Monuments to Spanish Insolvency

May 25, 2012

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Monuments to Spanish Insolvency

Spaniards alternate between rage and bewilderment as Europe lurches closer toward the currency implosion that will most likely vaporize Spain’s banking sector. Wasn’t it yesterday that the country boasted the EU’s second-highest growth rate?

Plenty of monuments still stand from that “growth” spurt: Airports without planes, museums without artwork, and prisons without prisoners. Spain is now filled with empty new monuments to empty old ideas.

A year after the ribbon ceremony, the airport at Castellón de la Plana remains boarded-up, unoccupied except for feral cats and yawning security guards, supposedly because the permits are held up in Madrid. Authorities have been unable to get a single airline or tour operator to commit to their airport.

Meanwhile, yearly maintenance is running upwards of 35 million euros. Roads accessing the main coastal highway have yet to be built, but live hawks and ferrets were acquired at a cost of 438,000 euros to prey on lesser birds that might fly into engine housings and cause nonexistent planes to crash. On the traffic circle outside the terminal, a bronze statue looking like a monstrous Mr. Potato Head toy rises 25 meters in the air.

“Don Quixote, as you may recall, was insane.”

The airport at Ciudad Real has a huge terminal and a four-kilometer runway to handle the world’s largest aircraft should the world’s largest aircraft ever need to land in Ciudad Real. The airport cost 1.1 billion euros, but the socialists who were running the show in the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha from 1983 until this past November didn’t want to look like pikers.

They built it big to accommodate an expected two million passengers yearly—a tad optimistic, given that Ciudad Real, left mostly to its own devices in La Mancha’s vast emptiness, has a population of 75,000. Even though they tried naming their airport “Madrid South,” the Spanish capital is over 200 kilometers away, high-speed trains are very expensive, and air travelers hate having to make extra connections.

Unlike the facility at Castellón, this airport actually got to open for business. With balance sheets padded by millions of euros in taxpayer subsidies, three low-cost and regional airlines flew out of here from 2008 until just after Easter Week this year, when huge yellow crosses were painted on the tarmac warning pilots not to land at what used to be “Don Quixote International Airport.”

Don Quixote, as you may recall, was insane.

Spain’s regional authorities have been more concerned with building lavish temples to contemporary art than with furnishing them with artwork. But if empty containers appeal to you, there is some outstanding architecture out there, such as the Santiago showpiece designed by Portugal’s Alvaro Siza or the building at León that playfully mimics tablets of watercolors in a paint box. Also worth examining is the problem-solving virtuosity of Es Baluard in Mallorca, a structure that seamlessly fuses with the sixteenth-century fortifications that rim Palma’s harbor.

Inevitably though, the permanent collection—if there is one—is very much a work in progress and seldom fully on display. That curatorial reticence is probably because the acquisitions have been guided by considerations of bulk rather than quality, with a strong suit in the recent and overhyped.

Meanwhile, the conservatives who were in power in Spain from 1996 to 2004 decided to tackle an ancient problem and divert water from the Ebro River, which slices through the fecund fields of Aragón, La Rioja, and Navarra far to the north. Farmers feared “their” water would end up irrigating golf courses and beachfront condos of the southeast rather than the orange groves and plasticulture farms for which it was supposedly destined.

Former Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist, ordered 51 desalinization plants built at a cost of five billion euros. At present, 17 of those are up and running, supplying only 16% of the projected output. The regional government of Murcia has been sounding out Gulf Arab countries about taking a dozen or so off their hands.

A year after the workmen went home, not one of the 1,200 berths at the luxury-class yacht marina at Laredo is occupied. Nor is a single bed occupied at the hospital complex at Toledo that was going to be Europe’s largest one-stop medical facility.

Construction ended over a year ago on northeastern Catalonia’s huge Puig de les Basses penitentiary, but the facility has yet to receive any of the 750 inmates it was designed to hold. The Catalan government has budgeted no money to make it operational, hire personnel, or purchase supplies. Or even to fill up the swimming pool.

Pool or no pool, Spanish taxpayers are getting soaked under a deal in which the builders assumed all the up-front costs for labor and material—109 million euros—and are to recover their investment at the rate of a million a month over the next 30 years. But should the prison ever open, don’t expect to find the politicians who ordered it built cooling their heels poolside.


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