Gabriel Cruz, the Mayor of Huelva, Source: Ayuntamiento de Huelva

Gabriel Cruz Santana: Our priority is to give citizens the tools to carry out their life projects

Gabriel Cruz Santana: Our priority is to give citizens the tools to carry out their life projects

An interview with the Mayor of Huelva in Spain

Gabriel Cruz Santana (Minas de Rio Tinto, 1964) has been the Mayor of Huelva since 2015. Before assuming this position, he had held other positions in the Huelva delegations of the Junta de Andalucía since 2004.

He holds a Law degree from the University of Seville (1988) and 14 years of experience as a lawyer before entering politics. Since 2015 he has been part of the Executive of the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FEMP), being the spokesman for the socialist mayors and councillors of the country.

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

Huelva is a city that falls in love with its many singularities, a combination of elements that are not found anywhere else and that make it unique and special, such as its extraordinary gastronomy, the beauty of its popular traditions, its heritage linked to the British Legacy, its connection with the Discovery of the Americas, its spectacular sunsets in the Conquero and the Paseo de la Ría, its more than 300 days of sunshine a year... Huelva is a city with immense cultural wealth, which traces its roots to the Chalcolithic, being one of the oldest cities in the West.

In addition, we are the cradle of football in Spain, a benchmark for flamenco and fandango ... and among all these features that define us, I always highlight one above all, the one that most marks the personality of our city: its good, welcoming people - friendly and open. That is part of our culture and our DNA.

Two curious, albeit little known, facts about Huelva, are that it is the headquarters of the oldest Spanish football club and that a ferry departs from here that goes to the Canary Islands. Can you tell us more about these?

Those curious facts to which you have referred are closely linked to two historical events that have marked the identity of this city. On one hand, there is the Dean of Spanish football that derives from the British presence in the province of Huelva during the second half of the 19th century, for the development of its rich mining deposits. And, on the other, the link between Huelva and the Canary Islands, today reflected in that stable ship line since 2011, which has a lot of connection with the first stage of the voyage to discover America. It was the transferring of Huelva sailors accompanying Christopher Columbus to the small island of La Gomera, where they made their first stop in the journey.

Huelva and the Canary Islands have always had an intense relationship; our sailors have always been very close to the islands thanks to fishing and commercial traffic. The Canary Islands were also that obligatory stopping point on the way to the African coast. Later, our Port knew how to make this connection profitable and also get a shipping company to establish a regular commercial and passenger line that has been maintained over the years with remarkable success. A ferry that provides services similar to a cruise ship and that is an important tourist attraction for Huelva. The Port of Huelva has historically been and continues to be, a very important point on international shipping routes, due to its strategic geographical position.

On the other hand, the birth of FC Recreativo de Huelva was made possible by the landing in our province in 1873 of the Rio Tinto mining company, which was initially a bit of an economic and cultural shock. The British settled in our land and bequeathed to us their habits and customs, including the practice of their sports, such as golf, tennis and football. It was on 23 December 1889 when the first Spanish soccer team, Recreativo de Huelva, was founded in our city.

How is your city facing the challenges of the Covid pandemic?

Regarding the health situation, we are living with great concern in this third wave that we are experiencing, constantly calling for responsibility and citizen collaboration so that we can stop the infections and reinforce the control of compliance with all measures of prevention.

And as regards the social and economic consequences that the pandemic is having in the city, we face it by responding to this vulnerability that has arisen with courageous decisions, with a strong commitment to helping the most vulnerable population and the sectors most affected by the sanitary restrictions. We are turning to social emergency aid, rental aid, the abolition of fees, subsidies to the most affected small and medium-sized companies ...

In short, we try to minimize the impact of Covid in the city, but more than just these palliative measures, we are also leaning on the reactivation and stimulus initiatives that are really the recipe for true resilience, so that we can recover the economic and social pulse and continue moving towards progress, towards a greener, friendly, modern, thriving, accessible and enjoyable Huelva.

My current obsession is to promote future projects on which we had already been working before the crisis, as well as others that have arisen from any opportunities that we are detecting. That way Huelva not only does not stop, but it continues to move forward to develop its potential. Our city has much of it in sports, gastronomy, culture, tourism ... And an example of this is the exciting challenge we have this year with the hosting of the Badminton World Cup in our city.

Can you tell us about the First Strategic Plan for the Commerce of Huelva and its importance for local development?

Well, it has a lot to do with what I pointed out in the previous question about leaning more on revitalization and future projects than on short-term palliative measures, although these are urgent and essential in the difficult situation we are experiencing. Commerce, which more than a mere economic sector, forms a very important part of the soul of cities, of their vitality in the most literal sense, is undoubtedly being one of the great victims of the health crisis. That is why we have been trying to mitigate this sector’s losses from the first state of emergency with fiscal measures, direct financial aid, promotional campaigns, revitalization initiatives within what the situation permits us.

But even before this scenario, we were clear that commerce in Huelva required a Strategic Plan with a clear roadmap to promote medium and long-term actions that consolidate the sector, make it grow and, ultimately, make it more attractive, modern and competitive. A plan developed hand in hand with sector representatives, whose involvement is essential for the strategy to work.

Merchants have to adapt to what consumers demand in these times. Now more than ever. To do this, we have hired a consultant with experience in this type of work. Based on a diagnosis, the path that our commerce has to follow will be traced, with the help of the Administration, to gain momentum as one of the main economic lungs of the city and an engine for employment. We hope that by the second half of the year we will already have all the measures to be adopted to give a structural, not just temporary, response to the needs of this sector.

What innovative projects has your administration started in terms of social inclusivity, employability and other social challenges?

We are shaping, with co-financing help from the ERDF and within the framework of our Sustainable and Integrated Urban Development Strategy (EDUSI), a project focused on the social and economic revitalization of the 17 neighbourhoods of Huelva. To do this, we will rehabilitate a building in a degraded area of ​​the city to launch a centre for entrepreneurship, commercial revitalization, promotion of associations and, ultimately, stimulation and growth of people through what we consider the most important element for the social inclusion: training for skills, as these are the cornerstone of employability and integration in society.

Training, in some cases offered from public-private collaborations, for which we are using innovative formulas developed in recent years, such as the Employment Shuttles –with an average success rate of 60% -; the training itineraries of the European Social Fund for vulnerable groups; information bulletins; our Municipal Business Incubator to support self-employment; the agreements for young people with Down Syndrome to gain work practice in the City Hall, and others.

In addition, in collaboration with the Huelva Chamber of Commerce, we are offering Huelva citizens more than one hundred free online courses in a wide range of subjects and sectors for their professional retraining, a new program specially designed for people who have lost their jobs due to Covid or who need to improve their skills. Our priority, with these and other initiatives that we have underway, is to give citizens the tools to carry out their life projects, building together a more dynamic, sustainable city with equal opportunities for all.

Do you have any advice for your peers - the other European mayors struggling to achieve similar developments in their municipalities?

I believe that we all have challenges ahead in the implementation of our urban agendas - with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a common reference - that require large doses of creativity and collaborative work. It is essential that we assume the need to redouble our efforts to present innovative projects to the calls that offer us the possibility of opting for external financing - as is the case of the EU Next Generation Recovery Funds-, taking advantage of all the opportunities that are presented to us to advance towards creating smarter cities, designed for people's happiness.

And this includes the commitment to sustainable mobility, cultural and sports infrastructures and to any resource that enhances the strengths that the municipalities offer to move towards a more egalitarian and progressive society.

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