Persistent unemployment, without lingering pain

CADIZ, Spain — Beyond its pink-hued Atlantic light and the distinction of being the oldest inhabited city in Europe, this Andalusian outpost is best known for two things: its famous carnival (which ended February 22 after two raucous weeks) and its chronic unemployment.

Both were on vivid display on a rainy recent afternoon, as a group of roving musicians called I’ll Start Monday belted out a “chirigota,” or satiric song. A crowd cheered, drinks in hand, as the group sang of an angel on the narrator’s shoulder telling him to “grow up” and get a job; while a devil on the other said: Why bother? Go have fun.

The song explains a lot about the situation here in Cadiz, in southern Spain just north of Gibraltar. Joblessness has climbed to 19 percent in Spain, the highest in the euro zone, after the collapse of a housing bubble. But here in Cadiz, it is at a staggering 29 percent — and has been in double digits for decades.

Elsewhere in Europe, such high numbers would lead to deep social unrest. Not so in Cadiz. Here, as across the Mediterranean, life remains puzzlingly comfortable behind the dramatic figures, thanks to a complex safety net in which the underground economy, family support and government subsidies ensure a relatively high quality of life.

“This is a place where you can live well, even when unemployed,” said Pilar Castineira, 30, as she attended a performance of carnival skits in a downtown theater. “Life is four days long,” she added, recounting a Spanish saying. “On one you’re born, on another you die, and in the two in between, you have to have fun.”

That was certainly the case during carnival. People walked around the city’s colorful and cheerily shabby downtown, which has been used in movies as a stand-in for Havana, drinking, listening to the roving musicians dressed in outlandish costumes and eating fried fish out of paper cones. The party even continued for nearly a week after the start of Lent.

Yet beyond the barhopping, there were other realities. Over lunch in a restaurant with a view of the port, Miguel Cervera García, a grizzled 47, explained how he made ends meet. He said he had picked olives and worked as a plumber, but never officially. “I’ve always worked, but without a contract,” he said amiably. He added that jobs with contracts were better, “since you get social security and paid sick days.”

Payroll taxes and unemployment benefits are high in Spain, and many people avoid them by hiring workers under the table or by offering them temporary contracts that avoid the high costs of hiring and firing. Always popular in the Mediterranean, tax fraud has grown during the economic crisis, to the point that many experts see it as the biggest reason that high unemployment has not translated into mass protests.

Officials say that one-third of Cadiz province’s 170,000 unemployed people are no longer receiving state unemployment subsidies, indicating that the underground economy and families must be taking care of the rest.

Officials estimate that Spain’s underground economy equals at least 20 percent of the official economy. In Andalusia, it is believed to be higher.

Families remain a strong support network. Home ownership is highly valued, and even out-of-work Spaniards often live cheaply in homes their families paid off long ago. “If one person in the family works, he’s a net for the whole family,” said Juan Bouza, Andalusia’s person to develop employment in Cadiz.

Bouza reiterated a central tenet of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s approach to the crisis: extending unemployment benefits even as the state deficit is growing. “We don’t think that people will find a job more easily if we remove help,” Bouza said. “We think the weakest people need help.”

To some, the cultural acceptance of unemployment is part of the problem. “For most people here being unemployed and — while it lasts — living off state benefits is perfectly natural,” said David Pantoja, 36, an out-of-work carpenter who founded an association for the unemployed in Cadiz. “It’s just a fact of life, like love or death.”

Indeed, for decades Andalusia has had the highest unemployment levels in Spain. The jobless rate here was 13 percent four years ago, when levels elsewhere in Spain were at a near-historic low. But there were signs of improvement. In early 2008 local politicians made campaign promises to bring full employment to Andalusia, but with the collapse of the housing bubble that is not looking likely, and joblessness in the region is now at 26 percent.

History explains some of the problems. During the 36 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Andalusia was Spain’s breadbasket. After the transition to democracy in the 1970s, it never fully developed into an industrial region. In recent decades it has lost a lot of shipbuilding jobs to Asia. Today, it draws 40 percent of its revenue from tourism, especially on the popular Mediterranean coast around Malaga.

Cadiz is on the windier Atlantic side. In an office with a stunning ocean view, Bouza spoke of the region as a centerpiece in the government’s plan to turn Spain into a hub for renewable energy projects. “This will be the Silicon Valley of renewable energy,” he said.

He added that 75 cents of every euro the region spends on unemployment is for courses to help train the workforce for its future in renewable energy.

But not everyone accepts that. “They said that by 2012, Cadiz would be a bedroom community” for nearby industrial areas, said Esteban Vias Casais, 58, a retired factory worker who lives on a disability pension. But the city already is one, he added with a wink. “Here, everyone sleeps, and no one works!”

Pantoja was not convinced by the courses, either. Sitting in a cafe after a children’s carnival parade wrapped up nearby, he said he had taken courses on business management and computer literacy, but that new skills were not the issue. After two years without work, “Enough training,” he said, “we want jobs.”