Archive for November 2011

Departing Spanish Government Proposes Exhuming Franco if Church Gives Consent

November 30, 2011

Valley of the Fallen

Departing Spanish Government Proposes Exhuming Franco if Church Gives Consent
Jáuregui requests the Rajoy government, “Please do not stash this report in a drawer”
El País: El Gobierno en funciones propone exhumar a Franco si lo autoriza la Iglesia
Natalia Junquera reporting from Madrid November 29, 2011

Thirty-six years after Franco’s death, the departing government yesterday proposed lifting the 1500 kg granite gravestone under which he is interred, exhuming his remains, and submitting them to his family. So recommended a commission of experts which presidential minister Ramón Jáuregui, six months before the election, charged with creating a plan to make the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) something different from what Franco intended it to be: a monument to himself and his victory in the Civil War. But it would be difficult to complete this task because of another condition the commission established for the removal of the dictator from the mausoleum: the authorization of the Catholic Church.

The Church was invited to the commission, but at the final hour, the Cardinal of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, retired his representative there, Archbishop Emeritus of Pamplona and Tudela, Fernando Sebastián. When asked about the movement of Franco’s remains, the episocopal conference referred the question to the Archbishop of Madrid, whose spokesman responded, “We have no comment.” The anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz, a member of the commission, believes it is possible the Church will give its authorization: “if it opposes despite the government’s desire to remove [the remains], the Church would become the dictator’s custodian.”

Another indispensable and insuperable condition is the consent of the Popular Party, which would have to spend at least 13 million euros to “make the premises decent.” “I request that the Mariano Rajoy administration please not stash this report in a drawer,” Jáuregui pleaded yesterday in La Moncloa after presenting the signatures of the presidents of the commission, Virgilio Zapatero (president of philosophy and law) and Pedro González-Trevijano (rector of King Juan Carlos I).

The two met recently with the dictator’s daughter. Carmen Franco assured them that her father had never said he wanted to be buried in the Valley of the Fallen and that the decision was made by the Arias-Navarro goverment. In any case, she asked the commission that the remains of her father remain where they are. In the understanding of the commission, however, the wishes of the family, as opposed to those of the Church, are not binding.

An important group in the commission has been convinced from the first that it would be impossible for the Valley of the Fallen to have any other meaning without moving Franco’s remains to another location, as this newspaper wrote in June. Ultimately, three experts (González-Trevijano, Herrero y Rodríguez de Milón, and Feliciano Barrios) redacted a private vote against the exhumation of the dictator because they thought it would “contribute to dividing and radicalizing public opinion.” This is the only point over which there is not unanimity. But the meetings have been long. “All day, sometimes,” Ferrándiz admits. No member of the commission has received monetary renumeration.

Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, believes the government can do without the authorization of the church. “It would be like if a hospital with a chapel asked for permission from an episcopal conference to operate.” He doesn’t believe the plan will be brought to fruition. Nor does the State Federation of Forums for the Recovery of Memory, which on the anniversary of the death of the dictator gathered in front of the Valley of the Fallen with a girl dressed up as Franco who said, “I see that I left everything tied up, and tied up well.” It also asked: “Why doesn’t the government do what Angela Merkel did in Germany some months ago: demolish the tomb of Hitler’s lieutenant, incinerate his remains, and throw them in the Baltic so the place wouldn’t become a site for Neo-Nazi pilgrimage?”

The removal of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen would be consolation for the family members of Republicans buried there without the families’ consent and which want to recover their remains. The forensic scientist Francisco Etxeberria corroborated with a petition by the families that the crypts have deteriorated; according to two other forensic scientists sent by the government, it is now practically impossible to make individual indentifications of remains.

The commission, even so, recommends the government “dignify” the cemetery of the Valley of the Fallen, the largest communal grave of Franquismo, where nearly 34,000 people are entombed. The cemetary would become public, and a “meditation center” would be established in the area so family members who do not profess to the Catholic faith can feel “comfortable”, according to Virgilio Zapatero.


82% of Spaniards Think There is a Significant Amount of Tax Fraud in their Country

November 29, 2011

82% of Spaniards Think There is a Significant Amount of Tax Fraud in their Country
El País: El 82% de los españoles piensa que los impuestos no se cobran con justicia
Staff Report from Madrid November 29, 2011

Spanish citizens are not content with the collection of their taxes. The Sociological Research Center (CIS) today published the study Public Opinion and Fiscal Policy which highlights that eight of every ten respondents think there is injustice in the tax collection system and there is a high or significant amount of tax fraud.

82% think that those who have more are not paying their fair share, and three of four (75.2%) think the government does little or very little to fight tax fraud. Only 7.2% think there is little fraud.

In addition, there is a perception that punishment is unlikely. Four of every ten respondents (39.6%) think that the risk that those who do not declare their income to Housing or Social Security will be discovered or sanctioned is “rather low”.

Many Taxes
Citizens are also not satisfied with the amount of taxes they pay: 54.2% think that taxes are high in Spain and that they receive relatively little benefit from what they pay to the state. To put it more concretely, 59.1% think they receive less from the government than they pay in taxes. In addition, one of every four people (26.6%) believes that Spaniards pay more taxes than citizens of other European countries.

The CIS study also reflects opinions about the provision of public services and benefits. The services considered most deficient are housing, social security, pensions, and aid for dependents. More than half of Spaniards think funding for each of these fields is “very little” while one of every three (36.2%) think “too much” goes to Defense. 60.7% say they “are in complete disagreement” with reducing social spending (social work, education…) while one of every four would be “in agreement” with reducing public spending on infrastructure.

