The week began with news of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s visit to the United States, where he was praised at the White House for his “great leadership” (a subject on which President Obama is naturally a respected authority).
Rajoy was also courted at Congress and feted on Wall Street. Clearly, things have changed since his last visit to the Big Apple, when he was subjected to an unusually feisty grilling from Bloomberg’s Sarah Eisen on the many scandals implicating his government. After stumbling and bumbling his way through one unconvincing untruth after another, Rajoy’s lackeys tried to browbeat the broadcaster into cutting out the most embarrassing parts from the interview — to no avail.
This time around, everyone who is anyone in Washington and New York seemed determined to shake Rajoy’s hand and congratulate him on a job well done. And for good reason: not only have his government’s eager embracement of the Troika’s neoliberal agenda and its profligate bailout of Spain’s financial sector (to the tune, so far, of 280 billion euros) helped to steady (at least temporarily and superficially) the EU’s sinking economy, it has also presented rich pickings to many of the world’s biggest corporations — in particular, Europe and America’s too-fat-to-fail banks, private equity funds and vulture capitalists.
While in Washington, Rajoy also met with the perma-tanned head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who a few days later announced the final withdrawal of the organisation’s suited-and-booted troops from the Bank of Spain. Presumably, their makeshift work spaces in the country’s now-toothless central bank will remain in place, just in case the bad times return — which, considering they never went away in the first place, should be pretty darned soon.
As a matter of fact, as this week’s tumultuous events in Spain’s parallel dimension — i.e. its bread and butter communities — have shown, not only has the recovery long trumpeted by the government and parroted by the financial media failed to materialise, conditions on the ground are arguably bleaker than ever.
Burnin’ & Lootin’ in Burgos, Spain
While Rajoy was being wined, dined and serenaded in the gilded chambers of American power, Spain’s northern city of Burgos was hit by a wave of violent protests. What began as a simmering dispute over the city’s semi-bankrupt council’s plans to convert one of the busiest thoroughfares into a largely pedestrianised boulevard boiled over last Saturday night (Jan. 11) into pitched battles between local residents and riot police (click here to view images).
A staunchly conservative provincial capital of middling size, Burgos is hardly the sort of place you’d expect to find protestors burning rubbish bins and smashing up the windows of a Santander bank. But first appearances are often misleading: Gamonal, the predominantly working class neighbourhood at the center of the dispute, is in many ways the perfect microcosm of what is happening in less prosperous communities across Spain.
Of its 60,000 residents (one-third of Burgos’ total population), 18,000 are unemployed. What’s more, over the last five years a whole gamut of local social support mechanisms and public services have been skinned and gutted, all to help pay for the fallout from the construction bubble and collapse of the country’s savings banks.
One of the most common grievances voiced by protestors is that local, publicly subsidised nursery schools — a vital lifeline for hard-strapped working families — are being closed down due to budget shortfalls of a few thousand euros a piece. Meanwhile, the council intends to splash out 8 million euros on a largely unwelcome urban redevelopment project, 5 million of which will go toward the construction of an underground car park that will charge users extortionate fares.
According to Ignacio Escolar, the senior editor of El Diario and a former Burgos resident, the project’s primary beneficiary would be the city’s most powerful businessman, Antonio Miguel Méndez Pozo (a.k.a. el jefe [the boss]). A local construction magnate and owner of Burgos’s biggest-selling newspaper, Méndez Pozo is the epitome of Spain’s other reality, a world in which business empires are built through the most dubious of means — in the early 90s Méndez was imprisoned on charges of bribery — and where multi-million euro public contracts are won or lost on the basis of the depth of your pockets and the strength of your connections with local and national officialdom.
Two Worlds Collide
In Gamonal the hard-fought protests have succeeded in forestalling the city’s development project — at least for now. Pressure is being applied from opposition parties within the council to have it scrapped indefinitely — something the PP-controlled administration seems dead set against.
But public protests spreading like wildfire across the country, and the costs of such obstinacy are mounting fast.
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