear about what I am going to do already, I have an idea, a feeling about what needs to be done, but decisions have to be reflected on, one cannot act on a hunch.”

“I am of the opinion that humor, no matter how dark, should always have a limit in the pain it could cause the victims. I think that humor should have a limit, and that’s what worries me. We need to talk about that,” said the mayor in another interview published in Contexto.

Zapata is not the only new councilor to find himself embroiled in a similar scandal. Pablo Soto, the councilor for Citizen Participation, once tweeted about the need to “torture” then-Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón.

But the mayor says that both cases are completely different because, while Zapata continues to defend his right to use black humor, “Pablo is completely repentant.”

“It is important to see that he did what the did when he was a person with ties to the Indignados movements,” said Carmena in his defense. “He is a person who has changed his attitude and now has an institutional attitude that he didn’t have before. [...] We all have a past, a person can change and have some ideas at one time and other ideas at another.”

Ahora Madrid is a bloc made up of the anti-austerity party Podemos, the social movement Ganemos and breakaway members of the traditional left-wing party United Left. Of this group of 56 people, Carmena only personally selected one, Marta Higueras, who is now her deputy.

Guillermo Zapata, a novelist and screenwriter, was named by Ganemos, while Pablo Soto, a software developer, had the backing of Podemos.