As for which level of government best administers tax revenue, the most cited was the federal government (18.2%) followed by city hall (16.7%) and autonomous communities (provinces) (16.1%).

Handke in Another Tempo

November 16, 2011

Peter Handke

Handke in Another Tempo
Peter Handke breaks the long silence he began after taking a controversial position with respect to Serbia. The Austrian author, a convert to the Orthodox faith, speaks about the freedom of travel, literary inheritance, including that of his own language, and the Balkan tragedies.
El País: Handke en otro tiempo
Peter Handke interviewed by Cecilia Dreymüller, literary critic and translator of some of his works, November 5, 2011

In his home surrounded by chestnuts, situated between Paris and Versailles, Peter Handke (born in Griffen, Austria in 1942) welcomed me [Cecilia Dreymüller]. His humble aspect and barely audible voice were contrasted sharply with his fae as a media star, combative man, and defender of controversial causes. Three of his books have been published in Spanish: his collected travel diaries in Gestern unterwegs (Travelling Yesterday) (Alianza), his notes about “Yugoslavia under the bombs” in Unter Tränen fragend (Asking Through the Tears) (Ediciones Alento y UDP), and his conversations with Peter Hamm recorded in Es leben die Illusionen (The Illusions Are Alive) (Pre-Textos). After declaring solidarity with the Serbian people during the Yugoslav wars and attending the burial of ex-president Milosevic in 2006, he was the victim of a media campaign that not only condemned his political posture but also disqualified his literary work from consideration. In the texts collected in Asking Through the Tears he describes the process and clarifies the motives for his commitment. The travel diaries in Traveling Yesterday, in turn, capture the era just before explosion of war in Yugoslavia. He has just returned from a trip to Slovenia, after passing through Salzburg, where his most recent theatrical work, Immer noch Sturm (Still Storm), just debuted.

Q: What brought you to take such a long trip between 1987 and 1990?

A: Simply put, I didn’t have a place to say. I’d just left my home in Salzburg, and my daughter, my first one, went to Vienna to study. That permitted me to realize a dream I’d had for a long time, which was to travel from one place to another for years on end. It was two and a half years altogether.

Q: Reading this book, one perceives a strong desire to seek peace and calm. How did you find tranquility on your journey?

A: There’s a famous story about the treatment of mental patients during the Middle Ages: that when they became aggressive, they were put on a boat, and the movement tranquilized them. In this sense, travels and tranquility can be perfectly compatible. For me, at least. Traveling on my own dime, you understand. There is no contradiction in terms.

Q: The observations you made in Romanesque churches and monasteries in Italy, Spain, and France are important. This trip also seems to be a journey toward spirituality.

A: Spirituality is a word we should not use too often. But toward the spirit, yes. I have always thought it strange that Goethe, in his Trip to Italy, speaks with horror and rejection of the Romanesque figures in Verona and San Zeno, for example. He calls them caricatures. The spiritual attracts me, the dreamy spirituality of Romanesque figures, their postures, how they are placed between each other without twisting. Not like Gothic art, where everything leads to a point, to the sky, like an arrow; in Romanesque art, everything stays on the ground, and even so one feels the roundness of a head in the sky, the heavenly firmament, no? In Santo Domingo, in Soria, the facades were pure music for me.

Q: In relation to the contemplation of Romanesque figures, there are many annotations in the book with Biblical citations, reflections about God and the divine. Was this trip something of a religious search for the roots of Catholicism?

A: No. The search was for how to describe a person, how to relate to a person. I don’t like realistic and natural descriptions of people, even if they are magisterial like those of the 19th century, in Stendhal and Flaubert, or in a different form, like Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s. It’s alien to me. I like strong outlines, like in Romanesque art. That is to say, the outline gives form, and inside the form, the reader or observer can come to meet the person. I was searching for a different epic, for what I found as a reader of Medieval epic poems; they let me live in the personalities. I intended to contemporize them as well in My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, in Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, and in At Night Over the River Morava. These, at their core, are medieval novels, epic poems more than novels. In this sense, I don’t believe as much in the novel as in the epic, the story that comes from afar and is balanced toward the distance. In other words, I am an enemy of psychological writing.

Q: I’ll quote a sentence in Traveling Yesterday: “When you move in adequate spaces, in adequate time, in adequate light, the world still becomes a story.” Are you a Romantic?

A: I don’t know if I’m a Romantic. I also have to be a Classicist. But a permeable one, not like Goethe. Although Goethe was lucky – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – to live in a time in which this was generally accepted. I’ve just finished reading Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and it’s a horrifying book. I’ve realized that it has assembled, has managed a cohesion that does not exist. In this moment I understood that the Romantics, with their fragmentary writing…the explosion of Romanticism had to happen: Novalis, in another way Kleist, or Eichendorff, who left so many things open and didn’t try to unite them by force. But they passed over him from above. In this sense, I’m happy to live now, because not everything is accepted without more…and I don’t, either.

Q: In the book you say you wish for humanity to rise to a traumbarke, a boat of dreams. If this isn’t a 100% Romantic thought, then I don’t know what you could call Romantic.

A: I sometimes have Romantic moments, but I don’t abandon myself to them. Although sometimes one should abandon them. I often say that truly good literature seems like a beautiful popular song.

