By Alberto Pradilla
This is war. Parliament has got to go! They’re trying to make civil servants take the blame for a situation that was caused by the banking sector and which the government has allowed to happen.”
This is how a ministry employee summarised the growing outrage with which the vast majority of the Spanish people have reacted to their government’s fiscal adjustments.
“They want to cheat us out of our bonuses. Most public sector employees like me barely make 1,000 euro (some 1,200 dollars) a month. Last year, they cut five percent off of our salaries and taxes just keep going up. We can’t take any more of this,” Carmen Raduy, an employee at the ministry of foreign affairs and cooperation, complained.
A middle-aged woman, Raduy is not used to going to demonstrations, but this Thursday, Jul. 19, she joined a group of protesters who gathered to block traffic on the Prado avenue, one of the busiest streets in Madrid’s downtown area. Less than 500 m from the demonstrators the building that houses the Spanish congress is visible behind a large contingent of riot police that has been shielding it for the past week.
As she spoke with IPS, Raduy spotted at least 50 fellow government workers who had also taken to the streets to protest.
A new austerity package announced last week by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the right-wing Popular Party, triggered a call for a general strike and street protests in some 80 cities across the country on Thursday, when the package was set to be voted in parliament.
The austerity measures, which were passed with the votes of PP legislators, include the elimination of the Christmas bonus salary for civil servants, an increase in the regular value added tax from 18 to 21 percent, and stricter conditions for receiving unemployment aid.
The Rajoy administration had already eliminated other social benefits such as the provision of certain free medicines for pensioners, and had passed a labour reform that, among other things, makes it easier and cheaper to fire workers.
The latest statistics put the number of unemployed Spaniards at 5.6 million, or a quarter of the economically active population.
And the government announced that it plans to further reduce spending and cut other social benefits.
Finance minister Cristóbal Montoro said the money in the state’s coffers is not even enough to pay public sector salaries. Meanwhile, the government awaits the 123 billion dollars approved ten days ago by the European Union as rescue funds to stabilise Spanish banks.
The large majority of the population sees this bailout and the budget cutbacks as proof that the government has chosen to protect bank privileges at the expense of sacrificing public services.
This sentiment was eloquently illustrated by one of the signs in the demonstration that read: “Hands up, this is a stick up!”
Virginia Romero, an 81-year-old pensioner, held up a large placard with the slogan: “No privileges for politicians.” She marched slowly, weighed down by her years. But she made her way easily among the thousands of people who poured into the streets of Madrid Thursday afternoon and night. “I have children and grandchildren” who are suffering this situation, she said.
She claims that at her age she is not worried about her own welfare. But she is concerned about the future of her three sons and their children. Unemployment has shot up and wages are plunging, so that living conditions are deteriorating even for those who manage to hold on to their jobs.
“I have two sons in college. University fees have gone up 20 percent. If they want to stay in school they’re going to have to work. But there are no jobs,” María José Hernández, a development ministry employee, said.
Hernández gathered with another 200 civil servants on Paseo de la Castellana, the broad multi-lane avenue that cuts across Madrid from north to south, to stop traffic at the Nuevos Ministerios, a large government complex that houses the offices of several ministries in downtown Madrid.
Madrid residents have become used to seeing public sector workers stopping traffic to protest against the government, in a form of demonstration modelled on the ‘piquetes’ (road blocks) staged in Argentina during the social unrest that followed the economic and institutional debacle of late 2001.
Hernández told IPS that they would continue with these protests. They have lost a third of their salaries, the prices of basic goods are rising and they want a future for their families, she said.
The road blocks upset some drivers who hurl angry insults at the demonstrators. But many others, like María Isabel Martínez, show their solidarity by getting out their cars and honking their horns in support.
“They’re right in protesting. I’m with them,” she told IPS, as she stood in the middle of Castellana avenue. Her support is not surprising. She came upon the protesters on her way back from a job interview. Her only worry was that she had left her kids with her sister, who is also unemployed. But that did not stop her from shouting words of encouragement to the public employees who blocked her way.
The declining quality of life is one of the reasons why Spaniards have taken to the streets. Another reason is what trade unions and left-wing parties describe as the “dismantling of public services.”
Guti Domínguez, a 28-year-old firefighter, illustrated this graphically for IPS while he walked with a squad of fellow officers who were participating in the huge march.
“We’re sorely understaffed. There are not enough firefighters to cover every shift. It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he warned.
Domínguez said that during their 24-hour shifts one of the firefighters would go out and buy food for everyone. But money is so short now that they cannot afford to do that anymore, and there are so few of them that when they have to leave the station they do so together so that can combat any fire that breaks out better.
Firefighters were among the most cheered by the demonstrators. Similar complaints were voiced by doctors, nurses and teachers.
“The cuts are a threat to public education,” said Mercedes García who works at a high school in Madrid, and took part in one of the many spontaneous demonstrations that have shaken the country’s capital. In this case, some 150 people had gathered near the lower chamber of parliament.
“That’s where the power of the people is supposed to be represented, but they’ve closed it up so we can’t get anywhere near it,” she said, in reference to the heavily armed police forces surrounding the building.
Protests intensified on Thursday night when police and demonstrators clashed, leaving several people wounded and arrested.
This is the second time in a week that incidents occurred at a demonstration. The government, however, has an absolute majority in parliament and is determined to go ahead with the austerity programme. Which means more road blocks, marches and unrest are certain to come.
“They want to drive us into poverty, (so) we’ll take to streets,” María José Torres, an employee of the Spanish trademark and patent office, said.