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Spain anti-austerity protesters clash with police

March 22, 2014

MADRID (AP) — Spanish police and protesters clashed during an anti-austerity demonstration that drew tens of thousands of people to central Madrid on Saturday. Police said in a statement that six officers were injured and 12 people were arrested.

As a final speech was being given, some protesters attempted to break through a police barrier and make their way toward the nearby headquarters of the governing conservative Popular Party. Riot police then charged the protesters, who hurled bottles and other objects, and beat them back with batons.

One police vehicle and a bank were damaged by protesters. It wasn’t immediately clear how many protesters were injured, and if anybody was seriously hurt on either side. Protesters say Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government has eroded Spain’s much-valued public health and education systems, while saddling Spaniards with sky-high unemployment and more debt.

Six columns of protesters — each from a different region of Spain — had arrived at the outskirts of the city early Saturday before heading for Colon square, carrying banners bearing the slogan “Marching for Dignity.”

By late afternoon, Madrid’s principal boulevard, Paseo del Prado, was packed with people chanting against government’s austerity policies and the cuts they have entailed. “I don’t want corruption, government cuts and unemployment,” said office worker Susana Roldan, 24. “What I want is a secure future in Spain.”

Rajoy’s conservative government has a large parliamentary majority, enabling it to push through waves of austerity-driven, unpopular tax hikes and government program cutbacks since taking office in 2011, in a bid to reduce Spain’s budget deficit.

Spain’s economy began to crumble in 2008 with the collapse of its bloated real-estate sector. It emerged from a two-year recession late last year as investor confidence returned and the country’s borrowing costs dropped from perilously high levels in 2012 to pre-crisis rates this year. But unemployment is still cripplingly high at 26 percent, leading many to seek work oversees.

The protest includes trade unions, civil servants and organizations representing people evicted from their homes for not being able to make mortgage payments after losing their jobs. One woman carried a banner saying, “My daughter can’t be here because she’s had to emigrate.”

Anti-austerity protests in 55 Spanish cities

November 23, 2013

MADRID (AP) — Trade unions and anti-austerity groups angry at the effects of the financial crisis have held protest marches in 55 Spanish cities, calling on the government to re-think its policy of cutbacks in public services, education and health care.

Thousands marched to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square — many wearing white medical scrubs — carrying banners reading “Health care is not for sale.” Saturday’s peaceful protests coincided with anti-fascist gatherings, including one outside El Valle de los Caidos, a giant mausoleum north of Madrid where dictator Gen. Francisco Franco is buried.

Many protesters carried tri-color republican flags in commemoration of the democratically-elected government that Franco overthrew with the help of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in an internecine 1936-1939 civil war.

Thousands protest Spain’s health care austerity

December 09, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Thousands of Spanish medical workers and residents angered by budget cuts and plans to partly privatize the cherished national health service marched through some of Madrid’s most famous squares on Sunday.

More than 5,000 people rallied in Puerta del Sol, according to police estimates, after marching from Neptuno and Cibeles squares. Organizers estimated attendance at 25,000 protesters, many dressed in white and blue hospital scrubs. The march, called “a white tide” by organizers, was the third such large-scale protest this year.

Fatima Branas, a spokeswoman for organizers, said privatization plans were short-sighted because they did not take into account that savings could be made without selling off services. “What their plans really mean is a total change of our health care model and a dismantling of the system used,” she said.

Madrid’s government, under regional president Ignacio Gonzalez, maintains cuts are needed to secure health services during a deep recession. Health care and education are administered by Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions, rather than the central government, and each sets its own budgets and spending plans. Regions account for almost 40 percent of public spending. The Madrid region is governed by the Popular Party, the center-right alignment also in power centrally under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Many regions are struggling as Spain’s economy contracts into a double-dip recession triggered by a real estate crash in 2008. Some, having overspent and being unable to borrow on financial markets to repay their huge debts, are cutting budgets.

“We face a really difficult situation because the Spanish health service is under threat of being sold off,” said Dr. Gerardo Anton, 58, who said the changes proposed by Gonzalez would likely attract investors more interested in profit than public service.

