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Avocados and tourists fuel Spaniards' push to catch up with richer European neighbors

Twenty-five years ago, Hollywood filmmakers came to this outpost of 70,000 people across the straits from Africa to film the desert scenes for ``Lawrence of Arabia.'' Today, the desert blooms with irrigated fields of avocados and tomatoes -- and the beach with Swedish blondes. ``Before we rode bicycles,'' says Jos'e P'erez, a town official. ``Now, we have Mercedes.''

Almer'ia's economic revolution represents the third essential ingredient of the new Spain. In one short generation, much of the country has leaped from the third to the first world, as the country has become the eighth-largest member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and an agricultural powerhouse. The prospect of entry into the European Community promises even greater growth.

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``The Europeans are holding things up because they are scared of us,'' says Francisco Radis, an official of the Agriculture Ministry in Almer'ia. ``We can outsell them.''

But in the mountains outside of Grenada there is another side of the story. The filmmakers never came here. The struggle against the elements is severe. Farmers terrace their dry land hodgepodge. Farther west, the one-cow farm remains commonplace. In some cases, individual olive trees have been allocated branch by branch among brothers.

``Nothing much has changed since the 15th century,'' says Jos'e Miguel Castillo, a Grenada town official. ``It's still subsistence farming.''

In the cities of the south, conditions are better, but not by much. Almost one in three Grenadans or Sevillans is unemployed. Few industries will move to the area because of its lack of infra-structure.

``We missed the Industrial Revolution,'' complains Manuel Otero, president of Seville's Chamber of Commerce. ``Our roads are only good for goats.''

Beyond consolidating democracy, Spain's big challenge in the years ahead is to consolidate its economic advances. The crops of avocados and tourists must continue to grow (as well as industrial production of such goods as cars and steel), and the country roads must be repaved and widened. Although achieving these goals will be difficult, experts agree they are within reach.

``We're approaching West European levels,'' says Spain's premier economist, Ram'on Tamames. ``France remains much richer, with a smaller gap between rich and poor. But we're growing faster.''

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First, let's look at the success, Almer'ia. As in the other fast-growing areas of the country, the impetus for change here came at the end of the 1950s when Gen. Francisco Franco finally welcomed for-eign tourists and foreign technologies.

Before, the dictatorship had tried to preserve the almost feudal status quo. Despite Almer'ia's fantastic weather -- 65 degrees F. average temperature with at least 300 clear, sunny days a year, according to local residents -- Encarnatio Asensio of the tourist office says that in 1959 the town had only one hotel.

``It was very old,'' she adds.

Then Franco let technocrats take control. They turned Spain's sunny climate into a huge earner of foreign exchange. Some 40 million tourists visit every year, and even with Europe suffering economically, Ignacio Vasallo, director general of tourist promotion in Madrid, says that arrivals were up 6 percent last year. He predicts similar growth for at least the next 10 years. Today, Almer'ia has 75 hotels -- a pittance compared to Torremolinos's 1,000.

``Tourism changed our whole lifestyle,'' says Mr. Perez P'erez of the town hall. He jokes, ``Brigitte Bardot came here, and let me tell you, she was quite an eye opener.'' 4 Besides the full beaches, the other great surprise in Almer'ia is the plastic. It stretches across the landscape. Under this protective covering, precious fruits and vegetables thrive.

Until 1954, only a few grapes were cultivated here. Spain was self-supporting only in the traditional Mediterranean trio of wine, wheat, and olives.

Then irrigation canals were dug from the mountains above Almer'ia. With plastic holding moisture in the soil, the land became productive -- even during the winter. Almer'ia specializes in producing vegetables and fruits for Northern Europe during the cold months.

Overall, Spain continues to import some grain. But projects like those at Almer'ia have made the country an exporter of high-profit farm products -- a primary reason the European Community remains wary of Spanish membership. Grenada stagnated

Now let's look at Grenada's failure. Instead of investing during the 1960s boom, the farmers of Grenada either turned their backs on progress -- or left the land.

