Monday, February 29, 2016

The Spanish Red Cross

The Red Cross, Cruz Roja Española, is very much a part of everyday Spanish life. You will see their symbol all over the place. It's on ambulances and on the largely abandoned roadside first aid posts. At the coast it's on lifeguard stations. It will be Red Cross volunteers helping the victims of yet another disaster on the TV news just as they cover the local fun run. And, when the need arises, the Red Cross is always amongst the first to respond. It was nine hundred Red Cross volunteers, for instance, who organised the blood donation, telephone helpline services and many of the medical professionals after the Madrid bombings.

The organisation was founded in 1864 by the military surgeon Nicaso Landa just a year after Spain sent a representative to the first meeting of what later became the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. That original group was as an offshoot of the Orden Hospitalaria de San Juan de Jerusalén, The Knights Hospitaller, an order dating back to the Crusades and with distant links to the UK's St John Ambulance Brigade. Helping war victims was the original purpose of the Red Cross and, by the 1870s Spanish Red Cross volunteers were on the battlefields of Europe. Into the early 20th Century the Red Cross built the first modern Spanish hospitals specifically to receive war wounded.

The Spanish State has always had representation on the organising committees of the Red Cross. When the state split in two during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War so did the Red Cross. There were Republican and Nationalist branches though they often worked hand in hand. It was at this time that the Red Cross began providing humanitarian supplies, covering the evacuation of civilians, acting as intermediaries in mail delivery between separated families and negotiating prisoner exchanges.

In the 1960s and 70s as Spaniards began to buy cars in greater number road accidents became a huge problem. The Red Cross responded by building roadside first aid posts. Around the same time the organisation put to sea as a lifeboat service and began to respond to natural disasters. It wasn't until the 1980s and 90s though that the Red Cross started working with vulnerable groups such as the elderly, refugees, drug abusers, people with HIV/AIDS and those marginalised by society.

The changes in the organisation have to be seen alongside the Spain of the time, a Spain in which reality was often denied. The Franco Government kept close control on all aspects of public life. A state which refuted the existence of abuse of women by men could not allow work with women beaten and raped by their husbands nor could it sanction work with drug abusers when there were, officially, no illegal drugs. With Franco's death the state's hold on the organisation began to loosen but it took a scandal in 1994 to democratise the Cruz Roja. Dodgy accounting and unpaid tax and social security bills forced the resignation of the organisation's president and a government rethink on its role within the organisation.

The Spanish Red Cross is now a full and active member of the International Red Cross involved in humanitarian work worldwide. At home the Red Cross still provides its traditional range of ambulance and health services but it is also involved in hundreds of social projects. The organisation works with the jobless, with youngsters having problems in school, with the elderly and with people affected by financial hardship. On a much less grand scale local projects promote things like organic gardening and healthy eating campaigns.

So the next time you're in town and see one of their nearly 200,000 volunteers trying to sign you up to support their work just give a little thought before you neatly sidestep.

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