Q: In these entries, you open a process of apprenticeship which is very demanding.

A: Yes. I go at the world’s beat. I don’t march to the beat if my own drum; I adapt to a rhythm. I go with the things I see. Whatever penetrates me, I transmit. That’s what’s appropriate. I learn from what I read, and I would be lacking more.

Q: In the first part of the book, you seek tranquility; after that, the goal is permeability.

A: Permeability is what’s decisive. What it says is that the writer converts into a figure in transit, through which many things pass. But who has achieved that? I don’t know; Homer sometimes, and Georges Simenon (laughs). Sometimes William Faulkner. Literature, in reality, does not progress; it has variants. To write like Simenon now cannot be done. Once I said, a long time ago, “sigh…if only I learned how to write like Chekhov, stories like that, theatrical works like Anton Chekhov’s. Then someone said to me, “But that already exists! It’s not lacking. Write what Chekhov transmitted to you, about his world, his movement and rhythm, his quality, and above all about his shaking.” One time I said a great writer closes his path to his successors, but only so they can find their own. Or he is the opposite of someone like Thomas Bernhard, who is easy to imitate, really. A writer who is easy to imitate, deep down, does not deserve to be called a writer.

Q: From whence did this expansive worldliness, this oriental and occidental wisdom come?

A: Foolishness. I’m not an international writer. I’m from the countryside. In the town where I time from, there were Buddhists as well, but no one called them that. There was a muezzin, a minaret, although naturally they weren’t there. There were Indians, all that a kid would want. It all comes from my place of origin, from my parents, from my ancestors. Naturally, one also has to make oneself, though no one can completely do that. In any sense. No, it’s all there. Before I often thought, Oh my God, why wasn’t I born on the banks of the Mississippi like William Faulkner? But now I know that the brooks of my childhood were the Mississippi. Or I thought, when I was twenty years old and read Thomas Wolfe or Sherwood Anderson or Dreiser or John Steinbeck, hey, this world is so big, and my home is so small. Now I know that it was them, the writers, that created it. And I have to do it too, make the rhythm I know, that I can make; that wide world was already here. It was just that I ignored it, with my partially obtuse mind, because the dream of a great man always existed in me and I saw the people in my town as little. Now I know.

Q: Your childhood in a border region was also branded by language.

A: Yes, yes. In the hoe, we spoke the Slovenian dialect of Carinthia. My mother spoke pure Slovenian. I spoke less. Yet in our town, just a mile away, speaking Slovenian was frowned upon. During the Third Reich, the people there were strictly National Socialist. Slovenian was prohibited, and in my village there was the risk of deportation. Some farmers were evicted; they were taken to Germany, to the caps, and German or Tyrolese farmers took their place.

Q: In your theatrical work Still Storm you pay homage to your ancestors. Few people know about the only armed resistance to the Nazis inside the Reich, which was lead by Slovenian-speaking Austrians.

A: Yes, so it is; it occurred in the mountains of southern Carinthia. And it’s something that people only began to speak about a few years ago. Probably because inside the families, the pain was too great. And their supporters do little help by labeling them bandits, just like the followers of Hitler did. And the fissures went right through the middle of families. In Carinthia as well, the ones who were tortured the ost by the Nazis were the locals. In this they were very skilled: Slovenians, Croatians, Serbians, Greeks, and French all did the dirty work. And some of the Slovenians in Carinthia killed their own brothers and sisters. It was a tragedy.

Q: Surely these ancestors have affected your relationship with Yugoslavia?

A: Naturally. My mother spoke often about her older brother, who was a fruit farmer. I’m completely soaked in love stories because my mother talked about her two brothers who had to die for Hitler and who in reality favored Yugoslavia. And as for this older brother, who went to Maribor in Slovenia, to the closest Yugoslav city, there is much proof that he tried to convince my family to take the side of the Yugoslavs.

Q: In Traveling Yesterday you comment in 1989: “no other country which has the death penalty is questioned. What’s happening with your Yugoslavia?”

A: In 1989, the death penalty still existed in Yugoslavia, although after 1980, when Tito died, not a single person was executed, which I learned. In that tie, there was a call by the newspapers to abolish the death penalty as had been done in France. The same France which launches bombs at other countries – another form of death penalty, but that’s considered a different kettle of fish. The democracies of today permit it; outside their borders, they comport themselves like dictators. The democracies of today, in reality, are the new dictatorships, the humanitarian and economic dictatorships, the most hypocritical countries in existence. We live in an era of total hypocrisy. Pure and brutal violence reigned before, but now we have sugar-coated violence which is no less brutal.

Q: Have the Balkans been demystified for you?

A: No, not at all. The countries so hideously labeled ex-Yugoslavia continue to be the last and most terrible of beloved countries. I intend to represent them as Stendhal would have: with lightness, with grace, and without a doubt with a certain pain, a certain consciousness of loss. They are tragic peoples: the Albanians are, and the Serbians and Bosnians as well, the Muslims; the Croats less and less (he laughs bitterly). The tragedies are moving, and all deserve to be told. In “The Tablas of Daimiel” (in Asking Through the Tears) where I tell what happened in the refugee camps. There were more than one million refugees then; Serbia was full, and its situation was scandalous, and Croatia’s as well.

Q: Do you still think Milosevic was a tragic figure?

A: I don’t want to say anything else about this topic. Every time I open my mouth, words and intentions are attributed to me that I’d never expressed. I’m tired of it.

