My reporter hat was squarely off during my two-week stay in Spain. But you cannot spend time in a country at the heart of the global discussion without picking up some signals.
Over those two weeks, the Spanish government definitively announced that they had slipped back into recession. They said that 5.6 million of their citizens were out of work, a number that represents nearly 1/4 of the labor force. Among the young, the jobless are a majority.
As a tourist, it’s actually quite easy to go through your travels without a deep awareness of any of this. You can visit attractions other tourists visit. You can eat in restaurants with mostly other tourists. The places one normally visits have a high concentration of other visitors, and you’re shuttling to enough hotels and sites that an illusion of prosperity can be envisioned.
And indeed, austerity in Spain does not always look like what one would expect austerity to look like. Well-maintained downtowns include near-constant street sweepers in small “garbi” trucks. In the big cities and even in the smaller ones, public transit hummed along; years of investment in infrastructure have cushioned the blow of the withdrawal of that investment. In the northeast corner of the country, a succession of road projects on autopistas (Spain’s toll roads) that already looked pretty pristine to American eyes could easily give the impression that the government actively sought to create make-work projects for its battered construction sector.
And yet, there were signs, even if sometimes residents made an effort to hide them. In Bilbao, a guide on the only tour we took pointed out one church in the Casco Viejo (old city) and said in Spanish, “this church helps out a lot of our people during the recent economic crisis.” She declined to translate that to English for the tour participants.
Perhaps the biggest sign of the results of austerity was the absence of things. Our trip required a lot of driving on Spanish roads, and I was struck by the lack of traffic, on the toll roads and the local roads, particularly the lack of truck traffic. We crossed over into France at one point, and the trucks dotting the highways noticeably picked up. But in Spain, there just didn’t seem to be any shipping of goods going on beyond the local, subsistence level. The covered markets were teeming with produce and meats, but not so many shoppers. In a country without a culture of tipping, some of the workers posted signs asking for help, for spare change. And you did see the rare sight of beggars, usually by the churches, who created new jobs, like opening the big wooden doors to the cathedral. In front of one public bathroom at Park Guell in Barcelona, a woman handed out toilet paper, hoping for a fee from those who took a piece.
This was not an absolute. The last two weeks constituted the apex of the soccer season in Spain, and on major nights for FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, the bars and tapas joints did fill up. On Sant Jordi Day, the Catalan version of Valentine’s Day, partners are supposed to buy roses and books for their loved ones (yes, books; Sant Jordi Day takes place on the anniversary of the death of Cervantes), and the crowds flocked to the makeshift stands in Barcelona to make their purchases. In Logroño, a small town in the Spanish wine country, a gimmicky promotion on a Thursday, where diners at a clutch of tapas bars received tickets that could win them “pintxos” (individual food items on small plates), brought out a giant crowd, making it hard to move around the old city’s narrow streets.
But you could definitely feel a low but consistent level of frustration, anger and resignation. This was particularly true in Barcelona, a more cosmopolitan and more traditionally leftist city than the others. We personally witnessed one of the several protests that took place there over the past couple weeks. The protest covered a wide range of subjects, but one piece of graffiti scrawled on a branch of Spanish financial institution BBVA read, “non-violent protest against the banks.” (That graffiti was whitewashed by the next day.) The police tightly controlled these rallies, allowing them to happen but blocking off streets to basically surround the protesters. When the European Central Bank came to Barcelona for meetings last week, the authorities put 8,000 cops in the streets and snipers on the rooftops, outnumbering the protesters on the ground. Spain actually suspended free entry at the border for EU passport holders that day, to keep out “violent” elements. Since the messy protests in Barcelona and throughout Spain on March 29, fear of violence was a central preoccupation of the framing around these rallies, with the police wanting to depict the crowds as hordes of thugs, and the organizers wanting to project an image of non-violent dissent. But despite the crackdown, the May Day rallies in Spain were the biggest in years, with up to one million participants, according to one trade union.
I got the sense that there was some organization among the anti-austerity forces, a low but persistent level of revolutionary fervor, in practically every city we visited, particularly among the young. However, you could see just as much alienation and disillusionment among this class. A news report showed throngs of drunken Spaniards picked up by police after a night of revelry in the capital of Madrid. One by one, crowds of youths walked by the cameras, perhaps drinking out of boredom, out of a resignation of their bleak futures. And to be clear, the rally after Real Madrid captured the first national title in four years outsized any protest that I saw or heard about; even hundreds of miles away in Figueres, along the Costa Brava, revelers honked horns and shot off fireworks that night.
This disillusionment is real; the young have extremely little to look forward to and much insecurity to deal with. One worker we talked to in Elciego, a wine region town, had to audition for three months for his job before getting a contract. Another showed up an hour late to work, and was yelled at by his boss, with fairly transparent threats made about the ability to get someone else to do the job. The labor market pressures are acute.
What you didn’t hear much of was any invocation of the government’s missteps or wrongheaded assault on public spending. Maybe it was the location – I was often closer to France than Madrid – but I heard a lot more invocations of the French elections between Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande than any mention of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Indeed, day after day in the local papers, there would be a perfunctory mention of Rajoy refusing to back down and maintain his program of budget cuts. The Hollande election offered some of the only hope (even though he may not have the leverage or maneuverability to do anything about the slide into austerity), with the course for regional and national policy in Spain seemingly locked and set. Resignation would be the operative word here.
This is part of a letter from El Pais, the national newspaper, from late last week. It is entitled “Why I am indignant:”
“I am indignant about having always paid my taxes and not having money stashed in offshore accounts, allowing me to take advantage of the fiscal amnesty. I am indignant about the airports and high-speed train links that have been built, despite the fact that they don’t benefit anyone. I am mad about our banking system, which is leaving people homeless on the streets without a penny to their name; and I’m furious with the economists whose incompetence left them unable to do anything to prevent what is happening.”
And yet, this letter, which is a bit all over the place, ends with the writer noting that he will “still get up at 5:30 am tomorrow to go to work,” and that he will still “trust that our politicians will do something about our right to work, to education and to health.” I think that encapsulates the moment where things are in Spain right now. There is a host of frustration but a deficit of hope for a better plan.