Spain’s regions have a combined debt of €145 billion ($185 billion) and about €36 billion must be refinanced this year. The country is trying to avoid following Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus in having to ask for international financial bailouts.

Large rally protests Spain’s health care austerity

November 18, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Spaniards angered by austerity measures, including budget cuts and plans to partly privatize some of their country’s cherished national health service, held a rally Sunday in downtown Madrid.

About 10,000 people, including health workers dressed in clinical white and blue, marched from four large hospitals on the outskirts of Madrid to central Puerta del Sol square behind banners saying, “Our public health service is not for sale, it’s to be defended.”

Some protesters said they were outraged by Madrid regional government plans to convert a large hospital specializing in rare and infectious diseases into an old people’s home and then sell it. “Our hospital, Carlos III, is a medical reference point. We treat highly infectious illnesses. We serve a lot of patients. Yet they still want to get rid of it,” said nurse Natalia Fernandez, 34.

Javier Fernandez-Laquetty, Madrid councilor in charge of the region’s health care, said the measures being implemented seek to achieve greater efficiency and guarantee that tax-payers survive the crisis with first-class hospitals.

“The measures are to ensure, responsibly, that we continue to have a high quality universal public health service, open to all,” he said. Rally organizers, who called the march “a white tide,” said Madrid’s regional health workers would hold four days of strikes on Nov. 26-27 and Dec. 4-5 to criticize the government’s actions.

“We have built hospitals and health centers with public money and the government is handing them over to its friends,” said nurse Maria Victoria de Lucas, 52. Health care and education are administered by Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions, rather than the central government, and each sets its own budgets and spending plans. Regions account for almost 40 percent of public spending.

Many regions are struggling as Spain’s economy contracts into a double-dip recession triggered by a real estate crash in 2008. Some, having overspent and being unable to borrow on financial markets to repay their huge debts, are cutting budgets.

Spain’s regions have a combined debt of €145 billion ($185 billion) and some €36 billion must be refinanced this year. The country is trying to avoid following Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus in having to ask for an international financial bailouts.

Crisis, separatism dominate Spanish elections

October 21, 2012

BILBAO, Spain (AP) — Voters in Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s northwestern home region of Galicia have given their support to his handling of the economy, but those in the turbulent Basque region handed a major victory to nationalist and separatist parties at the ballots Sunday.

Rajoy’s Popular Party increased its absolute majority in Galicia, where austerity measures were introduced even before he took power as prime minister last year, with 41 seats in a legislature of 75. In the Basque region, the Basque Nationalist Party — or PNV by its Spanish initials — took 27 seats while the separatist Bildu party claimed 21, giving pro-independence candidates their second-largest majority in 34 years of democracy.

The likely president of the Basque region will be PNV leader Inigo Urkullu, who called for calm in his victory speech and highlighted the need to restore his industrious and well-off region’s economy.

“Resolving the financial crisis is a priority and the situation demands that we keep our feet firmly on the ground,” Urkullu said. A deepening financial crisis and how best to address the nation’s separatist tensions were the main issues in the elections.

Spain is in its second recession in three years and has near 25 percent unemployment. Since being voted to office in general elections in November, Rajoy has been forced to hike taxes, cut spending and introduce stinging labor reforms in a bid to persuade investors and international authorities that Spain can manage its finances without the need for a full-blown bailout.

However, Spain’s public finances have been overwhelmed by the cost of rescuing some of its banks and regional governments, many of which have suffered heavy losses in the property sector crash of 2008.

Some observers believe Rajoy will seek a bailout soon, now that the elections are over. The government’s austerity measures have led to protests across the country, some of which have ended in clashes between demonstrators and police. The financial crisis has also brought to the fore calls from some of Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions for greater independence.

Spain has separatist groups in Galicia, the Basque region and prosperous and influential Catalonia. Basque voters on Sunday ousted Socialist leader Patxi Lopez —who had ruled thanks to a pact with the PP — from the 75-seat regional legislature.

