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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Spain

James Skinner

‘How many of you can still remember the good old days of cheap holidays on the Costa Brava, sipping ‘plonk’ under the shades of a tatty umbrella and ogling at the local señoritas as these were just beginning to use bikinis in Franco’s Spain? How about the constant blaring of Manolo Escobar as he sung ‘Viva España’ for all of you on your way back to the airport, or as you crossed over to France in your 10 year old VW Combi, after a couple of weeks of bliss in Benidorm.

What about the hit ‘Cuando calienta el sol’ that lasted for more than 30 years as the top tourist song for all newcomers to Spain? Sure, Spain and music have gone hand in hand for years and have fascinated both composers and music lovers alike for over decades. Aside from the locals, Albeniz, Rodrigo and Falla, many others such as Bizet with his famous ‘Carmen’ and Ravel with the even more popular ‘Bolero’ continue to rattle the loudspeakers in millions of Iberian homes and cafes despite the onslaught of today’s teenage honky-tonk rubbish. Music is just another one of the many magnets that attracts foreigners to this incredibly fascinating land of bullfighters and corrupt politicians. I’m one of them!

A few years ago I ran across a copy of Fodor’s Spain – 1971 on one of my last visits to Portobello Road in London. It was sitting on a dusty shelf in one of the many antique shops that lure the onlookers to enter and browse; where Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant frolicked on Saturday mornings. The book is a concise compendium of tourist information on the country written towards the end of Franco’s dictatorship but in certain ways still holds true as in many of today’s modern versions. An introductory quote summarises its content:
‘Perhaps the main attraction of travel in Spain is the all-pervading presence of Spain’s national style and folklore. Vestiges of its glorious past and the manifestations of its dynamic present are on display at every turn. In most Western European countries, the traveller has to dig for genuine folklore. He will encounter it in Spain without effort.’

James Michener’s classic ‘Iberia’ had as much or even more impact on me as an excellent description of Spain having lived the era which he describes towards the end of the book. I bought my copy over 30 years ago. Although Foder did not criticize nor lambast the Generalissimo, Michener did, yet managed to stick to the main theme of describing Spain and his own adventures during his travels despite political and other repressions. Even Graham Greene had a go with his novel ‘Monseñor Quijote’ although Greene’s obsession with Catholicism overshadowed some of the exterior beauty of the country itself. He did write the novel however after Franco died and hence the story evolves during the new period of Spain that was on the verge of crossing over into the modern and democratic world at the end of the XX century.

Many moons have come and gone since those early days. Franco died in 1975; a transitional government took over and within four years a modern constitution was introduced subsequently followed by general elections. After 40 years, a revived socialist government was sworn in and Spain entered the exclusive club of democratic nations; it opened its doors. Thirty years have gone by since those fascinating eighties, so what has happened since those glorious days that followed elections held for the first time in decades?

The most important change was the constitution itself that laid out the framework for a new geopolitical country. Apart from the many organisations that had been secretive for years and suddenly came out of the closet such as trade unions and the communist party, Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions, each allowed to organise their own regional governments including full blown parliaments and legislative assembly. The constitution also opened the doors to a series of laws that introduced radical social reforms. These have been growing ever since. From divorce to abortions, from religious freedom to strike action, all the goodies earned over the years in mainland Europe were growing in leaps and bounds in this explosively alive Latin country. And of course, the trillions of spondulix that kept pouring into Spain as European Structural Funds helped build the necessary infrastructure for the country to progress. So where is Spain today?

Apart from the present economic chaos that is affecting the whole world, Spain somewhere along the line went off the rails and like so many others; the rot began to creep in. Over construction of housing (greater than other countries in the same boat) plus overstretching credit channels and a lack of industrial clout led the country to join the queue of failed economic states. Sound familiar, right? So what’s new, one might ask? There are four areas that differentiate Spain’s financial woes from the rest, and are somehow causing or may cause more pain in the future. The first is a top heavy government system. As stated earlier, with a central government, plus 17 regional parliaments and town councils galore, not to mention the weird sub-regional delegations and deputations, the political and civil service system is extremely overcrowded. Added to this scenario is that no local politician in the different power sectors is willing to cut costs, thus, whilst unemployment is growing in the private sector in leaps and bounds, public servants and politicians continue to live the life of Riley!

An added setback is that when the present socialist party took over they had to come to terms with a few rather ‘extreme’ left wing minority parties, especially those in Catalonia and Galicia to be able to form a government. These newly elected party members, now sitting in the main parliament in Madrid have what is well known as the ‘golden vote’. Result? The tendency is a change to more radical left wing policies, including a sleuth of ‘hand out’ social benefits, rather than those of a modern XXI century socialism (if such socialism still exists!) that combines globalization with social policies. Or so it should! What is even more dangerous is that these representatives are now demanding more autonomy for their regions and further independence from Madrid. The original statutes that were designed back in the eighties are no longer applicable, so they argue. What Europe is facing is a possible split up of the country, in the not too distant future, into at least four new states; Catalonia, Basque country, Galicia and the ‘Rest’. Coming back to the economic turmoil and because of these regional political disputes, the present distribution of cash from taxpayers has turned into a free for all, not to mention the handouts from the social security contributions.

