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Letter From Spain


charles castaldi, a former reporter for NPR, lives in Madrid.

Published July 25, 2022


“It started with a bikini. And a very long Vespa ride.” That’s what Beatriz Galindo, a retiree from Altea, a small Spanish town on the Mediterranean, told me when I asked her if there was a moment that marked a change for her under the regime of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. She said that in 1953, in the sleepy fishing village of Benidorm a few kilometers south, the mayor had wanted to promote beach tourism, so he allowed foreigners to wear bikinis.

Outrage ensued. The police issued fines for immodesty. The local bishop threatened to excommunicate him for transgressing Spain’s strict Catholic moral code.

“So the mayor, Pedro Zaragoza, got on his Vespa,” Galindo continued. “He rode eight hours to Madrid, and demanded to see Generalissimo Franco.” The Caudillo, as Franco was known, received Zaragoza, heard him out and, instead of jailing him for his impudence, told him to return to his village and proceed with his plans. The rest, as they say, is history. Benidorm became a tourist mecca, and with it, Spain.

Exorcizing Franco

Of course, the mayor’s Vespa journey is merely a symbolic marker, the beginning of a much-needed modernization for a Spain that, after a brutal civil war and the decades of repression that followed, had languished on the margins of Europe. It was poor, backward and fettered by a stifling autocrat. But Franco’s rabid anti-communism found favor with a United States immersed in the Cold War. So American military bases — and the money they brought — hit the Spanish shores at the same time bikinis did. When Franco died in 1975, Spain managed a peaceful transition to democracy and a major boom was underway.

I had asked Galindo the question because two things have surprised me over the past few months I’ve been in Spain. First, how far women have advanced in Spanish society. Second, just how much the specter of Franco and his notion of a “Greater Spain” is creeping back into the national discourse.

“The change produced in Spain after the Franco dictatorship, and especially after joining the EU [in 1986] has been tremendous,” confirmed Carmen Herrero, a well-known economist who teaches at the University of Alicante near Benidorm. “We went from being an autocratic country to one that is modern and integrated in international structures — not just politically, but in our way of life.”

“The change of the situation of women in Spain in these years has been spectacular,” Herrero added. “It’s incredible when you think that in the 1970s women couldn’t open a checking account, nor [were they] considered adults until they were age 23.”

The cabinet of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, consisting of 14 women and eight men, showcases this breathtaking change. But it’s more than window-dressing: the parity of women holds steady at all government levels, from the national chamber of deputies to the autonomous regions and down to the municipal councils.

In language that would be music to the ears of most any U.S. Republican, Isabel Díaz Ayuso promised to loosen Covid-19 restrictions, not to mention committed to “bringing down taxes, protecting public, private and special education.” She won by a landslide.

Spain’s governance is almost as decentralized as the United States’, with a good deal of power in the hands of its 17 autonomous regions. In the Madrid regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso established herself as a formidable political force after calling a snap election in 2021, right in the middle of the pandemic. In language that would be music to the ears of most any U.S. Republican, she promised to loosen Covid-19 restrictions, not to mention committed to “bringing down taxes, protecting public, private and special education.” She won by a landslide, and whether one views her as a wily opportunist or a charismatic visionary, she is a figure to be reckoned with on the right.

Another powerful woman, this one at the other end of the political spectrum, is Sanchez’s First Deputy Prime Minister Nadia Calviño, who is also Minister of Economics and Digital Transformation. We met at the Cervantes Institute in Madrid, where she spoke about honoring women who had made major contributions to Spanish society: “The incorporation of women in politics, in the economy, in business, I think has been one of the principal drivers of modernization and progress.”

Coping With Change

Spain doesn’t do everything right. It was slow to respond to Covid-19, initially suffering one of the worst death rates per capita — 900 per day succumbed in April 2020. It did bounce back, though, to become a leader in vaccination, getting two jabs into almost 90 percent of the population. As elsewhere, the pandemic led to a sharp recession. Tourism, which in better days accounted for almost 13 percent of GDP, was cut in half. Unemployment went into double digits, with much of the brunt borne by young workers.

“We are in a moment of great uncertainty,” Calviño acknowledged. “Our objective is that the strong recovery and growth in employment which started in the middle of last year not hit a downturn.”

With Covid-19 receding (for the moment anyway), tourism is close to pre-pandemic levels. The economy is expected to grow at around 4.5 percent this year — though with inflation hitting an annualized rate above 7 percent.

This government made a lot of promises,” chimed in his friend Eugenio, referring to Sánchez’s socialist administration. “But in the end, we are worse off. They just don’t care about us.

