Antonio Rodríguez Osuna is currently in his second term as mayor of Mérida, Source: Ayuntamiento de Mérida

Antonio Rodríguez Osuna: Mérida is a journey that takes several days and leaves an unforgettable flavour

Antonio Rodríguez Osuna: Mérida is a journey that takes several days and leaves an unforgettable flavour

An interview with the mayor of Mérida, the capital of Extremadura region in Spain

Antonio Rodríguez Osuna (Mérida, 1975) was trained in Public Leadership at the Instituto de Empresa Business School. He holds an Executive MBA, from the ITAE Business School; and a Diploma in Physical Education from the University of Extremadura.

This is his second term as mayor of Mérida. He first won the municipal elections in May 2015. In 2019, he reaffirmed his position after obtaining an absolute majority in the municipal elections. In addition, he is the President of the Group of World Heritage Cities of Spain.

Mr Mayor, how would you describe Merida in your own words?

Mérida is a journey through time. A unique experience. It is not just a saying but a reality that those who visit us for the first time, as well as those who return, can verify. The city, since its foundation, has been a benchmark for the culture and society of the Iberian Peninsula. It was so with the Roman Empire, the Visigoth and Arab times, and the Middle Ages. It remains so today as the capital of Extremadura and as a UNESCO World Heritage City. It was also the cradle of the first Christian communities.

Today, it is a living city that combines its heritage with modernity. A city that is an experience, from its archaeological environment to its restaurants, thanks to the wide gastronomic offer that we have. Merida is a journey that takes several days and leaves an unforgettable flavour.

You are also the President of the Group of World Heritage Cities. Can you tell us more about this inter-municipal organization, its activities and objectives? How successful have you been in boosting tourism?

The declaration that Mérida and the rest of the cities from the Group have received from UNESCO constitutes an honour and international recognition. At the same time, it implies a great responsibility that we must assume in order to guarantee the protection and conservation of all these heritage values ​​for future generations.

In this sense, there are a series of obligations that cities must address, such as the maintenance of historic centres, and environmental protection that in many cases has been degraded by unfortunate modern interventions. There is also the restoration and putting in use of a large amount of monumental built heritage, as well as all those problems that arise when modern life meets the past.

Despite all the work that weighs on us, we must not forget that we are a non-profit association with 28 years of experience and with the purpose of acting jointly in the defense of the historical and cultural heritage of these cities. We are here for the maintenance and empowerment of certain forms of life that these historic nuclei need, carrying out common projects and proposals, establishing policies for the exchange of experiences, and tackling common problems.

Mérida also participates in the Network of Cooperation of the Silver Route Cities. Do you think that the way forward for tourism in Spain is a collaboration between cities? Could something similar be achieved at the European level?

Given our history as one of the main cities of the original Silver Route and the seventh city of the Roman Empire in administrative importance - not forming part of this network would’ve been incoherent. We have joined again because the Silver Route cannot be understood without Mérida. The Network of Cooperation of Silver Route Cities defends and promotes the tourist resources of this historic itinerary. After all, Mérida was the capital of Lusitania, and is the current capital of the Extremadura region. Our connection with this Route is necessary in order to be faithful to our history.

Those who are passionate about Roman history must not miss our city and all the historical remains that still remain standing today - both from Roman times and from when we were the capital of the entire Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania. In addition, Mérida is now the economic, political, administrative, and cultural centre of the region. We add value to this Network as much as it adds to the promotion of Merida as a destination. That is why we must go hand in hand.

At the European level, there are similar routes. It is important, however, that their names hold meaning to their origins and foundation, and the Silver Route has always been a well-defined route. To unite it with Europe would be to distort its original creation. Of course, it is essential that Europe values it and knows the historical importance it had for the entire continent.

The Bank of Spain ranked Mérida as the city with the best relationship between wages and cost of living in Extremadura and the fourth among large Spanish cities. How was such a balance in the quality of life achieved?

It is substantial work. When I stepped into the government of the capital of Extremadura, my team set clear objectives: lower unemployment, boost tourism, reduce debt to zero and create jobs. And we are scrupulously complying with them. The unemployment data in Mérida is now below the 2015 figures.

We have worked hard on the tourism market positioning of the city, being aware that it is our main industry. But we have also made plans to improve the accessibility of our roads, improve the living conditions of the town and provide the regional capital with more services. In addition, we are going to finish the legislative term without any debt to suppliers or banks.

All these ingredients, added to the support from the local business community, have made us have one of the best indexes of quality of life in Spain. The data from the Bank of Spain shows and confirms that living in Mérida presents a great opportunity. An opportunity to develop a business, but also to enjoy a quality of life above the average, where wages and the cost of living are compatible.

Your city has also submitted its candidacy for the 'Queen Letizia Awards' in the field of municipal design for inclusion. What projects have been implemented that could impress the jury?

In our Municipal Government, we have a Department of Functional Diversity and Inclusion. Our work in this sense is a pioneering one in Spain. We present ourselves for the Award because its purpose is to recognize continued work in the field of accessibility and universal design both in environments and in services and products that cross-cut all spheres of society.

We have prepared a city candidacy, embodied in a project called "From Emerita Augusta to Mérida Inclusiva" (Emerita Augusta refers to the Roman name of the city). It shows the process of transforming Mérida in its goal of becoming a city for all people. Since 2015 we have been implementing actions and projects that have turned into a benchmark in the field of inclusion, such as summer camps for all children, accessibility measures in cultural events and holidays, adaptations to easy reading, the presence of sign language interpreters, etc.

In addition, the dossier includes the advances in accessibility within the urban area, the advances in accessibility that are being produced in the private sector sphere, as well as from social entities that are benchmarks in accessibility and inclusion. For example, the Stone and Music Festival or the SECINDI (the Inclusive Cinema and Disability Week) by the CB Foundation.

The City Council has prepared an intense Christmas program this year. How is public safety guaranteed in these times of pandemic?

I want to remind everyone one thing: Living is not forbidden. What's more, sometimes we all make mistakes when we combine prevention with prohibition. I do not think that being able to generate an economy, hold events, and energize our cities stands at odds with the current complex situation. Many sectors have suffered more than they should have. This pandemic has taught us to apply strict protocols, but also that they can be carried out without paralyzing the economy.

Mérida was a pioneer in organizing its Theater Festival or the Stone & Music Festival last year without any incidents while complying with all regulations and being scrupulous with sanitary regulations. We did not suffer a single outbreak. If you have to gauge, you gauge. If it is necessary to be insistent with the control of measures, it will be done. But we cannot sit idly by without doing anything and only debate the pandemic situation. At least I am not going to do it.

Our Christmas program is the most ambitious one in recent years. Most of the activities are outdoors. I encourage the citizens to live it and enjoy it, while being prudent and complying with current regulations but also supporting the commerce and hospitality sector that needs this Christmas campaign. Our programming is aimed at all groups with the sole objective that citizens can have fun and revive the local economy. I am convinced that we will be able to enjoy it if we all comply with the rules.



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