I’m writing from Barcelona, where I lived for nine years during the 1990s. The early 90s were boom years for the Catalan capital, as they were for Spain in general. It was a period in which the Barcelona town council and the regional government was pouring money into public building and urban renewal projects, from the Olympic village to the renovation of the old port, when property prices shot up to European levels, and the city was already becoming one of the cool European travel destinations.
The 90s was also the period in which Spain joined the Schengen Area and effectively became the policeman of Europe’s southern maritime borders again ‘illegal immigration’ from outside the EU.
For Catalonia – and for Spain in general – these were optimistic times, in which Spain was finally emerging from its historic isolation and many Catalans hoped that European integration might usher in an independent Catalan Switzerland south of the Pyrenees.
Today Barcelona is more popular than ever with the tourists who swarm through the city centree, but Europe – or rather the European Union – is less popular with many Spaniards. The Spanish economy is creaking under the weight of public debt and jobs are scarce. Official unemployment hovers at around the twenty percent mark, and employers are grinding away at working conditions and wages under the buzzword of ‘flexibility’.
Money is still being made in Spain – and not always legally. In Galicia, 30 associates of the fugitive narcotrafficante Antonio Pouso aka ‘Pelopincho’ have been sent to prison on charges of moneylaundering, following a six-year investigation into money laundering in Galicia, that has far found the massive sum of 700 million euros of drug profits channelled through property investments in the province. In the perennially-corrupt city of Marbella, two local and various councillors have been indicted for siphoning off funds from the public coffers.
Meanwhile cuts have already begun to rip into the public sector. In Las Palmas, 1,000 pensioners, some of whom have serious disabilities, have just been told by the local council that they will no longer receive domestic help. Everyone knows that there is worse to come, whether from the ruling Socialists or from the troglodyte Spanish right, which is eagerly waiting to take advantage of the Socialists’ willingness to do the dirty work of the EU and the IMF.
No wonder los indignados (‘the angry ones’ – indignats in Catalan) remain an active movement across the country. It’s just over three months since the police ended the occupation of Plaza Catalunya by firing rubber bullets at unarmed demonstrators, but posters across the city continue to urge people to join the movement. Many young Spaniards have, like their counterparts in Greece and Ireland, begun to up sticks and open a new chapter in Spain’s long history of emigration. Unlike the migrant workers of the 60s and early 70s, the new emigrants are often highly-educated.
Tomorrow the reactionary Pope Benedict begins a visit to a country that his predecessor once described as ‘ a country of pagans’. Yesterday thousands of young Catholics celebrated mass in Madrid’s Cibeles Plaza in anticipation of the papal visit and to celebrate the Church’s World Youth Day, where Cardinal Rouco Varela, the city’s archbishop, railed against ‘rampant relativism’ such as abortion and gay marriage.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Pope’s visit. Today a Mexican chemistry student was arrested, apparently for planning to attack the Pope’s entourage with poison gas. But these last few days there have been processions of fervent and mostly young believers, many of them Latin American, around the Barcelona city centre, singing and hymns and religious songs to the accompaniment of guitars and drums.
Religious fervour is the exception rather than the rule in early 21st century Spanish society. Some Spaniards have found their own ways of dealing with the crisis. Last weekend RatÃ³n the homicidal bull killed a 29-year-old man at a festival in Xativa, near Valencia. RatÃ³n has already killed two people and injured various others. He now has his own website and his owner commands a fee of 10,000 euros for each festival appearance, compared with an average of 2,000 that most bull-owners receive.
RatÃ³n’s owner, unlike many Spaniards, has found a reliable source of income. It can only be hoped that others don’t feel the need to follow his example.