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Thousands of Coal Miners in Spain Protest Cuts in Subsidies

By Evangeline O'Reagan, Meritxell Mir and Louise Osborne,

Special for USA TODAY

July 11, 2012


Thousands of angry Spanish coal miners marched through Madrid's main avenue Wednesday, throwing firecrackers and dodging rubber bullets fired by police to protest a cut in government subsidies they say will kill their industry.

By Andres Kudacki, AP

Miners and protesters walk during the coal miners' march to the Minister of Industry's building in Madrid, on July 11.


By Andres Kudacki, AP

Miners and protesters walk during the coal miners' march to the Minister of Industry's building in Madrid, on July 11.

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"It is not violence to defend our jobs and the daily bread of our children," said Manuel Robles, a miner and union representative of the Candin Shaft in Langrea, a mining town in the northern region of Asturias.

The thousands of miners, many of whom had walked hundreds of miles from all over the country to meet at the Industry Ministry, were there to protest government cuts to mining subsidies of 63% as Spain wrestles with a growing budget deficit.

The demonstrations came as Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced the government will cut spending by $80 billion and raise the sales tax, known as the VAT, from 18% to 21%. The cuts are a condition of a bailout of Spain's struggling banks by other European nations.

Rajoy said the root of the problem was government overspending on public benefits and jobs by his predecessors, the Socialists, and there was no other way out except massive cuts. Rajoy said that nearly 3 million private-sector jobs had been lost since 2007 but that public sector employment had increased by 289,000 positions.

"We are living in a crucial moment which will determine our future and that of our families, that of our youths, of our welfare state," Rajoy said to catcalls from the opposition socialists and other parties.

The cuts may exacerbate what is already a precarious situation in Spain. Unemployment has reached almost 25% and the economy is expected to shrink by 1.7% for 2012, according to the government.

The mining industry has been one of the hardest hit by the recession, which took hold in the country in 2008. Government subsidies have kept the industry afloat for more than a century; slashing them by nearly two-thirds will probably cost thousands of jobs.

"These are absolutely declining regions that have no possibility to replace their traditional industrial activities for new ones," said Jose Maria Blanco, professor of sociology at University of Oviedo, in Asturias. "As a consequence, depopulation and impoverishment will come."

Spain recently requested financial aid of $75 billion from the eurozone, the 17 nations that use the euro as currency, to bail out its banks. On Tuesday, finance ministers for various eurozone nations agreed to give Spain $37 billion, the first installment in a package worth up to $122 billion that was agreed to last month.

Rajoy's cuts would slice into the public payroll and typical European welfare benefits that have been expanded over the decades, such as civil servant jobs and national parliament positions. More state-owned companies would be closed, unemployment checks would be slightly reduced to encourage the jobless to get off the dole, and government subsidies to political parties and labor unions would be cut by 20%.

Spain is also discussing the possible privatization of ports, railways and airports, which are repositories for large numbers of unionized workers.

This is not the first time the loss-making sector has faced cuts: The former Socialist party government led by Jose Luis Zapatero reduced public funding to mining by 10% in 2010. Combined with previously announced reduction in subsidies, Rajoy is seeking a cut of more than $245 million.

Since the announcements of the cuts to the industry, some regions of the country have erupted in violence as miners have fought riot police squads and taken part in guerrilla warfare including firing home-made mortars. Miners have a long history of playing a lead role in political unrest, even daring to strike illegally during Franco's dictatorship in 1962 and sparking protests throughout the rest of the country.

"Most Spaniards understand the (miners') protests now because a big portion of the population is living under extreme difficulties due to the economic crisis," Blanco said.

"I doubt their protest will be the spark that lights the fire across Spain," he said. "People have an attitude of defeat" toward what's happening in the country.

As violence escalated during the protests in Madrid, with more than 70 people injured, miners said they were only acting to protect themselves from riot police.

"They acted with brutality," said Juan Carlos Álvarez Liebana, 47, a miner at San Nicolas mine in Asturias and a representative of Comisiones Obreras, one of Spain's largest worker's unions.

After two months of discussions with the government, negotiations remain at a standstill. Though the miners were beginning to trickle back home Wednesday, union representatives said they will continue the fight.

"They just need to rest and regain their strength," Alvarez Liebana said.

Contributing: Osborne reported from Berlin.

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