A second problem is tourism. Spain has for decades lived off a booming tourist trade. In 2006, over 16 million Brits alone visited the country, not to mention millions from other parts of Europe and the world. So far, 2008 has spared Spain with a small drop in income from this sector. However, the summer season has not yet started and many in the trade are bracing themselves for an income downturn that could be felt later on in the year. Thousands of those plush sidewalk cafes, ‘tapitas’ bars and beer parlours, so well known by several generations of holidaymakers may go belly up adding more humans to the list of unemployed. Trouble is that no government official or economical guru has dared to mention this forthcoming financial Tsunami despite the warnings from the tour operators and travel agencies.

The third setback is part of a tragic-comic operetta; the judicial system. May sound odd that this should be included as an added financial problem to the economic slump but the fact remains that Spain has somehow run aground in a swamp of legal bureaucracy. A case can bounce around for years before it comes up for a hearing. The courts are so overstretched (and the penitentiary system) and lacking in an upgrade of facilities that nearly half the judges of Spain staged a one day strike two weeks ago, something that had never happened in the whole history of the country. Why did it turn humorous? The Minister of Justice, Mariano Fernandez Bermejo was so fumed about it that he swore to introduce a law to ‘prohibit’ judges never again to go on strike. Meanwhile, the famous (or infamous) Judge Baltasar Garzon (who had chased Pinochet all over London in Maggie Thatcher’s time) was busy digging up dirt (corruption) on members of the opposition party, the People’s Party. I must add at this stage that both the Basque country and Galicia are up for regional elections and depending on the outcome it could be a crucial swing in politics in the whole country, i.e. centre-right or more extreme left. The following will explain why, so back to the judges and the Minister. Right in the middle of all this kafuffle, Sr. Bermejo and Sr. Garzon together with the public prosecutor designated on the PP trial decide to go on a hunting trip over the weekend, whilst several of the ‘suspects’ were held, ‘incommunicado’ in jail. Not only did they travel to an exclusive and private hunting ground on the Spanish plains, but their end-of-the-day trophies were not partridges or rabbits but 20 large, beautiful and protected reindeer.

The press got hold of the story, plus photos and a few days later, Sr. Bermejo, because of the scandal was forced to resign, whilst judge Garzon was hospitalised with stressful chest pains! No kidding! It’s a true story! As I said before, all this as the People’s Party are fighting in the regional elections.

A final and fourth problem looming in the wings is the European funding. Spain ceases to be a receiver and turns into a contributor in 2012. All the remaining super-projects such as high speed rail, power stations, waterworks, roads, hospitals and many etceteras are still on the drawing board. Where the future ‘lolly’ will come from is anybody’s guess.

Over the years Spain’s macro-investments have been mixed. A great deal has been beneficial but a similar amount has literally been squandered, particularly at town council level, i.e. corruption at its best! Nobody dares mention this fact as it could literally blow the lid off the cauldron.

So what about the bright side?
No doubt the world is in a great mess and despite Barak Obama, G20, Uncle Tom Cobbly and many other superheroes in today’s political and economic arena, nobody has a bloody clue as to how it’s all going to pan out. Despite Spain’s differing problems, they are really a spit in the ocean compared to the global scenario and no doubt the country will ride the storm together with the rest. They have no choice.

In the meantime, I look out of my window and still see cars driving carelessly down the street, mothers wheeling prams with screaming newborn babes, sidewalk cafés with the odd Spaniard sipping his morning coffee. So far, the rioting has not yet started nor has the pilfering of food at supermarkets begun. The kids still make love, the younger ones continue to chat on their mobiles or other diabolical computer machinery and the old folk sit in the sun watching the day go by.

As for yours truly, I’m off for my midday glass of wine and ‘tapa’ at my local. Pepe the waiter is waiting patiently behind the counter. See you next month!

© James G. Skinner. March 2009.

March 2nd 2009
‘Well, democracy prevailed in Spain. In the autonomous regional elections, the nationalists were ousted in Galicia and the Basque country and the country’s sovereignty has been secured. ETA has finally been licked, democratically speaking and the fear of another Balkans has rescinded. Sadly, the rest of Europe (or the world for that matter) does not realise the significance of these dramatic political results.’

The Consul and the Serpent Pt 1
James Skinner
‘It’s been two years now since I resigned as Honorary British Consul in this north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula.

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