OPINION

Boomtown dream

The politicians based their approach to public governance on barefaced clientelism, to the applause of the newly enriched middle classes

Rich country, poor people is a constant in our history. In imperial days the gold of the Indies flowed into Spain. But what was not spent on palaces and churches went straight into the coffers of bankers in Genoa and Amsterdam. Unlike the Protestantism that forged the modern capitalist world, the elite of Hispanic Catholicism accumulated landed property beyond measure, and for reasons of knightly tradition disdained trade and manufacturing. In spite of isolated efforts by "regenerationists," Spain got off the train of European progress, and was left behind.

In the 1950s a dose of Calvinism, in the form of the austere technocrats of Opus Dei, made it almost socially respectable to have something to do with the productive process, while the phenomenon of mass tourism brought in a yearly flow of money, which wrought real changes. After Franco's death in 1975 his regime fell, not so much by the action of a left clinging to the heroic legend of the Civil War, but because Spanish society had changed its aspirations.

The new democracy was welcomed by the EU, which opened its arms to us, and poured development funds into the country. But the limitations of our democracy soon became clear, while the new wealth went to our heads immediately. Successive governments failed to sweep away the privileges of the Church and create a truly secular state, free from the recurrent pressure and blackmail of a retrograde hierarchical body.

The politicians based their approach to public governance on barefaced clientelism, to the applause of the newly enriched middle classes who, reassured by access to easy credit, assumed that the supply of it was endless. The passage from real poverty to fictitious wealth took place not gradually, but with a suddenness that left no place for the formation of a culture to absorb the shock. From a poor southern country of emigrants to the north, we became a new-rich pseudo-northern country that attracted cheap labor in the form of immigrants from further South - Latin America, the Maghreb, Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1997 I found an extreme example of new wealth in the town of El Ejido on the southern coast near Almeria, a place I had visited decades before, in the old times of poverty. Now the whole fertile plain was covered with the plastic greenhouses of a booming export market-garden industry, the hoeing and picking being done at minimal cost by African immigrants in near-slave conditions. The planless, sprawling burg numbered 40 bank branches, over a hundred whorehouses, and even (wonder of wonders) one library, little used by the semi-literate new-rich honchos who ran the town (needless to say, a preserve of the Popular Party). And, in some degree, all of Spain was like this town. Who, in 1997, would have guessed that this spendthrift society, booming with megalomaniac municipal construction rackets, would soon be the "sick man of Europe," as was said of the Ottoman Empire?

Yet some of us knew. A recent article put me on the track of Mariano Guindal's book El declive de los Dioses, which I heartily recommend. In it - shortly before the 2004 elections, which the Socialists were expected to lose - Miguel Sebastian, who was Zapatero's industry minister, is seen saying: "It's a good thing we're not going to win, because a real shit storm is going to come down in Spain, in a few years. We have the property bubble, which is inevitably going to burst, and when it happens it's going to wipe out everything, even the banks." If Zapatero and his team did not wish to be at the helm when the storm broke, they could at least have told us it was coming; and when they were unexpectedly raised to power, have done something to reduce the press of sail.

Now we have Rajoy, waffling and mumbling through his beard, and having the nerve to say that, if he grabbed the 100-billion-euro lifesaver offered by the EU, it was because they begged him to. How long will it be before we have someone to defend our interests?

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