Spaniards pack Madrid for rally against austerity measures

Tens of thousands of chanting protesters from across Spain packed the centre of Madrid on Saturday for a rally against government austerity measures aimed at avoiding the need for a bailout.

The demonstrators included policemen in blue T-shirts, firemen with their red helmets, teachers decked out in matching green, healthcare workers in white and parents pushing strollers.

Many blew whistles and chanted "we are not paying for this crisis" and "general strike now" as they marched to the Plaza Colon square for the rally.

Over 1,000 buses had ferried people to the Spanish capital for the protest, which was organised by Spain's two leading trade unions, the CCOO and the UGT, along with roughly 150 smaller organisations.

Organisers provided no estimate for the turnout but the government said around 65,000 people took part in the demonstration.

"We want to say loud and clear to the government that we do not agree, that its policies cause too much damage, that we will not resign ourselves because there are alternatives," CCOO head Ignacio Toxo told the rally.

In July, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government eliminated public workers' annual Christmas bonuses, as part of austerity measures worth 102 billion euros ($126.5 billion) to be put in place by 2014 to reduce Spain's public deficit.

The loss of the Christmas bonuses is equivalent to a seven-percent cut in annual pay.

The government's austerity measures also include an increase in sales tax and cuts to jobless benefits in a nation with nearly 25 percent unemployment.

Already in 2010, public workers' salaries were cut by an average of five percent.

"I see the future as very black," said 55-year-old public sector worker Rian de los Rios as she made her way to the rally.

"My salary is getting smaller and smaller and my hours longer."

Like thousands of other Spanish youths, her two daughters -- aged 26 and 28 -- had left Spain to work abroad because they could not find jobs at home despite having studied at university, she added.

"We are not even able to keep our families together," said De Los Rios.

Many protesters, like 44-year-old fireman Roberto Saldana, travelled all night by bus to attend the rally.

"They have cut salaries, raised taxes -- we have gone backwards 20 or 30 years," said Saldana, who came to the rally with several colleagues from the southern city of Huelva.

The government argues the austerity measures will prevent Spain from needing a multi-billion-euro bailout like the ones received by Greece, Ireland and Portugal, which come with detailed conditions and regular inspections.

"These sacrifices are absolutely unavoidable if we are to correct the difficult economic climate we are experiencing and lay the foundations for a recovery," Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told reporters in Cyprus.

Madrid has already accepted a eurozone rescue loan of up to 100 billion euros to save its banks, still reeling from a 2008 property market crash.

The protesters demanded a referendum on the deficit-reduction strategy of cost-cutting and tax hikes put in place by the government since it took office in December.

"I think a referendum is necessary because the government should listen to what the people want," said Isabel Garcia, a 48-year-old telemarketing worker.

But she added: "Right now it seems like they have plugs in their ears."

UGT head Candido Mendez said Saturday's rally was the start of a "long" fight against the austerity measures.

"We have to fight them democratically as we are doing today," he told the crowd gathered at Plaza Colon.

Railway workers, along with metro workers in Madrid and Barcelona, will stage a one-day strike on Monday over the austerity measures.

The government is committed to lowering Spain's deficit to 6.3 percent of output this year from 8.9 percent in 2011.

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