Guest Columns

SMITH: THE VIEW FROM SPAIN

Our presidential election elicits impassioned responses from citizens abroad

Contributing Columnist

“Unemployment brings misery,” says José Luis Galván. He’s a fisherman and we’re at the edge of the Guadalquivir River near the town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in southern Spain. Columbus sailed from here on his third voyage and in 1519 Magellan left Sanlúcar to circle the globe. Now it’s a small town known for seafood and wines.

Normally, the fishermen would leave in their boats at two in the morning but due to a week of torrential rains, they haven’t been able to fish. More important, the market has collapsed; the local restaurants don’t want fresh fish because there are no customers and no money.

I spent almost two weeks in Spain, arriving before our elections and leaving on Monday, November 12. I spoke with dozens of Spaniards about two themes — our elections and the economic situation in Spain. I did the same before our presidential elections in 2004 and 2008, finding that you can learn a great deal about the United States by listening to the opinions of people in other countries.

In 2004, there was intense opposition to Bush. For example, a few days before the elections, I was out in a rural area far from Barcelona where we were living. A farmer who was burning the weeds off his ditch appeared out of the smoke like a ghost, saw me, assumed that I was American and immediately asked “Bush or Kerry?”

In February 2008, three weeks before the Spanish national elections, I was in Sevilla and wanted to know the opinions of Spaniards about Rajoy and Zapatero, their presidential candidates. But no one was interested; all they wanted to talk about was Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. One reporter, Jordi Soler, for example, called Obama “a Kennedy with music.” For them, the idea of having as presidential candidates a woman and an Afro American was a miracle, something that could never happen either in Spain or the rest of the world.

This woman gets ready to show her affection for Obama by kissing the card in Ecija, Spain.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

During this recent visit, everyone was in favor of Obama but with some enormous differences, some due to their deep preoccupation with their own situation.

For example, confidence in their own leaders is rock bottom. An article in El País, the most widely read paper, talked about “A year of Collapse for the PP and PSOE” (the two major political parties.) Their study asked, “How much confidence do you have in the President of the Government, Mariano Rajoy?” Only 15 percent.

Antonio shows off his Obama card in Salar.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

And for the leader of the opposition, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba? Even less, 8 percent.

Another El País article began, “Spain, destination the third world. The abrupt ending of a period of well -being that we thought was eternal.”

They are suffering from a mixture of corruption, the incompetence and cruelty of the banks, and a lack of preparation for a global economy, issues that we face but their situation is much more intense.

Antonio and Carmen Herredia are Gypsies for Obama in Salar, Spain.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

For example, due to the wave of corruption between bankers and municipal officials that characterized their real estate boom, you have situations like the town of Chiclana de la Frontera where half of the citizens live in houses that don’t have the necessary zoning permits. And there have been a series of evictions across the country that are causing suicides. Finally the national government is paying attention.

Spain has also failed to prepare its young people for a rapidly changing global economy that will require more skills and education. In the same El País article, it says that “we have to recognize that we are becoming a low cost country with low cost salaries and low cost health care and education.”

Fisherman José Luis Galván, at right, and his friend, Jose Garcia near the edge of the Guadalquivir River in southern Spain.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

More than a million young people haven’t finished high school and the unemployment rate for those under 25 years of age is 52 percent. This is an issue for the U.S. as well; there are some 3 million jobs going unfilled here because Americans lack the necessary skills.

Although the support for Obama remained overwhelming, the enthusiasm of 2008 was clearly gone and several commentators were gloomy about our future. In an article entitled, “The American Dream or the Power of Money?” Joaquín Rábago of La Opinión de Málaga refers to the $6 billion spent on our elections as a form of legal corruption that makes it impossible for any leader to move forward.

Vicente Palacio argues in El País that the U.S. is becoming increasingly irrelevant and asks what it will take for a country so absorbed by money to produce new leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. In the Diario de Cádiz, Rafael Sánchez Saus makes the same point, saying that the re-election of Obama coincides with the US’s decline, a fact that will become more obvious as time passes.

At the personal level, however, there is still great enthusiasm for the US as a beacon of hope. When I give my Obama photos to José Luis and his friend, José Garcia, for example, they beam with pleasure and we have a moment of laughter. One obvious lesson is that we still are the world’s leader and we need to act like it.

Morgan Smith is a former state representative and Commissioner of Agriculture. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.