Spain: From anti-U.S. anger to American-style debate |

Spain: From anti-U.S. anger to American-style debate

Morgan Smith

Two years ago Europe was consumed with anti-war protests. In Barcelona, where we were living, about a million people gathered one Sunday, jamming the downtown in a claustrophobic sea of humanity. This was followed by repeated marches and demonstrations and the establishment of a tent city near our apartment. Last October the United States was once again a burning issue in Spain. In this case, it was our presidential elections. As I mentioned in an earlier article for the Aspen Times Weekly, everywhere we went, Spaniards would ask, “Bush or Kerry?” wanting to know how we were going to vote. Often they would add something like, “We wish we had a vote, too, because, in many ways, your president is more important to our lives than our own.”What are Spaniards thinking about Americans now? Well, the mood has changed dramatically and there is currently much less press about the United States. Our issues, however, seem to be consuming the daily lives of Spaniards.For example:• Smoking. A powerful anti-smoking movement has suddenly taken off. Not only are there huge warnings on cigarette packages and new smoking restrictions in public areas, but private citizens like taxi drivers and restaurant owners are finally speaking out.• Obesity. “Oh, you’re from the United States,” a taxi driver said to me in 1999. “That’s where even the poor people are fat.” Well, Spaniards don’t say that any more. There is increasing concern about the rising levels of obesity among young Spaniards.• Climate Change. In Colorado we’re concerned about the impact of climate change and global warming on the ski industry. In the Seville area, farmers are concerned about increasingly volatile weather that, for example, ruined this year’s almond crop. • Immigration. For Africans, the southern coast of Spain is the major entry point into Europe, just as the Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California borders are the entry points to the United States for Mexicans and other Latin Americans. Although countless Africans have died en route, their bodies washing ashore along the Spanish coastline, this migration continues because of the misery of life in Africa and the job opportunities in Spain and throughout Europe.Spain, however, is ahead of us in resolving the conflict between strict laws against illegal immigration and the pressing need for African workers. Now legal residency is being offered to workers who have no criminal records and a six-month labor contract.• Housing. Housing prices have skyrocketed in Barcelona and throughout Spain, even more so than they have in Colorado. This is one reason why 70 percent of Spaniards under 30 are still living with their parents. Now developers are experimenting with super-small apartments (300 square feet!) for young people. A number of commentators are asking if this is inhumane. Unfortunately, there seems to be no discussion about one of the reasons for high real estate costs – taxes. In Spain, purchasers of real estate have to pay a 10 percent tax!• Taxes and Pensions. Spain and Italy, two of the world’s most Catholic countries, will soon see their populations begin to decline. In Spain, for example, there are only half as many live births per year as there were in the mid-1970s. As a result of that and the continuing restrictions on immigration, Spain is approaching a staggering pension crisis – too few workers and too many retirees. Yet the kind of debate we Americans are having over Social Security simply doesn’t exist in Europe.The high taxes also generate feelings of gross unfairness and lead to blatant tax evasion. Soon there will have to be a U.S.-style debate on taxation and the painful beginnings of pension reform.• Religion. Spain has to be one of the most visually religious countries in the world, with thousands of beautiful cathedrals, even in the smallest of towns. These cathedrals are almost empty, however. During a typical mass, all you can find is a tiny cluster of worshipers, most of whom are in their 80s.In addition, this very Catholic country has just enacted legislation allowing gay marriage. If we’re puzzled by the enormous decline in interest in organized religion in Spain – and throughout Europe – they are equally puzzled (and quite alarmed) at the extent of religion’s role in public and political life here. • Affection for Americans. One factor hasn’t changed – the underlying affection for Americans. Near the Turo Park, where we used to live, it seems like half the dogs have American names like Bob, Ralph or Superdog. And during a recent trip, a Barcelona cab driver asked us if we knew Colorado’s size in square kilometers. He had never been to the United States but was able name the state capital of every state as well as each state’s size.Yes, the intensity of the last several years seems to have dissipated and there is less news about the United States. The issues that we have brought to the fore, however, are still very much on the minds of Europeans.Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can be reached at

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