Sunday, December 02, 2007

Transport chaos fuels Catalan nationalism

Transport chaos fuels Catalan nationalism

BALTIMORE SUN - associated Press
- December 2, 2007

"The way the proud people of Catalonia see it, their semiautonomous region...political victory when Spain granted Catalonia more autonomy and extra power over...average was $245 per person, while Catalonia received $202. Of course, many..."

BARCELONA, Spain - The way the proud people of Catalonia see it, their semiautonomous region is an economic and industrial juggernaut that stands out from the rest of Spain.

But recently, their capital, Barcelona, has been mired in Murphy's law chaos: Just about everything that can break down has.

Oddly enough, one result is an enhanced feeling of Catalan nationalism - the idea being that if Catalans had more say in running their own affairs, such as rail networks and airports, they'd do a better job than Spain's central government.

Only a year ago, the region scored a historic political victory when Spain granted Catalonia more autonomy and extra power over tax collection and judicial matters, among others. It also gave them more control over infrastructure, but not carte blanche.

"Yes, we are angry. We feel we had this deal to control our own infrastructure, but nothing has really changed. If anything, it has got worse," said Jose Luis Garcia, a 43-year-old business executive.

The Barcelona commuter rail system - controlled by the central government - has all but ground to a halt because of problems with engineering work on a long-delayed, high-speed rail link between Madrid and Barcelona.

Up to 160,000 people are using alternate transport such as buses, and taking hours to get to work and back. One of three stalled lines is back to working at least partially, but the mess was expected to last for some time.

In July, 350,000 people in the city were left without power for three days after a major power cut. Restaurants had to serve cold food and people were reduced to using gaslights.

And Barcelona, one of Europe's top tourist destinations, was all but cut off at the height of the summer season when airport baggage handlers staged a strike, leaving thousands of holiday-makers stranded for hours.

Office manager Nuria Vidal, 37, says it's time for Catalonians to take a firmer grasp of their own affairs.

"It is an embarrassment for us that this cannot be managed better," Vidal said. "It is a breakdown in the management of infrastructures by the Spanish and Catalan governments. More people are feeling that it is time things which affect us were run locally."

The robust Catalan work ethic has made the region one of the richest in Spain, but a common complaint from Catalans is that a lack of investment by the central government has led to a collapse of local infrastructure.

A report by a Catalan business group, Development of the National Labor, said government statistics show public investment in the region was 17 percent below that of the average from 1991 to 2006. The average was $245 per person, while Catalonia received $202.

Of course, many on the Spanish right, outside Catalonia, say this region receives less because it is richer than poorer regions like Andalusia, which received $218 per person during the period. The northeastern region of 6 million people churns out 20 percent of Spain's economic production.

But the sense of injustice in Catalonia remains strong.

"People have the feeling that, historically, we have been forgotten," said Joan Subirats, head of politics and public administration at Barcelona's Autonomous University.

"Yes, Barcelona has had the Olympics, which did a lot for the city, but to have to wait six years for a high-speed train, which came to Seville in 1992, says it all," Subirats said.

"The effect is, many more people regard themselves now as Catalans than Spaniards. It has increased the sense of nationalism here," he added.

Problems with the bullet train are politically damaging for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who faces a general election in March.

He had promised voters before the last election in 2004 that a high-speed line to Barcelona would open in 2007, but officials say this is impossible and that early 2008 is the new target.

Zapatero was forced to concede in parliament that the government had failed to deliver on the rail issue, but he rejected loud and widespread calls to sack embattled Development Minister Magdalena Alvarez.


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