Spanish town 'at war' with Suzuki: Phil Davison writes from Linares on an upsurge of bitter anti-Japanese feeling

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a bronze statue of the guitarist Andres Segovia, who was born here, and a memorial plaque in the plaza de toros to one of Spain's greatest bullfighters, Manolete, who died here on the horns of a bull in 1947.

Some of the world's great chess players, inluding Karpov and Kasparov, could be seen this week, during breaks in one of the world's best-known tournaments.

Apart from these claims to fame, not a lot has happened in this small Andalusian town since the 19th century lead mines, first exploited by the British and Germans, closed down.

Now, however, Linares is a town 'at war'. It is no longer an advisable stop-over for Japanese tourists, whether they are fans of Segovia, Manolete or Karpov. Last month, Suzuki, owners of 84 per cent of Andalusia's only car plant, Santana Motor, announced a 'suspension of payments' - its liquidity could not cover its short-term debts. It said it would not invest another peseta, that a new investor would have to come up with 38 billion pesetas (around pounds 190m) and that 60 per cent of Santana's 2,400 workers would have to go.

That may not sound like a lot of workers. But with unemployment in the region already at 35 per cent, the news hit Linares like a bombshell. The plant, which produced Land Rovers under an old licence with the British company as well as Suzuki's Vitara and Samurai models, is in danger of closure. To Andalusia - largely poor and agricultural - this would mean the destruction of its greatest symbol of the economic boom of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

Add to that the fact that Andalusia's regional elections take place in June, on the same day as the European parliamentary election, and that Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist Workers' Party is losing ground to both left and right, and you have dynamite not only for Andalusia, Mr Gonzalez's home region, but for his political survival nationwide.

'Suzuki's move was a declaration of war,' said Luis Segura, town councillor for the Communist-led Izquierda Unida (IU). 'Closure of the plant would mean disaster. Almost everything in the region depends on it. If you include its auxiliary industries, 15,000 workers would be affected, three-quarters of the town's workforce.'

Bars and shops are all but deserted. In Joy's night club, where young people used to queue to get in, Juan Carlos, the security guard, plays tute, a local card game, with the manager. There are no customers.

Andalusians are naturally hospitable people and Japanese executives used to enjoy their postings here, joining the locals in tapas and beer. Now, anti-Japanese feeling is running high. Around the factory, where several hundred workers are holding 850 finished Suzuki models 'hostage' are banners with such slogans as 'we don't want Nips' or 'Japanese assassins, you have killed off Land Rover'.

Land Rover took a stake in Santana in the Fifties, eventually controlling around one- third, and left the plant with the licence to continue production even after the British firm sold its stake around 1980. At its peak, Santana built around 20,000 Land Rovers a year, with the Spanish army and Guardia Civil among its best customers.

The fact that the Spanish army and Guardia Civil began turning from Land Rovers to Nissan all-terrain vehicles in the early Eighties was a further blow to the Santana plant. The workers blame the present crisis on the fact that Santana had to import most parts from Japan, paying in yen, which has strengthened as the peseta has been devalued.

Many of the workers milling around the Santana factory gates said the best solution would be a return of investment by Land Rover, even under its new German ownership. Several thousand women marched from the factory to the Town Hall on Tuesday in support of the Santana workers. Whether Santana will push the people of Linares, and Andalusia, more to the left or to the right, is unclear. That it has turned opinion against Mr Gonzalez is beyond doubt. The marching women passed giant graffiti over 30 yards of wall on the town's main pedestrian street: 'Franco. Linares and Spain need you,' it said. That may have been the work of a few. But, residents noted, it had been there some time without being painted over.

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