In recent years, in more prosperous times, people in Spain have tended to bad mouth coal. It's dirty, it's polluting, it's unsustainable as an energy source. Coal is an anachronism as we move toward a world of renewable energies. The sooner we wean ourselves off the stuff, the better.
In those good times the inevitable news that coal mines would be losing the subsidies that sustain them probably wouldn't have caused more than localized uproar, in the mining communities themselves.
But the subsidy cuts are happening now, in very different times: during a dire economic crisis notable for erasing millions of jobs per year and savaging Spain's social welfare system. Subsidies for Spain's 8,000-worker-strong coal mining industry are being slashed by two-thirds, the Spanish government has announced.
I expected that this would be lost among the ongoing, and much bigger, cuts to healthcare and education. Instead, the coal miners' plight has rapidly become a symbol, and a national rallying point, for suffering Spaniards from all walks of life.
For weeks now striking Spanish miners in Asturias, in the north of Spain, have been battling police in the streets of their towns. Every day on the news we see images of burning barricades, and guys with hankies over their faces shooting high-caliber bottle rockets, bazooka style, at riot police, who've been shooting rubber bullets back.
Now these same miners have arrived in Madrid, after walking halfway across the country in a highly publicized protest march. If you thought Tour de France cyclists received warm welcomes as they pass through country villages, you should have seen the receptions these beefy, serious-looking, safety-helmeted miners got. Kisses from strangers, offers of food, flowers, hugs, water, and above all raucous cheers of support all along the way. In Madrid, nothing short of a hero's welcome awaited them.
Even the miners have been surprised. But the timing for them couldn't have been better. They got to Madrid just as the government of Mariano Rajoy was announcing another crippling $85 billion in budget cuts and tax hikes. To do this the prime minister had to crumple up a bunch of election promises, for example not raising the national sales tax; it will soon jump from 18 to 21 percent.
It's no secret that people are fed up with austerity. They're fed up with the banks that are poised to received $130 billion in rescue money from Brussels — money that by all accounts will be added to the nation's public debt. They're fed up with politicians who've wasted and stolen their tax euros in huge, useless infrastructure projects. They're tired of the swelling classrooms as teachers get fired, of the longer and longer waits at health clinics. They are tired of watching financiers get rescued, they say, while they get left out to dry.
And suddenly a bunch of guys, who normally work miles underground, in horrible conditions, come marching into town with a promise: they will not go home without their subsidies. Even if that means bringing their bottle-rocket battle to the Parliament.
Spain has made lots of headlines since last year with its protests, especially the "May 15th" student-led movement, in which many city and town squares were occupied for a while. But these miners are in a different league, and I think people sense that. These guys, in a word, are tough. They are willing to fight, literally. And people seem delighted about that. They might not like coal, but the love that there's finally a guy out front to fight —fight with their hands — for them.
Wednesday there was a lot of fighting in Madrid. Miners, but mostly ordinary citizens who'd come out to support them, clashed with riot police during a long tense afternoon. Dozens of people were injured, several arrested. And today is likely to bring more of the same.
The miners didn't ask to become symbols of Spain's anti-austerity backlash. They came to the capital to get their money, to defend their jobs and their jobs alone. But no matter. Some among the legions of angry unemployed Spaniards see in the miners a battering ram with which to hit back at their leaders.