Q: In your book, there is a continuous exposition and reflection over religious questions, especially of the New Testament. What does the figure of Christ signify to you?

A: The Gospels are marvelous stories.

Q: Allow me to cite another passage: “the story of Jesus is like a dramatic history of discovery. The discovery of the divine in itself.”

A: Yes, Hölderlin could have said this. He spoke of the “poor god inside of a person.” We have to do everything possible so he doesn’t stay poor and abandoned. It exists, it’s substance! We could be much better. But this matter, which is at the same time spiritual – that is no contradiction – is fought by the pace we run and by ourselves.

Q: And why did you convert to the Orthodox Church?

A: Because the hierarchy isn’t as strong or as palpable. I once visited a patriarch, a diminutive man in Serbia who didn’t seem anything like the head of a church. On the other hand, the people sometimes need to have a head, like the pope; the general abandonment of the people leads the to search for a substitute for a father figure. In any case, I’m not a proselytizer for the Orthodox faith. But I’m not interested in people who boast of being atheist; they seem silly. I have more confidence in someone who says he believes in something. There could be another tempo than the one we’re passing through so profanely, another light. This other tempo has driven my books ever since Short Letter, Long Farewell. Although we don’t have to speak so much about it, we have to practice it.

Q: But, to convert to the Orthodox Church because the structure is less hierarchical, though it is also such a conservative faith…this couldn’t be the reason.

A: My other reasons aren’t important to anyone else.

The Mysterious Tenderness of Kobe Beef

November 15, 2011

The Mysterious Tenderness of Kobe Beef
A trip to the Japanese city to find the truth behind the myths about the most exquisite meat in the world
El País: El misterio de la ternera de Kobe
Manuel Ángel-Méndez reporting from Kobe October 18, 2011

Perhaps you’ve heard the story before. The most expensive, exotic, and delicious meat in the world. The tenderness of Kobe. Its delicacy and flavor are unequaled. It dissolves on the palate, they say, like a tender delicacy from another world. As delicious as it is exclusive. A minuscule beefsteak can cost more than 100 euros. The secret? The legends converge on one: cows fed with beer, massaged every day, and trained with classical music in the green larders of Kobe, a city 600 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, Japan. Ancient Japanese farmers invented the technique at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, the legend, as musical as it is enigmatic, repeated from mouth to mouth, has spread throughout the world.

But is this the real truth? Since when has the bubbly exercised such power over livestock? And what composer do the bovines prefer? Schumann? Perhaps Mozart? What do we really know about the most expensive meat in the world? There are too many questions, and I [Manuel Ángel-Méndez] had only one way to weather the storm: to travel 9000 kilometers to the location of the secret.

With a million and a half inhabitants, Kobe is a fringe stuck between the sea of Seto, the shore of the Pacific, and the smooth mountains of the west, wrapped in a perpetual, dense cloud. 30 kilometers away, the colossal Osaka displays all the attractiveness of frenetic nights of neon. Its younger sister is precisely the opposite: solemnity and sweet walks. One can arrive to almost any street corner on foot. The nerve center, around Sannomiya Station, is the perfect location to begin.

Nobody Knows Anything
Out there, in the information office, I make my first contact with the mystery. “Is it true that they give beer to the cows?” A young woman in uniform smiles nervously. “They say that, but to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure.” Her coworker, double her age and clearly her superior, interrupts her. “We don’t know anything.” She pulls out black and white papers. They contain blurry photos, large pieces of beef hung in some warehouse with long explanations in Japanese. Only one phrase, underlined in English, stands out: “the farms are not open to the public in order to maintain the secret of the business.” Secret? “You’d have to talk to the chefs.” After a long hesitation, she connects various points on the map, a route for a kind of treasure hunt: the best restaurants to taste the authentic meat of Kobe.

My first stop was the port: The Sandaya, a giant establishment with more than 30 years of history. It’s early on a sunny morning, and its chef, Katsuji Inoue, speaks happily about the topic. The tajima-ushi is a branch of Japanese livestock (wagyu) distinctive to the country. Cows with black hair, sturdy, as large as 350 kilograms large. Its meat is famous for the deep veins of fat and the pallid and greasy appearance. Dozens of cities and prefectures produce calves of the highest quality: Sanda, Yamagata, Matsuzaka…in reality, Kobe is one more, but it has become the most famous thanks to its position as an important commercial port (it was one of the first to open to the West during the Meiji Revolution (translator’s note: actually before the Revolution, in 1868)). “200 years ago, hundreds of Europeans and Americans came to the port. They were fascinated by the flavor, and when they returned they began to speak about this fantastic discovery. It all began there.”

The massages and the beer? “Oh, yes, all that is true. They drink half a liter of beer per day, sometimes including wine, and they are massaged one to two hours daily with sake. That way, the meat is more tender and delicious. But they don’t get drunk! They just get a little sleepy.” Inoue laughs between gesticulations. Astonishing. On the menu, the best beefsteak, 250 grams, accompanied by vegetables, costs 15,000 yen (some 90 euros).

But something doesn’t fit. “Have you visited the farms?” “No, but I’ve seen them several times on television.” Mmmm. After leaving the restaurant, my suspicions grew. The restaurant is situated on the second floor of the Mosaic commercial center, a walkable distance from the port and from a multicolor waterwheel with fantastic views of the 108 meter-tall Kobe Tower and Meriken Park, the site is ideal for those who don’t want to go deeper into the origin of this prime material…I must keep searching.

