Jesús Gil y Gil was neither a good businessman nor a good politician, at least in the traditional sense. But he managed to achieve immense wealth and popularity thanks to both fields. This is the contradictory premise for director Enric Bach and producer Justin Webster’s The Pioneer (El Pionero), a four-part documentary from HBO Spain that explores the life of one of the most notorious yet representative figures in Spain’s living memory. Gil unexpectedly took over Atlético de Madrid soccer club and the Marbella town council during the 1990s. He built them up on shaky foundations, then let them collapse under the weight of accumulated debt and charges of corruption. Now, The Pioneer asks, what place should Gil occupy in the country’s history? EL PAÍS spoke to Webster and Bach to find out.
Question. Can we have forgotten how popular Jesús Gil y Gil became?
Justin Webster. He had delusions of grandeur. Just after he was voted in as mayor of Marbella for the second time with an absolute majority and Atleti won the league, he thought the sky was the limit; that he could become the Spanish prime minister. The only figure he might have respected was the king. But he felt that, apart from the crown, nobody could compete with him. There’s a moment in the series when he boasts that he is the most popular person in Spain, more so even than the pope. He does so citing a survey, but who knows who would have carried it out or how, it was no doubt a private poll.
Enric Bach. But I’m not surprised. In the 1990s, TV allowed for the kind of popularity that few people have ever enjoyed. The audience figures soared for any show he went on.
There’s a moment in the series when he boasts that he is the most popular person in Spain, more so even than the pope
Producer Justin Webster
J. W. He made the front page of The Guardian in 1995. And The New York Times. He was a phenomenon.
Q. But we’re talking about a man who was a law unto himself, uninterested in the common good – a textbook crook. What does his popularity say about Spain?
J. W. I remember during that era that whenever you were writing for any newspaper, you would always refer to “the fledgling Spanish democracy.” The democratic culture was taking shape after 40 years of Franco rule and there was a mix of democratic code and, I won’t say Francoist, but pre-democratic code. Democracy is pretty complex. You have to believe in many things and have a lot of mechanisms in place to make it work. He was a businessman from another era and, as far as he was concerned, it was all about walking the walk. I don’t think he was expressly anti-democratic but he had no problem saying: “There are things to be done and all this about licenses and laws and judges is neither here nor there.”
Q. These “things to be done” included rezoning rural land, embezzlement and buying off judges.
E. B. During the 1990s, when Gil arrived on the scene, there had been a rise in the population and the city had not adapted to these new demographic realities. He boosted urban development, but he confused the ends with the means. The means were terrible.
J. W. He had a domineering personality. And there were things that he just didn’t see. The legalities, the institutions… He never understood them or he preferred not to know anything about them. So he was a very dangerous force of nature – that personality and the blindness.
Q. He won three elections for mayor in spectacular fashion. How could his ideology possibly have been a mystery?
E. B. There’s a phrase that he always used to repeat, that his idols were Franco, Jesus Christ and Che Guevara. He also used to say that at 9am he was a communist, at 10am a socialist, and by 11am he had swung to the right. In reality, perhaps, he was none of these things. I asked his son Óscar who he thought his father would vote for now and he said for no one, only for himself.
Q. A businessman who gets rich from soccer, bricks and mortar and politics is perhaps very Spanish; but for a nouveau riche figure to be as uninterested in the elite as Gil was is not.
J. W. What motivated him was recognition. Not so much the money. He wanted to be talked about. It didn’t matter if it was good or bad, as long as he was the focus of attention.
E. B. He felt he was one of the people but at the same time he felt he was a success and wanted that recognized. He knew he didn’t belong to the elite; that he came from the other side of the tracks.
There’s a phrase that he always used to repeat, that his idols were Franco, Jesus Christ and Che Guevara
Director Enric Bach
Q. And he won that affection?
E. B. A lot of people in Marbella defend him and blame others for his legacy. There’s a phrase that I like, from a writer during the time when Gil was a candidate in the Atlético de Madrid elections: “Gil seduces and shocks.” I think it really sums up the feelings he inspired. He fascinated people and, as far as Atlético was concerned, he made the fans want to be a great club and not to always be looking at their rivals, Real Madrid, from the perspective of the underdog, but with a certain pride. At the same time, people knew the way in which he operated would be very far from orthodox.
Q. Not even at his peak did he manage to export his winning formula to the national stage. Is that because it lacked the intimacy for his personality?
E. B. He put himself forward for [regional] elections in Andalusia and I think, even in Marbella, he got fewer votes than when he stood for mayor. In 2000, he tried to run in the European elections and failed. But expansion on a municipal level worked for him. In 1999, he was the most-voted candidate in eight of the 13 municipalities he ran for. Perhaps we still lived in an era in which, when it comes to voting for a representative, people went for the big parties.
Q. Would he have had it easier now with social networks?
E. B. He would have made the same use of Twitter as Trump. He would have no filters. But in the 1990s, TV was a great medium and he completely exploited it. We are more critical now than we were then.
Q. But don’t phrases such as “I need to win with an absolute majority to show the usual suspects that we are here,” sound a bit like Trump?
E. B. There are things that are probably repeated by the kind of businessmen who get into politics and challenge the establishment they know how to reach the hearts of the voters by sending out simple messages. But his game was very particular. And as a politician too – and it’s hard to compare him to Trump or Boris Johnson. In the series, we don’t refer to them because I think the viewers themselves will link him to the current situation. Then, yes, the story of Gil is about how fragile we are as a society because we are seduced by these kinds of messages and we want leaders who will solve our problems fast.
English version by Heather Galloway.