Broken glass, shattered dreams; why Spain’s image has faded

For years after the return to democracy the country was seen by others as an example to follow. So what has gone so badly wrong?

The image of Spain we get from abroad is that of a broken mirror. In the fall of 1985, H. M. Enzensberger published a series of articles in EL PAÍS titled Spain's broken glass. But now it is Spain itself which is broken.

Since 2009, the pessimism in this country has been simply breathtaking. When The New York Times ran a story that showed Spaniards rummaging through trash bins for food, it brought fear to people's hearts... here in Spain, that is. Other prestigious newspapers made their own contributions to the mirror that we don't want to look into.

This image has been building up despite official efforts to paint a cheerier picture, despite the Spanish soccer team and other successes in the world of sports, despite the fact that the Prado Museum is still firmly in its place, and despite the fact that the sun just won't go away and continues to draw droves of tourists. As a matter of fact, tourism is practically the only sector that is working at full steam in an economy whose new lexicon features harrowing terms like eviction.

I asked a few foreigners who know Spain well for their own opinions on the crisis.

Nobody in Spain takes responsibility for anything; everyone's a victim"

The writer William Chislett, who was the Madrid correspondent for the Financial Times and still lives here, is now an associate researcher at the think tank Instituto Elcano. He covered the Spanish transition to democracy following Franco's death and has written seven books about Spain; his latest one is about to be published by Oxford University Press.

Chislett said that Spain's image abroad has deteriorated significantly in recent years, but not as much as purported in "that absurd story published on page one of the NYT. This type of story can be written about any country, starting with my own, England. I think that despite so many negative things and the deep crisis, there is still a gap between the country's reality and its image."

As for the origin of Spain's current situation, Chislett points directly at "the madness of the real estate bubble [and a few airports], which to me at least was like the title of a novel by García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The only unknown element was when it would happen."

This researcher believes that the causes of the crisis were mostly domestic rather than external; chief among these was the dismal management of regional savings banks, which invested heavily in real estate; an absolute lack of long-term vision across the entire political class, which failed to consider what the property sector would be replaced with once it tanked; and tense relations between the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE), which was far more acerbic than what could be considered normal between the ruling party and the main opposition.

Governments lack the right tools to function in a globalized economy"

There has also been a failure to introduce control mechanisms and a balance of powers. Education has deteriorated to the point where "a productive model based on knowledge has become a pipe dream in Spain," says Chislett. To all this, he adds one more observation: "Nobody in this country takes responsibility for anything; everyone's a victim, nobody is guilty."

Meanwhile, the judicial branch is politicized and works "at a snail's pace." Chislett also notes that "I don't know of any other country where there are conservative judges and progressive judges."

"All this is very sad for someone who has made Spain his home," he concludes.

Two years ago, the Swedish writer, translator and diplomat Peter Landelius published his book Europa y el águila (or, Europe and the eagle), which provided his vision of the Spanish crisis from his current place of residence, Chile. "I had the privilege of living in Spain during the Movida (a countercultural movement) of the 1980s. Since then I have lived in Latin American countries except for a few years at the Swedish chancellery and a sabbatical at Harvard." But he is still in touch with the peninsula.

Should it feel like the capital of pain?

ilar Tena, a Spanish lawyer and journalist, lives in Dublin. For 10 years she was deputy director of the think tank Real Instituto Elcano; she was also director of the Spain'92 Foundation, and has lived in many of the world's capitals. Speaking from her Irish vantage point, she answers the question of why Spain should feel like the capital of pain.

"Perhaps because, as far as this crisis is concerned, we are," she says. "Along with Greece, of course, whose citizens must be feeling every bit as bad as us."

Tena draws on statistics to make her case. "According to Eurostat figures, of the 26 million unemployed Europeans in October 2012, nearly six million were living in our country. There are around 19 million jobless people in the euro zone. That means that nearly a third of euro zone unemployment is in Spain. And the bad thing is not just that we top the unemployment charts along with Greece, but also that, unlike the Baltic countries for instance, which have improved on this front, Spain is expected to be the last euro zone country to emerge from recession. So it does not look like we're going to be creating jobs for years to come.

"Our crisis is especially tough because of the high unemployment rate we'd been recording for years, and because of two characteristics that make it unbearable: the extremely high jobless rate among the young, and the chilling figures on the number of families where none of its members have a job.

"Added to the pain of these realities is the anxiety produced by the serious doubts we harbor regarding the effectiveness of the austerity measures being adopted," she says. "In other countries like Ireland, measures are generally accepted as being the correct ones, and nobody questions the government's policies - which does not mean that society is not suffering all the same."

Foreigners, she says, ask her about the Spanish family ("Is it still as important as a cohesive factor?"), about the submerged economy, about corruption ("they show surprise at the Spanish corruption levels shown by the indexes and by the politicians' loss of credibility"), and they wonder if what they read in that famous New York Times story about people looking for food in the garbage is an accurate depiction of the country.

The capital of pain? From the outside, sometimes, Spain appears to be more like the capital of astonishment.

Landelius thinks that the crisis did not start in Spain, but rather "in the financial sector and in the United States," whose economy was "irresponsibly" managed for a long time.

"The Spanish governments had their accounts in reasonable order, but [former Socialist prime minister] Zapatero did not see the banking crisis coming, a crisis that was caused by three overlapping factors: the global banking financial crisis, the construction boom and the savings banks' old-fashioned structures."