And if there is someplace one can learn the truth, it should be in the Kitano neighborhood, where the residences of foreign diplomats, very open to the public, were built at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Along Kitanozaka Street, which rises to Mount Dotoku, the locals can visit art galleries, have lunch in jazz clubs, and buy clothing in delicate boutiques. It’s a residential area with a refined European air very appreciated by the Japanese.

The Wokoku, which has specialized in Kobe meat since 1973, can easily go unnoticed at one of the entrances to the street. Its chef, Kensuke Sakata, speaks very seriously. Not a word of English. His assistant’s digital translator saves us. “They don’t drink beer or listen to music. No massages either – only with a brush, for cleanliness. It’s simply the race of the livestock, its DNA, and its diet: dry grass, wheat grains, barley, and mineral water.” Straightforward and emphatic. He stays silent, expecting a reaction from this revolution. “Do you want to try it?” How could I refuse?

He serves two thick slices of authentic Kobe beef in tataki: raw, though lightly cooked on the edges. I need only dip them in a soy, vinegar, and ginger sauce. It slips on the palate like ice cream. Succulent. But this is still not the best part. Sakata prepares two beefsteaks teppanyaki style – over a metal sheet – accompanied with fine vegetables. A pair of minutes, salt, and pepper. Each slice melts when bitten and detonates rivers of juice in the mouth. Pure and delicious butter. It will be impossible to be content with European beef, which is like the sole of a shoe.

Upon leaving, I wait for the painful bill. “It’s on the house,” says Sakata, and he smiles for perhaps the first time. The pieces are beginning to come together. But I still need final verification. Only two corners away, Yiro Yamada has spent half a century in front of Aragawa, a small family restaurant and the most renowned in the city. Upon entering the door, one penetrates a very personal Japan: walls lined with dark wood, low tables, a chimney, a coal oven, and a comforting hospitality.

Of Farmers
Yamada, 79 years of age, eagerly awaits the question. He knows what’s coming. “Beer?” He bursts out laughing. “It would be better if we’d said champagne, don’t you think? It’s all a lie; there’s no secret. The difference is in the mineral water they drink, directly from the mountains, and in their diet. Nothing more.” The story began some years ago and was fed by the secretiveness of the farmers. Each one employed his own technique. Even so, all have to comply with strict regulations to receive certification as livestock raised in Hyogo Prefecture (whose capital is Kobe), a female or castrated male butchered by a prefectural butcher and with a determined and demanding level of quality and fat.

Local meat production is weak. Of the 1.2 million heads butchered each year in Japan, only 5000 (0.4%) are from Kobe. The amount exported is insignificant, which means the price is doubled in Europe or the United States. And the great demand in the domestic market makes it difficult to find the genuine item. “It’s a brand. Some butchers pick good product from other regions and put the Kobe stamp on it. It’s like French wine: there are many prices and colors.” As Yamada bids me farewell, one of his two sons kneads bread, and the other lights the oven for a banquet that night.

The truth has brought me peace, and we finish the day with a walk at the port. I’m tempted to return to Inoue, the cheerful Sandaya chef, and comment on his answers. We decide to get closer. When we arrive, the restaurant is packed, but Inoue gives us a few minutes. He listens patiently, with a naughty expression, and in telegram English that he could have prepared years before says “one story, many answers.” He smiles and melts into the crowd, the noise, and the plates brimming with Kobe beef.

Some Kobe Beef Restaurants
» Aragawa (0081 07 82 21 85 47). 15-18, 2-Chome Nakayamate Chuo-ku. Some 160 euros.
» Ooi (0081 07 83 51 10 11; 2-5. Motoko Town. 7-2-5 Motomachi-dori. 60 euros.
» Wakkoqu (0081 07 82 22 06 78; 1-22-13, Nakayamate-dori. 60 euros.
» Misono (0081 07 83 31 28 90; 1-1-2 Higashimon-dori. 50 euros.

The Ghanaian Bill Gates and His African Colleagues

November 14, 2011

Herman Chinery-Hesse, known as the African Bill Gates, at the computer in his office.

The Ghanaian Bill Gates and His African Colleagues

El País: El ‘Bill Gates’ ghanés y sus colegas africanos

Silicon Valley solves problems that don’t exist yet. But in Africa, innovation means using new technology to solve old problems. These are some examples. This is the first article of a series “technoguru” Francis Pisani is writing for El País giving a digital tour of the planet.

By Francis Pisani, November 13, 2011

To innovate is to solve an old problem with new technology. Each of the Africans I asked to define “innovation” gave me this same answer in his own terms.

This conception is rather far from the one you’d find in Silicon Valley, where, in general, innovation is associated with the creation of new commercial products or better and more efficient processes. The paradox of this dominant model is that even the most acclaimed, most popular innovations it fosters solve problems that don’t exist yet and create needs that we didn’t have before.

It’s very tempting to venture that, because they deal with problems in other latitudes, African innovations don’t concern us and should be ignored. This is a grave error: firstly, because they exist; secondly, because they are associated with a market of over a billion people (and the most rapidly growing one); finally, because African innovations can be extremely useful in other parts of the world.

Take the common credit card. It has barely changed since the 1950s! If the executives of Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and other companies wanted to make our lives easier, it would behoove them to take a trip to Africa.


