Saturday, February 04, 2012

Turn Back Time: The peseta

The history of coinage is long, nearly 3,000 years old. The peseta's history doesn't stretch back to pre-history, but in a sense it represents the pre-history of today's Spain and every now and then a story in its honour emerges - one of times past being enacted in the present day.

The peseta first appeared in 1869. It retains a spiritual hold over many Spaniards who hanker after the country's modern pre-history. Its replacement, the euro, is blamed for all manner of sins, most notably a rise in prices. European Monetary Union condemned the peseta, but how did the peseta come about?

Before 1869 there was the escudo. Perhaps there were Spaniards in the 1880s who looked back fondly to the days of the escudo, because the peseta came into being as a result of monetary union.

Long forgotten is the fact that in 1865 the agreement was made to form the Latin Monetary Union. This wasn't just a union of Latin countries, as Belgium, for instance, was a part of it. There was no single currency as such, but each currency conformed to a standard of weight of gold in its coinage, which enabled national coins to be interchangeable.

The union fell apart in the early years of the twentieth century. The peseta, of course, continued, eventually becoming one of Europe's comedy coins (along with the lira for instance) and a currency with an exchange rate that demanded complicated multiplication in order to arrive at conversion.

Cheapness under the peseta is what has so many people wishing for the old days. The days when, for 166 pesetas (the equivalent of one euro), you could get so drunk that a trip to emergency would be required in order that the stomach pump could be applied. This is why the peseta keeps on making a reappearance, rather like a 1960s pop group embarking on a reunion tour.

The small town of Villamayor de Santiago is the latest venue for this reunion. For one month a number of local businesses have participated in peseta nostalgia. As a reminder of the comedy gold that was the peseta, some one million pesetas have been spent, which sounds a lot but isn't.

There are an awful lot of pesetas still knocking around. The usual estimate given by the Bank of Spain is 1.7 billion euros worth (and don't even try multiplying this into pesetas). Unlike other countries, it is still possible to exchange the old Spanish currency for euros, which is why the peseta reunion tours will doubtless continue. The hoarding might be explained by a hope that one day the peseta will make a dramatic comeback; if it did, it would be with the old line-up and the same old songs.

It is now no longer the case that both euros and pesetas are quoted, but it has taken years for the practice to fall away. There remains a mindset firmly stuck on the peseta, and it isn't solely one of older folk. A relatively youthful neighbour once enquired of me the price that another neighbour's house was on the market for. I gave the price in euros and she responded by quoting it back at me in pesetas (however many millions it was).

The mentality has never moved away from the peseta. It is one, for many a Spaniard and Mallorcan, that is rooted in the past. The peseta represents this past more than anything; a past that was before the euro, Spain's modern pre-history. The currency is symbolic of a golden age that never was, or was only ever as golden as European largesse made it. Yet at a time of virtual economic collapse, the sins of the euro make the peseta and the past seem all the more appealing.

It is most unlikely that the peseta would return, unless, that is, the Spanish Government wished to add the chaos and hyper-inflation this would create to its already long list of challenges. But the government is looking to the past in other ways. It wishes to dismantle some of the social liberal policies of the modern post-history under Zapatero, to repeal aspects of abortion law and, in the process, to set back the role of women in Spanish society.

Here is also a country in which the past can be airbrushed by the legal system, so as to attempt to retain an impression of a totally specious golden age. The case against judge Baltasar Garzón for his attempt to investigate crimes against humanity is a national disgrace.

Some of the country might want their peseta back, but whose head do they want to put on it?

Any comments to please.

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