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Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Random thoughts from a Brit in the North West. Sometimes serious, sometimes not. Quite often curmudgeonly.

Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 17 October 2020
17 October 2020 @ 09:36

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.  

        - Christopher Howse: 'A Pilgrim in Spain'* 

Today is a Special but, first, I'll just mention that I did go to the blinds shop to ask why nothing had happened since my request, back in July, for a visit and estimate. There was no explanation or apology - which is par for the course - but only a (slightly embarrassed?) comment that she didn't have her July notebook any more and so couldn't check anything.


These are bits of my Newsletters to my family of late 2002 and early 2003. They reveal quite a lot about Spanish politics and culture. At least of 17 years ago. People will have different views on how much has changed since then. The Spanish government - also of the PP under Aznar - tried the same senseless, knee-jerk, diversionary/exculpatory tactics in 2004, prematurely blaming ETA for the Madrid bombings. That time, though, it cost them the imminent election




Speaking of storms and the damage therefrom . . . There is an oil tanker foundering off the coast of Galicia, threatening terrible destruction of wildlife. The Spanish government is blaming Britain but I am not clear why. Something to do with the fact that the ship was not properly repaired in Gibraltar. This seems strange as the ship was heading south, towards Gib, not away from it. It looks more to me like a play aimed at getting support in Brussels for Spanish control of Gibraltar since the locals can't be trusted. And I see this morning that the Spanish government is now including Lithuania, Greece and the Bahamas in its list of guilty countries. And they have arrested the captain of the tanker for lack of co-operation. Nothing if not comprehensive in their reaction. 


It's impossible today to talk of anything but the disaster off the coast that now looks like becoming a catastrophe. The talk this afternoon is of this becoming the world's worst ever ecological disaster and of the whole of the Galician coast being smothered in fuel oil, which turns out to be the worst kind of oil you can have coming towards you. 

Once can only hope that some of the fears and predictions are exaggerated but right now it is all profoundly depressing. Accusations and counter-accusations are being hurled around like confetti. The latest one is that the Portuguese navy caused the tanker to break up today when it tried to push it out to sea. Prior to this, we have had the Spanish government blaming the British government - because the tanker was due to call in at Gibraltar and then the Greek, Honduran and Lithuanian governments for being involved in keeping an old tanker on the water. Despite reading the papers for three days, I am not at all clear why its destination is even a factor but the implication seems to be that it regularly calls into Gibraltar and that it is never properly checked/repaired when it is there. Against this, today we hear that its regular port of call for this is in Greece.

Today's papers are saying - with some justification, I suspect - that the Spanish government reacted very slowly and didn't do enough when the ship was first damaged almost a week ago. And in one of the papers today I have read an interview with Spain's leading scientist in this field who said it was utter madness to tow a sinking ship out into the sea and southwards as the break-up was inevitable and the oil slick would now, not only be vastly greater than it needed to have been, but also would make its way inexorably to the entire Galician coast because of the prevailing winds and tides at this time of year. He said this, of course, before the tanker actually split in two today and one now fears that the rest of his terrible predictions could prove true, including the forecast that it will take 2 years before the coast returns to normal. Even the 'best case scenario' of not much more damage will be utterly devastating to the fishing and seafood industries in Galicia. So the worst case scenario is just too horrible to contemplate. It will mean the lifeblood being drained out of this entire coast for at least a year and possibly a great deal more. Tourists come here (mainly from within Spain) for the fabulous beaches and for the seafood. Even if the former are cleared up for next summer, it is hard to see how the latter can be secured. 

I guess the only thing which is certain is that prices will rise. It's an ill wind . . .

The only bit of silver on the horizon is that the ship could sink without its oil leaking out, even from the tank which is gashed. This theory runs that it is now in such deep, cold water that the oi1 will quickly solidify and go down with the ship. One can only hope and pray that this is the case. But a Dutch expert just interviewed on the news sounded anything but optimistic in this regard.