Any of these economic titans would be surprised by M-Pesa in Kenya: a platform that opens new horizons for the circulation of money. It would inspire them. It is not, as I believed, a mobile banking system, but rather a technology that permits the transfer of money between telephones. The difference is radical: it does not require a bank account.

It was precisely the shortage of credit instruments that gave rise to the Kenyan innovators. “Four years ago, when we launched M-Pesa (pesa means “money” in Swahili, and M-Pesa “mobile money”), only a small fraction of the population had a bank account, and opening one was expensive,” Waceke Mbugua, who is responsible for marketing for, the first operator of mobile phones in Kenya and a promoter of the project, said to me.

“A large number of citizens live in large cities and send money each week to their families who are settled in the interior. Since they don’t have access to the banking system, they had to bring the money themselves or add it to a wad of bills bus drivers would carry by hand to give to parents when they passed through towns.”

Launched as a pilot project in March 2007 (thanks to an investment by Vodafone and the aid of the Danish government), the service already has 15 million users, 80% of them among the user base of Safaricom, which has 75% of the cell phone market in the country. Even more impressively, “the funds circulating through M-Pesa now are the equivalent of 25% of our GDP,” says Sitoyo Lopokoiyit, an economist for the company. The majority of these are transactions of half an American dollar or less. He adds that “so far, our service has transferred 11.5 billion dollars. We don’t charge interest or lend money, and the transactions are made instantaneously. The money disposed rarely stays put for more than a week.”

Today, Kenyans use M-Pesa to pay their bills for electricity, water, cable television, and school fees, and they can even be used for purchases in various stores, including very small ones. They pay or deposit money thanks to a network of more than 2000 distribution points throughout the country where they can buy scratch cards giving them a code to make transactions.

“M-Pesa facilitates the lives of the people and spares them trips to give money,” Waceke Mbugua states.

Safaricom now equips ATMs capable of giving money to a person with instructions sent by mobile phone. Not long ago, it launched a debit card that can be charged by telephone, unattached to banks but usable outside the country.

I have bank accounts (none of them substantial) and credit cards, unlike the majority of Kenyans, but the truth is that when a user arrived to recharge his mobile at one of M-Pesa’s stands in Nairobi and explained to me that he bought greens and paid for electricity with the device, I became certain that the more modern of the two of us was not the person I’d thought it was.


What’s more dazzling, obviously, is when innovation come from African themselves. Small initiatives are proliferating on that front, many based on the use of SMS to supply services that normally are provided by the web – see the article The Unsuspected Uses of SMS on the following page.

But there are some even more ambitious initiatives launched by individuals with continental profiles.

Herman Chinery-Hesse was presented to me as “The Bill Gates of Africa”. He doesn’t have even a shadow of the wealth or power of the founder of Microsoft. But 20 years ago, he created a great software company for the PME in Ghana. In reality, he is a much better person than the bad comparison to Gates would suggest: open, warm, owner of a clear vision of what he aspires to do for his country and continent.

After graduating from a university in the United States with a degree in engineering, Chinery-Hesse returned to his homeland in 1990 to found, which sells software to companies. This software facilitates the administration of their points of sale, their relationships with clients, or procedures for ticket reservation (in the case of transportation companies). Today it makes “millions of dollars”, its founder says without going into much detail.

His business’s success, however, reached a point where it was not viable to grow any more. Why? 70% of his country’s economy is under the control of the government, and the multinational corporations have the means to pressure others to serve them at knifepoint, including even ambassadors if necessary. The traditional model of annual contracts and large technical teams made things worse. “That is what confronted us when we wanted to construct a Ghanaian Microsoft,” he explained to me.

In order to avoid these inconveniences, he lifted SoftTribe to the cloud. Its software is available on the web, and his clients need only a small amount of bandwidth to download the models they need.

In place of an annual contract, SoftTribe solicits a modest quota (50 dollars) and/or a pay-as-you-go agreement. A bus company, for example, needs pay only a 1% premium per ticket. This is less onerous for the client, and the small margins from each transaction generate a considerable sum of money. “To change Africa, we have to change the mentality of the majority of Africans and direct them toward the base of the pyramid.” The pyramid that interests him is that of businesses.

Not satisfied with his success, Herman Chinery-Hesse is launching an even more ambitious project. It is, a kind of online commercial center whose objective is “to serve as an intermediary to small African businesses,” he told me on his veranda.

The system is based on three pillars. The first, a website for the country, permits dealers to advertise their products and clients to order them. All the transactions are made by SMS.

The second is a credit system christened the African Liberty Card ( These scratch cards can be acquired at different vendors to transfer money between mobile phones, pay bills, and acquire funds to spend at ShopAfrica53.

The third is another extraordinarily shrewd idea by Chinery-Hesse. All the logistics are handled by traditional mail carriers (DHL or Fedex) trained to find a product on a mountain and dispatch as far as Zaragoza, Toulouse, or Miami. Everything in this rubric is accomplished by SMS. ShopAfrica53 only has to put the money at the disposal of providers at the end of each month. When I inquired about the cost of these operations, Chinery-Hesse responded with a smile from ear to ear: “the difference between salaries in Africa and in Europe or the United States leaves us a respectable margin, and we’re taking advantage of that.”

He recognizes that it will take some time for his project to take root: “perhaps five years,” but it will be enormously important. More effective than any foreign aid that will be provided during that time. “I don’t know of any country that developed thanks to foreign aid. It’s a smoke screen. We do it better ourselves, and what’s more, with dignity,” he roundly affirms.

