Robert Alcock | 15.03.2004 11:27
I Live in a Free Country
Hello, my name is Robert and I live in a free country.
I was born in England of Anglo-American parents, but now I live in Bilbao, the main city in the Basque Country of northern Spain. As the world knows, this week Spain has lived through a period of intense pain, grief, turmoil and transformation. We have experienced the bloodiest massacre since the 1940s, enormous street demonstrations, official cover-ups and revelations, a general election and a long-awaited change of government. Years of history telescoped into the space of four days.
For me, this week has been a lesson in how a free country works, how free people act. The Spanish people have held up a picture of freedom to the billions around the world who dream of living in a free country. I would like to share my experience with you.
* * *
The facts are known. The bombs were placed on the train in rucksacks and timed to explode as it entered the crowded station on Thursday morning. Fortunately, trains don’t always run on time. This one was two minutes late. Two hundred people were killed; it could have been two thousand.
The Spanish people reacted as any people would: rage, grief, outpourings of support: the blood banks overflowed. The Spanish government also showed its true colours. President Aznar (not really Spain’s president, but its prime minister) came on television to express his grief and condolences, and to point the finger at the culprits: ETA, the Basque terrorist group.
Basques are used to being scapegoats. They are famous around the world for two things: the Guggenheim Museum and bastards with bombs. In fact, Aznar’s government of the Partido Popular (PP) gained popularity in the rest of Spain for the excessive brutality with which it suppressed the Basques. Not just the terrorists themselves, but also the radical nationalist party Batasuna, which was banned and immediately reformed under a different name (they are used to this: the party has had at least four names in the past decade), and the Basque-language daily newspaper, Egunkaria, many of whose editors were arrested. The newspaper, too, has now reopened, this time as Berria.
Remembering that Basques are not the only ones with bombs, and that Aznar had stirred up some other known bombers by joining Bush’s invasion of Iraq, against the will of the Spanish population, it’s easy to see that it would be very convenient for the government if ETA turned out to be the bombers.
It looked as if this time they would get away with it. All the major political parties were quick to express their grief and rage, condemning not only the attacks but also ETA as the authors. On Thursday evening there were spontaneous street demonstrations across Spain with placards denouncing ETA and terrorism.
However, there were some odd things going on. One was the outright denial by Batasuna, or whatever they’re calling themselves this week, that ETA were the perpetrators of the attack. Indeed, they condemned the attack in no uncertain terms, and said that ETA didn’t go around blowing up working-class Spanish people. The others were the appearance of a letter from “Al Qaeda” in a British Islamic newspaper claiming credit for the attacks, and the discovery in Madrid, intentional on the part of the bombers, no doubt, of a van containing detonators and tapes of the Koran.
Watching TV became slightly surreal on Thursday evening. The main state TV channel, TVE-1, was looping footage of the attacks and the victims and repeating the government’s insistence that ETA was responsible. CNN news, the Basque regional channels and the commercial station Tele-5, meanwhile, were broadcasting the news about the “Al Qaeda” letter and the van. This showed with crystal clarity the crucial role of a diverse free press in a free country. Also the importance of access to a free press – because in some parts of Spain TVE is the only television service available.
The news got out and on Friday the government line was looking a bit frayed. Nonetheless, they kept hauling on it, with repeated insistences by the Minister of the Interior – looking like a Charles Addams character in an ill-fitting black suit – that ETA were still being considered as the prime culprits. By Friday evening the confusion, grief and rage had reached historical levels. The people of Spain, the Castilians and Catalans and Basques and Galicians and Andalucians, did what free people do at times of intense emotion. They took to the streets of the towns and the great boulevards of the cities, in incredible numbers. Under cold, heavy rain, one-quarter of the population came together as a river in flood. Ten million people became A PEOPLE. They didn’t push, they queued patiently, there were no casualties as far as I have heard. They simply walked and shouted and waved their banners. The messages had changed. On Thursday it was “ETA this” and “ETA that”. On Friday they were diverse and often poetical. “It isn’t raining: the sky is crying.” “We are all Madrileños.” “Aznar, stop looking for the weapons: they’re on the train.” “Who did it?”
Ten million people marching in peace to defend their democracy! You want to see a free people? Look to the people of Spain. Here are a people who, in living memory, have suffered a terrible civil war, forty years of brutal dictatorship under Franco, and the miraculous restoration of democracy. Here are a people who know the value of freedom. And may they be slow to forget it, and quick to remind others of what they often take for granted.
Saturday is a day of reflection before the general election. No electoral messages are permitted. This policy was honourably adhered to by the Socialist leader, Zapatero, who said he trusted that the government were revealing all they knew about the authorship of the attacks, leading me to want to throw my shoe at the TV screen. The government, blatantly, were doing nothing of the kind. In fact the scary Interior Minister kept repeating desperately that ETA was the main suspect, and appeared to have taken a vow not to let the words “Islamic terrorists” pass his lips.
