A mountain view for Catalonia

Could a Pyrenean principality be a blueprint for an independent Catalonia?

CREDIT: visitandorra.com

A free and sovereign nation-state, where Catalan is the official language and the euro is the currency.

Whilst that may be a dream for many people across Catalonia – it is the reality for the 80,000 citizens of the principality of Andorra.

Could the tiny mountain nation be a model for a future Catalonia if they region were to break free from Spain?

Andorra is sandwiched between France and Spain, unique in that it is the only country governed by a co-monarchy. One head of state is the president of France and the other is the Bishop of Urgell (a town in Spain just to the south of Andorra).

The heads of state act in concert with the elected government. Winter skiing and summer hiking provide a substantial tourist income.

Andorra has a lot of cultural affinity with Catalonia through music, literature, and dance.

A breakaway Catalonia would have several other similarities.

Like Andorra, it would not be in the European Union, it would use the euro, and, of course, it would be a Catalan-speaking country.

But there are no guarantees that Andorrans would rush to embrace their separatist brethren across the mountains.

They might very well like to see another Catalan-speaking nation.

But Andorra could find itself having to choose between being the first country to recognise an independent Catalonia or preferring the stability of the wider region and hoping that the integrity of Spain is preserved.

CREDIT: britannica.com

There is also the example of the little-known enclave of Llivia.

A part of Spain surrounded by France, Llivia is a relic of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, when Spain ceded a group of villages to France.

But rather than a village, Llivia had been designated a town, and so it remained part of Spain. As every village to the north, south, east and west integrated into France, Llivia was left as an inland island of Spain.

In truth, it is more an island of Catalonia.

The Catalan estelada flag flies from the balconies, Catalan is spoken and it is part of the Catalan province of Gerona. Llivia also voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in the banned referendum on 1 October.

The enclave offers an intriguing viewpoint of a part of Spain that is already physically separate from the mother country.

And Andorra, too, provides a fascinating and unique example of a Catalanaphone nation-state.

For pro-independence Catalans who have been suffering from nightmares over the last week after their leader fled to Belgium and Spain withdrew some of Catalonia’s devolved powers, they could perhaps settle on a more pleasant dream if they turn their gaze northwards to the Pyrenees and the thoughts of what the future could yet bring.

Contacts, cameras, coffee: field-producing abroad

A report on the seven days I spent in Málaga and Seville producing and fixing for Sky News on the Ashya King story

The Hospital Materno-Infantil in Málaga, where we were based for a week

The Hospital Materno-Infantil in Málaga, where we were based for a week

Call the family lawyers and confirm the time of the morning’s press conference. No answer. Text the lawyers. Call London to discuss our next live update. Order another round of coffees. Email the law firm. Get an answer. Tell the reporter the latest lines. Find out when the nearest Vodafone outlet opens. Have a slurp of coffee. Ensure the live interview goes OK. Set off for the phone shop to buy more SIM cards for the camera so that we can continue to broadcast.

There are many jobs on a field producer’s to-do list out in the field on a breaking news story, and every hour requires different obligations as the conditions of the story move. I was in Spain on my first foreign field-producing deployment for Sky News. I was sent out there by the foreign desk because I am fluent in Spanish and I am an experienced output producer, so I understand the needs and demands of the production teams in London. I was teaming up with the channel’s correspondent and cameraman working on the news about five-year-old British cancer sufferer Ashya King, who had been taken to Andalusia from Southampton General Hospital by his parents without medical approval.

Ashya's father, Brett King, in a media scrum in Seville

Ashya’s father, Brett King, in a media scrum in Seville

The story involved three countries and broke off in different directions throughout the week and you have to be able to react to the new lines on a story whatever they may be. For example, Mr and Mrs King were apprehended, arrested and held in jail in Madrid and then released suddenly on Tuesday night and they were said to be giving a news conference the next morning in Seville. It was hot and sticky on that September evening and we’d been working all day under the belting sun, running around outside the children’s hospital but our team had to re-position for this potential news briefing. It was coming up to the time that we would be calling into London to stand down and then head back to the hotel for a cool shower and some rest. But instead I found myself jogging up the road to a bar to try to grab some sandwiches for us to eat in the car as we were sent to drive the two hours north-west to the Andalusian capital.

This was my first overseas fixing job and it was racing along in the style of a true breaking news story.  So that evening the three of us piled into the Volvo SUV and as the cameraman drove us out in the clear night of the southern Spanish hills, the reporter sent emails and wrote a script outline for an update to her news piece, and I tried to get in contact with the family’s legal team, a contact in Madrid and book a hotel for the three of us, in between fistfuls of cheese crisps.