The word “dignity”, released in the middle of his pleasant conversation, reveals the social and political conscience present in all my interlocutors. It truly seems like in today’s Africa you cannot be an entrepreneur without being a social entrepreneur and in many cases an activist.

If Steve Jobs had been African…

Bright Simmons, a Ghanaian entrepreneur 29 years of age, gave me the keys to understanding the ever-growing convergence between activists and businessmen.

With, Bright is innovating in a way that could save thousands of lives: detecting false medicine thanks to SMS sent directly from buyers to a database rigorously maintained daily. He estimates that in his country, 60% of the medicines for sale are placebos or poison, a very common phenomenon in Africa. Mpedigree is still in its start-up phase, but it’s estimated that by the end of this year it will cover 8% of the medicine on the market.

This is a company without a profit motive based on a simple economic model: take samples of between 0.5% and 1% of each box of medicine. Laboratories are more than willing to participate in a system that fights falsification.

Launching a project this natural in Africa takes too much time. Indeed, adds Simmons, “we still need to create an ecosystem that will level the field so innovation can flourish.” In his case, for example, he had to fight to obtain the one and only access code for all the operators in Ghana and the rest of the continent. The pharmaceutical laboratories have agreed to revise their medicine boxes to add a code hidden under the label which, when scratched, reveals a code the consumer can send by SMS to verify whether the product is falsified.

Most of the time, infrastructure and capital are insufficient. This limitation explains why Africa requires social entrepreneurs to innovate. “The people behind Mpedigree have been activists. It’s part of the DNA of our company,” he explains. He adds: “if Steve Jobs had been African, he would have been a social entrepreneur.”

The Unsuspected Uses of SMS

This first trip through Africa showed me a great truth: new technology counts less than the problems it resolves. All my African interlocutors coincided in this respect.

The most impactful example is, without a doubt, the systematic and extremely ingenious use of SMS, short text messages which almost every telephone in the world can send and receive.

The general idea consists of putting advanced services, those which are usually found on the web, in the hands of those who cannot buy a smart phone. This idea is becoming a fountain of inspiration in developed countries as well.

I have here three cases from Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya, countries where the market penetration of the mobile phone is still far from 100%, but the number of smart phones is only in the thousands or tens of thousands.

In Senegal, Manobi offers geolocalization services to producers of cacao, hydraulic infrastructure, and everything in between. “It’s almost impossible to access the Internet in rural areas,” explains Emmanuel Bocquet, technical director of the business, “but SMSes arrive everywhere.” They’re enough to secure an interface between telephones and databases. Once configured, these systems permit the exchange of information. “If a water pump donated by UNICEF breaks, someone can send an SMS to the database in Manobi, and it will immediately inform a specialist,” explains Bocquet.

The technology of NandiMobile, a Ghanaian company, helps businesses to know the opinions of their clients and communicate with them. “It relates questions asked by users to answers written or recorded beforehand. Little by little, it is learning how to respond by itself,” says Edward Tagoe, director of business and development. This faculty permits companies to stay attentive to the comments of their clients, just like their American and European equivalents. NandiMobile received the Best Business Prize at the Launch conference in San Francisco this year.

In Nairobi, m-farm helps farmers to know the prevailing prices for their products in both their own markets and those in other parts of the country. “A farmer sends an SMS with the code 3535 which includes the name of the product and the location of interest, and in less than 10 seconds he receives the price, which helps him decide where to sell,” Linda Kwamboka, co-founder of mfarm, explained to me.

An SMS which says: “price, cabbage, Embu” obtains the price of a typical sack of cabbage (126 kg) in Embu. If one then types “price, cabbage, Nairobi”, one will know where it would be better to go to the capital. The other two models permit one to “buy together” or “sell together”, all by SMS.

This system is not exclusive to Africa.

The company has just filled the same gap…in the United States. If a user sends an SMS to the New York Times, he can receive the headlines in a section of his interest. It can also be used to learn the schedule for the next trains from New Jersey. And it seems to be the best way to register on Foursquare when one arrives somewhere. Thanks to SMS, the proprietors of a smart phone obtain answers more rapidly, and others gain the possibility to interact without the cost of sophisticated apparatuses and their expensive plans.

A beautiful example of how technology used in Africa can solve our own problems.

Iñaki Urdangarin, Duke of Palma, Received 170% Profit for Public Forums He Hosted

November 13, 2011

Iñaki Urdangarin

Iñaki Urdangarin, Duke of Palma, Received 170% Profit for Public Forums He Hosted
Non-profit Nóos Institute’s revenue amounted to 10 million euros over five years
El País: Urdangarin logró beneficios del 170% sobre los costes de los foros
Andreu Manresa and Jesús García reporting from Palma de Mallorca and Barcelona, respectively, November 11, 2011

The Duke of Palma, Iñaki Urdangarin, husband of Princess Cristina of Bourbon and son-in-law of the King of Spain, charged fees for organizing sports forums which netted a 170% profit over the actual cost of this service to his organization, the Nóos Institute in Palma. These costs were defrayed by the Balearic Islands government (and by other patrons). The average cost of a forum was €1.1 million for two weeks of sessions, according to open judicial investigations; investigators have assessed the actual cost of each forum was close to half a million euros.

