An Affair to Forget


Ninot of Luis Bárcenas in the 2013 Falles

by Eli S. Evans

Keeping tabs on the so-called Bárcenas affair, Spain’s ongoing corruption scandal, has been a bit like watching the slow-motion replay of a calamity. We already knew what happened, more or less: the country’s real estate bubble was produced through a toxic combination of the large-scale reclassification of “rural” land as “urban” (and therefore open to construction), the compulsive doling out of bloated government contracts – especially for construction – to non-competitive bidders, and reckless unregulated lending by the banks owned and operated by past and future government officials, all of it facilitated by a culture of kickbacks and the under-the-table political contributions. We already knew this and yet seeing it happen again, and in painstaking detail, now that the secret books of the conservative Partido Popular (PP)s longtime treasurer Luis Bárcenas have been thrown open, it is no less bracing because of this. Here, scrawled longhand in the sort of accounting ledgers people used before the invention of the computer, are the hundreds of thousands of Euros – the millions upon millions of Pesetas – that were illegally funneled into the party coffers and the pockets of many of its highest ranking figures by various interested parties dating as far back as 1996, and the retrospectively cataclysmic presidency of José María Aznar. Evoking Freud’s famous tea kettle parable, current PP leaders denied both any knowledge of the secret transactions revealed in Bárcenas’s records as well as the veracity of the same and yet here, painstakingly documented, were fluctuations in the party’s official bank accounts, as well as those of various of its highest ranking officials, that appeared to reflect those of its caja b, the secret slush fund, revealed by Bárcenas’s records, through which all of those illegal payments were funneled.

I suppose part of the horror of seeing all of it in the kind of detail we previously had not, even if we more or less knew it was happening, is that in so doing we are also seeing it from the perspective of an utterly devastating present. It’s not just the crushing unemployment figures, plunging housing prices, or triple-dipping recession; it’s the Mediterranean coastline laid to waste, the unique and nearly extinct Iberian Lynx, the forests razed to make way for highways to nowhere, and all of the other things that were sacrificed to what we now know were never anything but delusions of middle class grandeur and global relevance. And another part, I suppose, has to do with peculiar importance of the open secret, the secret that isn’t really a secret in the sense that everyone knows it but nonetheless remains a secret by way of the unspoken injunction against acknowledging that knowledge, in holding together the socio-political order. This is the lesson of the old “The Emperor’s New Clothes” legend – public recognition of those open secrets by which any given order is structured always threatens to topple that order approximately the same logic according to which Wile E. Coyote, in the old Roadrunner cartoons, could run past the edge of a cliff without falling until the moment he looked down and saw the abyss yawning open beneath him, at which point he would immediately plummet.

In theory, of course, the fall of Spain’s existing order, a democracy founded in large part on a collective agreement to forget the crimes and victims of some forty years of often brutal dictatorship, might not be such a bad thing. This is, after all, precisely what the tens of thousands of protesters who took the country’s streets and plazas in the spring of 2011 were fighting for, even when, as plenty of critics have gone to great lengths to point out, they had not yet formulated anything resembling a plan for what might replace it. From this perspective, one might even see the Bárcenas Affair as a perverse extension of that protest movement, itself now doing the work – work of which a discouraged populace seems no longer capable – of clearing the way for the new and better, perhaps even that ¡Democracia Real Ya!, or “Real Democracy Now!”, from which one of the more influential organizations behind the 15-M movement took its name. If this is the case, then the latest developments may be particularly promising. After recent publication of a series of text messages he exchanged with Bárcenas in the days and weeks after the publication of the latter’s unofficial accounting books – messages in which he encouraged Bárcenas to stay strong and promised that the party would do all it could on his behalf – Rajoy finally succumbed to international political pressure (indeed, it was in response to a question posed unexpectedly by a Romanian journalist that he delivered the news) and agreed to testify before the Spanish parliament, testimony that has since then been tactically (and transparently) scheduled for August 1st, the first day of summer vacation in Spain. While there can be little doubt that Rajoy, following official party line, will deny both personal knowledge of Bárcenas’s unofficial accounting books as well as the credibility of the information contain, and may very well never even mention Bárcenas’s name, the very fact that he has agreed under duress to expose himself to the kind of public scrutiny he has to this point in his presidency almost pathologically avoided suggests that the circle is closing, a delicate web of half-lies decades in the making finally coming unraveled. If it has not reached that point already, it is probably only a matter of time before Rajoy’s and the PP’s increasingly shrill denials of the undeniable will be reduced to utter farce, the impotent insistence of the suddenly naked Emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale on proceeding, after he’d been exposed for the fraud he had been all along, as though he were still enfolded in the layers of his glorious robes. At that point, one might imagine, the crumbling edifice of Spain’s dysfunctional democracy will finally tumble once and for all, leaving a tract of socio-political land open for the construction of the kind of strong and just democracy a country that lost the entire middle part of the twentieth century to dictatorship deserves.


