A Reflection on the Current State of Spain
With Some Thoughts of Optimism
As many of you know, I spent the better half of this past summer in Spain. I have been to Spain some in the past so this was not my first introduction to Spanish culture. It was however a unique experience.
This trip was not only unique because of the fact that I got to see many new cities and a purely beautiful side of Spain, but it was that I got the opportunity to gain a better appreciation for Spain’s current situation. In short, I can say that it was unique for two main reasons: (1) I got to see the devolution of the Spanish economy from the first time that I visited Spain to this summer (2) I got a really well round view of many Spanish cities thanks to REAJ and Hostelling International. I spent two months in Spain and crossed nearly 26 cities. I had the opportunity to interact with a lot of locals as well, which further enabled me to get a view at what life is like for the average Spaniard at the moment.
As travelers, we rarely get a chance to see what life is like for the everyday citizen. This is because we are typically channeled into touristy areas and see all the positive aspects of society, but do not get the chance to see what goes on behind closed doors. The struggles, the heart ache, the desperation, that everyday folks go through. I am not saying that I got to see all of this or even understand it all, but I would definitely say I got a better view than the average bloc while in Spain.
In light of all these things, I realized that many people back home were surprisingly interested in learning about how bad Spain is right now. I thought that I would attempt to put together this recollection reflecting on my time spent in Spain this summer. Including some thoughts on what I saw, a look at some personal stories, trying to capture the sentiment of the people, and lastly draw from some past experiences in Spain. So, whether I actually accomplish that or not, here is my attempt.
I arrived first in Madrid. From the moment that I arrived, I noticed that more people were talking about “la crisis“. La crisis, meaning ‘the crisis’ in Spanish, refers to the current financial meltdown of Spain, and several other European nations such as Italy, Greece, and Portugal. This introduction to the word was something that remained a theme throughout the trip. In fact, I cannot recall too many conversations that I had within those two months that did not at least mention ‘la crisis’ at least once. I am not sure if this is because of an over dramatization by the media and newspapers, or if the people are doing it for themselves, but there seems to be a constant looming helplessness associated with la crisis, and its effect on the nation. This was a recurrent theme.
In all seriousness, the situation in some European states, particularly Spain, is bad. Really bad. I am not an economist so I will not get into the fine details, but I will give you a few figures to help put the situation into perspective. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the developed world with Greece not far behind it. Roughly 56% of young people (<25 years old) in Spain are unemployed or grossly underemployed. It is so bad for them that they have in fact been nicknamed “the lost generation.” ¹ The unemployment rate for the country at-large is around 26%, which relates to more than 6 million Spaniards out of work. The total unemployment rate went from 8% in 2008 to the current state.² Needless to say, that is a colossal increase in under 5 years. Most companies will not hire, and if they do it, they do so for seasonal or temporary contracts. People without much experience or higher qualifications have little chance. Even a large percentage of degree holding youth see little hope for finding opportunities, especially in humanity fields.
¹ Source: The Guardian: Spain Youth Unemployment Record High
² Source: Trading Economics: Unemployment Rate Spain
Setting Hopes for New Horizons
Many people who I met in Spain had aimed their sites at new horizons. The ones that had skill sets and opportunities have started to migrate to other places in Europe and the world. Countries like Australia, the UK, Germany, and even the United States, have seen influxes of Spaniards. Not everyone has the means to move, but the ones that do have certainly looked into it.
Before I’d go calling it a ‘great flight’ of Spaniards, I need to present other evidence on the contrary. For example another publication that I’ve read combats the notion that Spaniards are leaving at alarming rates. In summary, the article states that only around 40,000 people have left Spain due to the economic crisis. There are many others who have left, but many of them were not of Spanish blood, typically immigrants from Africa or Latin America, both legal and illegal. ³ I can see how this would be true as I heard that many of the immigrants were moving on to other countries in Europe. One thing that this article does not address though are the demographics of that 40,000 people. Who are they, what socio-economic status do they come from, et cetera. I am not sure of these statistics, but I think that it would be interesting to know. I am not sure whether only 40,000 have really left or if many more have, nor am I certain of their intentions, but it is hard to blame the ones who have for looking at new horizons.
Similarly, I met a lot of people who were hoping for better opportunities abroad whether they would ever get to reach them or not. Many people have begun to follow new leads in emerging fields and skill sets. These include things like learning to speak Chinese or extend their studies into new technical fields. It seemed to me that many people were looking to become more unique and possess skill sets that not everyone typically has. However, I should mention that this was only some of the people who I met. There were just as many other people who were hoping to find things in their fields.
³ Source: Are Spaniards Emigrating?
Poor Leadership & Corruption
It does not help that the figure heads of Spain are not proving to be great examples either by carrying out a lavish lifestyle or becoming involved in scandalous corruption. Several Spaniards mentioned a story about King Juan Carlos who went on an exotic excursion to Botswana this past year with his mistress. Accordingly, the only reason that he was caught was because he fell off of his elephant and required a major operation. Additionally, his daughter and her husband have received criminal charges for embezzlement through Swiss bank accounts, living their “flamboyant lifestyle.” 4 This, many likened, to public opinion of U.S. President Barack Obama and his family who regularly take lavish vacations around the world on public funds. In a time when people are suffering, it would help for the leadership to be somewhat sympathetic to the average citizens.
Unfortunately corruption is rampant in Spain, you can find tons of cases by searching online for corruption in Spain. In many ways, it seems to highlight the extreme differences between the average citizen and fastidiously wealthy. Much corruption is currently underway with the banking industry, government, and other sectors of Spain, while the people have become increasingly frustrated. Spain is slightly different from your typical rich vs. poor country because it was traditionally a wealthy country. It is a western nation and open to the outside markets since after the fall of Franco’s dictatorial regime in 1976. However, many know about Spain’s flourishing history as a conquering nation, which brought it riches from far away lands. In fact, since the times of the Spanish Inquisition, Spain has played an important role in modern history.
