The pain in Spain

Suicide rates in Catalonia, the region in the north-east of Spain where the tragic Sant Andreu graveyard deaths occurred, have increased by 10% in one year alone and reflect a nationwide trend. Spain is slipping into despair as unemployment rates in the under 25s reach 52%. Overall unemployment is twice that of Ireland’s. Richard Fitzpatrick reports from Barcelona

A FEW WEEKS ago in the northern part of Barcelona, a 74-year-old man killed his son in the Sant Andreu graveyard. It was 11.30am. The sun had already announced that it was another hot day in the city. The graveyard was quiet, with only a few people in attendance, none of whom witnessed the murder.

The man’s son, who was aged 46 and confined to a wheelchair, was severely mentally disabled. After he shot him, the man turned the gun on himself. They were by the vault of his wife, the mother of his disabled son. She had died a week beforehand.

The family, according to El País and other Spanish press reports, was in severe financial straits. The man left a note explaining the reasons for the murder and his suicide. In it, he wrote that he could no longer take care of his son who was in such a debilitating condition.

A few months earlier, a 56-year-old disabled woman in Malaga, who was facing eviction, threw herself to her death off the eleventh-floor balcony of her apartment building while over 100 onlookers, including police and the fire brigade, looked on in vain.

Catalonia, the region in the north-east of Spain where the Sant Andreu graveyard deaths occurred, recently cut its disability support budget by 57%. Meanwhile, suicides in Catalonia increased by 10% in 2011 from the previous year admits the Catalan government, which reflects a nationwide trend.

In separate incidents at the start of the year, two prominent businessmen from seaside towns in the southern tip of Spain burned to death in their cars. According to a forensic investigator from the city of Malaga, evidence suggests the suicides were related to the fact that their businesses had gone bankrupt.

Spain’s economy is in free fall. Poverty levels have increased by more than 15% since 2007. Its National Statistics Institute calculates there are more than 1.5 million households in which every member of the family is out of work.

At 25.1%, according to Eurostat’s latest records, the country has the highest rate of unemployment in the eurozone, higher than in Greece, and almost twice the rate of Ireland’s. More worrying for long-term social prospects is the fact that the unemployment rate for young adults under 25 years of age is 52.9%.

The government is squeezing its unemployed. An unemployed married person, for example, used to get €430 a month in welfare payments from the government. This summer, this monthly stipend has been withdrawn unless the unemployed person’s partner earns less than €960 a month.

The squeeze is throwing generations of Spanish families together. I live in L’Eixample, a middle-class neighbourhood in the centre of Barcelona. I know of a young couple with a family in a nearby apartment building who have moved back into the apartment of the husband’s retired parents; the husband’s parents-in-law have also moved into the apartment with them.

They, of course, have a roof over their heads. In Jan 2011, Esperanza Aguirre, the president of Madrid’s regional government, sanctioned the demolition of a shanty town called Puerta de Hierro in the north-western part of the city which had grown organically over the last half century to house a gypsy community.

A MONG the people who were made homeless was a young girl named Shakira GN, who was aged five at the time. She moved into her grandparents’ house with her two brothers, but it too was demolished by court order in July of this year.

On Aug 22, the young girl, now six, entered hospital for a biopsy for a brain tumour.

At the moment, she is living in a van on the street with her family while she waits to return to hospital for radiation and chemotherapy.

Amnesty International is trying to highlight the gravity of her case with an online campaign, stressing the negative effect homelessness and “anxiety and nervousness” will have on her while she’s treated for cancer. The organisation claims to have contacted the relevant housing authority in Madrid but it couldn’t get a response to their enquiries.

Amnesty International has also criticised the Spanish government for withdrawing medical services this month to 150,000 immigrants living in the country without residential permits.

The non-governmental organisation says Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government is breaking international agreements by imposing the nationwide cut which limits illegal immigrants to accident-and-emergency services in an effort to shave €1.5bn a year off its annual budget expenses.

Hundreds of doctors have, however, kept their surgeries open to people without valid health care cards and six of Spain’s 17 regions have pledged to ignore Rajoy’s orders, including Galicia, Rajoy’s own constituency.

The political battle over the health care cards illustrates the fragile nature of Spain’s make-up, which has several outlying regions with strong separatist tendencies, including the Basque Country and Catalonia, the two regions which funnel the most taxes into the central government’s depleted coffers.

Andalucía in the south of Spain is one of the country’s poorest regions, with one in three out of work. One of its town mayors, Juan Manual Sanchez Gordillo, who sports a round, Karl Marx beard, became a national celebrity last month when he rowed in on a food raid theft in Marinaleda, the town where he has served as mayor for the last 30 years.

