Category Archives: World Affairs

Miquel Barceló in the Palais des Nations

In my blog entry dated July 2nd, 2007, I told you of a commission which the Felanitx born artist, Miquel Barceló, had accepted in Geneva (Switzerland). Felanitx is the town in Mallorca (Spain), where I made my home for the last twenty years.

I have it from a very reliable source that Miquel Barceló has accomplished the mammoth task. The mural painting for the 1,500 m2 domed ceiling of Room XX in the UN Palais des Nations building in Geneva is now completed and, apparently, the finished result is said to be rather impressive.

Here is some background information (I quote from the ONUART website):

In April, 2007, in a ceremony presided over by the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Miguel Ángel Moratinos Cuyaubé, the Fundación ONUART was established in Madrid (ONU is the Spanish acronym for the United Nations Organization). Fundación ONUART is a private, non-profit agency with mixed public and private funding, whose main aims are to promote dialogue, through the use of Spanish contemporary arts, to promote dialogue, to drive understanding between cultures and societies, and to foster multilateralism in Geneva. 

Fundación ONUART commissioned Spanish artist, Miquel Barceló, to create a unique ceiling painting for Room XX. This meeting venue will host the UN Human Rights Council and will be one of the largest and most state-of-the-art of all the negotiating rooms at the Palais des Nations. What also distinguishes Room XX in particular is that it has an enormous 1,500 m2 ellipsoidal dome. This dome provides the backdrop for the biggest challenge ever for 51-year-old artist. 

The Chamber for Human Rights and for the Alliance of Civilisations will be the room’s official title following its inauguration and it will be the permanent home of the newly created United Nations Human Rights Council. It will become the UN’s most modern negotiating room, using the latest materials and technology in audiovisual resources, conference services, interpretation systems, information technology and telecommunications.

Miquel Barceló, supported by a 20-strong team, was using some 35 tons of paint with pigments from all corners of the globe, specially designed equipment, with the involvement of specialists in various disciplines, including particle physics laboratories, engineers, architects and others in heritage restoration.   

The Chamber for Human Rights and for the Alliance of Civilisations is currently being fitted out and furnished to its 800+ seating capacity. I understand that the inauguration date is set for sometime in November, 2008. We just have to wait a bit longer before we can see what the man from Felanitx has created, this time.

In the meantime, an exhibition with work by the Felanitx artist opened last week at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (Ireland), called Miquel Barceló: The African Work. The show can be seen until 28th September, 2008. This exhibition will then travel to CAC Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga (Spain), where it will be opened in November, 2008.

The two photos (top and centre) show Miquel Barceló’s ceramic sculpture, Gran pot avec crânes sur 1 face, dated 2000. The photo (above) shows the artist in Room XX of the Palais des Nations, Geneva; it was borrowed from the Internet (© Agustí Torres – ONUART). Gracias.

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The Forgotten Spanish War of Ifni

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Not many of today’s school children in Spain have been taught about a war that their country was embroiled in fifty years ago, in 1957, the War of Ifni. Many Spaniards, young or adult, don’t even know what Ifni is or where it is situated.

Ifni, or rather: Sidi Ifni, is a Moroccan town of about 15,000 inhabitants, situated in the south of the country, just south of Agadir, at the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ifni had been brought under Spanish rule in 1476, a few years before the capture of Melilla. Ifni, but not Melilla, was re-claimed by the Moroccan Saadien rulers in 1524.

The Treaty of Tangier of 1860 allowed the Moroccan cities of Sidi Ifni and Telata, as well as what later was known as Spanish Sahara, to be incorporated into the Spanish colonial empire. In 1946, Spain’s various coastal and inland colonies in Morocco were consolidated as Spanish West Africa.

France, having earlier been accorded protectorate status by the Sultan of Morocco, was at that time in control of all of the northern part of Morocco, plus all of Algeria.

When Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, the country expressed their keen interest in all of Spain’s possessions in Morocco, claiming that it was historically and geographically all part of Moroccan territory. Sultan Mohammed V encouraged efforts to re-capture the land and personally funded anti-Spanish conspirators, Moroccan insurgents and indigenous Sahrawi rebels to claim Ifni back for Morocco.

