“Money is so hard to come by that people cannot even afford to die,” my cousin Ricardo complains. Owner of the one and only funeral service in the ancient town of Toro, in the Spanish province of Zamora, he’s showing clear signs of stress – some months ago, he saw a sudden 13 per cent increase in his business taxes, and he hasn’t buried anybody since he had to raise his prices. This is unfortunate — well, at least surprising — because under a crisis like Spain is going through, the potential for his business to grow is huge.
The unemployment rate is hovering around 25 per cent. The Spanish have a very healthy attitude towards work; they always know when to stop, give it a break and, after a while, start again, but they have never been fond of idleness. Boredom is a fast killer; if it wasn’t for the unavoidable hike in prices, my cousin Ricardo’s business would be thriving.
Let’s be clear, though: Money may be hard to come by, but that’s only for the low and middle class types. There’s plenty of cash; however, it leaves the country with the speed of a bull entering the bullfighting ring after confinement in a corral — fast! Even the royal family has been caught in dirty dealings and fiscal fraud.
The apparent lack of money has the right-wing government slashing social programs and public services funding. For instance, health-care quality used to be the pride of the country, but if you end up in a hospital today, you’d better take your own blanket, and you may have to share the bed. No wonder people refuse to get sick, even my cousin Ricardo agrees.
I left Spain 17 years ago; I expected to find a different country, but how it can seem like a different planet is beyond my understanding. I feel sad for the Spaniards; the situation they’re in is dire, but I should say that not all the differences I see come with a bitter taste — the centuries-old cemetery where my cousin Ricardo buries all his clients is surrounded by thousands of solar panels. Idle cars line the streets gathering dust because well-integrated and easily accessible transit systems get you places fast. The rivers run cleaner than ever.
Granted, some factories are closing their doors, but there’s newfound pride in looking after the environment and showing it off. Outdoor exercise parks are a recent addition to villages, towns and cities. They’re not there just for looks; they are very well used and no doubt contribute to keeping people, if not happy, at least healthy and active (so everything seems against my poor cousin Ricardo; a crisis is also a crisis in a funeral parlour!).
But the same crisis is sparing the rich; “austere” is not a term that applies here. The Spanish government is about to introduce some pretty drastic austerity measures. I’d say that they don’t belong in a country that isn’t poor — Spain has got it all, but its wealth is being stolen by thieves in suits and ties who feel entitled to own it.