Austerity Through My Ten-Year-Old’s Eyes
On a recent afternoon, I found my ten-year-old daughter, Gabriela, in her room, busily writing a list. Leaning over her shoulder, I read the title: “Things I wish didn’t exist.” Aside from the usual suspects, such as school cafeteria food, wars, and earthquakes, she had also added unemployment, poverty, cutbacks, riot police, Lehman Brothers, and the minister of education. And the list went on.
One could argue that these are things a child simply regurgitates after hearing them at home or seeing them on the news (in the interest of full disclosure: As a journalist’s daughter, Gabriela is a news junkie). But Gabriela, like all Spanish children, is living in turbulent times. These days, it is impossible to walk the streets without running into soup kitchen lines, homeless people rummaging through trash containers or sleeping pressed against buildings, and protests, thousands of them, taking place in every corner of Spain, every day.
Our central Madrid neighborhood is disrupted daily by the unsettling hum of police helicopters overhead. A short walk to the store sometimes means taking a special route to avoid riot police. Nowadays we are just as likely to bump into our family doctor carrying a protest sign on the street as we are to see her holding a stethoscope in our public health center. Not surprisingly, the economic crisis often tends to find its way into our dinnertime conversation.
Gabriela and her five-year-old sister, Estrella, are lucky. Although our livelihood has certainly been affected by the crisis, still they are not part of the 26 percent of children living in poverty in Spain, nor are their parents standing every day in long unemployment lines, as one of every four working-age people must do here. It is something my husband and I often remind them about as we try to teach them about social justice and solidarity, about giving and sharing in times of need.
The debt crisis, the massive dismantlement of the public sector, the privatization, and the impoverishment of an entire nation are, of course, not just a thing of the present. They will have grave consequences for Gabriela’s and Estrella’s future and that of an entire generation. It is our children who will pay the hefty price tag of this global financial crisis and its bitter remedies. I wonder whether Gabriela had an inkling of any of this when she wrote her list.
As a journalist, I often come home with new stories and must figure out how much information to dish out: enough to satisfy Gabriela’s curiosity and help her understand the world around her, but not so much as to overwhelm her. After reading Gabriela’s list, I realize she has absorbed much more than I had thought—perhaps a little too much for my comfort. I am not sure how much Estrella gets of these discussions, but probably also more than we can imagine.
Why Spain is in such bad shape and who is responsible is not easy to explain to a child, but we try to use simple concepts and terms, always striving to leave a little room for hope. Still, the story that emerges has all the makings of a fairy tale (or horror story) set in feudal times.
Not that it is any easier for us, the adults, to really know. The full scope of the government’s austerity plans are kept hidden from us as much as possible in the hopes that the public won’t get the real deal. Our prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Partido Popular prefers to reveal his true intentions to a Wall Street Journal editorial board rather than to the Spanish public.
We are more likely to know what our finance minister or Spanish banks are really up to by reading The New York Times or The Economist. That is how I found out that just before the 100 billion euro bank bailout was announced in June, our banks had been borrowing at 1 percent from the European Central Bank—loans that were actually intended for credit-starved families and small businesses—and then lending this money to the Spanish government at 6 percent. Surprised? Meet our Economy and Competitiveness Minister: Luis de Guindos, former director of Lehman Brothers for Spain and Portugal and ranked by The Financial Times as the Eurozone’s most incompetent financial minister. He also found his way onto Gabriela’s list.
To further confuse us, our government uses deliberately opaque and euphemistic language borrowed directly from the International Monetary Fund and other neoliberal preachers when talking about drastic cuts in social spending, layoffs, and other austerity measures. For the most part, the mainstream media have played along.
But by now, everyone here knows that “adjustment” is any sort of cut in public spending made on the backs of the working and middle classes. “Flexible labor” really means laws that make it cheaper for employers to fire people. So far, no one has seen evidence of job creation thanks to this law, only of massive layoffs.
Meanwhile, “doing more with less” translates into a defunded public sector and “co-payment” means paying for the same public service twice: once with your taxes and the second time with cash.
A 30 percent cut in social spending for 2013 is cynically repackaged as “the most social budget in the history of Spanish democracy.” The troika—the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union—applauds, but folks know better: As my newspaper vendor said the other morning, it’s only going to get worse.
