After joining the eurozone in 1999, Spain’s economic boom made it the land of opportunity for millions of Latin American migrant workers.
However, since the decade-long boom turned to bust roughly four years ago, many of those immigrants have returned, joined by a growing number of disillusioned Spaniards who hope that Latin America, with its developing economies and low cost of living, has more to offer.
Spaniards are traditionally reluctant to emigrate and they are among the least likely in Europe to go abroad for work. However, with the unemployment rate at 25 percent, more Spaniards are ready to leave behind the comforts of home.
“Europe has gone down the toilet,” said 45-year-old Xavi Berdala, a former photographer from Barcelona who moved to Mexico in July to open a pizza restaurant. “People now see Latin America with more respect, more possibilities.”
Roughly 370,000 people emigrated from Spain last year, 10 times more than before the economy tanked in 2008. Although about 86 percent of them were naturalized immigrants born abroad, there is also a growing number of native Spaniards saying “ya basta” (“enough is enough”). More than 50,000 left last year, up 80 percent since before the crisis hit.
More than 9,000 went to Latin America, up from about 3,600 in 2006, said Jesus Fernandez Huertas of Spanish think tank Fedea, citing data from the national statistics office.
The reasons for leaving are clear. Spain’s economy is in recession for the second time since 2009 and half of all residents under 25 who are looking for work cannot find a job.
More than one in five people live below the poverty line and unemployment benefits end after a maximum of 30 months.
“The situation in Spain won’t get better for another five years at least,” said Olmo del Paso, a cameraman who left Spain for Uruguay this month after being jobless for more than two years and being forced to move back into his mother’s house in the small northern town of Palencia.
When a hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay, offered him a job as caretaker over the summer months, the 34-year-old bought a one-way ticket and packed his bags.
“I’m nervous leaving my family and friends,” he said. “But I can’t carry on like this. I have to at least try.”
Spain has based its budget plan for next year on a recession of 0.5 percent, but most economists say it is wildly optimistic. The IMF expects the economy to contract 1.5 percent this year and 1.3 percent next year.
By contrast, the IMF envisages a 3.9 percent expansion next year across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Between 2007 and last year, the number of Spaniards emigrating to Chile rose by 144 percent, to Mexico by 129 percent, to Venezuela by 114 percent and to Portuguese-speaking Brazil, the biggest economy in Latin America, by 227 percent.
The number leaving for Ecuador soared 467 percent. Ecuadoran migrants had swarmed to Spain to work in the booming construction industry and, now that it is in crisis, many are returning, some with Spanish-born partners and children.
“It’s sad that the Ecuadorans are coming home, because they went to Spain for the same reasons I came here. Because there’s no work and life is tough,” said Miguel Sanchez, a 42-year-old former building site foreman who moved with his Ecuadoran wife and son to Ecuador in 2010.