I had landed in Spain only that morning and had been straight into the thick of the story, burning through my phone battery emailing, calling, texting, tweeting and trying to keep abreast and – where possible – push ahead on the story. Because I spoke the local language, I could make ‘ins’ and contacts at the hospital just through chatting and keeping my eyes peeled and ears pricked. I felt that the team benefited and was able react quicker than usual because I could tap into the local Málaga atmosphere and speak Spanish and this improved our field work.

One woman I met happened to have a child on the same ward as the five-year-old (‘Heart-wrenching time for lonely Ashya’; shoulder article on the right-hand side) and she spoke to me about the atmosphere and security on the ward. I used this chance to offer more content back to the London newsroom, in the form of an online article. So while the correspondent was outside doing a live update with the cameraman, relaying the latest lines I had uncovered, I was in the hire car furiously typing up the article above. It was good to be able to offer the teams back home another angle and type of content on top of the live updates and packages.

Some of the live camera equipment. The orange cable on the left ran round to the car's battery, which we had to use for power at times

Some of the live camera equipment. The orange cable on the left ran round to the car’s battery, which we had to use for power at times

Our job is, in essence, to tell stories, and the producer needs to be thinking several steps ahead on separate levels to allow us to do this to the best of our ability. Where should the live position be?  Where is the nearest plug socket? Are we allowed to park here? Is there a coffee shop nearby? Although I spent most of my time in Málaga, this was far from a beachside foreign jolly. I only saw the Mediterranean Sea once, from the passenger seat of a taxi haring along a motorway to an out-of-town shopping centre to try to find somewhere on a Sunday that sold rechargeable SIM cards.

The story took in authorities from three countries and we worked with our colleagues in London and Prague to share contacts and this helped us, while the story was still in Spain, to chase leads and break lines regularly. I made sure I knew what the local media were saying and I used our sources wisely and confidentially.

The national Spanish broadcast media covering the news

The national Spanish broadcast media covering the news

I worked across two teams, as after a couple of days the first reporter and cameraman were pulled out back to the UK and I stayed on with the Brussels-based team. As part of a foreign news crew, I needed to get to grips quickly with all aspects of the job. So while running our technical equipment came under my cameraman colleague’s remit, I needed to help him out with certain tasks, be it translating an invoice or hopping in a taxi back to the hotel to pick up a satellite dish. Our correspondent was the one writing the scripts, planning the live content and producing polished, informative reports, but there were tasks that required my help. What was said in the last update in Spanish from the health authorities? Which of the new lines from our sources are the most solid? What are the local newspapers saying on the story today?

I had packed a week’s worth of luggage, not knowing if I would be out for a couple of days or much longer. There is no surefire way of predicting the direction a breaking news story can take. One evening the story slowed down for the day and so we went back to the hotel for some food and a couple of glasses of beer. The next evening the story slowed down once more and so we went back to the hotel. We had been in our rooms for barely ten minutes when the call came through that the UK courts had agreed to allow the family to take the child from hospital in Spain to the Czech Republic for their preferred treatment of proton beam therapy. So that meant grabbing the bottles of water and packets of peanuts from the fridge in the room and charging back down to the hospital to set up our live point and get the correspondent in position to reflect the news. After a long day the nutritious dinner we had anticipated took the shape of the mini-bar’s Toblerone and a can of Fanta.

It was a fantastic and challenging seven days in Spain. We had long days working under the 37C sun but I was proud to have been able to provide continuity between the two teams when they changed over. I maintained the contacts and logistics and this meant the two teams could cross over smoothly, leaving me in place as the producer. It was ideal to have two teams who were so experienced on deployments abroad to guide me through and to share knowledge and stories of other overseas reporting jobs. I was tired when the job came to end but I also felt elated at the work we had put out and I realised how much I had enjoyed the pace and demands of foreign field producing.

Saltires and senyeras

The drive for Scottish and Catalan independence from the UK and Spain has increased in recent weeks

The time is coming. The British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond have signed an historic agreement and the road to a referendum on whether Scotland will leave the United Kingdom is now clear. It take place in autumn 2014, in the form of a straightforward ‘Yes/No’ question and 16 and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote (unlike other elections across the UK at the moment, where 18 is the minimum age). But while the details may be sorted and the construction of the plebiscite under way, the polls still show that the current feeling among Scots is that staying in the UK is the preferred option.