Meanwhile, politics being a dirty game (and the likely cost of compensation so high), I suppose it is not surprising that the Spanish government couldn't resist using last week's events to play the Gibraltar card - even to the extent of suggesting that the tanker was simply sailing back and forth across the oceans as part of a money-laundering operation masterminded by the criminals who, they frequently claim, run Gibraltar. I can't help feeling that they will come to regret this initial response, especially as Spaniards are instinctively suspicious of anything the government claims, seeing conspiracies everywhere. They are likely to conclude that this was a smokescreen intended to mask the government's own complicity in the initial dilatoriness and in the later disastrous decision to take the tanker out into the open sea. As for criminals and money-laundering, most Spanish can hardly be unaware that the headlines of every newspaper on every day of the week centre on allegations of corruption and dishonesty in the higher reaches of Spanish commercial and political life. 

Ironically, one of my colleagues in the ESS had drawn me a map last week of a stretch of coastline which he described as the finest along this beautiful coast and this turns out to be the very area which is already devastated by the incoming oil. I was planning a trip in spring.

Let's keep our fingers crossed that it doesn't turn out to be as bad as it currently looks like it will. 

To end on a note of black humour  . . .  A paper in Barcelona yesterday had a woman asking for Galician seafood. The shopkeeper asked her whether she wanted 'normal, super or diesel'. I don't think this has gone down awfully well here. 

Just in case you don't understand this, these are the 3 types of fuel available at all Spanish petrol stations. 


The news about the oil is mixed. The slick has now hit more than 200 miles of coast and fishing is banned for an even longer stretch. The ría (estuary) north of this one has been affected und there are still fears that the 'old' oil will drift south to here and then to Vigo Bay and beyond that to north Portugal. On the other hand, the severe storms of last night appear to have pushed the major slick northwards and there is now talk of it heading off into the Bay of'Biscay (and France!), provided that the wind doesn't change again.

The major unknown is what will happen to the oil that was in the tanks when the ship went down. The Spanish and Galician governments are insisting that it is frozen solid and that there is no risk. Others are not so sure. And I think everyone agrees that, even if there isn't a massive new slick, the oil in the tanker will leak out slowly over the years ahead, causing severe damage to the ecosystem 

Controversy continues to rage over a number of things but especially the decision to take the tanker out to sea mid increase the risk of it breaking up, whilst simultaneously ensuring a massive slick in its wake. There is clearly huge anger here in Galicia about what is seen as Madrid's criminal neglect at the start of the crisis and the pointless smoke-screening about the role or otherwise of Gibraltar.

Here is a translation of part of an editorial in today's copy of Galicia's biggest newspaper:- Galicia is once again suffering from the curse of improvisation, idleness, abandonment, incompetence and the absence of politicians who measure up to their public responsibilities. Attempts during the first 12 days to offer a low profile as the crisis developed and to move the conflict in the direction of the ever-effective scolding of London and Gibraltar have been inadequate in the face of a disaster of this magnitude. They have tried to limit the political damage and have lost the opportunity to adopt decisions co-ordinated with Brussels and with other Atlantic countries who advised of their willingness to respond to requests from the Spanish government.

Most astonishing, though, are the reports of chaotic (mis)management of the efforts to deal with the catastrophe. Incredibly, despite the fact that this is the third, I think, leak of oil along this coast in the last ten years or so, there was no contingency plan in place a fourth. They have, it seems, been making it up as they go along and find themselves hopelessly under-equipped and resourced for the task they face 

Seafood prices have inevitably begun to rise and some are predicting that the highly prized 'goose barnacles' which, in all honesty, look repulsive and taste of nothing but rubber and sea water - will rise from 50 pounds a kilo to over 200 pounds a kilo. 

