Esperanza y Cambio

He came to power by blaming his predecessor for sending troops to Iraq. The new leader promised comprehensive health care reform and to bring his country's welfare safety net in line with Western Europe's. But the global financial crisis came and denied him his chance of greatness. Compelled by circumstances, he began to belatedly imitate the policies of his predecessor simply in order to survive. We are of course talking about Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

When Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took power seven years ago, he and his Socialist Workers Party set out to perfect the welfare state in Spain. The goal was to equal— or even surpass — lavish social protections that have long been the rule in Spain’s Western European neighbors.

True to his Socialist principles and riding an economic boom, Zapatero raised the minimum wage and extended health insurance to cover everything from sniffles to sex-changes. He made scholarships available for all. Young adults got rent subsidies called “emancipation” money. Mothers got $3,500 for the birth of a child, toddlers attended free nurseries and the elderly won stipends to finance nursing care. ...

With a U.S.-style real estate bubble having burst and the 2008 global economic crisis having unfurled like a tsunami from Wall Street to Plaza de Espana, Zapatero’s main concern in his second term has become hacking away at government spending to preserve Spain’s credit rating. The icon of socialism just concluded a pact with labor unions and business leaders to freeze pensions, push back the retirement age from 65 to 67, trim union bargaining rights, cut civil servants’ pay by 5 percent — including his own — and suspend the childbirth bonus. The alternative, he warned, was bankruptcy.

In a word, the Spanish Prime Minister promised them the Ritz and gave them the Pitz. Now Zapatero is facing a revolt from his angry left, from the millions of socialist believers and youth -- many of whom are unemployed -- who were promised something for nothing and now feel betrayed. The BBC says tens of thousands of protesters have permanently occupied the Puerta del Sol square, most of them young people "frustrated at 45% youth unemployment." Their demands: end the financial crisis already!

They are demanding jobs, better living standards, a fairer system of democracy and changes to the Socialist government's austerity plans.

"They want to leave us without public health, without public education, half of our youth is unemployed, they have risen the age of our retirement as well," said protester Natividad Garcia.

"This is an absolute attack on what little state welfare we had."

The bad news is that Spain has set Europe's record for unemployment. The good news is that it is southern Europe's economic powerhouse. If things are bad in Spain, it's worse elsewhere. And it's bad in Spain.

Retiree Luis Cases says that in his hometown of Valencia, it feels like 95 percent of people are out of work.

"The people I know, it's 95 percent, no work," he said. "It's a bad situation for young people - and old men."

Cases describes what he thinks of the official jobless rate of 21.3 percent.

"No, rubbish! The government says rubbish! No, no, it's more, more, more," he said. "It's very, very difficult. There's no money. The young want to get married, have children and house. But where is the money?"

Even before Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York, he was on his way for talks with European leaders on whether or not to offer Greece a second bailout to prevent its economic collapse. "Saddled with debt estimated to be €340bn and climbing by the day, Athens accepted this month that without further financial support it would be unable to refinance €60bn of maturing debt. With Greece effectively locked out of international capital markets, Strauss-Khan had been a strong proponent of throwing the nation a second financial lifeline to stave off economic collapse." Greece was on its last legs.

But even had their champion been at liberty to promote a second bailout, there was no guarantee that Greece would not default eventually and descend into social unrest. Things are so bad that young people are leaving Athens to return to the rural areas, where the tantalizing prospect of truck gardens, chickens, and pigs promises food on the table. For those down on their luck the alternative is a hardscrabble life in Athens.

In Athens, home to almost half of Greece's 11 million-strong population, the signs of austerity – and poverty – are everywhere: in the homeless and hungry who forage through municipal rubbish bins late at night; in the cash-strapped pensioners who pick up rejects at the street markets that sell fruit and vegetables; in the shops now boarded and closed and in the thousands of ordinary Greeks who can no longer afford to take family outings or regularly eat meat.

Many protesters claim that austerity has made things worse -- doubtless true since it means they have less money to spend. Greece, according to some observers, resembles a movie played in reverse. It is the portrait of a country going from a modern, 21st century existence to one that resembles Dogpatch. What is worse, Dogpatch looks to be permanent.

"In the past, the future always implied hope for Greeks but now it implies fear," said Nikos Filis, editor of the leftwing Avgi newspaper. "Until this week people thought that with all the measures the crisis would be over in a year or two. Now with the prospect of yet more austerity for more aid, they can't see an end in sight."

The northern Europeans may have had enough too -- of the southern Europeans. Angela Merkel "effectively accused the Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese of enjoying too much vacation and retiring young." Some observers pointed out that Germany's economic recovery "didn't fall from the sky" but achieved by cutting on welfare, increasing the retirement age and generally saving money. Hogwash, say others. Just end the economic crisis already!

Zapatero's problems are a preview of the fate which awaits a left-wing politician who promises to lower the level of the oceans and winds up raising the price of gas. Added to the pangs of hunger is the outrage at betrayal. After years of telling a base that you can get money for nothing and your chicks for free, it doesn't go over well to explain that it was all a joke, and hey guys -- don't you have a sense of humor?  When they are told their inflated college degrees are worthless, their money valueless, and their employment prospects are nil, the exhortation to take it all in good part often falls flat. So end the economic crisis already. Or else the revolutionary youth will seize power and print enough money to make everything right again. It can be done, you know: just call it Quantitative Easing.


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