Homesick for the city where I grew up, I am drawn back to Madrid from time to time for a brief weekend. I was pleased to notice more activity this time -- more people eating out, dancing and laughing. New shops have opened. Trendy restaurants are fully booked. No time for a siesta, it would seem. The cosmopolitan center of the capital of Spain may not be representative of the state of the nation, yet it was a lot quieter two years ago. Is the crisis over?
There is talk of recovery in the media, and the government repeats the mantra that the worst has passed, hoping that it sticks. "This is the year of growth," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared in a recent interview on primetime TV. However, it is significant that he, a man who very rarely gives interviews, nevertheless attracted a mediocre audience.
The recession in Spain is officially over. Exports are growing, and the once-punitive premium risk levels have fallen back to pre-crisis rates. However, experts agree that it will take years for unsustainable unemployment levels to recover. Around 26 percent of the working population is looking for a job, more than 50 percent in the case of the population under the age of 24. Talk of recovery for them sounds like a bad joke. And there are 6 million of them. Yet they seem to be either silent or taking a flight to Germany in a most-of-the-time desperate attempt to find a job.
There is, sadly, a widespread passivity towards the institutions. New stories of corruption find their way into the news with monotonous regularity. Each one sounds like the one before. They involve not only the main political parties, the government and trade unions but even the royal family. Earlier this month the world's media focused their attention on the sensational appearance of Princess Cristina, the youngest daughter of King Juan Carlos, in court, as the subject of a criminal investigation into a case of alleged fraud and money laundering.
Judges are doing what they can, but their progress is hampered by the effect of austerity measures on their already-scarce judicial resources. Bankers have not been held to account -- like everywhere else, it must be said. However, ironically, there seems to be no delay in the trial against a judge, Elpidio Silva, who attempted to investigate Miguel Blesa, the former chairman of Caja Madrid. Unqualified for the job, Blesa found his way there thanks to his high-level links to the conservative party (Partido Popular). It's a discouraging episode for any other judge with thoughts of uncovering corruption in the ruling classes.
If it is not easy to investigate at home, it will also be harder to do so when it comes to crimes committed overseas. New legislation put forward by the governing Partido Popular in January will sharply reduce the scope of the national law that has permitted Spanish judges to pursue human rights abuses around the globe. It may be the end of the principle of universal jurisdiction in Spain, whose judges have been at the forefront of it in the past.
Not so long ago, in May 2011, the Washington Post published an impressive picture of the "indignados" movement occupying the Puerta del Sol, Madrid's main square, on its front page. It even compared the protests with those taking place in North Africa. However, that Iberian spring, as the Arab one, seems to have turned into a cold winter. It's a surprising development, given that the issues that the people were protesting about, such as unemployment and corruption, are still very much there.
As if the Spanish government were not busy enough pushing for reforms in a still-very-delicate economic situation, it has drafted a proposal to radically change the abortion legislation, aligning Spain with the most restrictive regimes in Europe. Backed by the church at home, and by Jean Marie Le Pen abroad, the government is already facing strong political and social opposition. A movement of solidarity with Spanish women is emerging in Europe, further eroding the image of a country once perceived as open and modern.
There is, however, a ray of hope for those unhappy about the state of affairs. A Madrid court has declared illegal the plans of the regional government to privatize six public hospitals, after strong resistance and numerous protests by the medical community. It is an important precedent that reinforces the still-weak perception that checks and balances are working. Nonetheless, the light at end of the tunnel still seems a long way away.