We’re injecting €10 billion [about $10.5 billion] in liquidity and €6 billion in direct aid into our economy,” Calviño added. Spain has requested additional grants and loans from the European Commission totaling €70 billion. Touching on a subject that has become a flashpoint in Spanish politics, she said that Madrid was also putting in “some very important measures to stop the increase in energy costs, including fuel subsidies of 20 cents per liter [76 cents per gallon] and price caps on natural gas.”

A few days later I was driving with Antonio Saiz from Madrid to Badajoz, a city on the border with Portugal in the province of Extremadura. Saiz is an engineer and businessman who has built a successful company that focuses primarily on water treatment and distribution.

He was taking me to see a water treatment plant and to show me firsthand how the costs of energy are affecting him. There was a good deal of agriculture along the way, but not a lot of people — and as we got into Extremadura there were also large swaths of untouched land. It’s the interior of Spain, sometimes referred to as “Empty Spain.”

For centuries it has been one of the poorest parts of Spain, with a population barely eking out a living from the infertile, arid land. Spain at times seems like two countries. On the one hand, it’s a modern high-income welfare state with a life expectancy almost equal to Japan’s. On the other, semi-deserted villages abound that seem to belong to a different era.

But back to energy. “The cost of electricity is 2.5 times higher than this time last year,” Saiz said. “Chemicals, salaries, they all went up, too. My margins are negative at the moment.”

We arrived at a large body of brackish water, next to which sits the treatment plant. “Not everything Franco did was bad,” he noted, as we looked out over the windswept water. “He built dams, reservoirs like this one and canals to distribute agriculture.”

But you may not want to revise your opinion of the Caudillo just yet. Much of the labor was done by political prisoners, working under abject conditions, who had fought against Franco during the 1936-39 civil war.

Once inside the plant itself, it became obvious that electricity is a huge factor in this operation: there were giant pumps everywhere. “In January 2021 we paid a bit over €7,900 for electricity,” he said. “This January we paid almost €19,000. And in my workshops in Madrid, where we repair these pumps, we went from €900 to €2,000 a month. There are lots of businesses shutting down because their energy costs are too high.”

It’s not for lack of diversity of fuel sources in Spain, with 20 percent from wind, 20 percent from nuclear, 14 percent from hydro and 5 percent from solar. Most of the rest comes from natural gas — from North Africa, though, not Russia. But no European country has been spared higher fuel prices as uncertainty about the availability of Russian oil and gas dominates world markets.

Political trends favor the right at the moment, with the PP inching up in the polls and VOX making sufficient gains that, in spite of its relatively small size, give it outsized power in the splintered Spanish political environment.

We drove to the town of Montijo, some 30 miles east of Badajoz. And while Saiz went to meet with the mayor, I wandered over to the cafe by the main square. Soon enough I was talking to two farmers, Francisco and Eugenio, both in their late 60s and both growers of fruits and vegetables, which this area is known for. It’s also known for an aging and diminishing population, a demographic decline that affects large swaths of Spain and bodes ill for the finances of social security and public health care.

“Farming has become a hard way to make a living,” Francisco lamented. “I understand why my children don’t want to do this work. Plus, we’re in a drought that’s gone on for more than a year.” Of his three adult children, only one has remained in town, largely to help look after Francisco’s infirm wife.

“This government made a lot of promises,” chimed in his friend Eugenio, referring to Sánchez’s socialist administration. “But in the end, we are worse off. They just don’t care about us.”

Can the Center Hold?

It’s a refrain one hears often in rural Spain, and not unlike what one hears in the American heartland. And it’s energizing not just the center-right PP (Popular Party), but the more extreme right-wing VOX party, founded five years ago. When I asked how they voted, both said they had voted PP in the past election, but Francisco said he was going to support VOX next time. Eugenio wasn’t so sure, but wasn’t saying no.

Political trends favor the right at the moment, with the PP inching up in the polls and VOX making sufficient gains that, in spite of its relatively small size, give it outsized power in the splintered Spanish political environment.

Indeed, according to the economist Herrera, there’s been a sea change in Spanish politics. “For many years we had two strong parties [the PP and the socialist PSOE] that alternated in power with absolute majorities,” she said. “Since the appearance of forces to the left of the Socialists, Unidas Podemos, and to the right of the Popular Party, in the form of VOX, we have a very fragmented congress.”

“The rise of an extreme right is a new phenomenon in Spain. It’s been able to enter into coalitions in regional governments. Our politics have become very polarized.”