Sunday dawned bright and clear after days of rain. A perfect day to vote. In Spain, voting is a serious and semi-sacred business; people dress up as if they’re going to church. Supervising and counting the votes is a duty that is given to members of the voting public drawn by lot, as with jury duty. As it happens, my brother-in-law was one of those in charge of counting the votes in his village. Everything is done using paper ballots: who would trust a machine to register their vote?
The rest is history. We won. The people won. Peace and democracy won. Aznar’s party, who a week ago looked certain to win, were kicked out of power. The new government looks likely to be formed by a coalition of the Socialist Party with the Catalan republican left (ERC) and United Left (IU) parties. These parties will probably demand constitutional reform and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Bush’s occupation force just lost one of its members.
* * *
I live in a free country. Shame it isn’t my country.
In Britain, an intelligence official, David Kelly, is dead. A journalist, Andrew Gilligan, has had his career ruined and the head of the BBC, Greg Dyke, has been forced to resign. All because they tried to tell the truth about why Britain went to war with Iraq. The freedom of the press has been on thin ice for years and has now plunged through into the chilly waters of silence. If you want a free press in Britain now, you have two options: Private Eye and the internet. Newsletters like SchNEWS and independent websites like IndyMedia are free but few people have access to them. It’s not good enough just to have an independent press: the news must be able to reach the people.
In the USA, the situation has never been worse. Corporations have a stranglehold on the news that reaches the vast majority of the population. They have already succeeded in rigging the selection process for the Democratic Presidential candidate. Come November, it is now almost certain that the voters will have a choice between President Bush, who invaded Iraq and wants to stay there, introduced the Patriot Act which has butchered civil liberties, supports the NAFTA and GATT trade pacts that have destroyed million of jobs, has failed to fund education, and is in the pocket of insurance companies who are milking the health industry; and Senator Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq and wants to send 40,000 more troops there, who voted for the Patriot Act, who supports the NAFTA and GATT trade pacts, who will have no money to fund education after paying the bill for Iraq, and who is in the pocket of the insurance companies.
That’s if they even have the choice, of course. Because now that many states are introducing “voting machines”, even the chance to vote is in doubt. When I say “voting machines”, let’s be clear what I’m talking about: these are machines that leave no paper trail, with software that nobody is allowed to read or check and which can be altered by the company at any time, and which are made by companies like Diebold that have strong ties to the Republican party.
But there are encouraging murmurs even in the heart of the empire. One of the best pieces of news from the North American continent this weekend came, of all places, from Kansas.
Did you know that this Saturday Dennis Kucinich came second in the Kansas presidential primary? Do you even know who Dennis Kucinich is, or that Kansas had a presidential primary? Thought not. Kansas is the sort of place that only produces news when a bunch of hicks on the school board decide to ban evolution. Dennis Kucinich is the type of political candidate who only makes the news when he decides to humour the media hacks by joining in some silly dating game. Plus he’s got a hard-to-pronounce name (it rhymes with spinach) and well, hasn’t Kerry won already?
Well, just so you know what you missed, Dennis Kucinich (www.kucinich.us) is a four-term Congressman from Ohio who led the opposition in Congress to the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. He proposes to withdraw troops from Iraq and hand over power to the UN, repeal the Patriot Act, cut the Pentagon budget by 15% to fund education, scrap NAFTA and GATT and create a national health care system which would pay for itself by eliminating insurance company profits. In other words, he offers the American people a genuine alternative to Bush. Now you know why you’ve never heard of him.
Well, Dennis came second in Kansas, and if the American people know what’s good for them, they will make sure he starts winning primaries, starting with Illinois on Tuesday. It’s unlikely he will be able to take the nomination from John Kerry, but he might make Kerry wake up and start to see that if he doesn’t offer a genuine alternative, he can’t hope to defeat Bush. If the Americans or the British want freedom, they’d better take a leaf out of the Spanish people’s book. Demand the truth. Demand fair voting systems. Demand real alternatives. Demand access to a free press. Take to the streets and speak out. March 20th is the international day of protest against the war in Iraq, but every day is a good day to speak out for freedom. It may be hard work but it beats being fed a pack of lies and told to shut up and eat up.
Spain has show the way a free people must act when their freedom is threatened whether by bastards with bombs or liars in high places. It has also shown how quickly things happen when people start to speak out. So speak out, America. Speak out, Britain. Speak out, you millions and billions who dream of living in freedom. And I hope soon we can all say: I live in a free country.
Robert Alcock, www.lesspress.com, 15 March 2004.