“This is not the result we Socialists expected in these elections, but the citizens of the Basque country have spoken,” said Lopez. The Basque region has been wracked by decades of separatist violence.

“We hope this election succeeds in bringing us peace, so we can reach an understanding between ourselves and let us know how to make concessions,” said Sister Teresa Ormazabal, a nun in the Basque region’s largest city, Bilbao.

Lopez was jostled by demonstrators carrying placards backing violent Basque separatist group ETA as he voted early Sunday. ETA, which stands for Basque Homeland and Freedom, is classified as a terrorist group by the European Union, the U.S. and Spain.

The group is blamed for the killings of more than 825 people in a violent campaign of bombings and shootings for an independent Basque state straddling the border with France. ETA was decimated by arrests over recent years and declining grass roots support among Basque nationalists who stomached its activities in exchange for working toward the goal of independence.

It announced a definitive cease-fire last year, but Spain insists it must lay down its arms and dissolve. Lopez said these were the first elections in the Basque region where people can vote “in freedom from fear.”

Alberto Nunez Feijoo, who is the re-elected president of Galicia’s regional government and the head of PP there, was also jostled by a group of protesters as he went in to cast his ballot.

Heckle reported from Madrid. Associated Press writer Lalo Villar in Vigo contributed to this report.

Spanish unions call general strike in November

October 19, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Spain’s main trade unions on Friday called a general strike for Nov. 14, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms.

The general strike called by the Workers’ Commissions and General Workers’ unions will be the second in Spain this year. A partially successful stoppage was held March 29. Fernando Lezcano, the spokesman for the Workers’ Commissions, said it would be the first ever joint general strike in Iberian neighbors Spain and Portugal.

The General Workers’ union in a statement said the strike was called to press for a change in government policy because “cuts are strangling the economy and dismantling our social model.” Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the strike would do nothing to lower unemployment, which she said was Spain’s biggest problem.

“This strike does not help either workers or the unemployed,” she said. “We do not believe the best way to create jobs is to invite people not to work.” Spain is in its second recession in three years and has near 25 percent unemployment. The tax hikes, spending cuts and labor reforms are aimed at convincing investors and international authorities the country can manage its finances without a need for a full-blown bailout.

Spain’s public finances have been overwhelmed by the cost of rescuing some of its banks and regional governments, many of which have suffered heavy losses in Spain’s property sector crash in 2008. On Friday, the Balearic islands and the northern province of Asturias became the seventh and eighth regions to ask for financial help. The islands will request €355 million ($462.7 million) from the central government’s €18 billion ($23.5 billion) rescue fund for the regions, while Asturias will seek €261.

Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, has asked for €5 billion, Andalusia €4.9 billion, Valencia €4.5 billion, Castilla-La Mancha €848 million, the Canary Islands €756 million and Murcia €641 million.

Meanwhile, the government of the heavily indebted eastern region of Valencia on Friday approved a measure announced in May to lay off at least 3,000 public service employees — 40 percent of its workforce — to make savings of about €300 million ($391 million).

Red Cross launches first Spain crisis fund

October 10, 2012

MADRID (AP) — The Spanish Red Cross on Wednesday launched its first-ever campaign for donations to help Spaniards hit by economic crisis, in a sign of how needy this nation has become.

The Red Cross and other aid groups say soaring unemployment and government austerity measures are leaving tens of thousands of people in need of food and financial help. While the Spanish Red Cross does already help people in the country, its fundraising has always been directed at helping poorer nations.

Wednesday’s campaign, titled “Now More than Ever,” aims to collect €30 million ($39 million) over two years to help an extra 300,000 people. The agency helped some 2 million in Spain last year, most of whom needed food and financial assistance because of the crisis.

The agency set up collection points in cities across Spain and thousands of volunteers paced the streets seeking contributions. Spokesman Jose Javier Sanchez Espinosa said the crisis “is affecting more sectors of society than before” and that now “even people from the middle class who have lost one or two jobs in their households are finding themselves in need of our help.”

On top of this, “25 percent of children are living under the poverty level and old people now have their children and their grandchildren depending on their pensions,” he said. Spain is in its second recession in three years, and has near 25 percent unemployment.

