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Tapas from Peter Paella and the economy

By Peter Ewart

Monday, April 06, 2009 03:41 AM

By Peter Ewart

This is the 4th part of a series on Peter’s trip to Spain with his wife, Dawn. The other articles in this series are “Part 1 – The Oranges of Valencia”; “Part 2 - “The Falles de Valencia”; and “Part 3 – The Mascleta.”
My wife and I have had a chance to eat a few plates of paella during our visit to Southern Spain. It has be one of the truly great rice dishes in the world. It was invented in Valencia, but there are many variations on the original recipe throughout Spain and in other countries. The recipe usually calls for olive oil, saffron, garlic, green vegetables, seasonings, meat of one kind or another (prawns, shrimp, snails, chicken, rabbit, etc.), and, of course, lots of rice.   
During the Falles festival in Valencia, paella is cooked in wide, shallow, two-handled steel pans over smoky fires of orange and pine branches. Despite the often wide range of disparate ingredients, the dish somehow “hangs together.”  The results – aromatic, delicious, and like hearty peasant food, fortifying.
Indeed, Spain itself might be said to be a kind of “paella,” being one of the most de-centralized countries in Europe. The country is divided into 17 autonomous regions and fifty provinces, each with a relatively high degree of regional autonomy and self-government. Four areas – Andalusia, Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque country – consider themselves to be nationalities, with some in the Basque region fighting for outright independence. In addition, there a number of languages and dialects spoken throughout Spain, many of which have ancient roots. 
How is the current economic crisis affecting this culturally rich and fascinating country? On the surface, everything seems to be fine, with busy traffic, lots of shoppers and packed restaurants in cities like Valencia, Seville, Granada and Madrid. However, on the skyline, many cranes are standing idle over half-finished projects, and the ranks of the unemployed are growing each day.
Spain has been somewhat insulated from the crisis that has been plaguing the financial sector of many countries. Up until a few days ago, no bank bailouts had been carried out. But that has changed with the central bank announcing that it will be propping up one of the regional banks, and there could be more down the road as real estate loans default.
Over the last ten years, Spain has gone through an unprecedented building boom with hundreds of thousands of houses, condos and apartments constructed all over the country. Recently, however, the real estate market has collapsed, thus sending the construction sector into a tailspin. In addition, tourism, especially from Europe, is down 13% from last year, and auto sales have dropped almost 50% causing big layoffs in the auto sector.
Unemployment for Spain as a whole, currently stands at about 15.5%, and is predicted to rise to 19.4% by 2010. For some regions, such as Andalusia, it is already as high as 24%. Spain is not a cheap place to live anymore with food and other costs approaching the level of other Western European countries. Thus people will be facing some real hardships in terms of just putting food on the table.
According to one Spanish economist, the unemployment figures “are further confirmation that this recession is much more severe than any of us originally believed. It is so intense that our predictions cannot keep pace” (New York Times, April 4).
People are beginning to react. At the end of March, 20,000 farmers from Andalusia staged a huge demonstration in Valencia, protesting the fact that, last year alone, 10,000 farms were forced to close. In our travels in Spain, we came upon several other labour actions, including a demonstration by taxi drivers and another by public sector workers, as well as a transit strike in Madrid. 
The Spanish people are talented, energetic and hardworking. Spain’s year-round greenhouse industry supplies a large part of Europe’s fruits and vegetables. And it has a large manufacturing industry and service sector. 
Since the Franco dictatorship ended in the late 1970s, Spain’s has emerged as the eighth largest economy in the world. Given the hardship and oppression of the past, it is a tragedy that the people are now facing such economic difficulty. But, unfortunately, there is no end in sight.
Spain, of course, is also part of a much larger “paella,” the European Union. If anyone thinks that this crisis is going to end any time soon, or that the “green shoots” of recovery are emerging (as some politicians and media pundits are suggesting), they should look at what is happening on the ground in Europe. 
The continent is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with massive layoffs, bankruptcies and credit collapses. A number of governments have fallen, including that of Hungary, Iceland, and the Czech Republic. General strikes have taken place in France and Greece, and there have been large demonstrations in Britain and elsewhere against the G-20 Summit. Indeed, the situation in some parts of Europe, including Spain, is moving from serious to grim, with sharp differences emerging between various EU member countries, and the interests of the financial elites being put above everyone else.
As in North America, the massive bailout of banks and other financial institutions is causing widespread anger throughout the continent. German parliamentarian Albert Rupprecht comments that “you should not underestimate the huge feeling of injustice among the people about what is happening, and it will only get worse” (Financial Times, March 25). He further elaborates that unless the political and financial elites can adequately explain how and why the economic crisis came about, it may mean the “end of democracy.” 
There is an interesting ambiguity in this statement. By “end of democracy,” he could mean the “end” of domination of the financial elite. Or - another interpretation - that “democracy” must be “ended” in order to bring in some sort of fascism to quell the growing opposition to the financial elite. 
In the throes of this crisis, will the “paella” of the European Union hold together? And what about that of Spain?  The economic crisis of the 1930s was a major factor in the rise of fascism and the onset of the Second World War in Europe. In Spain, despite heroic resistance by the Spanish people, it spawned a military coup d’etat backed by the Spanish elite that resulted in 40 years of dictatorship.
There is no doubt about it, volatile and perilous times are upon us. The old battles may need to be fought again.
Peter Ewart is a writer, instructor and community activist based in Prince George, BC. He can be reached at:

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Nice travelogue episodes, but unfortunately I for one am just not that much into Spain.

Perhaps if it would abandon the brutal anachronistic and barbaric custom of the so-called bullfighting I could warm up a bit to the other more positive aspects of the country and its citizens.

To torture any animal for the amusement of jeering spectators over a prolonged period of time by incapacitating it with barbed lances thrown into its neck muscles, to weaken it by loss of blood and exhaustion into a final state where it can be dispatched by stabbing it to death with a sword wielded by a matador hero - well, this is just not something that a civilized society should be doing in the 21st century, in my opinion.

There are a host of other countries I would visit first.