article – This is not the Spain I knew

Quite a lot has been happening recently in Spain, my native country, where we moved back from the UK five years ago. Things here have got pretty bad, deteriorating rapidly since Mariano Rajoy’s government came into power. I wrote a piece about all of this for New Internationalist, published on the 4th December, which you can read here.

The picture I am borrowing illustrated the article, originally more than 1500 words long. I was asked, very sensibly, to cut it by half. I would like to share it here complete, if only because I had to cut off my favourite sentence in the whole piece:

It is as if we were governed by evil villains from fairy-tales, grotesquely ignorant and audaciously feudal”.

why we came here – the view from spain
In the summer of 2008 my English husband and I moved to Spain. We spent our second wedding anniversary in a little bar, waiting for the English moving company. When they arrived, several days late, they refused to bring the boxes up to our rented fifth floor apartment. They took our belongings ransom, dumping them in the depot of a Spanish partner company in the outskirts of Madrid. I thought of the letter my mother-in-law had been planning to write to a certain newspaper over its use of the idiom “Spanish practices” when referring to corrupt companies. Things were bad everywhere. Problems and unhelpful people abound, difficult bureaucracy, obstacles along the way. Spain was not better or worse. We had no idea what was coming.
The reason for our move was clear. As a child in Andalusia, my standard of living had been very high. The upbringing my husband and I had enjoyed had been very similar: we both had benefited from the best education, we both had enjoyed good food and high levels of well-being, happiness and security. I had spent summers in England to improve my English; he had been sent to the houses of 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 fell in love and got married. The main difference in our paths was where we started from: my husband’s parents are both lawyers connected to the academic world; my mum is a low-grade state employee, while my dad worked in a car factory. My family was, is, what my dad proudly calls “lower middle-class”.
The conclusion was simple: in Spain less money is needed to eat properly, access a good education, and a very reasonable standard of existence. Because we both work as freelancers, aware that we will have to make do with very limited resources, we took a leap of faith and moved. We believed that the concept of the middle-class was more flexible here, encompassing this “lower” middle-class which could enjoy exemplary standards of living and opportunity. This rested mainly with the Spanish way of life. If in the UK I could spend a fortune to cook a healthy meal, Spain benefited from a fresh food market in every neighbourhood where families shop daily, making access to good quality produce widespread and affordable. For the kind of thing I would need in England to go to a chain store, in Spain I could use the small family business paramount to our city landscape, which offers not only “character” but also favours a local and family owned economy. With reasonable fees, there was never any doubt that my brother and I would attend university. Not to mention our National Health System, admired internationally. We didn’t see Spain as the ultimate paradise; but were aware that some things needed a more regular and substantial cash flow back in England. We liked the idea of a simpler life, and hoped that our children could grow up in an environment which made that ideal possible.
The current conservative government is comprehensively picking apart all the above piece by piece. It has launched a vicious campaign of privatization, selling the National Health System to companies that are on occasion too close for comfort to government and party members. Some of the consequences of this include, amongst other issues: more than one million immigrants with no access to a doctor, which aside from its obvious cruelty means in practice that some diseases such as tuberculosis are no longer controlled; massive cuts to support for the severely disabled, compromising their quality of life; or the introduction of prescription charges, a measure which affects families, the chronically ill, and the elderly. The government has just passed a controversial education bill, which undermines free state-run education and will make universities accessible only to the rich, as it introduces restrictions on access to the basic state grants even for the poorest. The state sector has now stopped being the safest job in the land: as well as several salary cuts, state employees now enjoy fewer holidays, and are sometimes made to work 12 hour shifts in order to save the state some cash.
Outside of these main structures things are no better. Severe poverty is on the rise, having doubled since 2007, an increase of nearly 3 million people. The reasons for this are clear: soaring unemployment, frozen salaries or salary reduction, the unfair and illegal practices of banks, the steady rise in taxes. All these have led to an economic stagnation impossible for the average middle-class family to overcome. Many are suffering now the definitive push into near-poverty, an addition to the queues at the soup-kitchens. Children are particularly vulnerable, and many get their only daily meal at school. However, state grants to cover this expense are now being denied to families in need. While help vanishes, the price of basic services soars: electricity has gone up by 65% in the past three years; public transport and basic goods are also constantly on the rise. With creative flair, the government has passed a bill to charge money from people who generate their own solar electricity, the first country in the world to penalise green energy. The self-employed are forced to pay a minimum of 283 euros monthly to the government (the minimum wage is 645,30 euros) just for the privilege of working, even in the months they don’t earn anything. That money, in theory, allows them access to a doctor and, although this fee is directly linked to social security, it does not ensure unemployment benefits should they ever need them. Worryingly, it is not even clear that this counts towards a state pension. It is simply money that goes into the black hole of the government vault. Meanwhile, the taxes that choke small companies and freelancers are ever on the up, while the economic power of the family is steadily going down. Politicians like to repeat 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.
There is only so much the people can take. When the president is caught out lying to Congress, and nothing happens, one’s suspension of disbelief takes a severe knock. Words don’t mean much anymore; that alone is frightening. It is as if we were governed by evil villains from fairy-tales, grotesquely ignorant and audaciously feudal. The system allows for high-level posts to be “inherited” by the next person on the party list, hence, for example, the mayor of my city, whose greatest achievement so far has been her marriage to ex-president Aznar. Meanwhile, no one does anything about the most serious issues affecting the people: the illegality of bank practices, not just the unfair Spanish mortgage system, but the fraudulent “preferentes”, a scheme whereby large banks have pocketed the savings of thousands of elderly people; the scandal surrounding the theft of thousands of babies from maternity hospitals for up to 30 years; the vast levels of unemployment. The current “solution” we are offered for the economic crisis is a grotesque casino complex called Eurovegas, powerful enough to have health and sanitation rules, as well as money dealing laws, changed to suit it. And we all know who will benefit from the construction contracts: a friend of a friend, or a company that makes generous political donations.
Since we came here, the crisis has hit Spain hard; but a government taking advantage of the situation to sell the country to companies managed by its friends hits us harder. And still we brace ourselves for more. This government is now planning to limit our right to protest about these many injustices. In January 2014 it will introduce 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, as well as punishable by a jail sentence, a serious blow to our democratic rights. I am writing this article now because I can still do so. Shortly it will perhaps be impossible to express my views in a blog or similar venue.
The Spain I grew up in is rapidly disintegrating. Even the poets and writers of our generation are emigrating, following the highly-qualified young scientists, although they do not make the news as much. But to me it is a sad and worrying trend. The country is suffering a disappearance of its humanist core. It’s an old argument that the humanities are what gives a country its soul, and it is not surprising that Spain is following the lead of other European countries in not being too unhappy when people who are trained to think independently leave the country. But with the many activities of the current government we are seeing a destruction of the country’s nature at a level with only one precedent that comes to mind: the year 1939.
Marian Womack is a freelance writer, publisher and translator based in Madrid.


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