A Visit To Absurdistan: What Happened to the Spain Where I Was Born?

Part 1: – Published on Spiegel Online International, by Juan Moreno, August 3, 2012 (Photo-Gallery).

SPIEGEL reporter Juan Moreno grew up in Germany as the son of Spanish immigrants. He cherished summers spent as a child in his parents’ former village. He recently traveled back to his country of birth to trace the causes of the crisis and to meet those whose lives it has changed in heartbreaking ways.  

A few months ago, I was interviewed by a short, roundish man, a Spanish TV host I had never seen but who every child in Spain knows: Jordi Évole. He used to be the sidekick of a late-night talk show host. We met on a cold, wet Saturday morning at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin … //

… Finding the Crisis in Barcelona:

Barcelona is full of tourists. The number of overnight stays increased last year. The cafés around Plaça Catalunya still serve overpriced coffee, while the police chase away beggars. To find the crisis, you have to walk a few blocks away.

At an intersection on Avinguda Diagonal, I encounter Pedro Panlador, a slight man who has positioned himself in front of a Bankia branch. He wants to storm the bank. A few like-minded people have joined him. They called the offices of newspapers so that they would report on their protest, but the papers declined. Banks are being stormed all over Spain at the moment.

Bankia, a bank from Madrid, evicted Panlador from his condominium because he could no longer make his loan payments. In the first three months of this year, the occupants of 200 apartments and houses were evicted every day throughout Spain.

Panlador, born in Colombia, has lived in Barcelona for 12 years. He currently has €242,000 in debt. He was a chauffeur before the crisis. Now he’s been unemployed for over two years.

Pedestrians walk by, some encouraging him and some applauding. No one thinks it’s wrong to be standing in front of a bank and calling the employees “criminals.” Panlador says that he intends to remain “peaceful” and that he only wants to “speak with the director.”

Bankia lost €3 billion in 2011, and now the bank needs more than €20 billion to avoid going into bankruptcy and bringing down the Spanish financial system with it. The last CEO was Rodrigo Rato, who served as finance minister under former Prime Minister José María Aznar. Rato was also managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) until 2007. It’s possible that the IMF will soon have to rescue Spain. It sounds like a joke.

Panlador and his boys are ready to begin storming the bank. They’re doing this for the first time. Panlador has already camped out in front of a Bankia branch before, but he feels that storming a bank makes a greater impression. He musters up courage and walks up to the entrance, where he sees that the branch has a security door and a doorbell.

He rings the doorbell.

Bankia doesn’t open the door.

Panlador turns to the others. They look a little clueless. Finally, someone blows a whistle.

Panlador slaps a few stickers onto the glass. The banks should stop suing delinquent customers and evicting them from their apartments, the stickers read. Spain, it seems, has become a country of sad protests.

Panlador takes a few steps back. Personal bankruptcy doesn’t exist in Spain. His debt of €242,000 will stay with him his whole life. “I’m tired,” he says.

One would think that protests need the occasional minor success, something that offers hope that the struggle is worthwhile. One would also think that it’s important to know who the enemy is.

But who is to blame? Bankia, because it gave a quarter-million-euro loan to a man who was making €940 a month after taxes? Or Panlador, because he took out the loan? No one forced him to do it. Perhaps both are to blame.

Or maybe it comes down to that sea of opportunities. There was construction underway and money being made everywhere. There was cheap money, and banks were practically giving it away, there was housing that seemed to finance itself, and there were jobs galore.

All of this transformed the Spaniards into gambling addicts and the country into a casino. People no longer had to suffer the indignity of a neighbor having a house in Conil on the Costa de la Luz while they had only a weekend cottage on the outskirts of the city. Who would have predicted that it would all end with people like Pedro Panlador standing in front of a bank and being denied entry because of a doorbell?

I shake his hand and wish him luck. Barcelona is a beautiful city, much more so than Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich, despite the “For Sale” signs hanging from balconies and the gold dealers opening up shop everywhere to sell the jewelry of desperate Spaniards.

To me, the city feels like the wife of a factory manager who refuses to believe that the company is bankrupt. She still has her fur coat, her diamond ring and her china — but everyone knows it’ll be over soon.

The unemployment rate in Barcelona rose from 7 to 17.7 percent last year. Barcelona is Spain’s richest city, and yet 17.7 percent of its working population is unemployed.
(full text).

Part 2: Occupying Apartments.

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