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City's Most Desperate Search For Revenue Ever? Madrid May Fine Panhandlers

Panhandlers, window-cleaners and street peddlers would be targeted in plan put forth by the mayor of the heavily indebted Spanish capital. Good luck collecting...

Targeting Madrid's most destitute
Targeting Madrid's most destitute
Ute Müller

MADRID — Madrid is the most heavily indebted city in Spain. So the mayor, Ana Botella, has set her sights on a new and unlikely source of income. Beggars, window cleaners and street sellers may soon find themselves forced to pay heavy fines.

After suffering the effects of the economic crisis for the last four years, nearly all Spanish authorities have run out of money. The situation is at its worst in the capital, which has incurred debts of 7.4 billion euros over the last few years through reckless construction projects and the mayor’s Olympic ambitions. Now Botella thinks she may have found the solution to her city’s cash-flow problem: beggars, street sellers and illegal immigrants. She plans to introduce new fines next year, a move the socialist opposition has criticized as draconian punishment for society’s most vulnerable people. But Botella’s allies have defended the move as a declaration of war on decadence.

People caught begging on the street or in front of supermarkets would be subject to a fine of up to 750 euros, as will window cleaners who descend on cars at traffic lights. Anyone who sends their children to beg on the streets would be subject to a fine of 3,000 euros. Many Madrid natives are wondering how these people would be expected to pay the fines, as most are desperate Romanian immigrants who live hand to mouth, sleeping under bridges or camping in impoverished areas.

Sharp decrease in tourism

Botella, however, has other things on her mind. While the rest of Spain is celebrating a bump in tourism, the number of visitors to the capital has fallen sharply this year, even during the peak travel season. August saw 22% fewer tourists than the previous year.

This cannot be explained away by the facts that Madrid’s airport Barajas has significantly increased its fees, and that people tend to reduce travel expenditures during a recession. The city’s cultural attractions have seen massive cuts over the last few months, with theaters being closed, jazz festivals cancelled and small museums amalgamated.

“Madrid is on its knees,” declares the daily newspaper El País. Now that the city has run out of money, its officials may well be regretting the millions of euros they invested in new building projects in an effort to win Olympic hosting duties. Madrid has been rejected three times, most recently losing out to Tokyo. Now the mayor’s office has to deal with the legacy of the failed campaigns in the form of multiple stadiums standing empty. The authorities spent 500 million euros on an Olympic tennis stadium, which has barely been used, and a swimming pool that has become a blot on the landscape.

Botella’s predecessor Alberto Ruiz Gallardón was responsible for the largest projects of the last decade. Over the course of 10 years, he completely transformed the city, so much so that Madrid became — together with Berlin — the European capital with the most construction work. Four skyscrapers on the former training ground of the Real Madrid soccer team were supposed to symbolize “Madrid’s fighting spirit.” The most ambitious project was moving large sections of the M30 ring road underground and transforming the area around the river into a city park. This work is still costing the authorities five billion euros.

American tycoon to save the day?

The city’s last hope is American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who plans to use Madrid as the location for Eurovegas, the largest casino complex in Europe. He is promising an investment of 17 billion euros and says the casino will create 250,000 jobs. But construction has yet to start, as the project has run up against a brick wall. Two years ago, Spain implemented a smoking ban in restaurants and bars, which would include Adelson’s project. The American is not prepared to accept this state of affairs, as his profits would be slashed if gamblers had to leave the tables to smoke outside. As yet, the Spanish government is not prepared to bend the rules of the ban.

So Mayor Botella must rely on herself. “There are always people who try to portray Madrid as sad and hopeless,” she wrote on her blog. “However, I see a city full of life, freedom and modernity, a city with people who are not afraid of a little hard work.”

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