Violent demonstrations against foreign rule erupted in Ifni in April 1957, followed by civil strife and the widespread murder of those loyal to Spain. In response, Generalissimo Franco, then still very much in charge of a dictatorially controlled Spain, dispatched two battalions of the Spanish Legion, Spain’s elite fighting force, to El Aaiún in southern Morocco, in June 1957.

The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War (La Guerra Olvidada) in Spain, began in earnest on November 23rd, fifty years ago today. The Moroccan Liberation Army was now no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, and could thus commit a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions. The Spanish Legion repulsed the Moroccan drive easily, but two Spanish outposts were abandoned in the face of enemy attacks. Many others remained under heavy siege.

In the space of two weeks, the Moroccans and their tribal allies had asserted control over most of Ifni, isolating inland Spanish units from their South-Moroccan capital. Simultaneous attacks had been launched throughout Spanish Sahara, overrunning garrisons and ambushing convoys and patrols.

The siege of Ifni lasted until June 1958; it was uneventful and relatively bloodless, as Spain and Morocco both concentrated resources on Saharan theatres.

In January 1958, Morocco redoubled its commitment to the Spanish campaign, reorganizing all army units in Spanish territory as the Saharan Liberation Army.

In February 1958, Spanish troops, helped by French corps, launched a major offensive that successively dismantled the Moroccan Liberation Army. For the first time, massively superior European air power was brought to bear as France and Spain deployed a joint air fleet of 150 planes.

On April 2nd 1958, the governments of Spain and Morocco signed the Treaty of Angra de Cintra. Morocco obtained the region of Tarfaya (colony of Cabo Juby), between the river Draa and the parallel 27º 40′, excluding Sidi Ifni and the Spanish Sahara. Spain had won the Ifni War at the cost of 300 lives and more than 500 wounded, but very soon saw fit to slowly retreat from its Moroccan possessions. On Franco’s orders, the war was excluded from Spanish pupils’ curriculum. It was as if the war never had happened.

 

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Spain retained possession of Ifni until 1969, when it returned the territory to Morocco.

Spain kept control of Western Sahara until the Green March of 1975 prompted a withdrawal, thus creating a power vacuum that was filled with brutal force by Morocco in the north and by Mauritania in the south. When Mauritania withdrew in August 1979, Morocco overran the remainder of the territory with great haste and eagerness.

A Saharan rebel group, the Polisario Front, has fought against Morocco since 1976 for the independence of Western Sahara on behalf of the indigenous Saharawis. Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed in September 1991 to a UN-negotiated cease-fire, which was contingent on a referendum regarding independence. For the past 15 years or so, however, Morocco has opposed such a referendum. In 2002, Morocco’s present King, Mohammed VI reasserted that he “will not renounce an inch” of Western Sahara. Abundant phosphate reserves appear to be the true reason for Morocco’s unauthorized land claims.

Last week, King Mohammed VI offered a status of autonomy to Western Sahara. There is no further mention of independence of Western Sahara. And no referendum either, which is a blatant breach of the United Nations cease-fire agreement.

 

Over to Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General.

 

Many Winners And Too Many Losers

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November 20th is a significant date for Spain.

 

Thirty-two years ago yesterday, Spain’s Fascist era came to an end with the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, victor of the Spanish Civil War and head of state since 1939. Franco declared himself President for Life in 1947. His regime has been deeply reactionary, with political parties and trade unions banned, and with artists, intellectuals and sociological as well as ethnic minorities repressed. 

Franco ensured the Royalist succession by nominating, in 1969, Don Juan Carlos Borbon y Borbon as his “heir”. Juan Carlos became the first occupant of the Spanish throne since his grandfather Alfonso XIII had abdicated in 1931. 

Franco, also known as the Generalissimo, was buried in the mountainside mausoleum Abadía Benedictina de la Santa Cruz de el Valle de los Caídos (“Benedictine Abbey of the Valley of the Fallen”), a giant necropolis to the south of Madrid built under Franco’s auspices to house the Nationalist men who died under his command during the Civil War. 

Only a few weeks ago, the Spanish parliament passed a law (Ley de la Memoria Histórica de España) condemning General Franco’s regime, a law which provoked painful memories in Spain, three decades after his death. Up to one million Spaniards lost their lives during Franco’s Civil War between 1936 and 1939, which was supported by Hitler’s Germany and Italy under Mussolini. Many in Spain – the Military, the Church, the Bourgeoisie – had come out victorious, whilst many others found themselves on the losing side – artists, intellectuals, Republicans, and other democratically inclined citizens.