Saiz and I then drove to nearby Pueblonuevo de Guadiana where we met the mayor, Pedro Gonzales, who represents the PP. Pueblonuevo was built by Franco in the 1950s, part of a project called Plan Badajoz that included not just the waterworks but the creation of entire towns to attract workers to depopulated areas. However, a combination of Covid and the seismic demographic shift (urbanization plus the collapse in the birth rate) have cut deeply into the region’s population in recent years.

Gonzales hopped in the car, and as we drove, he pointed to the seemingly endless succession of farms: “We grow so much! We provide Europe with its vegetables, its olive oil.” The car passed an industrial structure. “That’s one of the few tomato processing plants around here,” he said. “We produce a lot, but we don’t process and sell. The middlemen make all the money.”

Look, the reality is that not just Extremadura but Spain as a whole would be nothing without the EU money,” Gonzales said. “I know that. But it’s going too far, especially with the Socialists, who are just spending and spending and putting us deeper in debt.

We arrived in Badajoz, a city of 150,000 that in 1936 was the site of one of the worst massacres of the Spanish Civil War. Around 4,000, including women and children, were killed over the course of a few days — some of them gunned down in the bullring. But in the decades since, Badajoz has become something of a commercial and financial center for Extremadura.

During lunch, the mayor gladhanded other customers who recognized him and came by the table. “We’re doing great,” he told one about the prospects for the PP. “You’ll see the results in the next election. Lowering taxes, putting money back into people’s pockets, that’s what counts. We’re depending too much on the government. We have to move in the other direction.”

As we drove him back, I asked about the large subsidies the EU injects into Spanish agriculture, principally to grain growers in the case of Extremadura. How does that square with his last comment in the restaurant?

“Look, the reality is that not just Extremadura but Spain as a whole would be nothing without the EU money,” he said. “I know that. But it’s going too far, especially with the Socialists, who are just spending and spending and putting us deeper in debt.”

Love and Hate for the Welfare State

A few weeks later, during the Easter holiday (a very big deal in Catholic Spain), I was in Aguilas, a beach town on the southern coast. I sat with Antonio Martinez, a retired banker, on his apartment terrace overlooking a placid Mediterranean. Visitors thronged the boardwalk and sprawled on the beach beyond. Tourism was clearly on its way back.

Martinez said he was diagnosed with prostate cancer back in 2005. At first, he received radiation treatments through his private, employer- based insurance. “For five years, everything seemed OK,” he said. “Then I was told I needed an operation which could only be done with a robotic device called Da Vinci, but that private insurance wouldn’t cover it.”

So Martinez had the surgery in a public hospital — they have the most advanced equipment — after which he recovered for 10 days in a private room. I asked him about the bill: “There was no bill. Nothing. It didn’t cost me one cent.”

A. Perez Meca/Europa Press via Getty Images

Nine years later, Martinez suffered a stroke in his home. He went by ambulance to a public hospital and ended up in intensive care for three days. “Then I was taken to a private room, where I stayed for 15 days under observation,” he remembered. “Then they sent me to a rehab hospital for two weeks. When I was sent home, I got physical therapy in a hospital near the house.”

Again, I asked about the bill, a fraught question for any American. “Nothing. I don’t even know what all of this cost.”

“I’ve voted for three different parties in the last three elections, including the Socialists,” Martinez said, laughing when I ask him about his politics. “But in the last election I voted PP, so you could say I tend to be center-right.”

No matter where they stand on the political spectrum, most Spaniards will acknowledge that their health care works very well, indeed. “The system is one of the most efficient in the world in terms of costs,” affirmed Dr. Diego Figuera, the director of Psychiatry at the prestigious San Carlos hospital — as well as a deputy in the Madrid Regional Assembly from Más Madrid, a relatively new leftist green party that made a strong showing in the last election. “What we spend per person compared to, say, the U.S. is ridiculously low. And still we provide fantastic coverage.”

He said that in spite of the fact the system was started during Franco’s rule, subsequent governments, right or left, have largely kept it intact. But its future is not guaranteed. “The problem now is that the right is trying cut expenses, Figuera said. “Waiting times to see your doctor in the public system have gone from 48 hours to 10 days because of the cutbacks.” The PP, he claimed, wants to move to a model where people are given a check to buy private insurance.

Figuera is concerned about the right’s growing strength. He used to be with the leftist Unidas Podemos Party, which had taken on the role of kingmaker a few years ago after strong showings in national and regional elections. Podemos’s Yolanda Díaz, Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labor, is one of Spain’s most popular politicians.

