On the other end of the phone you can hear the characteristic nasal voice of Ismael Álvarez, the popular mayor of Ponferrada (1999-2002) that the Netflix documentary Nevenka has brought back into the spotlight.
He is very grateful, but does not wish to comment. Very close to his house (so close that when he takes the car out of the garage it is the first thing he sees), the entertainment platform has painted on a giant mural the face of Nevenka Fernández, the councilor of his party who 20 years ago dared to report you for sexual harassment.
He, although he was found guilty, returned to appear at the municipal elections. He was 49 years old. She, 26, never returned to the city.
It’s half past one on Friday afternoon in Ponferrada (65,000 inhabitants). Rush hour for a typical ritual of this type of Spanish provincial city: some wines before eating. Even with masks in between, a certain animation is detected in the bar next to the mural signed by the artist Mercedes deBellard.
There is no talk of anything else these days in this town: the documentary in which the story is told for the first time from the point of view of the victim and not the stalker. It is also debated whether the entire city should be ashamed of the demonstration that 4,000 people attended to express their support for the condemned man, a Fuenteovejuna- style rally.that left images whose viewing 20 years later causes astonishment.
Nevenka is the protagonist of the documentary, yes, but there is another mysterious secondary school called Ponferrada which, with today’s gaze, it is very difficult to understand. Would its citizens behave in the same way again? How much has Ponferrada changed since the Nevenka case?
‘Ismael Álvarez case’: the people against Nevenka Fernández
The Temple hotel is a sui generis replica of the 15th century Templar castle that is the emblem of the city. It is the place where in March 2001 the councilor of the PP offered the press conference in which she confessed the ordeal she had been going through. In its cafeteria today you can breathe absolute calm.
Since the economic crisis of 2008, Ponferrada has lost more than 7,000 inhabitants, but the pandemic has given the grace to a city that, since the beginning of the 20th century, lived off the activity generated by the mines and Endesa, and that in the 1960s it moved so much money — thanks, among other things, to smuggling tungsten into Germany — that it became known as “the city of the dollar.”
The Spanish Ohio
In this place, founded by those entrepreneurs of the sixties, the writer Noemí Sabugal, a Berciana, resident in Ponferrada and author of the essay on emptied Spain Hijos del Carbon, explains why some call it the Spanish Ohio: mining bosses, their engineers, businessmen from the slate and subsidiary industries, but also the workers of those industries, the service sector, farmers that’s why it always fluctuates from right to left. It is a very interesting nucleus electorally ”.
Right now the Socialists rule again. Seated in the same office that Ismael Álvarez once occupied in the Baroque town hall, Olegario García Ramón, the councilor, thinks: “If that mural was painted then, it would have dawned the next day with any nonsense written on it.
I know that would not happen today. Some of the people who attended the demonstration have confessed to me that they would be ashamed to do it again ”. This is not the case of Fátima López Placer, a member of Álvarez’s team during his two terms and now retired from politics:
“I don’t have to reconcile with anything, nor do I understand what this is about now, 20 years later. It didn’t seem fair to me then, nor does it seem fair to me now. ” And about the mural: “The people of Ponferrad do not care completely. No one needs to delete it. It is as if they paint a Martian.
On a terrace in front of one of those megalomaniac roundabouts that characterized Álvarez’s management, Manuel Fernández Zanca, the first PSOE candidate who lost an election to the popular one, in 1995, remembers that he met Nevenka when she was only a teenager who attended regional judo competitions with his daughter. “She was terrific at her thing.”
Many years passed before Zanca heard from her again. First, he had to suffer defeat against a candidate with a lot of people skills, who had grown up in the same town as him, Dehesas, and who boasted with “false humility”, in the words of the socialist, of being the son of a milkmaid. and a man who had made himself: while working in a bank, he had managed to do law at the UNED and turned an old rural family cinema into a very successful nightclub called Delfos to which all of El Bierzo went to dance. .
“We came from 20 years of socialist government with Celso López Gavela, Ponferrada was beginning to resent the decline in mining. It was an ugly, depressed city that lived in the shadow of a mountain of coal, ”recalls Zanca.
Álvarez promised to withdraw it and not only fulfilled that promise: also, on the ground where that 80-meter-high black monster once stood, he built a spectacular football field for Ponferradina, El Toralín, which was a push for the team to climb category; and he laid out the Rosaleda, a new neighborhood whose jewel in the crown was a 37-story tower, promoted as the “tallest skyscraper in all of Castilla y León”.
Álvarez privatized all public services through disputed concessions to businessmen in his orbit such as José Luis Ulibarri and José Martínez Núñez —who were, at the same time, owners of the main communication media—, and undertook a policy of pharaonic public works that he inaugurated with great fanfare.
“It is undeniable that he gave a huge change to the city, because he did dazzling things,” says Zanca. It was the time of Aznar’s “Spain is going well” and the boomof the brick.
The people of Ponferrada and the inhabitants of all towns in the El Bierzo region spent their money in the shops of the city, during the day, and in the macro-leisure complex that was built on the outskirts, also with the support of the mayor, called La Big Apple, at night. There were young people from all over the Spanish northwest to party.
The management of Ismael Álvarez, who had a direct line with Isabel Carrasco – then Minister of Economy of the Board, but known in the rest of Spain for his assassination in 2014 when she was president of the Diputación de León -, became the pride of the PP.
This is how the castle of the Templars, one of the main tourist attractions of the city, was restored and how the river bank, until then impractical, was cleaned up. The mayor’s friendship with the Bercian journalist Luis del Olmo did not hurt either: thanks to his mediation, the city had its own university campus, paid for with Miner funds (aid for the reconversion of mining regions).
Ponferrada was once again the city of the dollar. The then general secretary of the Socialist Party of León, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, asked Zanca what prospects they had of recovering the Consistory: “They are going to sweep us off the map,” he replied. And that is how the PSOE decided that it needed a new candidate, who turned out to be a candidate, Charo Velasco.
In the 1999 elections, Álvarez won by an absolute majority. That Ismaili Ponferrada is the one that Nevenka came to triumph, through her father, the businessman of the board Juvencio Fernández, when they made her responsible for a budget of 36 million euros.
And that Ponferrada is the one he had to face when he decided to step forward and tell what had happened to him. As explained in the documentary, the only one who offered help was, precisely, Velasco.