The government has introduced a series of austerity measures, involving tax hikes, wage freezes and job cuts as well as labor and financial sector reforms. They’re aimed at reducing debt and increasing investor confidence, amid fears that Spain’s troubles could hurt the entire eurozone and force it to ask for a public finances bailout too expensive for the zone to handle.

But the measures have so far had little positive effect on the economy, while causing increased hardship for many people. “The situation is getting worse and worse,” said Sanchez. The Red Cross campaign coincides with reports by other groups signaling that increasing unemployment and reductions in social services are pushing more people than ever into seeking social and economic aid.

The Catholic Church charity organization Caritas recently reported that last year it helped more than 1 million people, up from 350,000 in 2007. “We find in recent years poverty is intensifying, (and) not just affecting more people but hitting those already suffering even harder,” said Caritas’ Francisco Lorenzo.

He described the situation in many households as “chronic,” pointing out that 52 percent of the nearly 5 million people now out of work have been jobless for more than a year, compared to 23 percent in 2007.

He said this did not just imply reduced income, but also lower morale and motivation to look for work. UNICEF in Spain said Tuesday that latest Eurostat figures show there are 2.3 million children now living below the poverty line in Spain, up by 80,000 from last year.

It said there were now some 760,000 households with children that had no adult working, 46,000 more than last year. Paloma Escudero of UNICEF Spain said it was imperative for the government to take into account the effect its economic measures have on children.

Thousands march to protest austerity cuts in Spain

October 06, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Several thousand people marched in downtown Madrid on Saturday to protest austerity measures they say will lead to cuts in cherished national health care and the privatization of public services.

Marching under banners reading “Neither cuts nor privatizations,” many protesters were civil servants hit with a wage freeze next year. Spain is experiencing its second recession in three years, is burdened with an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent and social unrest is on the rise. The number of people registered unemployed rose to 4.71 million in September as the tourism season ended and businesses let workers go.

“I work in a hospital, but I’m about to end up unemployed,” 58-year-old nurse Victoria Gutierrez said. “On Oct. 30, my temporary contract will finish and it won’t be extended. “We have minimum cover on every floor at every hospital,” she said. “This is affecting not just hospitals, also education and civil services, everything.”

The government has pushed through nine straight months of tough austerity measures which have prompted Spain’s 17 regional governments, some of which are heavily indebted, to slash spending in health care and education.

Madrid anti-austerity protests turn violent again

September 30, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Tens of thousands of Spaniards and Portuguese rallied in the streets of their countries’ capitals Saturday to protest enduring deep economic pain from austerity measure, and the demonstration in Madrid turned violent after Spaniards enraged over a long-lasting recession and sky-high unemployment clashed with riot police for the third time in less than a week near Parliament.

The latest violence came after thousands of Spaniards who had marched close to the Parliament building in downtown Madrid protested peacefully for hours. Police with batons later moved in just before midnight to clear out those who remained late because no permission had been obtained from authorities to hold the demonstration.

Some protesters responded by throwing bottles and rocks. An Associated Press photographer saw police severely beat one protester who was taken away in an ambulance. Spain’s state TV said early Sunday that two people were hurt and 12 detained near the barricades erected in downtown Madrid to shield the Parliament building. Television images showed police charging protesters and hitting them with their batons, but the violence did not appear as severe as a protest on Tuesday when 38 people were arrested and 64 injured.

Earlier, the boisterous crowds let off ear-splitting whistles and yelled “Fire them, fire them!” — referring to the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and venting their anger against tax hikes, government spending cuts and the highest unemployment rate among the 17 nations that use the euro currency.

On Friday, Rajoy’s administration presented a 2013 draft budget that will cut overall spending by €40 billion ($51.7 billion), freezing the salaries of public workers, cutting spending for unemployment benefits and even reducing spending for Spain’s royal family next year by 4 percent.

Pablo Rodriguez, a 24-year-old student doing a master’s in agricultural development in Denmark, said the austerity measures and bad economy mean most of his friends in Spain are unemployed or doing work they didn’t train for.