The debates around Scottish independence have been closely followed in another European country in a similar situation to the UK. In Spain, the discussions on Catalonia’s constitutional situation are growing in force. The central government wants the excitable and successful region to stay. Many Catalans want out; none more so than Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia’s devolved administration. He has pledged to hold a referendum on independence in the next four years, whether or not it is sanctioned by Madrid.

The debates are in different stages in the two countries. In the UK, the politicians and supporters of each argument have moved from negative campaigns through to trying to elucidate the positive aspects of the union or of independence. The Spaniards are very much still in the mud-slinging phase. Recently, the backbiting has been stepped up, after the culture minister highlighted his belief in a need to “hispanicise Catalan schoolchildren” to try to battle what he sees as a pro-Catalonia bias in the region’s schools. The CiU, the largest party in the Catalan parliament, retorted “maybe what Spain needs is to be Catalanised a bit”. The Church has even weighed in on the debate, saying that it will be “on the side of the Catalan people if they opt for independence from Spain”.

Catalonia is proud of its national identity. Its language is maybe the most famous marker of its nationhood, with millions of speakers and a vibrant press and literature in the Catalan tongue. The red-and-yellow striped flag, the senyera, is flown across the province where the thicker, Spanish banner, with its royal seal on one side, would normally be planted. There is a feeling that an enterprising, commercial spirit, with its roots in the port trade flowing through Barcelona, has allowed it to become one of the richer regions in Spain – wealth, it is claimed, that has helped prop up the Spanish state for many years.

Even the football clubs underline a cultural difference from a centralised Spain. The Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry goes beyond the beautiful game into the realms of two linguistic and cultural identities. The motto of the Catalan team is ‘mes que un club’ (more than a club), a slogan hinting that it is there not just for the sport but also as a pillar of Catalan national pride to stand firm against overarching Madrid influences.

The economic arguments surrounding Scottish and Catalan independence come to the fore regularly. Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader and current First Minister, beams whenever he discusses getting his hands on the North Sea oilfields lying off the eastern Scottish coast. Tourism, the whisky trade and fishing would help the small economy but could it deal with the share of the national debt which London would lump it with (and to which it has contributed, like all four nations)?

The SNP says it would keep the British pound and that the Bank of England (founded by a Scot) would still set its interest rates. Scotland would want to join the European Union but appetite for using the euro is low in the UK, to put it mildly. Catalonia would surely opt for the single currency, as other small nations such as Cyprus and Malta have done recently, but the Spanish region has admitted that it would be asking for a slice of the European bailout that Spain could well request.

There is certainly more fervour in favour of secession in Catalonia at the moment and Artur Mas has added more theatre to the Spanish debate this week, calling to mind the national culture in his region, saying that independence is “the only possible road to ensure the survival of Catalonia as a people”. The referendum will be opposed by Madrid but it is still likely to be held further down the road. But before that comes Scotland and the question of whether the blue-and-white flag, known as the saltire, can officially replace the Union flag as the one true national banner. Scotland will take on the issue of independence or union first, and the race is certainly heating up. Today, on Saturday 20 October, Alex Salmond said that Scotland’s “home rule journey is coming to its conclusion”.

SPANISH ELECTION IV – Depende, depende

On Sunday, 20 November Spain will hold a general election. This blog is live in Madrid covering the build-up and the vote itself. For regular updates throughout the weekend, follow @cullennews on Twitter

Depende, depende (It depends, it depends)

It has been pleasantly mild in Madrid today and the same could be said for the campaigns of the two major parties in Spain, the conservative opposition PP (Popular Party) and the socialist party in government, the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). With one full day left until the Spaniards follow their Iberian neighbours the Portuguese and head off to the ballot boxes for a eurozone crisis general election the mood in town seems calm; almost resigned.

This has been an ambulatory run-up to the election. There has been no bloody battle between the parties, just consistent criticism from the sidelines. They have been warming up for a match for months but have yet to take the field. And it seems that Arturo Pérez Rubalcaba (@conRubalcaba), the PSOE’s potential next prime minister, is privately accepting of the defeat. He has spent the whole campaign electioneering without a chosen finance minister and has resorted to psychological electioneering:

“Cuanta más fortaleza tenga el PSOE mejor la democracia española”

(Spanish democracy will be all the better for having a strong PSOE)

That is: do not vote us out of power totally or Spain’s democratic principles will be at risk. Not that PP leader and the probable new presidente del gobierno on Sunday, Mariano Rajoy (@marianorajoy), has been any more clear with his policies. He has infamously replied “depende” (it depends) when the elephant in the room, namely, the economy and austerity measures, has been raised. The leading newspaper El País today stated that Rajoy’s main objective for this campaign has been:

“Llegar hasta las elecciones del domingo sin anunciar una sola medida impopular. Sin molestar a nadie. Disimulando”

(To get to Sunday’s election without announcing a single unpopular policy. Without annoying anyone. Hiding)

Maybe all this sighing and dragging of feet is because both men know that whoever wins on Sunday will have to face a financial nightmare. Perhaps Pérez Rubalcaba has not appointed a finance minister because nobody wants the job. Perhaps Rajoy has been hiding because he himself knows that, if he wins, he will certainly have to announce some unpopular belt-tightening measures.

