Spain's economic boom sounds like a thud in southern province

Ask most Andalusians what they think of Spain's economic boom and most of the time the answer will likely be, ``I'll believe it when I see it.'' This skepticism doesn't seem to fit with all the road-improvement projects going on around the southern Spanish province, billboards proclaiming ``we are building for Andalusia,'' and endless promotion of the Expo '92 World's Fair.

Hotels in the regional capital of Seville, site of the fair, are packed with businessmen running to meetings and conferences on subjects ranging from water supply to Latin American taxation.

Economic growth in Andalusia is projected at more than 5 percent this year; although some estimates give current growth at 8 percent, that is considered unsustainable. Those rates compare with an expected national average of just over 4 percent.

The Spanish government in Madrid is pumping 500 billion pesetas ($3.9 billion) into the province to improve road, rail, and air links in preparation for the some 28 million visitors expected to descend on Seville for the six-month duration of the 1992 exhibition. The show itself is costing the comparatively low sum of 83.5 billion pesetas ($665 million).

The region was once the granary of the Roman Empire and paradise of the Arabs, and it controlled all the riches of the New World. It has a booming agricultural industry, which, together with tourism, has led optimists to promote Andalusia as a future ``California of Europe.'' But at present, it is one of the poorest parts of the Continent, with 30 percent unemployment - 42 percent in Seville.

The reason is that Andalusia's wealth was never fully reinvested in the province. Instead, it was used to build up Spanish industry in the north of the country, or was invested in elegant real estate in Madrid and elsewhere.

It was left to foreigners to develop Andalusia. Sevillana de Electricidad, the regional electric utility and the area's biggest employer, was started with Swiss German capital of the Rathenau family.

The legacy has been a population still rooted in its feudal past. This was evident in June, when the people of Seville came out in droves to watch the pomp and extravagance, more commonly associated with British royalty, of the wedding of the future Duke of Alba. The Albas, Andalusia's traditional feudal lords, descended from an illegitimate son of James II of England, and hold Spain's largest and most secretive fortune, little of which has been reinvested in the region.

As a result, there is little of the gung-ho optimism characteristic of businessmen in Madrid and Barcelona. ``We lack entrepreneurs in Andalusia,'' says H'ector Morrell, foreign trade counselor at the Seville Chamber of Commerce. Few Seville businessmen have shown much interest in Expo '92, despite the region's commercial and agricultural potential.

Vast fields of sunflowers in the Guadalquivir River Valley, for example, have provided an important oily moneymaker. Agriculture exports are growing 20 percent a year as the province has overtaken Israel as the prime supplier of out-of-season fruit and vegetables to northern Europe. Around Almeria, in the east, a thriving trade of tropical fruits is produced under plastic sheets more cheaply than South American products.

But there are danger signals in sight as farmers have begun to sell land to tourism businesses and vacation home developers.

To help offset this, the regional government is launching a 50-year forestry plan in hopes of improving 3.15 million acres of marginal land. Mr. Morrell, himself a cork exporter, says planting the traditional Andalusian forest of pine and especially cork, which renews its bark every nine years, could provide an investor with a good and fast return.

Both the regional and national governments have been trying to push agricultural reform since 1976. The idea was to study and define the productivity of any given piece of land. If the government decided the land should be producing, but the owner abandoned it, it could be expropriated for 25 years and leased to tenant farmers. This was supposed to help solve the huge agricultural unemployment problem, but so far only about 25,000 acres have been passed on.

In Seville, meanwhile, Expo '92 officials are delighted because foreign interest in the show has been so great. The fair will break all other international exposition records, with 80 exhibit pavilions ordered so far. The last record was 72 pavilions in 1970 at Osaka, Japan. Julio Cuesta, an Expo '92 spokesman, says that when the show is over, the buildings will be used as leisure facilities, a high-tech science park, academic institutions, and government offices.

Work is well under way on the 537-acre exhibition site, an island in the middle of the Guadalquivir. Drainage facilities are being installed and excavation for an artificial lake is almost complete.

Despite all the trucks and piled earth, few Seville locals believe much good will come of Expo '92. They say Spanish governments have periodically tried to solve Andalusia's problems through mega-projects, none of which helped. The last international exhibition in Seville, the Ibero-American fair of 1929, was followed by the Wall Street crash, recession, and war, and was a disaster.

But Andalusians are still looking to the government, not private enterprise, for help. Businessmen such as Morrell say that, because past governments have taken so much from Andalusia and seemingly returned nothing, the time has come to put something back.

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