From a very narrow British point of view, one of the oddest things about this crisis has been the attempts in Brussels to back up the apparently incorrect statements of the Spanish government that the tanker has been negligently checked in Gibraltar in the last year. In contrast, the truth appears to be that it has never docked in Gibraltar in the last five years but has twice docked in Spain, as well as in France and Greece. And it was repaired in China last year. The EU official who has been responsible for this highly emotionally charged red-herring is not only Spanish but also the sister of Minister of Justice and, they say, the heir apparent to the current President Aznar. If my memory serves me correctly, she was kicked upstairs to Brussels a few years ago after presiding, as Minister of Agriculture, over the biggest fraud in the history of the EU. This centred on tile (non)production of vast quantities of (heavily subsidised) jute in (non-existent) factories which 'belonged' to the wives of people in her own ministry. Perhaps not surprisingly - as well as being very lucky - she is also known as an Anglophobe. It certainly seems that she has done Anglo-Spanish relations a power of no good. But, compared with her past record, I don't suppose a few useful lies on a Hitlerian scale are much to worry about as she heads for the presidential election contest of 2004

It's a wicked world. 


The President of Galicia is now saying that he disappeared from here on the first weekend of the crisis to go to Madrid to have a 'long and serious' chat with the Minister for Fishing. This turns out to be his daughter, with whom he stayed on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday morning, he just 'fired off a few shots with his friends' before quickly departing for Galicia. He definitely didn't hang around to go hunting. Nonetheless, the opposition parties in the Galician parliament have initiated a censure motion for later this week. Doubtless he will survive it. For someone who is still in power (at 80) despite the fact that he was one of Franco's ministers in the 70s, this can only be a flea bite. 

Putting aside the question of what will happen to the 60,000 tonnes of oil in the sunken ship, the optimistic view is that the oil from the second slick will not now hit us here in the Rias Baixas [see for more information on this region]. But this depended on the wind continuing to blow from the south west. Today is beautifully clear and cold, which means only one thing the wind is now blowing from the north. So, we wait on the next twist in the saga. 

Meanwhile, fishing restrictions have been extended along the north coast of Galicia, as far as its border with Cantabria, and the French government is now on full alert. Keep praying. 


Even though the news around the tanker is no longer international news, it is, I’m afraid, all bad:- 

- the slick that occurred when the boat went down is 11,000 tonnes, not 6.000.

- the winds have now blown this huge slick to within 10 miles from the coat, having been over 100 miles away a day or so ago

- the several 'oil-sucking' boats have not been able to do much because of high seas.

- the slick is expected to hit the Galician coast over the weekend. Depending on the winds/tides. 

- it will either hit the stretch already devastated or worse - it will hit us in the Lower Estuaries. Frantic efforts are being made to harvest the seafood against this possibility 

- a French submarine says that more oil is leaking from the sunken tanker, which suggests that the oil has not solidified as it was hoped it would 

Everyone is powerless, of course, to do anything other than continue praying and waiting. 


Well, all the worst fears are being realised. For more than two weeks, the national and local governments have done little but pray to God that he would send the approaching black plague back out to sea but their prayers have not been answered. 

The wind from the north has now blown the huge oil slick to the edge of the Rías Bajas (Lower Fjords) and fishing has been banned along the entire Galician coast, from Cantabria down to the river Miño, which separates Spain and Portugal. 

Frantic and desperate efforts are being made to stop the stinking, thick sludge reaching the mussel and oyster beds in the estuaries but it is a hopeless task. It is heartbreaking to see the TV pictures of the bespattered local fishermen trying to scoop oil out of the open sea with pots and pans. The richest fishing grounds in Europe are on the point of being completely devastated and no one can do anything about it. Whatever should have been done wasn't and now it is too late to do anything but weep. And to prepare to clean the beaches when the nightmare is finally over. 

God only knows when - and if - the local shellfish industry will recover. And what all this will mean for the tourist industry, the other mainstay of Galicia's economy. 

Needless to say, there is immense local anger at the destruction of the economy. And there is matching uncertainty and fear about the future. Many fishermen are talking of emigrating - the traditional Galician response to large scale disaster. It' a cruel cosmic joke that the preferred country for this Argentina - is currently trying to re-patriate to Spain large numbers of its Galician immigrants because of its own economic problems. 

