In Spain these days there is a distinct smell of burning pig fat in the air. And it’s not coming from the country’s kitchens, but rather from the corridors of power of the country’s national and regional governments.
The word “chorizo” is used not only to denote the lightly spiced sausage so beloved of the Spanish palette, but also to describe politicians and businessmen that commit acts of graft and corruption, of which there are no small number. In fact, recent years have seen political corruption reach such endemic proportions that it’s inspired the popular protest chant “There’s not enough bread for so much chorizo.”
While corruption in the upper echelons of Spanish politics and business is hardly a new thing, the current incumbents of Moncloa Palace have taken it to heretofore unimaginable depths. Nary a week goes by without some new announcement of cash-filled envelopes changing hands from business owners and managers to public “representatives,” the contents of which invariably end up in offshore accounts in Andorra, Switzerland, Monaco or the Cayman Islands.
The latest scandal to rock the Rajoy administration centres around the discovery of a stash of some 22 million euros spread across an assortment of Swiss bank accounts, all under the name of one Luis Bárcenas, a former senator of the Northern region of Cantabria. Up until 2009, Bárcenas served as the Partido Popular’s treasurer, a position which afforded him virtual control over the party’s accounts and money movements, not to mention intimate knowledge of his colleagues’ dirty financial linen.
With rumours growing that Bárcenas has been blackmailing members of government that accepted “black money” (that is, under the table fraud or bribes) in return for political favours, the panic and fear in Rajoy’s government is palpable – hence the rising stench of pork fat, as the ranks of “chorizos” begin to fry in their own juices. As a side note, this may also finally explain where all those 500 EUR notes in Spain were hiding; at one point almost 30% of all the 500 EUR notes in circulation in Europe were doing the rounds in Spain, seemingly making those chorizos just that little bit fatter.
As Antonio Avendeño asks in the left-wing newspaper Publico, who did Barcenas steal from to accumulate this handsome fortune: his party, his country or both? And if it was his own party he stole from, where and how did it gain access to so much money? Perhaps most importantly, what incriminating information does Bárcenas have on his PP colleagues? These are questions that urgently need answering and already calls are being made for an internal investigation (read: cover up) into the scandal.
Following days of incriminating silence, Rajoy finally came out all guns – albeit filled with blanks – blazing, announcing that his hands would not tremble when the time came to punish the miscreants. But how many people in Spain actually believe him? After all, when it comes to lying, few can hold a candle to Señor Rajoy, the man who not so long ago pledged to the electorate that he would not raise taxes, and then hiked them to historic levels; who promised he would not give a single cent more to the banks and then awarded them the largest bailout in Spanish history; and who swore that his government would not raid public pensions, and then proceeded to gut them so as to preserve Spain’s credit lines.
Perhaps most importantly, allegations are growing that the politicians Barcénas was blackmailing included Rajoy himself. How else could Barcénas have, until last week, held on to his office at the PP’s Madrid headquarters and come and gone as he pleased despite being accused, since 2009, of corruption and fraud?
As such, expecting Rajoy to get to the bottom of this corruption scandal and clean up his government is akin to asking a pig to clean out its own sty. What’s more, corruption among Spain’s political class is so widespread that the only possible way of remedying the problem is to carry out a complete overhaul of the political system itself.
The current system is arguably as much to blame for the culture of corruption as the people currently manning it. It is a system which allows political “representatives” (Ha!) and public “servants” (Ha, again!) to feather their nests with “unearned income” pilferred through the awarding of public tenders and the sale of public land and other forms of public public property to “private interests.” These types of transactions are one of the most important sources of local government funding and were at the root of the massive construction and property bubbles that formed during the easy money years of the late nineties and early “noughties.”
Put simply, local and regional governments effectively financed themselves through granting authorisation to ever-larger public and private construction projects, many of which turned out to be white elephants. And as long as the local and regional governments were taking their cut of the action, property prices were allowed to reach ludicrous levels that could only be sustained (in the short term) by getting the country’s saving banks to hand out mortgages like the police dole out parking fines.
The rest, as they are so fond of saying, is history. The bubbles popped, the economy tanked, unemployment soared and all of a sudden austerity became the menu del dia for everyone – everyone except, that is, the corrupt set of politicians and their private sector masters who, to all intents and purposes, continue to live in the lap of luxury.
Meanwhile for the rest of the Spanish people, the big challenge is trying to stop the politicians from continuing their looting and plundering. Unless the population can put an end to the systemised theft of the country’s wealth, it will prove all but impossible to emerge from the crisis. Who’s to say how many millions or even billions are right now being creamed off the EU’s bailout of the banking sector? Or, for that matter, what kind of “incentives” government officials are being offered to sway their decisions over which businesses to award the state industries and public services currently being fast-tracked to privatisation?
Just in the last couple of months, five enormous public hospitals in Madrid were transferred to the private sector. How were the companies selected? What happened to the money they paid? How much of it was diverted to private accounts in tax havens?
As in so many Western countries today, waiting to see justice served for the looters at the very top is a pointless task. The unpleasant truth is that the law no longer applies to the likes of Bárcenas or Rodrigo Rato, the former IMF chief who made millions while overseeing the fundamentally flawed merger of seven savings banks into the beleaguered giant Bankia, and who was recently given an executive directorship at the Spanish telecoms giant Telefónica. Not does it appear to apply to the Duke of Palma de Mallorca, Iñaki Urdangarin, who for years used his connections as King Juan Carlos’ son-in-law to get public works contracts for his company, the Noos Institute (which was supposedly meant to be a non-profit organization). The jobs were never done, but the duke still pocketed and offshored millions.
Let’s face it, these disgraced public figures are unlikely to see the inside of a court room, never mind a jail cell. But is it too much to ask for them to lose their jobs, to be delisted from their parties and to return at least what little remains from their looting sprees? Could it be time to throw the chorizos out of the pan and into the fire?