Urdangarin drove business and confracts for Nóos, legally a non-profit organization, and signed bills in the name of Nóos Consultancy and Aizoon real estate agency, whose property he shares with his wife, Princess Cristina of Bourbon. At least €275,000 went to Aizoon in two payments for one of the forums in Palma. The item in the “first bill” was “logistics management”. The Anti-Corruption Division of the Public Attorney’s Office has detected one million euros that were sunk into unjustified items in the bills for the forums. This is the basis for its accusation of misuse of public funds.

The initial evaluation of the profits cited as coming from private activities of Iñaki Urdangarin (and in parallel his partner at Nóos, Diego Torres) consists of different reports passed to the judge and the public attorney by the police unit for Economic Delinquency and the experts at Housing, which have examined the accounting and the numerical traffic between the groups.

The total revenue for Nóos over five years rounded to €10 million, according to accounting of the complex framework of organized consultancies and businesses which has been examined during Operation Babel. Investigators have identified a document signed for the group which transferred close to half a million euros to an account for the society in a tax haven.

This case, a part of the Palma Arena scandal centered on the supposed enrichment of former Balearic Islands President Jaume Matas of the Popular Party through corrupt governance, is based on a supposed misuse of public funds, fraud of the presidential administration, and falsehood.

Urdangarin’s right hand man at Nóos, Diego Torres, has been implicated regarding the expenditure of €2.3 million for the two Forum Illes Balears in 2005 and 2006 respectively, as have three other administrators of the organization: Miguel, Ana, and Marco Tejeiro.

The investigators consider it “logical and inevitable” that the son-in-law of the king will be subpoenaed to speak about the acts in question. The public attorney against corruption, Pedro Horrach, after months of investigations along with Judge José Castro, has worked for three days this week in the Barcelona registry offices and the headquarters of Nóos and on interrogations.

Diego Torres’s lawyer, Manuel González Peeters, claims that the registries are “totally invalid” as archives of the events. His appeal points out that the judge asked for the contracts signed by the Nóos Institute and the Balearic government 14 months afterward. Torres, serving as a witness, provided a total of 384 documents related to the affair, which in the end “were the basis of the argument for his imputation” and “constructed this case”. Torres was trying to justify the programs executed with public funds, but after analyzing his contributions, the judge cited them to impute him instead. “That is to say, the judge used documents this person provided the judge while he was not accused as basis to accuse that selfsame person,” reasons the appeal.

Besides that, the lawyer of Jaume Matas – who is not implicated in this case, which is segregated from the Palma Arena Case – has asked that the affair pass to the National Court because the actions in questions took place across different autonomous communities (provinces).

Secret of Cupola of Florence Uncovered

November 13, 2011

Santa María del Fiore Cupola, 15th Century
The dome of the Santa María del Fiore cathedral in Florence, a work of Brunelleschi from the 15th century.

Secret of Cupola of Florence Uncovered
Italian architect Massimo Ricci discovers the technique used by Filippo Brunelleschi.
El País: Desvelado el secreto de la cúpula de Florencia
Lucia Magi reporting from Bologna November 10, 2011

It took almost forty years for Italian architect Massimo Ricci to discover what has been a mystery to his colleagues for six centuries: the technique Filippo Brunelleschi used to construct the cupola of Santa María del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower), the Cathedral of Florence. The Renaissance genius not only took care to raise a robust and spectacular monument, a symbol of renewed humanist confidence after the medieval terrors; he also successfully hid the secret of how the structure is supported. “Playing tricks, throwing others off the scent, and confounding ideas were typical features of Brunelleschi’s personality,” Ricci commented last night while presenting his discovery to citizens assembled in the Palazzo Vecchio – Florence’s town hall – and to those following online on the National Geographic Society‘s website.

“Brunelleschi thought it was funny that no one could crack his secret.” ‘Twas a secret well guarded, under a skin of red bricks and ribs of ivory. From the beginning of Brunelleschi’s work in 1425, he guarded the mystery with a trick: the workers placed the visible bricks in a different way than the bricks in the internal dome which actually supports the weight of the structure to trick those who thought they could master the architectural technique by only viewing the outside. The internal bricks “are laid diagonally, like the spine of a fish,” explained Ricci, “without using any metal, contrary to proposals of previous scholars. It was achieved thanks to a system of ropes which allowed him to calculate the exact position and angle in which to place each brick.” In order to further confuse potential imitators, Brunelleschi ordered “that the bricks on the outside be marked with grooves to make people believe they were placed lengthwise rather than sideways. It’s a unique system never repeated in all of history.”

Ricci and his team successfully unraveled the mystery thanks to very refined technological advances and a crack that opened in the vault. Into this fissure they inserted a probe which opened and walked between one brick and another while recording what it saw. Ricci directed the minuscule camera and, as if he were a doctor performing an endoscopy on a patient, drew an outline of the core of the monument. He saw what no one ever had the chance to admire before.

In the lounge of the Florence City Hall, there were also models of the three cranes used to raise the cupola and the boat Brunelleschi invented to bring materials from the sea to the city over the Arno river. “This craft is another example of his genius,” Ricci said in closing. “It’s the first example in history of a boat with a propeller, like the airplanes of today. And it’s also the first case of a creator receiving intellectual property rights: Brunelleschi constructed this boat for himself alone and paid for it out of his own pocket. He received permission from the Palazzo Vecchio to rent it out and demanded that any imitation of it be burned.” Quite a character, that Brunelleschi.