Despite the government’s attempt to obfuscate, ordinary people in Spain cannot be fooled. They feel first-hand the effects of these “adjustments,” no matter what they are called. Many kids feel them because they are going hungry, thanks to government cuts in free school lunches and food banks.
Facing a 52 percent unemployment rate for their age group, unprecedented numbers of young Spaniards, many college graduates, have fled to Germany and other European countries in search of opportunities. In fact, Gabriela told me the other day that she wants to study German in order to have a job when she grows up. I wonder about our future when our best-prepared and able-bodied are no longer here.
This all would have been unimaginable in 2002, the year Gabriela was born, when Spain’s economic growth was lauded as a miracle, and every family’s dream of owning a home seemed within reach. But in 2008, the housing bubble burst, along with its artificially created prosperity. Now, Spain trembles on Mondays when global markets open to dish out their latest speculation on our sovereign debt, and again on Fridays when the government unveils a new austerity package, neatly adorned with its euphemistic ribbons. Since the age of six, Gabriela has been hearing about this crisis.
Gabriela’s list includes the names of powerful people such as European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is planning to build a Vegas-like casino complex right down the street from us if Spain agrees to his terms: He is insisting on exemptions from tax, health, labor, immigration, and even criminal laws.
Gabriela’s list, written in her flowery handwriting, seems much too big for a ten-year-old. But like many kids, she understands, in a fifth-grader’s basic way, the difference between those responsible for our problems and those who suffer the consequences.
In her list, Gabriela also named parliament. She associates it with the protests that took place on September 25 and 26, when thousands of people surrounded the building to protest public spending cuts and express their loss of confidence in our elected leadership.
At nightfall on September 25, Gabriela and I watched as riot police with batons and rubber bullets charged against the peaceful demonstrators, most waving their hands in the air, some fragile and elderly. Officers even chased some protesters into a nearby train station, where they beat them as they waited for the train home.
The scene was obviously frightening to Gabriela, as she struggled to understand why police would use such violence against ordinary citizens. I tried to explain that the government did not want the world to know just how unhappy people were with its policies, and instead wanted it to look like protesters were violent and irrational.
What I have not mentioned to Gabriela is what most worries me about the situation in Spain. In the name of the economic crisis, the Partido Popular is dismantling the progressive social welfare system that took many decades to build and whose purpose was, and continues to be, to reduce the enormous social inequalities produced by a forty-year dictatorship.
Looking on the reverse side of Gabriela’s list, I was heartened to see another list, if much shorter, titled “Things I Like.” Again, Gabriela had named the usual suspects—our family, books, and her favorite cartoon character—but at the top of the list were her school and her teachers.
She had also listed the 15-M movement, also known as the indignados. In the summer of 2011, we spent many days in the 15-M camp in Madrid’s central square, a city within a city where anything felt possible and revolution seemed around the corner. There, we met people from all walks of life, from young students to immigrant activists to elderly survivors of our Civil War, all with a common vision that change was possible.
When the 15-M movement folded its tents and left center stage, it moved to the neighborhoods, where it remains today. Many members have integrated into community organizations, infusing into them new organizing tactics and energy. The movement has managed to forge ties with unions, associations, and nongovernmental organizations, strengthening Spanish civil society and increasing its capacity to fight for change—although it has yet to translate its enormous potential into a concrete plan.
Gabriela has often seen local assemblies created by 15-M meeting at our local park. The anti-eviction platform, invigorated by 15-M, has been able to transcend race and class borders, incorporating many African and Latin American immigrants affected by repossession. Our local 15-M assembly has transformed an abandoned city lot in our neighborhood into a much-needed social center where neighbors attend concerts, tend to the vegetable orchard, or just meet friends.
Back in 2011, we also visited the Occupy camps in Washington, D.C., a movement inspired by 15-M. We strolled through the camps, spoke to the activists, and felt their energy and hope for change. In November, we watched this movement resurface to help Hurricane Sandy victims.
After reading Gabriela’s second list, I can see that her hope rests in the people who help her look forward to a better future despite the bleak times: her family; her teachers, who come to work enthusiastically every day and believe in her potential; and the scores of people who have helped her to understand that she, too, belongs to a citizen movement without borders, based on justice and solidarity.
As Gabriela grows and develops, I hope her second list will dwarf her first one. Heroes are all around us. It’s just that these days, it is hard to hear their voices above those helicopters.
Maria Carrión is an independent freelance journalist and scriptwriter living in Madrid. She is a former senior producer of Democracy Now!
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