He plans to work abroad after graduating and doubts he will put his education to use in Spain until he is at least 35 or 40, if ever. “I would love to work here, but there is nothing for me here,” Rodriguez said. “By the time the economy improves it will be too late. I will be settled somewhere else with a family. One of the disasters in Spain is they spent so much to educate me and so many others and they will lose us.”

Madrid authorities put the number of protesters at 4,500 — though demonstrators said the crowd was larger. In neighboring Portugal, tens of thousands took to the streets of Lisbon Saturday afternoon to peacefully protest against even deeper austerity cutbacks than Spain has imposed.

Retired banker Antonio Trinidade said the budget cuts Portugal is locked into in return for the nation’s €78 billion ($101 billion) bailout are making the country’s economy the worst he has seen in his lifetime. His pension has been cut, and he said countless young Portuguese are increasingly heading abroad because they can’t make a living at home.

“The government and the troika controlling what we do because of the bailout just want to cut more and more and rob from us,” Trinidade said, referring to the troika of creditors —the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “The young don’t have any future, and the country is on the edge of an abyss. I’m getting toward the end of my life, but these people in their 20s or 30s don’t have jobs, or a future.”

In Spain, Rajoy has an absolute majority and has pushed through waves of austerity measures over the last nine months — trying to prevent Spain from being forced into the same kind of bailouts taken by Portugal, Ireland and Greece. But the country has an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent, and the jobless rate is more than 50 percent for those under age 25.

Investors worried about Spain’s economic viability have forced up the interest rate they are willing to pay to buy Spanish bonds. The country’s banks hurting from a property boom that went bust are set to get help soon from a €100 billion ($129 billion) financial lifeline from the eurozone, and Rajoy is pondering whether to ask for help from the ECB to buy Spanish bonds.

Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro said Saturday that the budget cuts for next year were necessary to ease market tensions and try to bring down high interest rates Spain must pay to get investors to buy its bonds.

Associated Press photographer Andres Kudacki in Madrid and television producer Yesica Fisch in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.

Protests decry Spain cuts to immigrant health care

September 01, 2012

MADRID (AP) — Some 300 people blocked a ring road in the Spanish capital Saturday to protest spending cuts that will leave large numbers of illegal immigrants without access to free health care.

Many undocumented immigrants who do not contribute taxes to social security are, as of Saturday, to lose the national health cards that had entitled them to free treatment The decision contradicts a pillar of Spain’s welfare state — free health care for anyone in need — and it comes as the country struggles with 25 percent unemployment and massive financial problems.

The government expects to save €1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) a year with the measure. It puts the number of people affected at 150,000, although media reports say the real figure could reach 900,000. Protests over the measure have taken place in towns and cities across Spain in recent days.

Christoph Napene of Senegal was among those blocking the road in Madrid on Saturday. The 46-year-old said he’s been unable to find a job in Spain and thus unable to apply for legal residency. “I’ve had strong stomach pains for over a week and have an appointment with a doctor on Monday,” said Napene, whose work skills include teaching French. “We’ll see what happens.”

The measure allows for some exceptions: care during pregnancy, childbirth and post-birth emergency, and serious illness or accident. “In any case, foreigners under the age of 18 will continue to receive health care under the same conditions as Spanish nationals,” a ministry statement said.

Manuel Cervera, health care spokesman for the ruling Popular party, said illegal immigrants could still have access to treatment, but they will have to pay for it, either now or later. If immigrants lack insurance or their countries don’t have special deals with Spain, they will be billed for treatment once they get a job and start paying into the social security system, Cervera said.

He also noted that each of Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions retained responsibility on how to implement the payment requirements of the new measure. But many of the people protesting the plan did not seem reassured.

“I know a lot of people who will suffer as a result of this action,” said Abuy Nfubea, organizer of Spain’s Pan-African Movement, which he said represented some 5,000 members. Spain is in a double-dip recession, spurred largely by a real estate crash in 2008.

It has been trying to avoid following Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus in having to ask for an international financial bailout.

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