But apart from Díaz, Podemos has lost ground on both the national and local level. “We beat them roundly in the last election,” said Figuera. Más Madrid ended up with twice as many seats, putting them on a par with the Socialists but behind Ayuso and the conservative PP. “Ayuso is like a character in ‘Game of Thrones,’” he said. “She’s dodged a number of scandals and seems to always come out on top. Anybody who tried to stand in her way has been essentially destroyed politically.”

Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images</div

The other important factor in the political mix, Figuera said, is the rise of the hard-right VOX. “The irony is that without the far left, VOX would not exist. They are a reaction to the extremism of some on the left. They are very strong in rural areas, where the left is seen as too intellectual and disconnected. But they aren’t extremists like Le Pen in France or Orban in Hungary.” To American ears this sounded reassuring, but also worryingly familiar.

A few days later I met Pedro Calleja, a VOX supporter who works in finance and is solidly middle class. “VOX really made its mark by loudly opposing the Catalan independence movement’s attempt to secede,” he said, referring to the prosperous region’s attempt to break away from Spain.

The government of Catalonia held a referendum in 2017 that was marred by violence and significant abstention — and resulted in a landslide in favor of separation from Spain. After the regional parliament declared independence, the national government stepped in, dissolved the regional government and eventually jailed much of the independence leadership for sedition.

For Calleja and many VOX supporters, though, this was not enough. “Sedition? They got off easy,” Calleja asserted. “They should have been tried for treason.”

The Catalan independence issue has since begun to cool, and today it’s no longer centerstage in Spanish politics. So VOX has moved on to other issues.

“Look, VOX verbalizes what even the PP doesn’t dare say because it’s so preoccupied with not losing the center,” Calleja added. “It’s like immigration. VOX is willing to say that sure, these people come here because they want a better life. We feel bad for them, but let’s help them in their own countries.”

Spain was long a country of emigrants — particularly under Franco, who drove opponents into exile. That has changed: immigrants have arrived by the hundreds of thousands in recent decades, and today account for almost 14 percent of the population. Many are from former Spanish colonies in Latin America and the Philippines.

But recently, the numbers from Europe and North Africa have grown. As of April, over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived. Strikingly, in spite of VOX trying to gain traction with immigration, the issue has proved less incendiary in Spain than in other European countries and in the U.S.

In another refrain that might sound familiar to Americans, VOX supporters like Calleja talk about returning to the greatness of Spain, a nationalist creed that harkens back through Franco all the way to Ferdinand and Isabella, who launched the exploitation of the Americas. If this sounds a bit MAGA-like, it is. A good deal of what comes out of VOX these days sounds like it was made in Mar-a-Lago.

“The young don’t have any values,” Calleja lamented. “I think this is a worldwide phenomenon as the left has gained control of the press and gotten more involved in education and universities. They want to force gender equality and gender choice with their laws. They’re using their ideology to divide society.”

Early one morning I made my way south of Madrid, to the Cañada Real (Royal), just beyond the M50 beltway. But there’s nothing royal about the place, which is allegedly the largest illegal settlement in Europe. It feels more like a poor Latin American barrio, with its makeshift shanties next to colorful walls and trash-strewn empty lots.

I met Jesús, a young Spaniard of Roma descent, who was walking his German shepherd. As we stroll down what is essentially the one very long street that forms this neighborhood, he told me that gangs operating here are growing marijuana indoors using pirated electricity. “They’ve sucked out all the electricity and blown out the system,” he said.

Jesús expected his family would soon be moved to proper housing. That’s the striking difference, I suppose, from the U.S. The city of Madrid is slowly moving people off the streets, putting them in proper houses and tearing down the shacks. “Not everyone is happy to go,” Jesús said, laughing. “Especially the guys growing weed. But for most families, getting out of here and moving their kids away from gangs will be a big improvement.”

• • •

The fact that I had to make such an effort to find a truly poor section of Madrid is telling. Compared to any large American city, Madrid simply doesn’t have as many marginal neighborhoods or the numbers of homeless living in abject conditions.

Spain, of course, can’t escape the shadows darkening all Western democracies — Covid- 19, inflation, Russian disinformation, the uncertainties dogging the globalized supply chain. And political polarization, kept at bay in Spain by the memory of a ferocious civil war and the decades of dictatorship that followed, is now creeping back.

All that said, though, Spain — and Madrid in particular — is in far better shape than many places. Count the ways (in no particular order): public transportation is excellent; the crime rate is very low; women play a major role in all aspects of life; and health care is among the best in the world. Psychiatrist/ politician Diego Figuera summed it up nicely: “We have lower levels of stress, we have a sense of community. It’s a great place to live.”

main topic: Region: Europe