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Letter From Madrid - A City Ravaged By The Crisis

Article illustrative image Partner logo Despair in Madrid

MADRID – Anyone who has ever been to Madrid knows the Plaza de España. But today, you might not recognize it.

The whole area, formerly prosperous and energetic, is a window on the crisis raging throughout Spain. Along the sides of the Plaza and in the side streets, there are entire rows of closed storefronts, some with broken windows, already filled with dust. The main building in the Plaza, which was once the tallest in Europe, used to house a hotel. It has closed, too.

The most striking detail is that along one side of the Plaza there are three modern office buildings in a row, each ten stories tall. They are all abandoned. At one point they were ‘occupied’ by homeless families and young people. The police evicted the squatters and bricked up the entrance. Where have these homeless people gone – are the children and the elderly living on the street?

There are tourists, both Spanish and foreigners, walking along Gran Via, Madrid’s main avenue. Here too are many examples of how the middle class is losing its identity and heritage.

Clara Isabel Rueda Garcia, 26, has a Spanish university degree. “I have done several continuing education courses to try to find work, but with no luck. I tried to find work as a waitress, and they told me that I didn’t have experience.” Like 970,000 other young Spanish people, about half of all the young people in Spain, she is still unemployed.

Her brother, Gonzalo, 22, has been looking for work for two years and has found nothing either. The siblings say that they have many friends who are also out of work, and, even worse, have homes with mortgages. If they cannot pay the bank, they will be evicted and will lose everything.

Santiago del Rio, 44, is an electrician who lives in Malaga. He has a 20-year-old daughter who is in school. He has only a couple more months of unemployment benefits, then he will have no income whatsoever. “I live from odd jobs, and the only thing I am sure about is that the future is dark.”

Carmen San Segundo Cordero, 56, was a French teacher at a private school. She was let go four years ago and all of her unemployment benefits have run out. Now she survives through barter. “We need another social model. The government is against us, it doesn’t represent us.”

Slightly more than eight million Spaniards are poor, and of those, two million are already below the poverty line.

Foreclosures and debts

The gates of the former headquarters of the Caja de Ahorros de Madrid (Madrid Savings Bank), with 10 million accounts, are covered with signs denouncing the tragedy of the evicted, a phenomenon of extraordinary social importance. In front of the symbolic building, a group tells the story of what has happened to so many people. They borrowed money to buy a home, then lost their jobs and could not pay, then lost their homes. In addition, they discovered that,  in spite of the foreclosure of their home, they still owed an enormous amount of money to the bank, which itself, after almost failing, is now called Bankia. 

Mariano Caminos has lived through this all-too-common scenario, and now there are nights when he sleeps in doorways, joining the many families who are demanding that the seizure of their homes be considered the end of their mortgage, without having to pay additional fees.

These are the dramatic accounts that complete the human picture of the Spanish crisis, which is totally different from others. There is an extraordinary number of unemployed people - one in every four workers has no job - as a result of the bursting of the real estate bubble. 

At the same time, the enormous mortgage debt many families have has created another bruising social condition, with more and more victims as time goes by. Spain used to have a suicide rate so low that it barely registered on European statistics. Now depression is on the rise, as is suicide. 

Groups of neighbors and youth organizations fight the police to prevent evictions. The heart-breaking scenes are often shown on television. Jose Miguel Domingo was waiting for the police to come and evict him from his home in Granada. The 53-year-old newspaper vendor hanged himself in his home six days ago.

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