SPANISH ELECTION III – Lucha roja, ola azul

On 20 November Spain will hold a general election. This blog will cover it live from Madrid. This is the third preview post on this mid-economic crisis European election. (For the first build-up article, click here, and for the second, click here)

Lucha roja, ola azul (Red fight, blue wave)

The people are ready to have their say once more. Portugal and Ireland have already voted but the two most recent electoral changes, in Italy and Greece, were undemocratic appointments of ‘national-unity’, technocratic governments.

PSOE campaign publicity on La Castellana boulevard in Madrid

A detailed poll earlier in the month by the national Centre for Sociological Research predicted the Spanish conservatives winning 190-195 seats, with about 46% of the vote. The party in government, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE), has accused the Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) of triumphalism. The poll forecast 116-121 seats for the PSOE (about 29% of the vote). They and their prime ministerial candidate, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, know they are on the back foot and have chosen the election slogan:

“Pelea por lo que quieres” (Fight for what you want)

But should the PP and their leader, Mariano Rajoy, win, they will face the difficulties of trying to implement untasty austerity measures and any celebration at a possible landslide victory will be tempered pretty quickly by looking at the state of the country they would now head.

One in nine households has nobody working and the October unemployment figures showed 4.3m people out-of-work, the worst results for the months for 15 years. Spain’s borrowing rates are edging towards the Irish and Greek default limit. Speaking to young Madrid residents there was a sense of anxiety over what Mr Rajoy might do to Spain should his party win the 180 seats necessary for an absolute majority on Sunday. One Galician girl told me:

“I don’t like Zapatero [the outgoing PSOE prime minister] but Rajoy scares me”.

It seems that the winner’s hands will be tied for a good while by the constraints of the eurozone crisis. The PP have told us to:

“Súmate al cambio” (Join the change)

PP campaign publicity on La Castellana boulevard in Madrid

but with the single currency’s woes far from over, weak economic growth forecasts and austerity measures on the menu, the return to power for the PP after seven years in opposition will be announced not with champagne, but with strict sips from a poisoned chalice.

For live updates throughout the election weekend from Madrid: @cullennews

SPANISH ELECTION I – “En España no hay nada”

On 20 November Spain will hold a general election. This blog will cover it live from Madrid. Over the coming weeks in the build-up to the vote there will be preview posts on this mid-economic crisis European election

“En España no hay nada”

(There is nothing in Spain)

This concise and brutal opinion was how a friend described the employment situation in Spain to me in a trip to the Spanish capital last week. Madrid was buzzing as we sat in a cafe in a busy square between Chueca and Gran Via. It was the last weekend of summer and the warmth of the day carried on into the night. But the rays of sunshine are not lighting the mood among the youth when it comes to job opportunities.

The twenty-something went on to describe to me how, despite having plenty of experience and relevant qualifications in his field to his name, he still found himself banging his head against an immovable job door. There is no easy route to an exit from this crisis.

This weekend, the credit ratings agency Fitch downgraded Spanish debt amid the ongoing lack of resolutions over the Mediterranean monetary maelstrom. The lack of an answer to the crisis is mirrored in Spain by the scarcity of employment opportunities. The indignados movement has exemplified the frustration of many Spaniards and their demonstrations will be discussed in the next special Spanish Election post.

Many of the españoles I met had decided to go back into education, after months of trying to use the first degree they completed to get a job. One educational option is to study a specialist subject to try to set yourself apart from the crowds. But Spain needs a boost to the economy, not class numbers. It is a not problem easily solved by more debt-building through enrolling in futher courses.

Spain’s powerhouse construction sector is faltering. The economy is critically injured. Back in the square with my friend, he paused and looked down at the table, pushed his glass to one side and reiterated firmly:

“I am going to apply to French companies now, and to London as well. En España no hay nada.”

Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.

Returning to the front line

Although many focus on future policy planning, the way politicians recover from setbacks can define a career

On Friday 1 June, the French president’s office released a statement in which they announced they would “not comment on the course of American justice” and “respect the presumption the innocence”. The innocence being presumed was that of a man who had recently been arrested, forced to pay an enormous bail and surrender his passport for an alleged criminal sexual offence.

