Occupy España: cutbacks inspire European youth to take to the streets

This semester, Discourse will feature dispatches from our various writers off adventuring overseas. This week, former news editor Tahera Rahman sends her report from Alicante, Spain, where she is studying at Universidad de Alicante.

Signs of a struggling world economy are everywhere, even for the stuck-in-an-alternate-reality study abroad student such as myself. Posted on the door of a Spanish-style Tex-Mex restaurant here in Alicante (bizarre, I know) is a paper sign that roughly translates to, “In here, do not talk about the crisis.”

My fellow students are nixing their Grecian getaway plans as thousands of street protesters turn violent in a country on the brink of bankruptcy. Even a recent weekend trip to Ireland showed signs of a troubled economy. On our 12-hour tour across the width of the country, the guide pointed out buildings in Limerick that have stood unfinished for at least a year and a half. Their exposed concrete floors are eerie modern-day imitations of the abandoned, crumbling cobblestone houses in the countryside just a few miles away.

Since the economic crisis began in 2008, Spain has accumulated the highest twin deficit (combined budget and current account deficits) of any country in the world aside from Iceland. In 2010, Spain was 225 billion euros in debt, an amount that roughly matches Greece’s entire economy.

For the average Spaniard, the debt has several direct repercussions. First, as unemployment has skyrocketed, so have unemployment benefits. Spain is a welfare state with a generous unemployment policy, but since the jobless rate has dramatically increased (22.8 percent in December, more than double the European Union [EU] average, and expected to continue rising), the expenses have drained the Spanish government. In response, the government has cut spending in many areas, including pensions and salaries.

These types of austerity measures are popular solutions among EU governments and unpopular ones among EU citizens. Many Spaniards are calling for a new course, including my Spanish teacher, 43-year-old Veronica Gomez, who told me she doesn’t think these cuts in public benefits are effective and that they only cause more harm. “[The government] wants us to pay for the crisis. That’s unfair because we didn’t create the crisis . . . it’s the elites who [caused the crisis and] don’t give a shit!” she said, referring to the investors who continue to net profits and seek bonuses as people lose jobs and social services. Veronica insists that instead of pinching citizens’ pockets as they’ve done in the past, the European governments need to invest more money to stimulate the economy, much like President Obama did with his stimulus packages. Her sentiments are common and even echoed by many analysts who say that austerity measures only push countries further into recession.

In Spain, the cuts have particularly affected education and health care. The cost of funding those sectors has been growing as some of the main sources of government revenue, such as real estate taxes and building permit fees, have halted due to the collapse of Spain’s housing boom. These cuts have regularly drawn thousands of Spanish protesters to the street. There have been protests in Alicante almost every weekend since I arrived, and I can hear the demands for a stop to education cuts from my apartment. The largest and most recent protest was on Feb. 19, with hundreds of thousands of protesters rallying in over 50 towns and cities across the country.

Finally, the increasing unemployment, austerity measures and resulting budget cuts have had a particularly harsh effect on Spain’s youth population, with almost half of those under 26 now unemployed. And you thought finding a job after graduating from Loyola was going to be difficult (by contrast, 13.4 percent of Americans age 20-24 were unemployed last year).

If there is one good thing to come of this, however, it is that the young Spaniards’ distress has brought them into the political arena like never before. Until recently, they were dismissed by most as apathetic and uninterested in politics. But in most of these protests, the younger generation has been the vanguard of change, much like the Occupy protesters in America. In May 2011, for example, an estimated 28,000 young people camped at Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. Just last Thursday, dozens of students at the Universidad de Alicante blocked off the town’s main street to protest in solidarity with fellow student protesters in Valencia the day before.

Veronica does not think the crisis will end anytime soon. “I don’t see the end of this, not really,” she said, adding that many Spaniards who can afford to travel are leaving the country for better job prospects abroad. Although Veronica is now employed, she lived abroad for five years in England, Japan and Houston, Texas, to search for work during Spain’s last recession in 1998.

“We have a world crisis but nothing has changed,” she said, “The bank system and finance rule the world.” Thousands of protestors, from the Occupiers to those here in Alicante, would agree.