The king and the geriatric local president put in their first appearance on the coast two days ago but the prime minister has yet to appear. And the rest of his government have - to say the least - kept a low profile since they initially tried to lay all the blame on the UK and Gibraltar and then took the fateful decision to have the leaking tanker not just towed out to sea but towards their neighbour, Portugal. It is hard to imagine how much more effectively they could have alienated both their own people and their closest political allies. And their incompetence has not been lost on those parts of the media which are not government owned and controlled. 

Of course, it's true that Nature is powerful and that these ecological disasters are rarely as bad as they are forecast or feared to be. At least not in the longer term. But, in the shorter term, it is impossible to feel anything other than foreboding. And growing anger. 

I am desperately trying to imagine what good this ill wind might bring Galicia. Perhaps it has brought its beautiful beaches and scenery to the attention of more potential tourists. Perhaps it will, perforce, widen the range of tapas dishes available in the local bars. Some consolation. And today the Dirty Grey Blanket of thick cloud is sitting on the town once again, though the forecast is for sun. So much for forecasts. Not a good day in Pontevedra. 

As I write this, the TV is showing pictures of violence being directed at one of the local mayors during a morning visit to the harbour. It's the first but not, I suspect, the last incident of this nature. 


We have had 3 days of respite. with the relatively gentle winds from the north bringing both sun and calm waters. This has allowed an 'army' of 10,000 young volunteers from all over Spain to work around the clock on the Galician beaches Likewise, an armada of small boats has been out to sea, trying to collect the oil by hand. The ‘black tide' has not yet penetrated the estuaries but it has covered the beaches of all the beautiful islands just off the coast. 

And now the wind has changed and is forecast to get much stronger by Wednesday. As if this wasn't bad enough, the Spanish government has finally confirmed what the Portuguese have been saying for days that there are three huge oil slicks not far off the coast These have come from the sunken tanker and give the lie to statements that the oil had hardened in the tanks and would cause no further problems. There is now talk of blowing up the ship and releasing all the fuel so that it can be vacuumed up in one go.

The Spanish government continues to sink into the mire it has created for itself. Apart from coming clean about the new oil slicks, it has confirmed that it did, in fact, have a contingency plan for just such a disaster but chose to ignore it. And it has admitted that the decision to tow the damaged tanker out to sea has had consequences far worse than those envisaged. 

In one of the main newspapers yesterday, the government was described as having the instincts of the Franco administration: First blame a foreign country (this time the UK/Gibraltar instead of Franco's traditional scapegoat Russia), then impose a media blackout, then deny all responsibility and, finally, characterise all criticisms as almost traitorous because "solidarity' is required in the national interest. In a nutshell: 'For one reason and another, we are above criticism'. 

I rather get the impression that they have not quite realised the point of either democracy or an official opposition. They would prefer the sort of cover-ups that routinely follow the reports of political and financial skulduggery here. All of which are assisted by wide-scale membership of Opus Dei. Or perhaps this is just a coincidence. 

Ludicrously, a common statement has been along the lines of  'No government in the world could have handled this better; no-one has the power to command Nature'. Not even, apparently, members of Opus Dei with a direct line to the Almighty.  


Well, Galicia may no longer feature in the British news media but I'm afraid things continue to get worse here. We are now awaiting the third 'black tide'. This is is expected to move past the natural barrier of the (besmirched) Atlantic Islands off the coast and to enter the Bays of Pontevedra and Vigo, where Europe's richest seafood beds are to be found. 

This is the nadir we have all been fearing for more than 2 weeks now. Of course, we were told back then that it just couldn't happen, the Spanish government having acquired powers denied to King Canute. 

The French submarine says that the oil has definitely not frozen and that the tanker is leaking 125 tonnes of oil a day, through I4 cracks in its hull. Some forecasts suggest that this will mean 3 years of regular black tides unless something drastic is done to prevent them. 

The affected coastline now stretches from Portugal to France and it can only get worse. 

