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Spanish government struggles to respond to home eviction suicides

In less than a month, at least five people who were about to be forcefully evicted from their homes committed suicide. The issue is galvanizing opposition to austerity measures. 

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“I laugh at government numbers. Of the 400,000, at least 10 percent resulted in evictions of the main residence of distressed families,” says Mr. Ruiz, also one of Madrid’s top leaders. “And that will soon jump to at least 20 percent as they process the pending eviction proceedings.”

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The Spanish judges’ report and another conclusion issued by the European Court of Justice's advocate general Juliane Kokott suggest Spain’s evictions laws are “abusive” and incompatible with EU law protecting consumers.

The government has promised to carry out a comprehensive reform of the law, in consensus with other parties. How much help those on track for eviction get will largely depend on popular pressure, experts say. 

Suicides

In less than a month, at least five people who were about to be forcefully evicted from their homes committed suicide, two of them last week.

The shock is understandable. Over most of the last decade, Spain gloated about its unmatched economic growth in Europe and an impressive global expansion of its companies, especially in banking, telecommunications, and energy.

Most Spaniards had jobs, and immigration from Europe and Latin America was encouraged to satisfy labor needs as thousands of properties were built. Many bought homes, and some bought two and three, as just about everyone was offered credit at low interest attached to what some suggest are predatory conditions.

But since the crisis began when a huge construction boom burst in 2007, wealth destruction has been unparalleled. Spain’s proud welfare state and safety net is unraveling as the government trims spending while raising taxes amid the worst economic downturn anybody can remember. 

The country now faces historic unemployment that tops 25 percent, soaring poverty levels, mass emigration, and little sign of a turnaround. Most analysts forecast further economic contraction in 2012 and 2013, and only discrete growth thereafter.

The suicides catalyzed a popular backlash against government austerity and its consequences: evictions, chronic unemployment, rising poverty, and erosion of the prized free healthcare and education. Spaniards cannot understand how their pain and taxes are bailing out the country’s banks, while citizens are being left without recourse or aid, in many cases forcing them to become homeless.

Civil disobedience is on the rise and the government is worried. Thousands have protested, and regional governments and courts are increasingly refusing to execute evictions orders. Some policemen are also objecting on conflict of conscience grounds. And Vigo, a large port city on the Atlantic coast, threatened to pull public money out of banks that evict people.

“It’s going to be hard to get a satisfactory reform. The ruling party is conservative,” says Fermín Bouza, a sociology professor in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and an expert on social movements. Eviction is just part of the broader degradation in the quality of life as a result of austerity-driven policies imposed by Europe, he says.

“It would make little difference if we had a more progressive party. We don’t have a horizon with many options. The only way out is for Spain and Europe to change simultaneously,” Dr. Bouza says.

But popular frustration will continue growing and inevitably impose change, Bouza says. “All together we are in the middle of a very drastic scenario of transition into something else. The question is if we can do it without any serious consequences.”

But while most agree increasing turmoil will eventually pressure politicians to recalibrate the austerity-heavy recipe to return to growth, “it will be too late for me,” Mejía sighs.

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