One of the unexpected attractions of the small Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera, or just plain 'Jerez' as it is popularly known, is that it boasts one of Spain's finest zoos.
But it has a problem. Nobody knows how long Jerez - which has the dubious honour of being Spain’s second most indebted municipality after Madrid - can afford to feed the animals.
The omens are not good. Jerez's bankrupt town hall has already run out of money to pay its municipal employees - which includes school cleaners, police and fire services, health workers, even grave diggers - with any degree of regularity. It can’t pay for spare parts for the town’s buses and police cars, let alone the electricity bills. And there are fears that the animals’ food could be next.
“I’ve heard they are ok for now, but they’re in a crisis situation,” says one Jerez municipal employee - unpaid since December - who requested anonymity.
“The suppliers of fresh food from the markets don’t want to provide the zoo any more because they know they won’t get paid… If [it] goes on like this, the whole place will fall apart...”
In Spain, it is almost the norm for town halls to be on the verge of bankruptcy. Last year, Pedro Arahuete, the president of Spain’s Federation of Municipalities, estimated that around 40 per cent were in financial difficulty.
But Jerez, which owes €957m, is in a class of its own. As one national daily newspaper put it, “the city is on its deathbed.”
The zoo animals cannot protest about their plight, but the 2,200 town hall workers lost patience long ago. Some of its health workers have been on strike on and off for the last three years, its primary school cleaners have held four strikes since September, and its bus drivers are almost permanently on strike. The irony that the crowds of protesters in front of the town hall are often faced by three or four municipal policemen - all equally unpaid - is lost on nobody.
“Once best-known for its horse-riding, wine and flamenco, Jerez is now more famous for its strikes,” ran a recent editorial in the Jerez Noticias newspaper. “It has become a byword for paralyzed town hall accounts and the economic recession.”
“We’ve had problems with late and irregular payments for the last three years and this coming Sunday (1 April) will mark four months with no pay at all,” says Carmen Mariscal, a healthcare assistant who has been camped out in protest outside the town hall for the last two months.
“The mayor tells us that we will get something from the regional government, soon, but in fact the town hall never pays up. And we’re not the only ones,” she says. “We’re families with one income but the banks’ charges don’t stop. You just look in your fridge, half the stuff you need isn’t there. And the most worrying thing is you don’t see the end of it.”
Virtually no sector of the municipality services, even the gravediggers, has been untouched by strikes. The latest has been in 11 primary schools, where a cleaners strike to claim three months unpaid wages saw nearly 4,000 children, almost a third of Jerez’s total number of school kids, off class for a week. Parents claimed teachers were reduced to cleaning the desks – which were so grimy that the children were sticking to them - with alcohol.
As for the local libraries almost all can only work in daylight hours because the electricity has been cut off in all bar the Jerez main library - which municipal employees say is next for the chop.
“The bankruptcy has huge secondary effects because our town hall is the biggest single employer in Jerez,” says another local health department worker. “It affects everything. For instance, because the health assistants have been on strike, then other medical staff have to do their job. And that means they have less time to attend to patients”. Only last weekend, the city’s main hospital became so over-crowded doctors forced to attend to patients seated in packed waiting rooms.
Although Spain’s dire economic situation has enormously exacerbated Jerez’s current quandary, its debt crisis has deep roots. Accusations of alleged mismanagement and enchufismo (nepotism) fly thick and fast at the city’s administration.
Evidence of Jerez’s golden era endures. In appearance, the city centre is a chocolate box version of Andalusia - perfectly tended boulevards lined with fragrant-smelling orange trees, perfectly cobbled, narrow streets crowded with tapas bars and crystalline fountains sparkling in bright sunshine. But reports of rising poverty cast a shadow over it all.
“I’ve been working here for 25 years, and I’ve never known business so bad,” says one fruit-and-veg seller named Paco, in the central market. It is just a stone’s throw away from the gleaming, but half-closed, Andalusia Plaza shopping mall.
“People come here asking for food after we’ve closed, not in ones or twos but in groups. And what can you do? You can’t give it to everybody.”
Escaping for pastures new is barely an option, given that house sales are at near-historic lows. Even Jerez lottery ticket vendors say that sales are down, contrary to expectations, given La Loteria’s perceived status as an escape route.
Solidarity, fortunately, is booming .Even if the numbers who can afford to pay the €20 it costs to walk as hooded, candle-bearing penitents in the upcoming Holy Week Processions have dropped, those that can also bring a kilo of food for local charities to each of their weekly rehearsals
“These days the number of people that come to my parish soup kitchens has nearly doubled,” says a voluntary worker with Caritas, a Jerez charity. “More and more young people are giving up on their mortgages and moving in with their parents - I’ve regularly seen three generations of families living in 60 metre square flats - but even that kind of support will dry up. And then what will happen?”