The national and local Presidents have finally suggested that they might just have made some mistakes - ‘quickly corrected' - but the former still seems to think his most important task is slagging off the leader of the opposition for his failure to show 'solidarity'. An article in yesterday's Wall St. Journal is said to have reported on his apparent arrogance, indifference and incompetence in the face of Spain's worst ever ecological disaster and to have forecast that it will affect his party's chances in the next elections. People here are not so sure. There have been huge demonstrations in the major cities of Galicia in the last 24 hours, under the banner Nunca Mais' (Galician for 'Never Again’) and there are calls for resignations and votes of censure. But a cartoon in one of the national papers yesterday was probably close to the mark. It showed the President, Aznar, relaxing in a large chair, admitting that mistakes might have been made and assuring us that those responsible would be severely punished - they wouldn't be getting their Christmas hampers this year. 

There does seem to be widespread fatalism here, which may or may not be Galician rather than national. People in power in Spain seem to be able to avail themselves of a high degree of immunity when things go wrong. Or when they get caught with their hands in the till. Recent examples of the latter include the head of the National Police and the Directors of two large charity organisations, both female incidentally. Crime is an equal opportunities employer here, 1t seems. 

In circumstances where promotion and position do not depend on merit, it is unlikely that you are going to have the best brains at the top of any organisation. Perhaps this is why incompetence is thick on the ground when things go wrong. And why things go wrong in the first place. Which reminds me - I haven't volunteered to do any of the oil-picking so far, as friends keep telling me. there are far more volunteers than they can cope with. People are being sent home because there aren't enough masks, boots, gloves, etc. I suppose it could happen anywhere. 


More 'oil revelations· in the press the minister who gave the disastrous order for the tanker to be towed to sea didn't consult with the President or, indeed, with any external experts. He asked 5 people in his own department what they thought was best. If the Spanish hierarchy is, as I suspect, almost as bad as that of'Indonesia, my guess is that they told him that whatever he thought was was the wisest thing to do.

Intriguingly, the name of this minister is Cascos, which amongst other things - means 'hulls' in Spanish. He is at the centre of a row about tankers with single and double 'cascos'. Mind you. the name of the minister of the Environment is Matas, which means 'you are killing' in Spanish. A couple of God's little jokes, one assumes. 

Local TV and radio personnel have complained about the pressure they have been put wider to peddle the (less than totally honest) government line in the Galician media. This is owned and run by the national and local governments, of course. 

Polls reported on in today's papers reveal a very degree of national dissatisfaction with both the President (who has yet to set foot in Galicia) and the president of the local government, who is over 80 and, if you recall, was a minister in the last Franco government. In contrast, the king has come out of things well because he came here early on. Perhaps he had an emptier diary. 

Among several of the major questions to which people would like the answers is:  'Why did it take you nearly 3 weeks and the example of 10,000 civilian volunteers to get the army onto the beaches’’. I hope they aren't holding their breath for an answer. The Spanish government had little need for the modern vice of spin, for the simple reason that it tends not to answer questions it doesn't like. 


The oil news in brief is that it has not yet penetrated the estuaries. There is a huge, deep slick just beyond the natural barrier of the Atlantic islands which is l8 miles long by 6 miles wide. We continue to wait on the weather. 

The minister responsible for taking the fateful decision to have the boat towed out to sea has made his first visit to Galicia and pronounced that he is guilty of nothing worse than not having been a prophet. The President/Prime Minister made his first visit on Saturday, exactly a month to the day since things began. He chose not to visit the towns or beaches - for fear of violent demonstrations - but, instead, flew over them in a helicopter.


The gentle weather has allowed the volunteers and soldiers - to continue with the tasks of cleaning the beaches and dragging globules of fuel oil out of the sea It is hard to describe Just how thick and viscous this stuff is. And how evil smelling, they tell me. Like very thick black custard. Or molten tar. One of the ESS members has been on one of the Atlantic Islands and she told us at dinner on Friday that many of the volunteers had had to go to hospital, having collapsed as a result of breathing the fumes. She herself had had a headache for 3 days. 