More than a million emigrated between 1960 and 1970. Many went to live in France and West Germany, and many more to the north of Spain. But most joined the industrial boom in Madrid and the northern Basque and Catalan provinces. In 1970, some 712,000 Andalucians lived in Barcelona.

Grenada itself stagnated, becoming dependent on handouts from Madrid. According to Mr. Castillo, the government employs half of the town's workers.

``Private entrepreneurs here just haven't taken the necessary risks,'' the Grenada official complains. ``Only in the past few years have we even thought about modernizing.''

It was a bad time for the town to start modernizing. The years following the advent of democracy in 1977 were among the most difficult in Spain's recent economic history. Instead of taking tough measures, the centrist governments kept borrowing and printing money.

``They didn't dare impose unpopular measures for fear of a popular revolt,'' explains Anselmo Culleja Siero, assistant finance minister.

By 1982, the nation was $30 billion in debt. The government deficit was almost 6 percent of gross domestic product. Inflation was running at 14 percent annually, and growth had fallen from the 7 percent average between 1965 and 1975 to a measly 0.9 percent. The Socialists' free-market policies

Then the Socialists came to power, instituting a most un-Socialist set of economic policies. Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez had seen the disastrous results of the French Socialists' attempt to reflate the economy. Disregarding campaign pledges to create 800,000 new jobs, he vowed not to make the same mistake as his French counterparts. The Socialist prime minister proceeded to break all the old rules.

Franco had offered the bargain of labor peace for job security. By making it easier to hire and fire, the Socialists have ended the presumption that jobs are for life. Thousands of workers are being laid off by overstaffed public-sector industries such as steel and shipbuilding.

Franco shot rebellious workers but gave those who stayed in line generous salary increases and pensions. The Socialists are paring back both raises and pensions. To maintain Spain's competitive advantage as a relatively low-wage country, pay hikes are being kept below inflation. And to cut the government deficits, even some pensions are being privatized.

The results have been painful, but promising. Inflation fell to between 9 and 10 percent last year while economic growth increased to 2.25 percent. Foreigners invested about a billion dollars in Spain during the first 10 months of last year, 80 percent more than in the same period of 1983.

The bad news is jobs. When the Socialists came to power, unemployment was pushing 16 percent. Today, it runs just over 20 percent or 21/2 million persons, the highest figure in Europe. Moreover, only one-quarter of those without work receive any unemployment compensation.

Some of this pain is assuaged by a large underground market. For example, Mr. Siero of the Finance Ministry estimates that 30 percent of the country's shoe production is not registered. But in Grenada and the rest of Andalucia, making shoes on the sly has not sufficed.

``We need General Motors, not shoes,'' says Mr. Otero of the Chamber of Commerce. The American firm considered building its main Spanish car plant near Grenada, but, faulting the region's road connections, GM opted for the northern town of Zaragoza instead. A future of cooperation

Yet Mr. Otero does not despair. He exudes optimism.

``We're creating a new climate,'' he says. ``We're modernizing, even here.'' He points to the progress of the last generation. Even the most backward village has electricity, he says, and the children receive at least a primary education.

``Look at me,'' he says. ``Ten years ago, the big landowners controlled everything. A simple hotel owner like me could never have become president of the Chamber of Commerce.''

Today the big landowners are confined to their private clubs, replaced not only by go-getters like Mr. Otero but also by union leaders such as Juan Mendoza, chief of the General Union of Spanish Workers for Andalucia.

Ten years ago, Mr. Mendoza was a clerk in Mr. Otero's hotel. Free unions were outlawed. ``I hold no grudges,'' he says. ``Didn't the United States' computer revolution happen in the Sunbelt? Why not here, too?''

A California-style computer revolution in Andalucia? Don't laugh. Perhaps, after all, it is the logical followup to Almer'ia's bikini and avocado changeover.

In any case, Mr. Mendoza's dream is another sign of how far Spain has matured. Under Franco, workers were treated like children. The landowners ruled -- and misruled -- like kings. Today mature union leaders and modern bosses try to work together.

``We talk all the time,'' Mr. Otero says. ``We're even becoming friends.''

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