4 Source: Reuters: King Juan Carlos falls from grace
Spanish people are some of my favorite people in that they are always looking to have a good time. They are true lovers of life and leisure and their fun attitude can be contagious in the best of ways. I found that many of the Spaniards were still maintaining this attitude despite their conditions. That being said, not everything was great.
Spain is traditionally a nation of immigrants. This theme goes way back to the time of the Romans and Moors. In the 21st Century, chiefly because of its colonial history coupled with its proximity to the continent of Africa, Spain is a prime piece of real estate for people seeking refuge from the developing world. Sadly, there is little opportunity for these immigrants. There is a nasty side of modern immigration to Spain that revolves around organized crime. You can see it daily there without trying to find it. Prostitution lines city streets, there is a high rate of petty theft in cities such as Barcelona, and street vendors attempt sell anything that they can to make a buck. However, this is not necessarily something new. Tragically, many of these people are coaxed into coming to Spain for greener pastures, then forced into some peddling job that they will likely never leave. This most recent influx of immigrants has caused some tensions with the Spanish people especially as the jobless number has increased steadily. Some Spaniards have become exhausted by the inflow of immigrants and are very open to sharing it. Others realize that it is a natural process that just cannot be stopped. Spain is a natural gateway to Europe as its southern shores are just a few miles from the North African coast.
I saw more Spaniards this time doing things that just did not seem to fit. For example, a Spanish woman old enough to be a grandmother who walked by my table selling lighters. As she walked away, I sat puzzled for a few moments as I contemplated the situation. Was she trying to make ends meet, I contemplated to myself?
I felt the despair of many of the people, both young and old, that I talked to. I saw as some were internally conflicted and upset, others held strict pessimism for any future solutions, but I also saw a lot of people doing what they can to make things work. The depression was emanate in some of the people who I met. Spaniards are typically known for wearing their emotions, but in many cases in Spain, as you have seen in my pictures, the writing is on the wall. Unfortunately, there has been a correlating increase in the number of suicides in Spain due to the crisis. As the amount of foreclosures and evictions rise, more and more people have turned to hopelessness and pessimism, which is truly a sad thing.
There is unfortunately no quick fix to Spain’s current situation, but in time bad things can be improved with hard work and determination. Part of the problem with Spain is that you have dis-unification. Spain is one of those countries that is like multiple countries put together. There are several autonomous states in Spain, several of them have, or still, seek independence from Spain. Catalunya, Basque country, Andalusia, Galcía, and Valencia are among the most well-known of the 17 autonomous states of Spain. Not all of them seek independence, but they still stand apart. If they could find ways to overcome this, they would be better off as a whole, but culturally I can see how the regions are different.
One of the more interesting things about Spain was that I noticed very little trouble with any crime. (I should mention that when I refer to crime, I mean more specifically the violent type. There are hundreds of pickpockets daily and theft issues, but very little issues outside of this. The majority of this petty crime does not come from Spaniards anyway.) This absence of crime is something that I can say is a very positive attribute to the Spanish people. Typically, you see a direct correlation between crime and economies, but in the case of Spain, I just don’t see it. Perhaps, I got lucky, or missed it all, but I went to a lot of cities and walked through a lot of places and never once felt unsafe. The Spanish police do a fantastic job of keeping the streets safe and Spaniards must make attempts at avoiding conflicts.
On the Bright Side of Things
I might be overly optimistic, but I believe that el crisis can be good in some ways for the Spanish people. I expressed this ideal with some Spaniards and not all agreed, but I will try again here.
Tough times call for innovation and big changes. They give you an opportunity to sit back and reflect on what is working and what is not, and make corrections where needed. Think of this like a person who has “hit rock bottom”. Once someone has been to the worst of conditions, there is only one direction to go, unless of course you don’t do anything at all. I believe that the Spanish people can take a really bad situation and make it better by making some necessary changes to their country’s system and economy. Nothing will change over night. However, with the proper changes in attitude and direction, I think that Spain can have a bright future. Spain has some great natural resources. Although Spain has issues with water in some areas such as Murcia, it has an abundance of things like sun light. Spain has a large multi-cultural population that has the potential to be innovative, creative, and do great things. You are already seeing this in some aspects of society. For example, many who lack economic opportunities are being forced to attempt to create them for themselves. Spain has seen a tremendous increase in the number of start-ups and entrepreneurial endeavors since the beginning of la crisis. Bloomberg even calls it, “necessity entrepreneurship.” 5 Granted, not all businesses are successful, but the bad times are causing these people to think outside of the box, which I dare say could be considered to be a good thing.
Spain is still a beautiful country, rich in historical significance and regional importance. They still produce some of the finest wines and foods that the world knows. They still have some of the most breathtaking cities and amazing coastlines. Spain will survive, they are just going through some tough times and will likely continue to be doing so for the coming years. Les mando mis sinceros deseos de recuperación.
5 Source: Start-ups fill void left
I am not sure if I really accomplished my goal of explaining how bad Spain is in its current economic state. Spanish people may have a completely different picture to paint. Truthfully, the impact that la crisis has had, and is having, on any particular Spaniard may vary greatly depending on what they do and where they live. My approach was to give you a few different examples of some of the problems facing Spain and some of the negative impacts of la crisis. I hope that you have a better idea of what the Spanish people are going through at the moment and an appreciation for their situation.
*Tags: How bad is Spain, what is spain like now*