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In Spanish riots, anguish of those recovery forgot

Raphael Minder
Riot police walk past burning bin containers on the third night of clashes with demonstrators following the evictions of activists from the 'Can Vies' social centre.
Josep Lago | AFP | Getty Images

Four nights of rioting in Spain's tourism capital have highlighted the country's persistent social tensions and belied signs of relief from a fragile economic recovery, which has yet to alleviate rampant joblessness.

The rioting started on Monday when Barcelona's City Hall ordered the eviction of squatters from Can Vies, a warehouse abandoned by the city's transport authority. The site, in the Sants district, was taken over by squatters 17 years ago and turned into a makeshift social center. City officials said they wanted to reclaim the site for a park.

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After attempts to clear the site, protesters threw stones, barricaded streets, smashed bank and shop windows, and set fire to garbage containers and a television van. The rioting has since spread to other parts of the city, and police officers have arrested scores of people.

On Friday, City Hall backed down and said in a statement that plans for the demolition of the site would be halted to help "favor a climate of dialogue." The squatters nonetheless pledged to continue their protests and to rebuild the half-destroyed center over the weekend.

Joan Maria Solé, deputy director of the Federation of Neighborhood Associations of Barcelona, said the attempt to replace the Can Vies building with "a hypothetical park or green area" showed that City Hall was insensitive to the widening income gap among residents.

Since hosting the Olympic Games in 1992, Barcelona has become one of Europe's biggest tourism hubs, with a record 7.5 million visitors last year. The rise in tourism has helped Barcelona weather the economic crisis that hit Spain in 2008 better than many cities. Over all, the city of Barcelona's unemployment rate is nearly 18 percent, roughly 8 percentage points lower than the national average, although there are big discrepancies between the city's poorest and richest neighborhoods.

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"Barcelona is full of contradictions, especially between those who are now unemployed and those who are just focused on earning even more from tourism," Mr. Solé said. Can Vies, he added, "is unfortunately a more realistic image of Barcelona than the brand City Hall tries to sell."

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The rioting this week echoed similar episodes elsewhere in Spain and in Turkey, where plans by Istanbul's mayor to redevelop a popular public square set off weeks of protests last year. In January, the Gamonal district of Burgos, in northern Spain, was the scene of prolonged street fighting over plans by City Hall to remodel an avenue and remove many of its free parking spaces at a time of deep cuts in other areas of public spending. The plan was eventually shelved.

Mr. Solé described Can Vies as "something of a symbol for the deprived." As in Burgos, he added, "it is the kind of spark that can set ablaze a fire that has long been simmering."

Joan Carles Gallego, the head of the Catalan branch of the Workers' Commissions, one of the two main trade unions in Spain, said the fighting over Can Vies reflected growing frustration in Barcelona as investors flock back to Spain but unemployment remains nearly 26 percent. Youth unemployment is roughly double that. "The message is that our economy is recovering, but most people aren't feeling that recovery," Mr. Gallego said. In the coming months, he warned, "the social conflict could get more radical because people won't want to be left further behind."

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Alfredo Pastor, an economics professor at the IESE business school in Barcelona, said that "from an outsider's perspective, the question might be how this has not happened more in a country of 26 percent unemployment." The problem for Spain, he said, is that "unemployment is likely to be the last part of our economy to recover."

Three years ago, a youth-led movement took over Puerta del Sol in downtown Madrid, in a giant protest against Spain's establishment that was a precursor to Occupy Wall Street and similar movements.

While anti-austerity protests have since continued across Spain, they have been on a smaller scale. Still, Podemos, a newly formed political party that has vowed to replace Spain's established parties, managed to win almost 8 percent of the Spanish vote in elections to the European Parliament last Sunday.