By Lena Jakat
In the run-up to the Pope’s visit to Germany in September, young German Catholics queued up to go to confession, but on Madrid’s streets right now young Spaniards are yelling words of protest. The world has turned upside down in Catholic Spain, or at least that’s what it looks like at first glance.
There’s more here than meets the eye. At first glance this week’s protests are about World Youth Day, the Catholic Church’s “pop” event. But they also shed light on a fundamental dissatisfaction and profound sense of doubt on the part of young Spaniards that runs far deeper than any specific problems they may have with this particular Church event.
Politicians and church representatives may try and write off the youth in Madrid’s streets as “parasites” and vandals, but what they don’t seem to realize is that these protesters represent the very real danger of a lost generation.
For the half million young Catholics expected to turn up in Madrid for the Catholic Church’s largest international get-together, it’s a home game, at least according to the facts: 46 million Spaniards are Catholic, which is to say 92% of the population. There are over 127 bishops and 26,000 priests at the Vatican’s service in Spain, and Catholic schools and kindergartens play a major role in the country’s ailing education system.
That said, in everyday life the Church plays less and less of a role: only 13% of Spaniards regularly attend religious services.
And yet the young people out on the streets in Madrid were not protesting issues like celibacy, or the Church’s habit of maintaining an arm’s length distance from ordinary people’s concerns: they were protesting the expense -- how much the festival was costing the state.
Informally translated, banners seen on Madrid’s streets read: "I don’t want a cent of my tax money going to the Pope.” The protesters expressed massive indignation that the government -- even though it wasn’t subsidizing the event in any direct way -- was providing security and the space in which to hold the event. Exactly how much the event is going to cost Spain’s tax payers is something the government has not yet divulged. Meanwhile, organizers repeat incessantly that none of the estimated 50 million-euro cost of the event comes from the Spanish state.
World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 – which cost a hefty total of 120 million euros -- was subsidized to the tune of 14.4 million euros from public funds. That didn’t include the services of the police and emergency forces: state government (as with some sports, concerts and other mega events) absorbed the rest.
With regard to the Cologne event, to what extent state taxes helped finance the 2005 Youth Day is not being revealed by the Department of the Interior of the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen in which Cologne is located. It is precisely this type of lack of transparency that Spanish activists are protesting against. Why, for example, might pilgrims from around the world be given hefty discounts on the public transportation system, but not the locally unemployed?
The demonstrations in Madrid on Wednesday evening against Youth Day were a continuation of the protests that began on May 15 by the "indignados," or “indignant ones.” Inspired by the North African revolutions and French intellectual Stéphane Hessel, they were also calling themselves, after the first day of protests, the "15-M Movement."
The protesters are mainly young, well-educated people who have lost faith in both government and politicians. Nearly every second Spaniard under 25 years of age is unemployed: in that age group, the unemployment rate is 46%.
Since most of them haven’t paid enough into unemployment insurance coffers to be able to see any benefits, these young Spaniards are getting no support from the state. Well into their 30s, they are living with their parents and largely dependent on parental funds. The ones who do have jobs are often massively over-qualified for them. If their frustration levels get too high, they call in sick: over-qualified academics account for most sick leaves in Spain.
When, last May, Spain’s many indignados joined forces and occupied the Puerta del Sol in downtown Madrid for over three months, their anger appeared to be manifesting in a very constructive way. The activists organized debates about the basic tenets of democracy, and engaged in discussion with intellectuals and even Nobel Prize winners about capitalism and the consequences of economic globalization. However, although strongly supported by the general public, politicians didn’t take up the opportunity for dialogue.
The demands of the protesters – more jobs and a better, more practically-oriented education system – are, in the mid-term, as comprehensible as they are utopian: in the light of the financial crisis and the euro crisis, the Spanish government has introduced drastic austerity measures. And changes, even if they are improvements, cost money.
A violent turn?
So all hope in the political establishment has disappeared, and Spanish sociologist César Rendueles isn’t the only one who’s noticed this very serious communication gap. The initially constructive protests have become increasingly destructive -- expressing anger instead of seeking change. The activists themselves have also changed, becoming less political and more prone to violence.
Madrid’s mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón has been attacked on the street. When Cayo Lara, leader of Spain’s Green/Communist alliance, sought to support a forced eviction of squatters he was sprayed with water: he was “a politician, he doesn’t represent us,” the activists said.
And violently, on June 15, the indignados tried to prevent a meeting of the Catalonian regional parliament by heckling, spitting and throwing fruit at representatives. The parliament meeting had scheduled discussions about the budget that included 10% slashes in social, health and education services -- savings measures that are a result of emptying coffers and orders from Madrid and Brussels.
To make matters worse, the parliamentary elections that have been moved up to this fall are likely to see conservatives win the majority – and they are likely to increase austerity measures, and this frustrate the young protesters even more.
If Spain’s indignados were expressing their discontent in the run-up to the Aug. 19 World Youth Day -- a festival of belief, costing millions, that also wants to send a message of community and solidarity – that is an expression of general desperation. Politicians and church representatives, who appear to be deliberately reading the wrong causes into this by writing the protesters off as parasites and vandals, are sending a clear message: We don’t take you seriously.
It is a dangerous message indeed.
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Read the original story in German here.