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Spain’s Matadors Fight Back After COVID-19 Nearly Kills Their Art

FILE - Spanish bullfighter Octavio Chacon performs a pass to a bull during the last bullfight of the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain, July 14, 2019.

For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, crowds are expected to return on Sunday to Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, the spiritual home of this controversial spectacle.

Six matadors will do battle with bulls in front of 6,000 cheering aficionados amid tight health restrictions that included limiting ticket sales to 25% of capacity.

However, for lovers of what is known in Spain as the fiesta nacional it will be a huge emotional boost after a year in which rings across the country have remained closed.

The charity bullfight will raise money for matadors and some of the 200,000 people who work in this sector who have been hard-hit by the coronavirus.

In normal times, the bloody spectacle generates $4.8 billion for the economy annually, almost 1% of GDP, according to the National Association of Organizers of Bullfights.

Regarded as an art by admirers in Spain, bullfighting has met with increasing criticism in recent years from a growing animal rights lobby which has been supported by left-wing parties.

Fighting back

Now, after the pandemic has pushed the industry onto the ropes financially, the men who wear the colorful “suit of lights” are staging a fight back.

“For bullfighting this will be hugely symbolic. It will be the first time we return to Las Ventas, the world home of bullfighting, since before the start of the pandemic,” Antonio Lorca, bullfighting critic of El País, one of Spain's major newspapers, told VOA.

“The hope is that this will be the start of many more fights. It will be in aid of those who work in the industry. They have all struggled to get through the past year.”

Victorino Martín, president of the Foundation of Fighting Bulls that represents breeders, believes this weekend’s contest will mark the start of a recovery for an industry which, he says, has cultural as well as economic importance for Spain.

“This bullfight will be strategically important as it will mark the start of a series of similar fights in Madrid next month,” he told VOA.

“This industry has suffered economically but it is also a part of Spanish culture, a little like theatre.”

Tradition and politics

The pandemic has accelerated the decline of a spectacle which in the past has inspired artists including Francisco de Goya, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

In 2012, there were 1,997 fights but this fell to 1,425 by 2019, according to Spain's ministry of culture which deals with bullfighting as it is considered an art form.

After the financial crisis of 2008, many local councils, which traditionally pay for bullfights, cut their budgets.

A younger generation are attracted as much to Tik Tok or YouTube as a paying to see a spectacle which is seen by some as old fashioned.

Bullfighting has recently become an increasing political issue.

Rocio Monasterio, the candidate for the far-right Vox party in regional elections in Madrid on May 4, took on a bull in the ring – with the aid of a real matador – to kick off her campaign.

Vox, which is the third largest party in the Spanish parliament with 52 deputies, supports countryside pursuits.

“I wasn't scared at all. In fact, I enjoyed it a lot. It was great in spite of the nonsense of the totalitarians who oppose bullfighting,” she told VOA afterwards.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the current conservative president of Madrid who polls suggest will win, has promised to organize 18 bullfights in small towns in coming months and pledged $3.63 million in subsidies.

Spaniards have been split over the issue of bullfighting in recent years with some considering it an art, while others see it as cruelty.

FILE - People hold banners reading in Spanish: "92% of Spain, don't attend the bullfights" during a protest against bullfighting in downtown Madrid, Spain, Sunday, July 12, 2020.
FILE - People hold banners reading in Spanish: "92% of Spain, don't attend the bullfights" during a protest against bullfighting in downtown Madrid, Spain, Sunday, July 12, 2020.

A 2019 poll for the online newspaper El Español found 56.4% of Spaniards opposed bullfighting while 24.7 per cent supported it and 18% were indifferent.

José Zaldivar has been campaigning to ban bullfighting but holds out little hope of success – at least in the short term.

He works from an office that contains an arsenal of the weapons which matadors use to battle with the bull, from the sword which ends the animal’s life to the banderillas which are punctured into its back to weaken it during the duel.

“What the animal goes through in terms of stress and pain cannot be anything else but torture,” said Zaldivar, who is president of the Association of Veterinarians for the Abolition of Bullfighting.

He believes as long as bullfighting is protected as part of Spain's cultural heritage it will be impossible to deal the estocada – the sword thrust in which the matador kills the bull.

In 2013, the then conservative government passed a law which established the “indisputable” cultural character of bullfighting.

This meant that in 2016 the Constitutional Court was able to annul a ban on bullfighting by regional authorities in Catalonia and in the Balearic Islands.