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The longest night

February 24, 2012

LAST Saturday, countrywide demonstrations took place in Spain against swingeing cuts in the public sector which will see a sizable portion of public services and jobs disappear.

The Spanish media reported massive protests in 52 different urban centres across the country that apart from the tiny western strip that is Portugal makes up the entire Iberian Peninsula.Greece may have been in the headlines because matters came to a head there with the country approaching a default but Spain and Italy are the other two EU members suffering because their sovereign debt rating has been reduced by Moody’s rating agency.

This means that the two countries have to pay a higher interest rate on what they borrow from the market. Their accumulated debt means that unless they cut a big proportion of their government spending, they cannot afford to borrow more or even service their debt.

It is a chicken and egg argument how so many European countries have got into the mess they find themselves in. Undoubtedly, some of them have spent far more for years than they had a realistic chance of earning in revenue.

But if you’d asked anyone from among the hundreds of thousands carrying red flags that we saw demonstrating on Madrid streets last Saturday you’d get a straightforward response. “We are being punished for the greed of a few bankers,” as 25-year-old unemployed university graduate Maria told me.

This argument holds that the social welfare programmes of many of these western European countries were already being trimmed and their spending/borrowing was in line with their revenue projections given the growth forecasts.

And then the US banking crisis triggered a global meltdown. All growth projections were thrown out of the window as the market sentiment took a massive hit, dragging down many an economy into a vicious spiral where they are still caught up.

While the outgoing Socialist administration was also committed to budgetary contraction and received its share of the opprobrium, the new right-wing Partido Popular government is now being slammed with renewed vigour as it is seen as anti-poor given its history.

Partido Popular is a right-wing party with many of its leaders coming from the Catholic ‘Opus Dei’ movement which collaborated with Franco’s regime, and so benefited from his largesse in his 33-year rule that sank its roots in Spain and is now a big electoral force.

Till Franco came out victorious in the Spanish civil war and folded up the republic, the country was seen as the avant-garde of European culture with Picasso, Dali, Buñuel and Lorca to name just a few internationally recognisable figures. Individual liberty was taken for granted and women enjoyed equality.

After the four-year civil war ended in 1939 bringing Franco and his fascist cohorts to power, a dark night descended on the country, which even post-Second World War western European democracy seems to have bypassed.

With Franco’s Fascist regime securing the sanction of the Catholic Church, all ‘godless’ dissent was put down firmly, thousands were summarily executed and dumped in unmarked mass graves, some of their children given into the care of families supporting the regime to be brought up as ‘good’ Christians.

Reading all this in history is one thing but having known someone who narrated the story of the civil war and fascist oppression in the first person, as a personal account, may have been a rarity but was so very painful too.

His full name is of little consequence. Everyone called him Manolo. He lived in a modest Madrid neighbourhood and, from the day I got to know him nearly 20 years ago, I saw a rage burning in him towards the clergy.

This was at odds with his warm, generous, amiable personality. If he ever saw a priest in black robes wearing a collar, he was incandescent with anger. He was a giant of a man. Way over six feet tall, with shoulders that would remind you of a barn door.

To priests Manolo must have been menacing though he didn’t harm a fly all his life.

Madrid was the last Republican bastion to fall to the fascists in 1939. Manolo, his parents and five sisters lived in a rented house very close to the river Manzanares in southern Madrid. His father, belonging to an erstwhile anarchist family, was in the unions, his two elder sisters were in key positions in the Communist Party, his three younger sisters and he himself still very young to work or be activists.

Their landlord was a Catholic priest. When Madrid fell, Manolo’s father had to go underground to escape arrest, both his elder sisters were arrested and jailed and two cousins who were mayors of small towns in the greater Madrid area were on death row.

Without much warning, one fine morning the landlord knocked at the door in his priestly robes and evicted the tenants, the mother and the four children, from the house. Even half a century later, when I first met him, the trauma of that day remained with him.

“All I recall is that we gathered whatever we could and placed it on my younger sister’s pram before being thrown out by the padre. Soon we were walking along the river …”; his eyes would fill up with tears and his voice would trail off.

But they did continue their walk into the future, somehow rebuilt their lives and survived Franco’s authoritarian rule to tell their story many, many years later. Manolo raised a family with each of his five children a success in their chosen field but all inheriting his radical views.

My storyteller friend who had so bravely survived the fascist onslaught lost out to the debilitating after-effects of a cancerous tumour in his lung just past last Christmas. Somehow, Madrid doesn’t seem the same without him particularly to my two daughters to whom he was a funny man, a doting abuelo, their granddad.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.