Reservoir Mobs. Political Spectacles, the Press Circus, and Public Works in Spain, by Matthew Kerry

Spanish politicians do seem to enjoy a good reservoir. Or rather, they enjoy the ribbon-cutting ceremonies to announce the unveiling of a new infrastructure project.  Last Thursday prime minister Mariano Rajoy inaugurated a new reservoir in Huesca in the northeast of the country. In reality, the reservoir had already been working for three months. Such a tardy celebration is, in fact, nothing new.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy opens the new high-speed railway line between Valladolid and León on 29 September (Creative Commons; via Flickr)

The inauguration forms part of a hectic, ‘marathon’ schedule of speech-giving, plaque-unveiling and stone-laying over the past and coming weeks, as motorways, high-speed railway lines and reservoirs are all officially opened. Legally, however, such ceremonies need to take place before the decree convening elections for 22 December is signed into law, which will take place later this month. Otherwise they would be considered electioneering.  Such a tight schedule is indicative of the desire to squeeze as many openings into news bulletins as possible, and as close to the legal deadline as is feasible. The message is clear: under Rajoy’s premiership Spain and its economy is on the move once more.

Using public works to shore-up political prestige is hardly new, nor is it limited to Spain (even George Osborne has had enough ‘Hot Hard Hat Moments’ for Tatler to classify them). Francisco Franco, dictator between 1939 and 1975, was certainly no stranger to reservoirs. He frequently appeared to inaugurate and inspect public works schemes in the 1950s and 1960s (in fact he did so no fewer than 55 times in the 1960s) on the state-controlled cinema newsreels, the NO-DO. Again, the message was clear: Franco’s regime was modernising the country.

The extent to which infrastructure projects are central to Spanish conceptions of modernity is something to be ruminated at length elsewhere.  Public works scheme were also central to a drive by municipal authorities during the Second Republic (1931-1936) to alleviate unemployment and modernise the country.

In the town of Sama de Langreo in the coalfields of the northern region of Asturias, a new water supply was finally opened in 1932, after years of wrangling. Despite the damp climate of the valleys, water had been a pressing issue for decades due to the disappearance of springs and pollution, both caused by coalmining and industry. The chosen date for the inauguration was 14 April 1932, thus forming part of the local celebrations of the first anniversary of the Republic. The Republic had brought clean water to the town of Sama, just as the Republic would haul Spain out of the backwardness of the past into a modern, socially-just, secular and European future.

While last week’s inauguration of the reservoir in Huesca was late, the unveiling of the water supply in Sama in 1932 was early. Water did not flow until nearly three months later. It seems clear that inaugurating public works will continue to be an important way in which politicians seek to increase their prestige by linking themselves to modernity, progress and the future through infrastructure projects. Such ceremonies will continue to be dictated more by the political calendar than the practicalities of the infrastructure.

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