Against that of a mercifully toppled socio-economic order, however, one is compelled to pit a far less promising – and far more likely – possibility. Just last week news of the Bárcenas affair was briefly bumped from the top of the fold by a perhaps no less scandalous revelation: Francisco Pérez de los Cobos, president of Spain’s Tribunal Constitucional since June of this year and member of the same since 2010, was until 2011 what is called a militante in the Partido Popular, something he deliberately did not to reveal in his original confirmation hearings. To be a militante in the PP is something like being a card-carrying member of the Republican (or Democratic) Party in the United States, but with perhaps even more serious implications for a judge. To begin with, it requires a financial commitment: a minimum yearly contribution of just over 37 Euros. More importantly from a juridical perspective, militancia demands, according to its own bylaws, loyalty to the party and its leaders and a promise to adhere to its official platform. The fact that he did not reveal his militancia during his confirmation hearings, and the fact that he continued to pay dues through 2011, a year after he took his place on the TC, casts doubt on the validity of not just his presidency, not just his membership on the country’s highest court, but the constitutional legitimacy of every decision in which his vote has mattered.

Despite the validity of these concerns, and the dubious legality of Pérez de los Cobos’s position on the TC, he will neither be deposed from that position nor forced to account for the objectivity of decisions he reached as a member, sworn to party loyalty, of the PP. The reasons for this are simple but of profound consequence. Seven of the twelve judges on the TC were appointed by the PP, and will vote against any motion to depose or censure Pérez de los Cobos on the basis of the potential – necessary, rather – conflict of interest implied in his militancia or the failure to disclose that militancia during his 2010 confirmation proceedings. Similarly, because the PP holds not just a controlling majority but an absolute majority in the Spanish parliament, it has already stifled a collective effort on the part of all of the opposition parties – united, in this regard, despite their in some cases vast ideological differences – to force Pérez de lo Cobos to address before the congress his failure to disclose his PP membership during his TC candidacy and potential consequences therein. In response to the PP’s decision to insulate Pérez de los Cobos, and in anticipation of Rajoy’s inevitably evasive testimony on August 1st, and in consideration of the ruling party’s more general disregard for the opposition even when it operates in unison, Elena Valenciano, a ranking member of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español – a party the greatest virtue of which, at this point, is that, though utterly corrupt and irremediably degenerated, it is neither as corrupt nor as degenerated as the PP – lamented that the manner in which it has wielded it suggests that Spain’s conservative ruling party, due to some fundamental misunderstanding of the basic principles of democracy, has “confused absolute majority with absolute power.”

Rhetorically, Valenciano’s is a nice move. But it’s also a shot in the dark. Without a bullet in the chamber. With a gun made out of a banana. To the extent that they have shown themselves to be functionally equivalent one can no longer assert that in Spanish government there exists any real difference between absolute majority and absolute power. And if the PP currently holds an absolute majority, then it also holds absolute power – as should probably be evident in the routine incidences of police brutality, the daily evictions of families and sick people and the elderly from homes they purchased with loans they never should have been granted by the aforementioned banks run by former or future government officials, in the aloof indifference of a president who has ignored or broken nearly every one of his campaign promises while turning stonewalling the press into a presidential style. In the worst possible world, that is to say, the ongoing collapse of Spain’s still youthful democracy will not open a space for that better democracy to come but only reveal that the edifice of Spanish democracy was never anything but a façade, and that behind that façade now stands, as fully-formed as a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, a ruling apparatus no more indentured to the will of the people – that is to say, no more democratic – than its totalitarian predecessor.

About the Author:

Eli S. Evans is a writer and a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He writes regularly for magazines such as N+1, in the United States, and Quimera, in Spain, and has work forthcoming from Zg Press and in a collection of essays about the late writer and social theorist Monique Wittig. His academic research focuses on the intersections of modernity and postmodernity in twentieth century Spanish literature and philosophy.