Even the business community has signaled support for the proposal as Spain’s economy craters during the coronavirus pandemic.
Story TranscriptThis is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Spain continues to be one of the country’s hardest hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, and in a response, it may provide a permanent basic income for those who need it most. So far, Spain has over 139,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, second only to the US. While its death toll has surpassed 15,000, the economic impact has also been dire. Some are warning COVID-19 may hit Spain’s economy harder than any other country in Europe. More than 900,000 people have lost their jobs in the past three weeks alone adding to Spain’s record unemployment rate. The most vulnerable groups are the people who were already in a difficult economic situation before the crisis. Here’s a clip of Enrique Maurist coordinator of Red Cross in Catalonia.
Enrique M.: [Spanish 00:00:59]
Speaker 3: The first people who are falling into extreme vulnerability in this emergency are people who come from the underground economy. Basically women who went to houses to clean or care for the elderly, and now that they cannot go, they are in extreme vulnerability.
Enrique M.: [Spanish 00:01:19]
Jaisal Noor: Well, now joining us to discuss this is Sebastiaan Faber. He’s a professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College. He’s the author of the book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Thank you so much for joining us again.
Sebastiaan Faber: Great to be back.
Jaisal Noor: So we know that Spain is being devastated not only by the pandemic, but by the economic lockdown that every country has been forced to adapt or almost every country now. Give us an update about what you’re hearing on the ground. Off camera we talked about some troubling developments.
Sebastiaan Faber: Yeah. So you’re right, Spain has been among the country’s hardest hit and given the nature of the Spanish economy, where since the Great Recession, a lot of labor had been temporary and precarious to begin with. A lockdown like this one hits large amounts of the population pretty hard. So economically things have been pretty dire. And the measures that are being discussed and debated now in the national parliament seek to soften that blow as much as possible. But these come on top of a whole series of stimulus measures that were approved in the last couple of weeks already to increase the support network and especially try to discourage or even prohibit companies from firing people. So rather than massive firings, what we’re seeing in Spain are something resembling furloughs, right? Where people temporarily being put on hold but not in fact lose their job.
Now there’s a couple of things set Spain apart from other countries in Europe in how they’ve dealt with the crisis. One is the role of the political oppositions. Spain is currently led by a left-wing coalition government of the Central Left Labor Party socialist party joining with a smaller and more leftist party called [Spanish 00:03:17] So the right wing in Spain in the opposition and has been in opposition for a while. And rather than supporting the national government’s efforts to deal with the crisis as we’ve seen in other countries, for example, Portugal, the right in Spain has rather been more confrontational and critical of the central government.
And especially in the past couple of weeks, in the past couple of days they’ve tried to emphasize a couple of main points of critique. One of them is they’ve accused a simple government of acting slow in response to the crisis. This is an argument that’s hard to sustain because if you compare reaction speed to the crisis in Spain to other countries including the United States, Spain was actually pretty early to put measures in place. [crosstalk 00:04:06].
Jaisal Noor: For the US that wouldn’t be hard to beat because we were months behind.
Sebastiaan Faber: Right, exactly right, but even compared to Italy or France, Spain has been quicker. Another major point of critique in the last couple of days has been about numbers. So Spain as every country reports daily numbers of infected and dead and the right-wing opposition has been saying that the numbers of dead especially are much too low because the government only counts those people who were already diagnosed with the virus and then died. This is true. It is true that the likely number of the real number of people deceased from the virus is higher than the official numbers indicate. But that is pretty much true for every country that is going through this. In large part because the countries can’t afford to test everybody who dies. But there is some real evidence if you look at the numbers of dead, like the number of people who normally die in a month of March in the region of Madrid and if you compare the last couple of years to what we’ve seen last month, there’s a significant increase that could indicate that as much as 40% more people have died of the virus than the official statistics indicate.
But like I said, that’s sort of par for the course everywhere else too because in France, same is true and all the same as true in the States. In the States, I’m not sure to what extent we can trust the official numbers of that either. So but it’s interesting to point out that the political right and the opposition rather than assuming we’re all in this together attitude, they’re looking for ways to undermine and question the leadership of the left ring coalition. Then another point that’s worth pointing out is that a Spain is among the countries that has a more strict lockdown. Stricter measures, stricter prohibitions on what people are allowed to do, when they are allowed to leave their homes, what kind of jobs are allowed to have to continue exercising.
