By Harold Heckle
MADRID -- Tens of thousands of people across Spain protested Sunday against education and health-care spending cuts as the country slid into its second recession in three years.
Unemployment is at a eurozone high of 24.4 percent, more than half of Spaniards under 25 years old are jobless, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government has introduced stinging austerity measures in its first five months in office.
Speaking at a party rally, Rajoy, who on Friday announced a new set of tax hikes to come into effect next year, said he had "no alternative." He added, "Spain needs deep structural change, not makeup."
Protesters in northeastern Barcelona, northern Bilbao, eastern Valencia and many other regional capitals carried banners urging Rajoy to not "mess around with health and education."
Cayo Lara, lawmaker of the United Left party, said at a large gathering in Madrid that many protesters believed the government was intent on using the financial crisis as an excuse to sell off essential public services to the private sector.
Ruth Colomo, a 39-year-old teacher, said the country's public education system and national health service had been built up over decades with Spaniards' tax contributions.
"They are ours and I think we have the right to fight for them," she said.
Mechanic Evaristo Villar, 62, said he hoped Rajoy would listen to the protesters' concerns. "The government will hear us. I don't know, though, if it will pay any attention."
Rajoy said that, given the bad state the national economy was in when the previous Socialist government handed it over to him at the November general election, "the least they could do now is to shut up."