A mass was held yesterday at the cathedral in Granada, Spain, in Franco’s memory. Anti-Fascist demonstrators rallied in the streets of Granada to protest against this blatant demonstration of right-winged nationalism, against old-style Fascists and Franco-supporters, as well as against the role that the Catholic church played during the 39 years, condoning Franco’s tyranny. A dozen protesters were arrested; four of them were detained overnight.

 

A number of books have been published recently in Spain, giving an, as yet, untold insight into the darker aspects of Spain’s atrocious years of Civil War. One interesting example, albeit in Spanish only, at the moment, is Habíamos ganado la guerra, by Esther Tusquets (Editorial Bruguera, Barcelona).

 

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Also, a number of filmmakers have begun to focus on the, as yet, untold stories of the victims on either side. One remarkable new movie is Las 13 Rosas, by Emilio Martínez Lázaro. You may have seen his work El otro lado de la cama.

 

If you live in Spain and are not afraid of the spoken Spanish word, this is a film that might help to look back not in anger, but in hope. The film is one of three Spanish entries for an Oscar nomination next year, for films in a foreign language, but let’s not get too excited. After all, Hollywood is Hollywood.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

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The XVII Cumbre Iberoamericana (Ibero-American Summit) was celebrated in Santiago de Chile over the last few days. Political leaders or their trusted representatives from 19 Latin American nations were united to confer about ‘social cohesion’, as well as Heads of States from Spain, Portugal and Andorra, plus Spain’s King Juan Carlos I.

Spain, or course, has a very special relationship with most of these nations, due to its colonial domination of most of Latin America during the best part of the past 500 years or so.

King Juan Carlos of Spain is usually regarded as a moderate and considerate Monarch, not usually known to be losing his tempers. On Sunday, however, he set a precedent that he may come to regret by telling Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to shut up (“¡¿Por qué no te callas?!”).

The King’s quite undiplomatic, angry outburst at the Ibero-American summit followed days of criticism by a number of Latin American leaders of Spain’s contemporary political and business influence in former Spanish colonies.

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President Hugo Chávez reminded the summit amongst other calamities that Spain had been responsible for the largest genocide that the history had ever seen, after the Latin American continent had been conquered in 1492, claimed for the Spanish Crown, and colonized thereafter.

Spain’s El Periodico newspaper, representing the Catalonian region where anti-royal sentiment runs high, said on Sunday that Chávez’s behavior had been quite intolerable.

The Spanish national newspaper, EL PAÍS said in an editorial, “Maybe it wasn’t the best thing to say but the Monarch’s fit shows just how much the Venezuelan (… President’s …) diatribe upset the Spanish”.

But some observers reacted with unease about the King taking on a more political role when the Monarchy really has a symbolic state function under Spain’s constitution.

Juan Carlos I won the trust of Spaniards by promoting the transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and has always distanced himself from any political role.

One of the few voices in Spain to criticize the King over the attack on Venezuela’s Chávez came from the Izquierda Unida group, which said that King Juan Carlos acted like a 17th century monarch addressing his vassals.

“Telling an elected head of state to shut up is something you can’t do in Spain or abroad”, a spokesman of Izquierda Unida was quoted as saying.

According to the Associated Press news agency, Hugo Chávez responded to the King’s outburst: “I do not offend by telling the truth. The Venezuelan government reserves the right to respond to any aggression, anywhere, in any space and in any manner”. Hugo Chávez also pointed out that he had been democratically elected three times, whereas he hinted that no-one ever had voted King Juan Carlos into office.

King Juan Carlos already had a controversial time earlier last week when he visited Spain’s disputed North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, sparking protests from Morocco, which claims the territories as theirs.

It looks to me as though it may not be so easy to be a King in this day and age, be that in Spain, in Morocco, or wherever. Perhaps times have changed and not everyone has taken it in, yet.

The world is no longer what it might have been in 1492, or so it would appear. 

Crime and Punishment

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November 1st is celebrated in Spain today as Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints), as it also is in all other countries with large numbers of Catholic worshipers, such as in Latin America and the Philippines, as well as other former Spanish colonies.