But what’s interesting in Spain is the role that the armed forces and the military police have taken on. The army has been prominent from the beginning of the crisis. So for example, in the daily press conferences that the government organizes, there’s always some kind of high ranking armed forces officer who gives his report and the military have also been more present in the streets along with the sort of the standard, national militarized police force, [Spanish 00:06:44] and that is I would say a worrisome development in a country that until 1975 was a military dictatorship.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah and obviously has a long history with fascist governments and a bloody civil war and much more. So everything you said is important context for the main topic I want to talk about today, which is a proposal by the Spanish government. Different than UBI, but giving direct payments to families and individuals that need it most at this time. Spain’s economy is just locked down. So as you said, a lot of people just can’t go to work. Some people have said this is the only way forward to address these massive economic crisis that Spain has felt and is starting to feel. Can you discuss that?
Sebastiaan Faber: Yes. So in the past, this measure from the Spanish government that is being discussed right now, jumped to the front page or into the new cycle in the English speaking world recently. And it was framed as a response to the COVID crisis. But the truth is that this was a proposal already included in the electoral program. So both parties currently in the government and it was explicitly included as well in their coalition agreement that they presented in January.
So in that sense it’s nothing new. It is true that the government is trying to speed up the implementation of this measure in response to the crisis, recognizing that economic need is greater than ever. But even when they included in their programs in the coalition agreement earlier this year, it was really an acknowledgement of the fact that the longterm consequence of the great recession, which in Spain really started hitting in 2011 with hardcore or [inaudible 00:08:39] measures, that those longterm consequences have not really been alleviated it enough. So currently for example, even before the whole COVID crisis hit about one in five Spaniards live at or below the poverty line.
That’s a percentage. Among children and adolescents under 16 the percentage is about 26%. So there’s a huge number of Spaniards who really can’t make the end of the month and who are in need of some form of income and what this measure, which in Spanish is called [Spanish 00:09:15] but you can translate it as kind of a minimum living income, what the measure seeks to do is to put in a base level income for those people who are most in need of it as a way to alleviate poverty and to prevent or remedy their social exclusion as a result of their poverty. But also of course to stimulate the economy because the more money people have in their pockets, the more they can spend and keep the economy going.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah. And it’s interesting because we have Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist sort of almost in that European model almost, he dropped out of the presidential race because the crisis actually really hurt his ability to campaign and the moderate candidates all consolidated behind Joe Biden, but what’s interesting is that some people actually predicted or even hoped that the crisis of the Coronavirus could have spurred these ideas into the center. Even as things like single payer health are more popular than ever. What do you think the future holds for Spain? As you’ve noted, the governing coalition consists of parties on the left.
Sebastiaan Faber: Yeah. So what’s interesting to me is that across the board in Europe, the US and elsewhere, you see kind of a shift of economic common sense, right? If, let’s say in the third way nineties, the economic common sense, even among the left, it’s shifted toward right, toward ending welfare as we know it, in Clinton’s terms or toward privatization and neo-liberalism. What you’re seeing now in a very short time period is a shift to the left of that economic common sense where even newspapers like The Financial Times are now saying, “Yes we do need large stimulus packages and yes, maybe some form of universal basic income or the measure that’s being discussed in Spain makes sense.”
And in Spain the actual measure looks like it will take quite a while to implement in part because Spain has a semi-federal set up and at the regional level, at the level of the autonomous regional government, there are already measures in place that resemble the measure now being discussed at the national level. And to coordinate those two levels would take some time. But today in parliament, the deputies are discussing and it looks like agreeing on an emergency measure that would put a quick emergency set of minimum income in place. Probably looking at about 500 Euros so about $550 per month per person. And then more as the household increases. And this is a measure that today even the corporate leadership in Spain has said it will approve. So, it’s really interesting to see that those bodies that until recently would display shock and indignation at any kind of mention of these kinds of ideas are now embracing them as really the only way forward and the only way to prevent, for example, large scale social unrest for breaking out.
Jaisal Noor: And you were talking about how the police and the army have been mobilized. So this is a real specter and that’s sort of forcing the business community to react in this way. Is that what you’re-
Sebastiaan Faber: Yeah exactly right. And I think nobody wants to see lootings and things like that take place. So I think the awareness that quick things have to be done to alleviate this massive drop in economic activity that consensus is widespread. There’s a thing, I mean we’ll have to see once we come all out of this, whenever that is, to what extent that new consensus will hold and to what extent people who are now jumping on the UBI bandwagon will jump off again and take up their former positions we’ll have to see that. I think one person, I think one interesting thing will be to see what effects these kinds of measures will have right now and whether we can predict how that affect will look once the economy resumes some sense of normality.
Jaisal Noor: Well, Sebastiaan Faber we want to thank you for joining us and we’ll keep coming back to you because you always provide us really powerful insight, but to see how this goes and how this crisis, we’ve seen an exploited to implement draconian measures and as have been for decades. But we’ll see if this time around, some positive change can come out of this for working people around in Spain or around the world. Thank you so much for joining us.
Sebastiaan Faber: Absolutely. My pleasure.
Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.