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Students, Police Clash As Spain Reaches Boiling Point

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Spain's austerity measures have begun to spark clashes, and a high school in Valencia — Spain's most indebted province — has become a flash point for nationwide rallies.

Last month, police arrested 25 demonstrators there, where cellphones captured video of heavy-handed beatings and parents were shocked to see their children on TV, pinned down by police.

The skirmish was a possible sign of what's to come as the conservative government pushes through more spending cuts and people settle into a period of sacrifice in hopes of economic recovery.

The sacrifices have already begun for students at Lluis Vives high school. By day, they play street hockey for gym class in a 19th century plaza next to the school. But by night, they hold angry protests.

They're rallying against budget cuts that have eliminated tutors and substitute teachers — leaving kids packed 50 to a classroom. Livia Garcia, 17, was studying art, before it was cut from the curriculum.

"We're protesting against the cuts they've made, but not only in our school, but in all the high schools in Valencia. They've cut the electricity, the gas, the heat — there's no more money for even the basics here," she says. "We're only human. We can't study or concentrate like this."

The situation for students in Valencia is particularly bad. Their regional government is the most indebted in Spain. Ratings agencies recently downgraded its debt to junk status. Municipalities can't pay their bills, and utilities have turned off service. High school students tote wool blankets to class.

Shattering The Calm

And for students like Garcia, life after graduation doesn't hold much promise, either. About half of 20-somethings are out of work. Her father has been unemployed for a year.

"The truth is that our outlook is pretty black — very, very black — so bad. And it's the same even for the students with the best grades," she says. "To get a good job, we're going to have to go abroad. Because here, with these conditions, and with these cuts? No, we can't do anything."

Garcia's outlook, the conditions she's living under and the anger they've sparked could color the next several years in Spain. People are just beginning to feel the effects of a $20 billion package of spending cuts and tax hikes. And Madrid is still flouting EU limits on its deficit. As a result, more austerity is likely to come.

Until now, protests across Spain have been noisy but mostly peaceful. But Valencia has shattered the calm. Solidarity marches erupted nationwide, and the prime minister had to intervene, urging calm. "This isn't the image we want the world to see of our country," Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, interrupting talks in London last week to comment on the violence.

But this image may very well be a lasting one. "I don't know if it is going to be an exception, or a rule — Valencia. I hope for an exception, but I fear for a rule," says Jose Manuel Calvo, an editor at El Pais, Spain's center-left daily.

Sure enough, the anger in Valencia is spreading. Students clashed with police Wednesday in Barcelona, setting fires in the streets. Calvo says austerity measures are compounding anger that's already there, over unemployment and lack of opportunity. And it's hit a boiling point, he says.

"We will see in the next few months, and maybe years, social unrest. Because we are waking up, and this is the situation we're seeing — the cuts in spending, and the new taxes, and well, the new reality," he says. "It's not anymore the crisis, it's the new reality."

And many Spaniards won't accept that new reality without a fight.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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