Sunday, April 15, 2012

Of elephants and the King of Spain

AOG, Madrid

It is often difficult to pinpoint the starting point of a man-made catastrophe.  Literary tragedies are often built around such events, and they often make for interesting reading. 

To the stories surrounding events like the Watergate scandal and what it did to Nixon, the Dreyfus affair in France in the XIX century, or, more recently, the whole Dominique Strauss-Kahn drama, soon there may be another, no less disgusting, event. 

One involving King Juan Carlos I of Spain, the state of Spain's economy and the Spanish Government's austerity plans, the African nation of Botswana, and elephants.

You see, up until now, most people in Spain were somewhat content with the idea of living in a Kingdom, having a parliamentary monarchy, enjoying democracy, and having a king who, so the story goes, 'saved' Spain from an anti-democratic coup d'état in 1981 when he ordered a group of rebellious generals to put their weapons down because he was ordering them to do so.

Ever since then, the Spanish Royal family has been more or less tolerated by the people of Spain. Yes, there have been those who are asking for Spain to be a republic, and those who would love for the 2nd Republic, the one that General Franco destroyed via a coup d'état -and the ensuing civil war which would not end until 1939-, in 1936.

But by and large, most people in Spain would say that their royal family had avoided the scandal which seems to plague other European royal houses (read Monaco, the UK, Sweden, Norway) because of the king's character and their behavior as normal people. Normal people who happen to live in a small palace and represent the country when they travel abroad in official trips. 

But this has changed, and not for the better. 

Not so long ago, people in Spain began to be aware of the fact that, although the Spanish royals were not living in the lap of luxury like their British and European cousins, they were, indeed, living quite well, and all at the taxpayers expense. 

So slowly, the Spanish people have begun to ask privately, and publicly, for the Royal Household's accounts to be made public. 

Not so long ago, December 2011, it was announced  that the King's household received an annual Government stipend of around 8 million euros to cover its expenses (and the King receiving a salary of US$ 382,677).

Ok, so far so good. Nobody believed they were 'poor', as people would often say in the 80s, but certainly it did not seem like a huge amount of money.

But the small tragedy which is developing in Zarzuela palace, the King's official residence, began to unravel sometime before that.

First of all, there was the matter of the Crown Prince, Felipe, marrying a commoner, and a divorced commoner at that. 

You see, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana in the UK, a lot was said in Spain, and other countries, surrounding a royal marriage between a prince and a commoner. 

And Spain at the time began to toy with the idea that that sort of thing would not happen in their royal family.

Well, fast forward to 2004: here was the Prince of the Asturias doing much the same thing, but with a somewhat less ideal candidate in the eyes of the king. 

It appears that Felipe gave his parents an ultimatum at the time: either you let me marry, or I abdicate my position. 

Yes, it was Wallis Simpon all over again, but a bit further South and somewhere just as Royal.

Things have settled since, and most people in Spain are ok with his chosen wife. Previously divorced or not. They now have two daughters.

 A few years later there was the matter of the king's eldest daughter, the Infanta Elena, now divorced, official separation from her husband. 

No big deal in a protestant country, and certainly no big deal in modern Spain. 

But the royal family behaved in a very strange way around this separation. As if that was what was really important in this day and age. 

A very odd euphemism was made public at the time to explain what was happening: "temporary cessation of cohabitation". Or just a separation to you and me. 

But last year, something much more serious and much more important hit the headlines: an alleged case of corruption perpetrated by the king's son-in-law, the Duke of Palma, Iñaki Urdangarin, married to the Infanta Cristina, the king's second daughter. 

A regular fraud scandal carried out by someone who, for all intents and purposes, had it made. 

 Why would someone like that bother with cashing in on the family name when, basically, you would not want for anything for the rest of your days? Yes, Fergie would do something like this, and she has, but then she is not really part of the royal family in the UK any longer. And she has bills to pay. 

He probably did to. Except these should not include the purchase of a small palace in Barcelona.

As of now, the princess and her husband have been separated from the royal limelight and will conduct no official royal business until the whole matter is cleared up.  

And, in theory, they are getting no money to carry out their duties, whatever these may be. 

But thus far, the Spanish public were pretty much sort of on the king's side. 

Sort of, because a lot of people think that the Duke in question will not serve any jail time whatsoever because of who he is. 

The Spanish royal family would probably think that would be a scandal, whereas the people who pay for their upkeep think just the opposite, that the real scandal would be for him, if found guilty, not to go to jail.

During his Christmas message, King Juan Carlos -now 74 years old- said that nobody was above the law, or words to that effect. 

Although when probed further, the king said he was not referring to anyone in particular, many saw it as a veiled message. 

If Iñaki Urdangarin were indeed guilty, as it looks at present like he is, the Crown would not step in to defend him.

And the people were ok, sort of, with their monarch and his apparent distaste of judicial privilege. 

And then last November the Conservatives won the general election and have ever since done their best to do away with most worker's rights in Spain, alleging that this will get Spain out of the economic crisis it is going through, to the chagrin of most everyone in the country.

With over 5 million people unemployed, and the highest unemployment rate in the OECD for young people, a couple of weeks ago the king said publicly that youth unemployment would sometimes "keep me up at night". 

No he did not need to say that, but then, here's a man who's always said that he wanted to be not the king of Spain, but the king of all the Spanish people. Meaning he was for bipartisan politics and a fraternal status quo in Spain after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, in power until his death 1975. 

During the king's Christmas message, after saying in August that, given the current economic situation, we all had to tighten our belt a little, and referring to no one in particular, but with his son-in-law in mind, he declared that "We need rigor, seriousness and an exemplary behavior in every way. We all, especially those of us with public responsibilities, have a duty to observe a proper behavior, an exemplary behavior".

Then a couple of weeks ago, his majesty went on to say that "You need to pitch in to create jobs, because the situation is very serious".

Then some people began to say a bit more loudly that in Spain, the Royal Household was just getting that little bit more expensive. 

That the Catholic Church in Spain does not pay taxes and gets a lot of handouts of public money, that bankers are getting a bit of a free ride,  etc etc etc.

In other words, it appears that a lot of people began question exactly who in Spain is paying for the mistakes of the people responsible for throwing the country into the economic dire straits its in, and who is not.

And then, just yesterday, April 14, anniversary of the 2nd Spanish Republic, the news hit the airways.

The King of Spain, His Majesty Juan Carlos I, had fractured his hip during an elephant hunt in Botswana, a country Spain has no diplomatic relations with. 

And the shit hit the fan. 

The king is the honorary president of the Spanish branch of the WWF.

The king was down in Africa on a 'personal' trip.

The Government was not informed.

And then, aside from the unfathomable idea of a European monarch, one from a modern and, up until last November anyway, forward thinking country, hunting elephants in a third world African country, there was the cost.

Although the numbers are still being published by the Spanish media, it appears that one must pay around €20,000 per hunt. Plus all the expenses.

Some companies in Spain offer 15 day hunting safaris geared towards the elephant hunt for a price ranging from €37,000 to 45,000 ($50,000 to $60,000 US), depending on where they hunt.

To say there is public outrage is cutting it short. 

Was this "exemplary behavior"? Is this the sort of thing the monarch should be doing?

The word on the street is, "Why are we paying for this man's hunting trip?" quickly followed by "Why are we paying for these people?" and then finally "Why don't we get rid of them, become a republic, and have these parasites get a real job?"

That is pretty much the word on the street.

I cannot tell  you where the king of Spain's downfall began, but, today at least, it pretty much looks like it started in Botswana.


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