The Latin American mirror works. "Latin American nations have been through worse crises and several of them are now doing much better... However, I don't think Spaniards have a lot to learn from them. Their crises also had external causes at the time (Asia), but they chiefly resulted from disastrous management of their public finances and their political economy. No doubt today's growth has something to do with a more responsible policy (see the cases of Chile or Brazil), but above all it is thanks to foreign demand for raw materials (in the cases of Peru, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia) or for industrial products (Mexico and Brazil)."

So what is to be done? "When the economy goes well, governments assure us that it's all thanks to them. When it goes wrong, they try to avoid responsibility," notes Landelius. "The problem is that governments lack the right tools to function in a globalized economy and it's not that they don't want to find them in the only feasible way -- by cooperating with other governments. Spain is no longer the problem, but Europe continues to be the solution. I saw it in the generation of Felipe González, Olof Palme and Willy Brandt. What are the European poets of today singing?"

What are they singing, indeed? And what are Spanish politicians singing? Sami Naïr, a political scientist and writer who works in France, defines himself as a convinced, practicing European and is a regular presence at Spanish universities and discussion panels, offers the following analysis: "The fundamental trait now in Spain is disorientation, a lack of vision by the ruling elites, a disorderly retreat. Spain's problem is not its people, but its ruling groups, who are helpless to address the challenges posed by the crisis. In reality, the last [leader] with a vision was Felipe González, but he is now paralyzed by the dwarves, like Gulliver. Spain will emerge from this crisis as a radically changed country. The dream of the last 20 years (of unhindered development) will vanish and citizens will have to understand that this is not a wealthy country; that it has to work harder, rationalize its resources and fight to have some relevance among European nations. It will also have to definitively solve the regional issue, which is totally irrelevant in its current conception. One cannot live without a shared concept of the general interest."

Spain forgot how to be poor, which has not happened to Latin America"

And what energy must Spaniards employ to propel themselves forward again? Naïr exclaims: "Unity, unity, unity of the country! Nobody will forgive Spain its weakness in the European context. Europe is not a brotherly gathering; it is a battlefield. Whoever loses track of their nation's interests is dead. You have to take advantage of the crisis to modernize social relations and found a new social state based on national production, not on European goodwill."

Naïr also thinks that the current austerity policies are counterproductive because they are not coupled with a national strategy to relaunch the economy. "And that is because the government does not want to touch the sacred power of Spain's financial elites."

"Political parties have to open the door to younger generations who are less caught up in the idea that Europe is the solution to all ills. If I had to give one piece of advice to my dear host country, I would say, 'Open your eyes!'"

Keeping her eyes wide open is Cristina Gallach, head of public relations for the EU Council. "We're in a bad state judging by the amount of young people with excellent résumés who come to Brussels looking for a job or an opportunity, even if it is just as an intern," she says. "And when you see them, you realize that they are really anxious and feel they have no opportunities back in Spain. It's possible that my memory fails me, but my impression is that the outside factor -- the going abroad in search of opportunities -- is happening much more now than in past crises thanks to the single market, the fact that Europe is closer than ever. Young people have traveled more. Many have studied abroad and so they're not so reluctant to consider leaving their country."

Nobody will forgive Spain its weakness in the European context"

Gallach views the situation "with enormous concern, unease and frustration. We've gone from being a model of what's good to being a model of what's bad."

How to get out of the hole? "With the energy conveyed to society by the many things that do go well. Only yesterday, two young Spanish businesswomen received a prize in Brussels for their expanding farming business, which is a pioneer in the use of environmental techniques. They are first-rate women. These cases bring positive energy to society as a whole."

Jorge Fernández Díaz, an Argentinean writer who has just published Las mujeres más solas del mundo (or, The loneliest women in the world), is deputy director of La Nación, the Buenos Aires daily. This is his own analysis of the situation: "I have seen Spaniards in a state of sadness that I had never known in them. They are learning the hard way that the economy is not a straight line pointing upwards and bringing constant progress. Because this is the first time in many years that a crisis has hit them, Spaniards seem to be in a state of shock. We Argentineans are experts at catastrophe: there can be some virtue in that, since it denounces our deplorable way of running things. But the situation made us tougher. The crisis will pass, and in no way will it invalidate the political, institutional and economic progress of the last three decades in Spain."

So what's going on here is nothing compared with what Argentina went through? "It would be easy to say that Spain is going through a similar situation to Argentina in 2001. But that would be neither fair nor true. Spain has a recession and Argentina had a crash that swept away the economy, politics and the institutions, and we are still paying for that tremendous fall. I personally feel that Spain is more powerful than it thinks and that it could stand taller before those who order it to adopt recessive policies of infinite adjustment."

The Colombian journalist Daniel Samper Pisano suggested "stamina, patience, imagination" to find a way out. "Spain forgot how to be poor, which is something that has not happened to Latin America: the best rich folks are the ones who never forget where they came from."

Meanwhile, the streets are full of broken glass. But here is a ray of light from the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta (Neruda's Postman): "Spain has a magnificent people who practice the art of knowing how to live with spontaneity and warmth. Its art and literature are magnificent in all areas of creation and a source of inspiration to the world. They are brilliant at sports. Its entrepreneurs are vigorous. Its industry is solid. Its democracy is stable. Its relationship with Latin America is excellent. It is the homeland of our language and thus the homeland of Latin Americans. If we are afflicted by the present moment in Spain, it is not from without. It is deep from within. The virtues I have enumerated ensure that Spain is sufficiently solid and creative to overcome the current difficulties.

"A piece of advice? In this difficult context, rub an unfashionable value until it shines: solidarity with the most vulnerable people."

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