Health and justice (not so healthy)

"This Obamacare is moving us toward a system like Europe, and that's a disaster!" smirked a protester in front of the U.S. Capitol last night (to an interviewer from Spain's Channel 1 news).

It's that kind of abysmal ignorance that makes me keep writing these notes. You know of course that the health reform bill just passed is nothing like the health plans in Europe, which are far better in almost every way than what we've had in the U.S. and still better than the (much improved) system foreseen by this bill. The Spanish system is far from perfect, but it's free and universal (for Spaniards and anybody else from the European Union or other countries with reciprocation agreements). To avoid delays in treatment, many people supplement their social security coverage with private insurance, but because the state system is always available (and thus the private insurance not absolutely necessary), such private plans are far cheaper than in the U.S., and private doctor's fees are very low. We as U.S. citizens are not supposed to be covered by the free system (the U.S. has no reciprocation agreement with Spain), but the few times we've had to go to a clinic or hospital for something, the doctors have waved away our offers of payment. But a lot of Americans don't know that and won't believe you if you tell them. But I keep telling them anyway.

The U.S. can learn a lot from Spain about how to deliver health care and about several other things besides flamenco dancing and gourmet cooking, such as high speed rail and harnessing wind-power. But Spain, like the U.S., is a bundle of contradictory forces, and there are some things in this country that are as embarrassing to cultured Spaniards as the "Tea Party" is us Americans abroad. Among the great Spanish embarrassments is one I've mentioned before, the (in)justice system.

Getting judges to make fair decisions, independent of political loyalties or economic incentives, is always a problem, everywhere. And in its recent finding that coporations can spend all they like on election campaigns because they, like persons, should enjoy "freedom of speech," the U.S. Supreme Court has again struck a blow against democracy, as it had (for example) in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) and Bush v. Gore (2000).

But for all its problems, the U.S. system gives you a better chance of a fair hearing in politically sensitive cases than the one in Spain, where the bias in favor of the hard right and the liberals has become even more obvious than usual in the past couple of months.

A note on terminology: Americans think of "liberal" as being "left." In Spain, and in Europe generally, "liberals" are one part of the right, or "conservative" forces.  They are the radical pro-business, free-enterprise types that Ayn Rand celebrated, akin to the neo-cons of the U.S. The "Greed is good" crowd. They push for privatizing services such as health and education and turning them into businesses, from which they and their friends can profit. Other main currents of the right include surviving fascists nostalgic for Franco, extreme Catholics nostalgic for the Inquisition (there are quite a few of those still around), white supremacists and intolerant nationalists, motivated more by ideology than by the bottom line.  Politicians who call themselves "liberal," like Esperanza Aguirre, president of the Madrid autonomous community, are generally too sophisticated to let racism or religion interfere with their efforts to turn a fast euro. But they have no problem joining with the fascists and racists in street demonstrations or other actions to torpedo the Socialist Party and the trade unions and other groups that try to rein in their money-making efforts -- on the principle that "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The problem with the justice system is that it is riddled with judges representing one or another of these right-wing tendencies. Some of them were sworn in under Franco. Many more of them were appointed by Aznar, who (following his mentor Fraga) pulled together the Popular Party as a coalition of fascists, nationalists and liberals (in the European sense).  And in the Spanish system, judges choose other judges to sit on the higher courts.

The best analysis I've seen of the right-wing skewing of Spanish justice appeared in today's El País, in an opinion piece by sociologist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, Los jueces en la política española. Unlike the U.S., where a single Supreme Court is genuinely supreme, Spain has three high courts, none of them clearly superior to the others: the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the General Council of Judicial Power. All (though each in a slightly different way) are highly politicized, subject to maneuverings of the political parties (in one case resulting in a stalemate between the Socialists and Populares, and thus no changeover of conservative judges whose terms have expired) and divided into factions of different ideological tendencies.

And this is what has made it possible for the Spanish justice system to prosecute its best-known, most independent and most prestigious judge, Baltasar Garzón, and thus to protect two objects of his judicial inquiries: the corrupt pols of the liberal (neo-con) tendency, caught in flagranti taking money and other favors for land deals, and the fascist and extreme nationalist groups opposed to any investigation of Franco-era crimes. And because of the multiple currents of the right, joined together against their common enemy, Garzón, they have brought multiple cases against him. The cases are absurd and would have been thrown out in any rational court system -- in fact, the government fiscal (roughly equivalent to attorney general) has asked that they be dismissed, but judges of one or another of the right-wing tendencies have persisted, even admitting the Franco falangistas and the ringleader of the PP's huge corruption network as accusers.

Garzón has received enormous support, both from ordinary Spanish citizens (including especially surviving relatives of Franco's victims) and from human rights advocates around the world. But the system grinds on, denying him privileges (including the opportunity to respond in court) ordinarily granted, especially to sitting judges.

And it's hardly consolation to think that things could be worse. We could, for example, be seeking justice in Italy.