Todos los Santos is the day, when Spanish families not only honour the Saints, but also remember their own dead relatives. 191 families, most of them Spanish (but not all), will remember today their relatives who where killed during the 2004 Madrid train bombings (also known in Spain as 11-M). 42 of the dead came from 13 countries other than Spain, giving an indication of the level of immigration that is typical for Spain at the beginning of the 21st Century.

As it happens, a Spanish court in Madrid yesterday sentenced three men to thousands of years in jail each, for their respective part in the terrorist bombings of that fateful March 11th, 2004. One suspected mastermind, known as “Mohamed the Egyptian“, however, was acquitted in court.

The 11-M bombings consisted of a series of coordinated explosions against the Cercancías (commuter train) system of Madrid, Spain, on the morning of March 11th, 2004. Ten backpacks filled with dynamite and nails blew up on four packed commuter trains heading for Madrid’s Atocha Station. 191 people died and 1,841 more were wounded. It proved to be the deadliest terrorist attack that Spain had ever seen in peacetime.

 

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The Madrid attacks and their consequences created a huge divide in Spain, as was to be expected, reverberating to this very day. 

The attacks occurred 911 days after 9/11 and three days before Spain’s 2004 General Elections. The Spanish government at the time, headed by José María Aznar from the Partido Popular (PP), quickly put the blame for the terrorist attacks on the Basque ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) organization, their favorite enemy.

 

The bombings changed the course of Spanish politics as voters subsequently ditched the Conservative government. Instead, an attack by Islamists was widely suspected, and perceived as the direct result of Spain’s involvement in Iraq, an extremely unpopular war that had not been approved by Spain’s Parliament.

Seven top suspects, mostly Moroccans, blew themselves up in a Madrid apartment during a police raid in April 2004, three weeks after the bombings.

The surviving suspects, 27 men and one woman, 19 Arabs, mostly Moroccans, and nine Spaniards, now defendants, had faced charges including murder, forgery and conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack. All the accused pleaded not guilty to any involvement in the Madrid attacks, during the four-month trial.

21 of the accused were found guilty yesterday of at least one charge whilst seven others were acquitted through lack of evidence. One person had already been acquitted earlier for unsubstantial provability.

The judge also said there was no evidence of involvement by the Spanish separatist group ETA. After the verdicts President José Luis Zapatero said: “Today justice was done and we must now look to the future”.

Compensation for victims was also decreed, ranging from 30,000 euros to 1,500,000 euros.

The victims and their families are organized in two competing lobby groups, mirroring the divide that is so typical of everyday life in Spain today, one of the Left and one of the Right. The  Asociación de Ayuda a las Víctimas del 11-M, expressed their disagreement with some of the findings and in particular with the proposed distribution of compensation. The other victims’ lobby group, Associación 11-M Afectados por el Terrorismo, has already announced that they want to go to the Spanish High Courts for an appeal against yesterday’s sentences.

But justice is a fickle thing, especially in our day when, post 9/11, there is an irrational dislike, even fear, of people from other countries and especially, Arabs, Moroccans, Muslims and Islamists.

 

We may never know what really happened on 9/11 or 11-M, nor today, nor yesterday. 

 

A General Election has to be held in Spain in March, 2008. I expect that 11-M and yesterday’s court sentences will once more have a decisive influence in voters’ decision making. I don’t think the present government can be too sure of a win, this time round.

 

Ernesto Che Guevara’s Day in Santa Clara, Cuba

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October 9th, 1967, was the day when Ernesto Che Guevara was executed. That’s forty years ago, today.

He was captured by the Bolivian army on October 8th, in Vallegrande and executed the following day in La Higuera, in the jungles of Bolivia, at the age of 39. His death only enhanced Che Guevara’s mythical stature as a legend, not only in Latin America but also around the world. 

Che Guevara’s body was later exhumed from its communal grave in Bolivia and offered to Cuba. The remains were reburied in a specially built mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba (see photo), the site of Che’s decisive victory against Fulgencio Batista‘s forces at the end of 1958. 

I visited Santa Clara twice, in 2003 and in 2005. In 2003, I was not allowed to enter the mausoleum where Che and his seven guerilla mates are enshrined, due to some building work or whatever, but in 2005, I could go in and have a look. Photography was not permitted once inside. There was a large wall with 7 or 8 embossed wall plaques commemorating the dead, and an eternal light underneath Che’s allotted central panel. The mood inside appeared a tad contrived, especially if one considers that there seem to be reasonable doubt as to whether the bones found and repatriated to Cuba were in fact those of the man himself.

