Paul White/Associated Press
Paul White/Associated Press
BARCELONA – Administrative assistant Jesus Zapatero has seen his salary slashed three times in the last three years, part of government cuts to reduce a $83 billion public deficit by 2014.
His response: take to the streets.
“If you don’t protest, it is as if you were agreeing,” said Zapatero, 52, who works in a health clinic. “And there is nothing less in the world I want than the government to believe I am OK with these policies.”
Zapatero was among the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards in Madrid on Saturday attending a rally organized by Spain’s two biggest unions to tell Spanish leaders: “Enough is enough.”
European nations such as Spain, France, Greece, Italy and others are wrestling with financial woes brought on by reckless spending and lack of economic growth that is causing some nations to fall deeply in debt. New political leaders have turned to austerity programs, which include reductions in spending and public-sector jobs, to heal the situation.
But the measures have not created a quick turnaround of the economy, and unions and the unemployed are getting impatient. As Spain is entering its second recession in five years, they want jobs, benefits and no more concessions.
Political leaders hopeful that growing the economy will solve the problems are in a bind. Businesses and investors say the way to growth is to reform Europe’s highly regulated labor markets that mandate wage increases and make hiring and firing difficult. Raising taxes to raise revenue will make things worse, they say.
So far, the ruling conservative Popular Party of President Mariano Rajoy has raised sales tax from 18 percent to 21 percent, implemented extensive cuts in education and health care, cut public salaries by 7 percent and made it easier to lay off employees. Even so, Spain’s unemployment rate is 25 percent and double that for young people, the highest unemployment rate among the 17 nations that use the euro.
But protesters say their sacrifices have done nothing to improve the economy. Some economists agree.
“(The cuts) are generating a high level of social discontent because everything previous generations fought for is going to pieces,” said economist Jose Moises Martin, who is part of a group called Economists Against the Crisis who oppose the austerity measures being implemented so quickly.
Meanwhile, there are signs the unemployed are increasingly angry at those who do not share their fate and want the investor class to pay. Young jobless workers have been occupying squares for weeks, becoming more vociferous in their demands, and the protest movement known as the indignados alleges that the government is lying to the people.
The indignados are demanding the government soak the rich in taxes, raise more money from financial transactions, order employed workers to work fewer hours so unemployed workers can fill in for them. And they want to nationalize the banking system.
“This government transfers the problems generated by the financial system to citizens,” said Manuel Nolla, a spokesman for the group.
A group called Occupy Congress is planning its own protest surrounding the Spanish parliament asking for the resignation of the government. Some politicians have branded it a “coup d’etat.”
“We want to go a step beyond the other protests because after many marches, rallies, strikes and even camp sites, nothing has changed,” said Mercedes Garcia of the Occupy Congress action.
While some worry about the leftward drift of the jobless and unions, others say both sides have brought Spain to this point.
“I don’t believe in politicians so I think it is useless to protest against them,” said Sergi Serran, 35, of Terrassa, near Barcelona, who lost his job as an architect in 2009. “And the same feeling goes for the unions, who only want to feather their nest.”
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