Spanish Lessons; Jose Maria Aznar Engineered Spain's Economic Miracle. Can It Last? You Bet
McGuire, Stryker, Radcliffe, Liat, Newsweek International
Byline: Stryker McGuire, With Liat Radcliffe in London
Forty years ago, Spain looked a lot like Mexico, only worse. The average worker earned just $443 a year, less than the average Mexican. In the countryside of Andalucia and Extremadura, women scrubbed laundry in riverbeds. Spaniards who could leave left; those who stayed behind faced bleak prospects. Between 1970 and 1995, not a single net new job was created; half the economy was agriculture. "In 1979 we had the same per capita income as Iraq," says Finance Minister Rodrigo Rato. "That should tell you something."
It does, especially if you're sitting with Rato in the Madrid of 2004.
The capital's broad boulevards are home to some of the globe's most dynamic financial institutions, including two of Europe's largest, Banco Santander Central Hispano and BBVA. Bars and restaurants burst with prosperity. The picture is similarly rosy in Spain's second city, Barcelona, one of Europe's most stylish--and most fun--metropolises (following story). With the economy booming--in stark contrast to the rest of Europe--it's no wonder Spaniards these days are the most optimistic consumers on the Continent, according to surveys. Columnist Raul del Pozo of the newspaper El Mundo argues that Spain's new golden age is an epic achievement--the greatest European economic leap forward since postwar France and Germany.
The man behind the good times, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, is now set to leave the scene. (As a candidate in 1996 he vowed to serve no more than two four-year terms.) Elections are on March 14. Aznar's time is up--but not Spain's. Stability, both political and economic, was the hallmark of his era. It's also likely to distinguish what comes next, whoever wins the election. The opposition Socialist Party has largely embraced Aznar's pro-business reforms. And if his own Popular Party should win, as polls suggest, Aznar's handpicked successor, Mariano Rajoy, will carry on. "Don't worry," says the political columnist Felipe Sahagun, jokingly. "Spain will be open for business."
That means Aznar will likely be a happy retiree. Once dismissed as Don Nadie , Mr. Nobody, he took an economy that was just lifting off and made it soar. How? "There are no miracle recipes," says Juan Iranzo, director of the Institute of Economic Studies. "There's only economic orthodoxy." And Aznar was nothing if not orthodox. He privatized nearly every publicly owned enterprise. He slashed taxes, twice. He cut public spending from 48 percent of GDP to 40 percent, reshaping a welfare state that ended up looking more British than Franco-German. And he balanced the budget by 2001, again in contrast to others in the European Union.
Spain under Aznar has been the fastest-growing big economy in Europe. During the bullish "matador years," as Spaniards took to calling Aznar's tenure of the late 1990s, Spain grew an average of 4 percent a year. Today, it's down slightly, to 2.4 percent, but that's still four times as fast as the rest of the EU. Half the new jobs created in the Union last year were in Spain--and a third of the jobs created over the past eight years, a remarkable 4.5 million. Attracted to this new Spain, expats are returning and, perhaps more tellingly, other Europeans are seeing their neighbor in a new light. …