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POLITICS

Spain’s ex-PM Rajoy denies knowledge of spying affair

Spain's former conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy on Monday denied any knowledge of an alleged spying operation inside his own party.

A combination of two file pictures shows Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on April 16, 2013 and Former PP (Popular Party)'s treasurer Luis Barcenas leaving the anti-corruption prosecuting office in Madrid on February 6, 2013. Former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appears before parliamentary committee over alleged espionage case (Kitchen case) on December 13, 2021. Pierre-Philippe MARCOU / AFP
A combination of two file pictures shows Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the Moncloa palace in Madrid on April 16, 2013 and Former PP (Popular Party)'s treasurer Luis Barcenas leaving the anti-corruption prosecuting office in Madrid on February 6, 2013. Former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appears before parliamentary committee over alleged espionage case (Kitchen case) on December 13, 2021. Pierre-Philippe MARCOU / AFP

Rajoy was answering questions from a parliamentary committee investigating accusations that officials inside Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) launched a spying operation on a senior party official.

“I never had any knowledge of the existence of this operation…, so I gave instructions on something I knew nothing about,” he said.

“I don’t know what they were looking for.”

The alleged operation targeted former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, who at the time was at the centre of a probe into a kickbacks scheme within the party. Barcenas was later jailed for 33 years over that affair.

The aim of the alleged spying was to find out what dirt Bárcenas had on party officials.

Investigators are investigating the possibility that the alleged operation might have been led by Jorge Fernandez Díaz, who at the time served as Rajoy’s interior minister.

Pressed by deputies on the committee, Rajoy challenged them to present any evidence implicating his former minister.

‘Operation Kitchen’

The probe into the so-called “Operation Kitchen” spying affair is one of several opened after the arrest of ex-police chief Jose Manuel Villarejo, who for years secretly recorded conversations with top political and business figures in order to smear them.

“I don’t know Mr Villarejo,…” Rajoy, who served as prime minister between 2011 and 2018, told the committee. “I have never spoken to him.

One conversation in the case files — between Villarejo and the former treasurer Bárcenas — appeared to suggest that they had compromising material on Rajoy himself.

“I really don’t care what Mr Bárcenas and Mr Villarejo might have said about me,” said Rajoy.

Both men had had serious problems in the courts, he pointed out, and so they defended themselves as they saw fit — including lying.

Barcenas was at the heart of the so-called “Guertel” affair, which involved the illegal financing of the Popular Party.

After he was convicted in May 2018, Rajoy’s government was brought down in a no-confidence vote a few days later.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his radical-left ally Podemos successfully pushed for the parliamentary investigation into the alleged spying operation inside the Popular Party.

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POLITICS

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.

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