In any case, it seems important to remind ourselves that Guevara was neither Cuban nor Bolivian. He was born in Argentina and was a doctor by training. He gave up his profession and his native land to pursue the emancipation of the poor of the earth. In 1956, along with Fidel Castro and a small number of other badly armed rebels, he had crossed the Caribbean in a rickety yacht called Granma on the mad mission of invading Cuba and overthrowing the US sponsored dictator, Batista. Landing in a hostile swamp and losing most of their contingent, the survivors fought their way to the Sierra Maestra.

Two years later, and by now named Comandante, Che was victorious in this very same place, Santa Clara, in derailing a train full of Batista soldiers and thus stopping them from reaching their destination, Santiago de Cuba in the far east of the island of Cuba. Two days later, Batista fled Cuba, and Castro and his revolutionary men took over. The rest is history.

I went to see the remnants of the derailed train waggons In Santa Clara, now equipped as a museum to the Revolution. Santa Clara is certainly a place worthy of a visit for those who are interested in the Che Guevara trail.

Yesterday, Raúl Castro and other survivors of the 1958 train assault paid homage to Ernesto Che Guevara, hinting again at the need of a change of direction in present day Cuba. His ailing brother, Fidel, expressed his respect and gratitude for Che, in an article published in the Cuban publication, Juventud Rebelde

Rumours never ceased that Fidel Castro and Che did not really see eye to eye some time after the Cuban revolution had been won, because Ernesto soon started criticizing Communist Party doctrines. He revoked his Cuban passport, left Cuba for Africa and the Congo, and later for Bolivia, where he tried to fight for the oppressed indigenous people of the Andes. His Bolivian battle was never really successful.

You may wonder why I should concern myself with Cuban affairs on my supposedly Spanish-themed blog. In my mind Cuba and Spain are intrinsically linked due to Cuba’s long time domination by the Spanish. Cuba was linked to Spain’s wealth, to the Spanish slave trade and to Spanish history. As such, in my opinion, Spain may well have an active role to play in Cuba’s, hopefully peaceful, transition into the 21st century, especially in the light of big brother, USA, not being trustworthy with such endeavours. 

As for Che Guevara, it seems important to me to remember his 40th anniversary even though Che’s methods are no longer relevant in our day and age.

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I want to recommend the movie, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), by Brazilian director, Walter Salles, if you want to know Ernesto before he became Che.  

Kenji Nagai and the Dinosaurs of Burma

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One of the defining characteristics of dinosaurs is not to know when time is up. An oversight that can have fatal consequences.

Senior General Than Shwe, 74, may have pushed his luck when after 15 years in command as the head of Burma’s military junta, he allowed and possibly instructed his soldiers to open fire on foreign journalist, Kenji Nagai, who was shot and executed in front of cameras three days ago.

Kenji Nagai, a 50 years old Japanese photojournalist, was killed whilst taking photos of the recent, largely peaceful anti-government protests.

Dinosaurs are extinct because they did not absorb the changes that had occurred in their habitat. The Burmese generals repeat the dinosaurs’ costly mistake of not understanding that it was one thing, in 1988, to kill 30,000 Burmese citizens, when the country was closed off from the eyes of the rest of the world, and quite another circumstance once the digital century had spread throughout the world. Digital eyes are everywhere now.

Twenty years on, Burmese military brutality can not possibly happen without being noticed by the rest of the world. Only hours after the death of Kenji Nagai, the outside world could witness how the photographer was pushed to the ground, shot and killed.

 

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The Internet, YouTube, Internet blogs, mobile phones, and digital video cameras manage to instantly expose the brutal offensive against their own people, blatantly carried out by the military regime of so-called Myanmar, in a way that is quite unprecedented. The goalposts have changed since 8888, as the last Burmese uprising was called, and it won’t take long before the generals realize their current offside position.

Monks in Burma have historically been at the forefront of protests – first against the colonialism of the British and later against military dictatorship. Monks also played a prominent part in the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion. Monks are being killed, threatened and imprisoned at this very moment but the blatant actions of Than Shwe’s clique of generals look like no more than a desperate last effort to hide their impotence in the face of the inevitable.

If my understanding of the situation in Burma is correct, Kenji Nagai’s death may well have served a purpose.

Peace, Kenji-san.