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I can see children crying and wearing funny clothes, so it must be Easter in Spain.
Year after year, it seems, the spring sunshine of Andalusia gives way to Holy Week rainstorms, prompting the cancellation of Seville’s penitential processions and forcing young and old to abandon their traditional capes and pointy hats (the costume confusingly adopted in modern times by the Ku Klux Klan). Even after months of preparations for the spectacle, the holy images of Christ and the Virgin are too valuable for a soaking.
My children, not being members of one of Seville’s ancient religious brotherhoods, have no reason to cry, but they could be forgiven for believing arid Andalusia to be the wettest place on earth. Year after year, the family photos portray us as sodden hikers on the beaches of Huelva, or as anorak-clad tourists dripping on to the tiles of the Alhambra palace in Granada.
Baking hot Spain – and I write as one whose Hong Kong dog banged her nose on her frozen water bowl in our first Madrid winter – is only one of the inaccurate clichés about the country harboured by foreigners.
Another oversimplification, shared by a few proud Spaniards, is to think of Spain as one country rather than as an oddly assorted collection of 17 autonomous regions with their own cultures, economic whims and bizarre bureaucracies erected since the death of Franco in 1975.
Andalusia, the largest and most populous, shows why: in the past 10 days it has snubbed the hitherto triumphant Mariano Rajoy, the centre-right prime minister, by re-electing the leftwing politicians who have run the region as their fiefdom for three decades; and it has joined Catalonia in embarrassingly public attacks on the national budget – a supposedly historic event meant to impress Brussels and Berlin with its extreme austerity, though it does not even cover the education and health spending controlled by the regions.
Shortly before the damp anticlimax of Holy Week, I went to Jerez de la Frontera, the picturesque Andalusian town that gave its name to sherry, to try to understand what had gone wrong with Spanish decentralisation, for power and money have been devolved to municipalities and provinces as well as regions.
The short answer is that such towns built fine roads and sports facilities and blithely hired people to run them during the boom years, but have now run out of money in the crisis and are heavily in debt – nearly €1bn in the case of Jerez.
I had heard from friends in Madrid about the expensive folly of regional television stations, but was startled to learn from María José García-Pelayo, the mayor elected last year, that Jerez also has its own municipal broadcaster, with no less than 83 employees. Unsurprisingly it was bankrupt, she said, while the town’s once active Formula 1 circuit had suspended payments to creditors.
This is the kind of news from the regions that has been raining on Mr Rajoy’s parade since he won the general election last November.
Esprit de l’escalier
Mr Rajoy himself is from a region of Spain, Galicia in the north-west, that really is supposed to be wet; the first time I set foot in the place 15 years ago, the Celtic locals were playing the bagpipes on the seafront at A Coruña.
A professional politician, Mr Rajoy broke election promises soon after taking office – first by raising taxes and then by granting an amnesty to tax evaders – without anyone being very surprised. On the contrary, he has conformed entirely to the Spanish regional cliché about gallegos, which says they are so hard to read that when you meet one on a staircase you can never tell whether he is going up or coming down.
Fight for Gomorrah
One man eager to make the most of Spain’s regional rivalries is Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire boss of the Las Vegas Sands gaming empire. Dangling the prospect of an €18bn investment in casinos and resorts and 260,000 jobs for Spain, he has pitted Barcelona against Madrid to ask for tax breaks and relaxed labour regulations from the bidders.
Critics mutter about a contest to be the next Sodom or Gomorrah and Spaniards have bad memories of mega-casino promises from previous would-be investors that proved more disappointing than a cancelled procession on a wet Sunday. When they build the first casino, I will try to place a bet on the chance of rain in Andalusia the following Easter.