He stood idly by outside a supermarket in the town while members of a labour union piled up shopping carts with unpaid-for food, which was spirited to hard-hit families.

“There are people who don’t have enough to eat,” he later told reporters. “In the 21st century, this is an absolute disgrace.”

Seven people were arrested for the raid, but the mayor enjoys political immunity as a member of Andalucía’s regional government.

Rajoy’s national government also plans to cut the country’s education spending by 20%, or about €10bn, by 2015. Spain’s children went back to school this week to classrooms with bigger student numbers and fewer teachers than last term. Comisiones Obreras, Spain’s largest trade union, reckons that there will be 50,000 less teachers working in schools this year.

Schoolgoers have also been hit by reduced grants for school uniforms, books and food, by as much as €26m, for instance, in the community of Madrid. Spain’s IVA (which is the equivalent of value-added tax) on school items such as books and stationery has shot up to the state maximum rate of 21%. Interestingly, the IVA on tickets for bullfighting,which also falls under the purview of José Ignacio Wert, the Minister for Education, Culture and Sport, is less at 18%.

In Spain, school children either have their lunches at home, typically over a two-hour lunch break, or at school. Those who stay at school for lunch must be chaperoned, a task that falls outside the remit of teaching staff, to external guardians.

In Catalonia, the decision to start charging children €3 a day to cover the costs of these guardians, has caused uproar, especially as politicians can avail of subsidised lunches for approximately €5.

Not everyone in Spain, it seems, is going to go hungry.

“LA CRISIS” IN SPAIN

Andalucía

Andalucía, in the south, with its Moorish influences, home to the majestic city of Seville and a long coastline of beaches, is one of the most attractive regions of Spain to visit; it is also one of the poorest.

This month, for example, it was announced that the Andalucía Masters Golf Tournament was being pulled because of a funding crisis.

Its unemployment rate is 34%, which is alarming, as it is Spain’s most populous region. This has given rise to class conflict. Last month, members of the Andalusian Union of Workers broke into a vacant estate in Hornachuelos, and protested by frolicking in the grounds and swimming pool of an absent landlord.

In a region dependent on agriculture, subsidies that pay farmers not to grow crops, and to leave land uncultivated, when unemployment is rampant are galling.

Catalonia

As the Spanish government struggles to avoid a full bailout, the Catalan regional government has called snap elections for Nov 25, which will be seen effectively as a referendum on Catalan independence.

The election could also jeopardise plans for national economic reforms.

There is real concern in Europe that Spain may need a bailout going beyond the €100bn pledged by eurozone finance ministers in June to rescue its banks, but Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has so far avoided requesting one.

Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is traditionally one of the two wealthiest regions in Spain. Catalonia’s separatists say its taxes prop up Spain’s poorer regions, with as much as 8% of its GDP (€16bn) siphoned off each year.

Basque Country

Perched in the north-west of Spain, and with an inclement climate not unlike Ireland’s, the Basque Country has avoided the worst excesses of the global financial crisis.

The Basque Country has a population of just over two million, with an unemployment rate of only 7.4%, while the rest of Spain averages one in four out of work.

The Basque Country’s iron-mining and steel-manufacturing underpins its strong economy. In fact, its level of industrialisation is above the EU average.

It also enjoys greater autonomy than any other region in Spain. It even controls its own taxes, owing to a political deal made in the 19th century, much to the envy of Catalonia.

Madrid

Madrid, as the capital and the seat of the country’s national government, has seen the most political unrest in Spain. Last year, the country’s conservative party swept back into power after eight years on the sidelines; since then, the new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has imposed swingeing austerity cuts to balance the country’s finances, and this has caused great resentment.

In July, coalminers conducted a three-week, 250-mile march to the capital to persuade the government to subsidise the country’s collieries. Tens of thousands of people came out to greet them. When Spain’s industry minister refused to meet the miners, riots broke out, with police armed with rubber bullets. At least 76 people were injured.

Valencia

Valencia is the third biggest football club in Spain. Its financial crisis mirrors that of the country at large. For the last three years, it has been selling its best players (David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata and Jordi Alba) to the English Premier League, and Barça up the coast, to pay off its debts. It has one stadium it can’t fill and another one it can’t afford to finish.

The Valencian community has built some of the country’s greatest white elephants, including an airport in which not a single plane has landed. That project grew out of a delirious plan during the construction boom to provide each of Spain’s 50 provinces with an airport.

In July, Valencia caused a stir when it became the first of Spain’s 17 regions to apply for aid from the €18bn Regional Liquidity Fund.

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