Right now, the huge slick is drifting north again. I just keeps on going. 1t will reach the UK and I guess it will feature in your media again. But I don't suppose this will happen. Meanwhile, the sunken tanker continues to leak more fuel from its 14 cracks, one of which is several meters wide. The government has contracted the French submarine to seal the cracks but God alone knows how long this will take. Meanwhile the geriatric local president has said that he sees no reason to fear that his party will lose out in the next elections since ‘We didn't after the mad cow crisis which hit Galicia two or three years ago'. Sadly, he's probably right in this rather backward part of Spain - especially in the mountains - they appear to prefer dictators to democrats. All rather feudal. 


The huge oil slick has been blown north over the last week and is now in the Bay of Biscay and heading for France. Naturally, no one here is, unduly concerned about that. I wonder what the French press say.




Well, the oil has finally reached France and they are said to be very unhappy there. The objects of their anger probably include Spain - because of the decision to push the boat out of their waters and let it drift - but we don't read much about that in the Spanish press. Let's see what legal action the French take. Meanwhile, back here 1t seems that at the last moment the wind changed and we avoided the calamity of having the sludge right inside the river mouths themselves, where the oyster and mussel beds are. But, of course, the sunken tanker is still leaking large quantities of oil. So, who knows what is going to happen in the future. Beaches are still being cleaned and, even if no more oil arrives, it will take many months to get these clean. Especially the rocks. On the sand, it seems that the stuff is so viscous it can almost be rolled up Or at least picked up with a large shovel. Slow but effective work. Meanwhile, fishing for both fish and shellfish is banned along the entire coast and will remain so for some months.


The newspapers here continue to carry long reports on the progress of the oil. The main slick is now off the west coast of France, of course, but the sunken tanker continues to leak 80 tonnes a day, from numerous cracks. Only 6 to 8 of the latter have been sealed, by a French submarine.The bad weather has made it difficult for work to progress and they have now given up on the aspiration to seal all the leaks by the end of January. This week a large group of small whales have washed up on the beaches on Galicia but a connection with the oil leaks has been discounted. 


There is something of a scandal brewing around an organisation set up to collect funds for those wanting to give money for the oil clearance. I'm not sure whether the accusations are that the money has been routed into personal pockets or 'merely' diverted into the coffers of the left wing Galician 'nationalist' party.


The really big news is that the oil disaster has finally produced a political victim. I have been predicting for some time that someone would be sacrificed and it turns out to have been not the geriatric president of the Galician government but his first lieutenant and predicted successor. Mind you, the latter seems to have been asking for it. He has been notorious for several years on account of the fact that his 80 year old mother and brother control 8 or 9 companies which have been delivering services to the local government for several years. A blind eye has been turned to all this, mainly because there is a widespread attitude here that politicians are allowed/expected to use their power to enrich themselves. But of course, they couldn't restrain themselves and it was discovered this week that one of these companies had been selling all the masks and protective clothing used by the army and the volunteers. Normally, 1 suspect they would have got away with this but in the heightened atmosphere of the anger generated by tile catastrophe this proved just a bridge too far. 

The other local scandal has been the divergence of funds raised ostensibly for the victims of the slick into the coffers of the local nationalist party, BNG. They have answered that they never said it would go to anyone in particular and people just assumed it would go to the sufferers. So they look like getting away with this. 


To my surprise, a second politician has bitten the dust as a result of the oil catastrophe and there is talk of a 'political crisis'. Yet again, the president has survived - despite vicious criticism in the national press - and a second of his lieutenants has gone. Interestingly, both he and yesterday's casualty accompanied the said president on the ill-fated hunting trip he made on the first weekend of the saga. Perhaps he has sacrificed them to save himself, showing the sort of ruthlessness which must have served him well for the past 30 odd years. Hard to believe now that he won't retire before the next election. Not that there will be anybody to succeed him by the time he has finished knocking off his potential successors. 



The oil continues to leak from the sunken tanker, though in reducing quantities. Fishing is still banned along the coast here though it may become possible quite soon, after tests have been made of the fish and seafood. Meanwhile, the major slick continues to hit the coasts of north Spain and south west France. Here, they are optimistic that all the local beaches will be clear by the summer season of July and August. 


* A terrible book, by the way. Don't be tempted to buy it, unless you're a very religious Protestant.

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