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Spaniards Ring in New Year of More Austerity

by Katell Abiven

MADRID — Luis Zorrilla wants to celebrate the New Year and forget, at least for a day, Spain's economic crisis and government spending cuts that have triggered the "indignant" protest movement.

Protestors from the 15-M movement gather during the New Year's celebrations in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. A poster reads "2012 Happy New World." (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki) "Today is a day to forget the crisis," says Zorrilla, a teacher, laughing as he gets ready to eat the traditional 12 grapes for good luck on New Year's eve in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square where the protest movement was born.

The 46-year-old, proudly wearing a green scarf with the inscription 'public school for all', says 2011 was hard.

"My wife and I, we are civil servants and there are budget cuts. You just have to keep going."

Teachers in the Spanish capital have been protesting over the past months against the austerity measures imposed to rein in Spain's spiraling debt.

"In January, we have already planned new days of mobilization and strikes," he says.

But for now he just wants to welcome in the New Year with his wife Maria and their four- and seven-year-old sons "hoping that 2012 will be better, but I don't really believe it: they are going to have to do everything to tighten the belt."

Spain's civil servants will be among the first affected by the 8.9- billion-euro ($11.5 billion) austerity plan unveiled on Friday by the new right-leaning government, which ousted the Socialists in November 20 elections.

Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to revive Spain's economy and slash the public deficit down to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2012.

To help achieve that government workers will have a salary freeze in 2012 and no worker who leaves will be replaced.

Despite the hardships of the past year and to come, a celebratory mood took over the crowd in the Puerta del Sol square as midnight approached. The crowd of Madrid residents and some tourists drank cava, a local sparkling wine, and ate the 12 grapes.

To bring good luck in the coming year the Spanish tradition is to eat a grape as the clock chimes 12 times at midnight.

Some of those in the "indignant" movement decided to eat 15 grapes to recall the anniversary, May 15, when their movement began.

Amid the good cheer, a few reflected on how life has changed for them.

"This year we didn't buy tickets to go celebrate the holiday somewhere," said Julia Fernandez, 27, who instead opted for a less costly dinner with friends.

She and her friend Federica Villani, also 27, studied international relations at school, "but there is no work and with the budget cuts they are making now...", her voice trails off, implying there will be even less chance of a job opening.

Fernandez just found some work as a salesgirl in a shop while Villani hopes to get a position as a waitress.

One in five Spaniards is out of work, the highest unemployment among the major industrialized nations.

"We're thinking maybe at some point of going to South America to look for work," says Villani, adding an optimistic note: "It sure is better to start the New Year with hope."

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