Returning to try to rebuild your life after such a setback would be hard enough in itself. If you were Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it would seem near impossible. But, incredibly, the French press are already talking about him manoeuvring back on to the track he was chugging down until he was detained on 15 May: organising a bid to be the Socialist presidential candidate for next year’s election.

It would be a stunning return to action but it is unlikely. Many think it more possible that he become openly involved with one of the current candidates’ campaigns. DSK will not be able to waltz back into the corridors of power; France’s outlook on ‘bedroom politics’ has changed permanently, whatever the final outcome of his case.

Recovering from this setback, (and there is no doubting there was a sexual element to the incident), will be difficult but big political personalities in Paris (especially those who have been seen to belittle the US in some way) hold a lot of strings with which to pull themselves back up.

For Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, the challenges are different. He is now back in Caracas after convalescing in Cuba following surgery to remove a pelvic abscess. Chavez revealed on 30 June that he had also undergone an operation for a cancerous tumour. Speculation has mounted over his position but Chavez himself simply called his health problems “a new battle that life has placed before us” and pledged to defeat them as though they were some irritating Western critics: “Forever onward toward victory! We will be victorious! Until my return!”

But will he be victorious? There are three main scenarios that have evolved from this medical setback:

1) He is too ill ever to come back properly and fulfil his energetic socialist agenda and has to leave power (although there are no similarly charismatic pretenders waiting in the wings)

2) He takes quite a while to improve and has to transfer power temporarily to his brother Adan Chavez or maybe vice-president Elias Jaua or Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro

3) He is fit and well and deliberately delayed his comeback in order to make his return to Caracas all the more triumphant (today, 5 July, is Venezuela’s bicentenary of independence from Spain)

Whatever their nature, it would be folly for politicians always to live in the future. How (if, at all) they overcome setbacks can be critical to their lives in the limelight.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.

Hotting up on the Equator

Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa but it has large, and questionable, ambitions.

Last week, this blog looked at the friendships and enmities between different Latin American countries and Colonel Gaddafi, (see ‘An Arab and his amigos‘– 05/04/11) but could help be on hand for Gaddafi from another Spanish-speaking source?

The tiny country of Equatorial Guinea sits snugly in the central western corner of Africa. The current head-of-state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, came to power after deposing his uncle in a coup and then sentencing him to death by firing squad.

Gaddafi also came to prominence after overthrowing the establishment and there certainly seem to be many similarities between Equatorial Guinea and Libya:

1) Longevity of leaders

Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been the president since 1979; Gaddafi since 1969.

2) Political parties

Although a couple of opposition parties have been officially ‘legalised’ in Equatorial Guinea, they have only won a handful of seats during Obiang’s three decades of power. Gaddafi has long proclaimed that he is just a revolutionary leader, not a president, and there has been no formal government, let alone functional opposition, in Libya during those 41 years in power.

3) Protest marches demanding social and political reform

Any attempt by Equatoguinean opposition movements (Popular Union, Convergence for Social Democracy, Progressive Democratic Alliance) to show their united condemnation of the repressive regime is stamped out quickly. All reporting of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is banned. All protests are quashed by the police. Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea and he went on a hunger strike in February calling for democratic and social reform and in protest at the corruption, malpractice and maltreatment of which he accuses President Obiang’s government. He had to flee to Spain soon after he started his fast. The current situation in Libya shows why leaders such as Obiang fear the consequences (civil war, foreign intervention) of mass demonstrations.

4) Oil

Equatorial Guinea has huge reserves and its wealth is rocketing, with a GDP far in excess of its neighbours, although it seems that the cash is simply heading straight into the government’s bank account. However, the situation is changing in Libya, where most of the oil is now in rebel-held land.

5) African Union

Obiang is the present Chair of the AU and has used his position to support the Gaddafi regime. Last month, Obiang praised what he called Gaddafi’s ‘readiness’ for ‘political reforms.’ He also ensured that the AU denounced ‘any form of foreign military intervention’ including a no-fly zone. Gaddafi was head of the AU in 2009-10.

As we have seen with Ivory Coast, (Jose dos Santos of Angola, another repressive, long-term president, sending aid to condemned Laurent Gbagbo), the strongmen club of Africa starts to worry when one of their own is in trouble and has no shame in letting it be known where their loyalties lie. Obiang is leader of the AU at the moment and cannot demonstrate worthy, multi-national leadership unless he shows a willingness to sort out his own, impoverished country first.