As an outer space explorer I descended on 2011 Spain expecting a country, as described in the US press, devastated by crisis, tottering in financial morass, beset by hordes of unemployed beggars in the streets.
Arriving in Barajas Airport, a messy collection of the super-modern and 1960s constructivism, nothing much felt changed from a year ago: the lights were dimmed to save energy, but the unending way from plane to baggage collection is speeded by extensive rolling walkways. Baggage carousels were all functional, and the bags arrived in a reasonable 10 minutes after passport controls. I was struck by a new sense of purposefulness: the usually sleepy police passport stampers were crisp and polite, almost no lines cluttered the vast halls. Customs were perfunctory and, once outside, taxis were immediately available, next to several municipal transportation buses. The weather was cold but sunny, some remnants of morning fog visibly melting away.
Traffic on the urban highways to downtown was brisk, the small cars buzzing along into their particular hive of business. At mid-morning the cafeterias did not lack their usual customers, as Spaniards are habitually imbibing small cups of coffee when they get fed-up with whatever they have started doing at 9 am.
All-in all, a picture of familiarity. But Madrid breathes a renewed air of efficient competency. The streets are well groomed, abundantly provided with urban furniture, well marked bike paths, glass bus shelters, freshly painted pedestrian crossings. Most buses run on natural gas. The extensive subway system is clean, on time and very affordable. Escalators, a frequent harbinger of disruption when non-functional, hummed contentedly moving 3 million travelers per day.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the landscape of a modern European city, Madrid is composed of residential high-rises, a product of fifty years of uninterrupted building activity, around the centuries-old city core. The spindly construction crane had become the landmark of post-Franco democratic Spain, and its disappearance has quieted the urban picture, signaling the most obvious symptom of recession. New construction, except for Government supported public works, has stopped.
The Socialist government, now eight years in power, has used all the capitalist tools on hand to sustain the economy, battered by the collapse of the real estate bubble and by the bond traders, in the wake of Greece’s and Portugal’s difficulties. Several stimulus programs, aimed at improving infrastructure, are visible in Madrid and outside of it. Sharp cuts in civil service salaries, reduction in elected officials’ entitlements, and, now underway, a broad dialogue between unions, business leaders and the Government with a view to raise the retirement age, entitling workers to full pensions after 40 years of work, in exchange for more flexible employment regulations.
Investments in the public health system are being increased. It is generally recognized that the present health care is almost on par with France’s and that the best equipped hospitals belong to the single-payer Government-run network. There is also a private health insurance system, but there seems to be agreement that the public system provides the best care available.
The result is an outward picture of normality. Last year 53 million visitors came to Spain, eight million to Madrid. Hotel prices have fallen by as much as 20%, and occupancy has increased as a result.
Restaurants and bars are full, and I am told that night-life is booming. Downtown, around the Puerta del Sol, the commercial and shopping hub of the city, the usual crowd of shoppers and layabouts commingle. This area tends to seediness, because of the very old buildings and the heavily used facilities. But now Apple is installing there their first retail store in downtown, and Galerias Preciados, the largest department store in Spain and the fourth largest retailer in Europe, holds increasing sway over the street that bears its name.
The present crisis seems to be providing impetus to rationalization and increased productivity, as well as diversification of the Spanish economy. The country looks better than it did a year ago, and although the mood in the street is gloomy, the average citizen does not seem overly depressed. Everybody talks about “the crisis” and their reduced spending power, but tries to carry on as usual.
Nevertheless, in spite of generally competent management of the crisis, the polls predict that the Socialist party seems headed for defeat in the 2012 elections. We shall see.
The Beginning of the End.
5 years ago