The emails from the U.S. Embassy came regularly during the early days of the pandemic’s spread in Spain, repeatedly counseling Americans to leave now if they wanted to leave the country at all. Later came information on travel restrictions within Spain. In October came emails with reminders to vote in the U.S. presidential election. In the second week of January, with snow and rain engulfing this country, an email informed citizens that the embassy would be closed due to the inclement weather. Sure enough, Madrid shut down. Photos showed people skiing on unplowed streets that were otherwise empty. Then in mid-February an email appeared with a warning about countrywide demonstrations. On the tail of that one came another, again warning of protesters filling the streets, now specifying that they were demonstrating against the arrest of one Pablo Hasél. The new coronavirus, the old Trump, the worst storm in 50 years, and Pablo Hasél: that was what my country wanted me to be aware of. “Who,” I wondered, “is this Pablo?”
“For the right, he’s the devil incarnate,” a friend informed me, “though for me he’s just a mediocre rapper who picks on and insults everybody on both the left and the right.” Hasél, my friend said, had been charged with enaltecimiento del terrorismo, glorifying terrorism, for saying that the struggle of ETA, the Basque separatist group, was justified by the oppressive state. On top of that, Hasél had slandered the royal family, and so was charged with injurias a la corona, another crime. My friend sent a couple of links to videos, and I watched a bearded young man rapping about freedom of expression. Not my usual taste in music, but I listened. A barrage of complaint. “Gracias tío,” Pablo said at the end of the video, “Thanks, dude.” He was answering an unseen well-wisher who must have been watching the filming. The last few seconds showed him all alone in the street, some old buildings behind him, his torso bobbing gently and his arms swaying, the beat that had accompanied his gestures and words gone silent, the imported images absent. Then I listened to the second video, of a consortium of rappers performing in solidarity with a different rapper, Valtònyc, also convicted of slandering the royal family and of glorifying terrorism for putting out a song calling the Borbones, the royal family, ladrones, robbers. Rhymes are easy in Spanish, and this one must have been just too tempting, as if it had dropped onto his plate. Instead of prison, Valtònyc slipped away to Belgium.
Hiding out in Belgium has worked better than did Hasél’s retreat into the rectory at Lleida University in Catalonia, to evade the police. He was detained there and taken to prison. Valtònyc continues to shelter in Belgium, which has declined to extradite him.
As performers, these two rappers might welcome the fame and notoriety that go with their provocative statements. They get your attention with their calls for decapitations and bullets in response to various discontents, and when their fans energetically second them, they get even more attention. I expect it’s all good for business. But there is a price to pay—14 Spanish artists are currently under sentence for speech crimes, including Valtònyc, sentenced to three and a half years, and Hasél, now serving his nine-month stretch.
Even so, much less is at stake for them than for artists under Franco’s government. A whole generation of them left the country in the aftermath of the civil war, along with thousands of other civilians escaping Franco’s reprisals. Some of these artists chose never to return; some, caught in the turmoil of World War II, never got the chance, perishing instead in Hitler’s death camps. Maybe protesters assemble en masse now to prevent a return to such times. These impassioned people are not devotees of the Spanish saying darse un canto en los dientes—“strike yourself in the teeth with a rock”—used to remind oneself or others that, as bad as things are, they could be so much worse. Consider yourself lucky, in other words. I wonder if, for example, the former king Juan Carlos de Borbón ever ruefully uses the expression. Perhaps when in late February he paid four million euros to the state to regularize his fiscal situation?
Juan Carlos is no stranger to criticism—he’s come under fire for any number of misdeeds, from lolling on a private yacht paid for by the state to shooting elephants in Africa to cavorting with his many mistresses. It appears he knows how to dodge the bullets. Besides, the ones aimed at him aren’t lethal and won’t even take out an eye, as happened in Barcelona to a girl at a demonstration for Pablo Hasél when police shot at the crowd with foam bullets. Who ordered that aggressive response? Not Pablo Iglesias, vice president of the government, an enabler of communists and feminists, according to the critics on the right, and simply spineless, according to critics on the left. Moderation in all things sometimes gets you in trouble with everybody. Anyone else subjected to such buffeting would have fallen. Were he to have shut down while the storm prevailed, one could sympathize. Compare the two Pablos, and you see that one stirred up a storm and one suffered it.
No storms for Juan Carlos, for the moment. He left the country in August, after new revelations about old abuses of power, though he did promise to appear for questioning should he be summoned. Meanwhile, he is not hiding in cold Belgium, but said to be visiting old friends in the United Arab Emirates. Nowadays he soaks up the sun in Abu Dhabi, from where he once returned with a pair of Ferraris, one gray, one black. Plunder? No, gifts from his friend the sheik of Dubai. There’ll be no more where those came from, though: Felipe VI, Juan Carlos’s son and Spain’s king since his father’s abdication in 2014, instituted a rule that same year prohibiting such tokens of appreciation. Because nobody, not even a monarch, gets something for nothing. And the trouble is, those in power know it. They don’t even try.
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