New Internationalist

This is not the Spain I knew

Homeless person [Related Image]
Poverty has doubled in Spain since 2007. Franco Folini under a Creative Commons Licence

In 2008 my English husband and I moved to Spain. Our upbringings had been very similar: we both had a good education, and enjoyed high levels of well-being, happiness and security. I spent summers in England to improve my English; he had stayed with French and German penpals. Our parents had owned the houses where we grew up. Our lives had been operating at an equal level, until they eventually converged in Oxford, where we met and got married. The main difference was where we started from: my husband’s parents are lawyers; my mum is a low-grade state employee; my dad worked in a car factory. My family was, is, what my dad proudly calls ‘Spanish lower middle-class’.

We reasoned that Spain was a country where families like mine could enjoy, cheaply, exemplary standards of living and opportunity, and we hoped that our children could grow up in an environment that made this ideal possible. If in Britain, for example, I could spend a fortune cooking a healthy meal, Spain benefited from fresh local food markets where families shop daily, making access to good quality produce widespread and affordable. For goods that in England I would buy in a chain store, in Spain I could use small family businesses, offering not only ‘character’ to our city landscape, but favouring a local, family-owned economy. Reasonably priced, there was never any doubt that my brother and I would attend university. Not to mention our National Health System, admired internationally.

The current conservative People’s Party government is comprehensively picking apart all the above. It has launched a vicious campaign of privatization, selling the NHS to companies that are on occasion too close for comfort to government and party members. Some results of this include more than a million immigrants with no access to a doctor, massive cuts to support for people with severe disabilities, or the introduction of prescription charges. The government plans to pass a controversial education bill, undermining free state-run education and compromising access to universities, as it introduces restrictions to basic funding even for the poorest while fees go up. The state sector is no longer the safest job in the land, with continued salary cuts, fewer holidays, and employees sometimes made to work 12-hour shifts in order to save the state some cash.

Outside of these structures things are no better. Poverty has doubled since 2007 following soaring unemployment, frozen salaries or salary reduction, the unfair and illegal practices of banks, the choking and steady rise in taxes. The price of basic services, such as electricity, is escalating, up by 65 per cent in only three years. With creative flair, the government has passed a bill to charge money for generating one’s own solar electricity, the first country in the world to penalize green energy. The self-employed are forced to pay a minimum of 283 euros monthly to the government even in the months they don’t earn.

Although this fee is directly linked to social security, allowing them access to a doctor, it does not ensure unemployment benefits should they need them, it is not even clear that it counts towards a state pension. It is simply money that goes into the black hole of the government vault. Middle-class families, suffering an unprecedented push into near-poverty, are the newest additions to the queues at the soup-kitchens. Politicians argue that the average Spaniard has lived ‘beyond his means’; but the widespread corruption in the political spectrum tells a different story, running at a level which would make any other European country blush.

The political system allows for high-level posts to be ‘inherited’ by the next person on the party list: in Madrid, neither the Mayor nor the President of the Regional Community has been elected. Elected or not, no one is doing anything about the issues affecting people: the fraudulent practices of banks, pocketing the savings of thousands of elderly people through the ‘preferentes’ scheme; the scandal surrounding the theft of babies from maternity hospitals over 30 years;  the vast unemployment levels. One current ‘solution’ to the economic crisis is a grotesque casino complex called Eurovegas, powerful enough to bend health and money-dealing regulations. Predictably, its construction will benefit someone’s friend, or generous political donors.

There is only so much people can take. When Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is caught out lying to Congress, and nothing happens, one’s suspension of disbelief takes a severe knock. And there’s more to come. There are now plans to limit our right to protest about these many injustices, introducing a law to make actions such as tweeting about a demonstration or taking part in a peaceful sit-down protest (an echo of the 15M movement) illegal, a serious blow to our democratic rights.

The Spain I grew up in is vanishing. Poets and writers are emigrating, following the highly-qualified scientists, although they do not make the news as much. But to me it is a worrying trend. The country is suffering a disappearance of its humanist core at a level with only one similar and sad precedent: the year 1939.

Marian Womack is a freelance writer, publisher and translator based in Madrid.


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  1. #1 Chris Pellow 09 Dec 13

    Excellent summary. I've lived here since late 1981 & been a self-employed freelance translator since 1986. My kids are 27 and 23, both unemployed. When I passed 50 I had to increase my social security contributions to ’assure’ more than just the minimum state pension: I'm now paying €498 per month for nothing but the promise of a pension at some vague time in the future. I have been working for the same rates since 2010, but now am getting clobbered with 21% VAT and 21% witholdings (instead of 18% and 15% respectively) as well as the 60% increase in electricity prices that you mention. I used to be offered much more work than I could take, enabling me to cherry-pick, but now I grab everything I can. The latest erosion of my ’privileges’ is that 2 customers have stopped applying minimum charges. I am lucky in that my wife is also working, so we not in any kind of trouble, but I've gone from being quietly prosperous to running faster and faster in a losing battle to stay in the same place.

  2. #2 grega 07 Sep 14

    new spain might be called a slider for new pain? it is when you have gregarious people offering a better life and adding suffrage and then making it wasteful! make spain responsible by being healthier than the rest of Europe and the middle east! it about a grudge match and letting people waste just because they don't throw bombs around!

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