Austerity and the new Spanish poverty
During the parts of my childhood I spent in Spain in the sixties and seventies, life was what we call “de la vieja escuela,” strictly old school. My grandmother and her sisters, who were all widows or spinsters, had money left from their husbands and fathers but lived frugally. Ice cream (not artisanal but bought from the kiosk on the corner) was a treat for Sunday lunch. My great-aunt Clementina left an embarrassingly cheap 25-cent tip whenever she took me for an afternoon snack of hot chocolate and churros (fried dough). The same old leather address book sat by the phone in the living room for decades until it was all worn out, and even then no one saw the need to replace it.
I thought those days were over, but now every time we go to Spain we see the slow-motion unraveling of a world that was built after the end of the dictatorship that Spain lived under for nearly 40 years. With 50 percent youth unemployment and 24.6 percent general unemployment there is no hope and no end in sight. I no longer remember when the crisis began to hit the careful middle class that I grew up knowing, and the literary and artistic types I lived with in Barcelona in the exciting years after General Franco died.
First to go were vacations abroad, then it was buying clothes and eating out. Friends who had apartments left to them by their relatives tried to rent them out or sell them, but there were no takers. They moved in with each other to save money. They moved to the suburbs because it was cheaper. About 18 months ago, my friend Ana told me they had come up with a wonderful idea: Once a month her friends would come over and bring a dish, and they’d all watch a DVD together. It sounded like fun until my husband pointed out: “That means they don’t go to the movies anymore either.” Last June in Barcelona, Ana said: “We know none of us will work again. What we worry about is the young people. All those 20- and 30-year-olds living at home with their parents.”
It’s hard to imagine it getting worse, but it is. Here is a new trend: restaurants that don’t serve food but provide cutlery and a plate and reheat the lunch that cash-strapped office workers bring from home. Every day last week when we went out to eat in Barcelona or Madrid we found some previously ubiquitous food item was no longer available. Could we order a slice of the kind of ham that used to hang from the ceiling of every self-respecting bar in the country? All out. A glass of sherry? Nope. The bottle was finished and was not replaced. In a crisis like this, it’s not worth restocking.
The mood has changed dramatically in the last few months. The 2011 elections gave everyone a chance to vent their anger: They threw out Prime Minister Zapatero and the Socialists – blaming them for not doing more to fight the recession, and brought in Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Partido Popular. But as long as Spain remains in the euro, there is little to be done. The German politicians who demand austerity for Spain are accountable not to Spanish citizens but to the German electorate, and the Germans treat Spain as if it were Greece, as if it had been profligate – when in fact, before the crisis, Spain had a surplus and a low debt-to-GDP ratio.
It is easy to sit in Brussels or Berlin and pontificate about lazy southerners who don’t work long hours or pay enough taxes. But seeing what Spain has become is another matter. One of my favorite propaganda posters from the Spanish Civil War was a 1930s-style picture of a red mailbox with hands thrusting letters in to it. The caption read something like “tell the world about Spain.” Before pushing for harsh policies, it’s a good idea to listen to the stories told by the people who must live with economic austerity plans.
PHOTO: A man looks through the window of a store announcing a closing sale in central Madrid, September 24, 2012. REUTERS/Andrea Comas