02/21/2012 01:13 PM

A Village of Millionaires

Lottery Win Leaves Spanish Region Grappling with Its Future


Residents of Spain's Huesca Province recently won 700 million euros ($910 million) in the country's Christmas lottery. The money could bring a brighter future to the rural village of Sodeto, which has been shrinking for years. The region's fate will depend on what its newfound millionaires do with their money.

It's still dark when the women of Sodeto, saying the rosary, walk through the village in an early-morning procession. There is an icy wind, and Olga Bonet hopes that the people here will not succumb to the sin of self-indulgence. They are celebrating the feast of St. Agatha, the patron saint of women, which seems fitting, since it was the women who brought the money to Sodeto.

The inhospitable village on the edge of the Monegros, a hilly region of northern Spain, is home to only 250 people. It has never been a place of luxury, at least until a few weeks ago, when a €120-million ($158-million) bonanza hailed down on Sodeto and the surrounding villages. They had won "El Gordo" -- the Fat One -- the main prize in the national Christmas lottery. Roughly €700 million in prize money was paid out in the entire province of Huesca.

But Sodeto is unique, because all of its families were winners. As a result, a small village of farmers became synonymous with good luck at a time of economic crisis in Spain. And even as the Fitch rating agency in London lowered the country's credit rating by two points to A, the champagne was still flowing in Sodeto.

Olga Bonet, 48, with hardly any teeth in her mouth, is the treasurer of the housewives' club that had organized the sale of Christmas lottery tickets in Sodeto and a few nearby villages. The women had gone to a lottery shop in the somewhat larger town of Grañén and had the proprietor show them several numbers. In Spain, lottery players don't pick individual numbers but instead buy shares in a fixed number. The housewives spent €6,000 on a 17-percent share in ticket number 58268. Their share, in turn, yielded 1,200 individual tickets -- essentially a betting pool.

Tickets a Tough Sale in Crisis

Bonet went from house to house to resell the tickets, adding a small surcharge to benefit the housewives' club. "It was especially difficult this year," she says. "People didn't have much money." For some people, the club even had to advance the €6 per ticket. Bonet also bought four tickets for the club itself, as she does every year, and she and a few friends bought the remaining tickets that she was unable to sell.

The number 58268 won the biggest jackpot in the history of the Spanish Christmas lottery. The number had only been sold in Huesca Province, which is now peppered with lottery millionaires. In Sodeto, each household had purchased at least one ticket, so that each family received at least €100,000, while most received significantly more.

The good news was followed by days of collective celebration. The residents of Sodeto congregated in front of the village hall, where they had drinks and ate paella. The women quit their jobs as cleaning women, and the men stopped working in the fields. Bankers descended on the village, outdoing each other with attractive investment opportunities, offering the villagers returns of 5 to 7 percent.

Then the local television station and the car dealers turned up. One day a truck arrived with a white Jaguar on the truck bed. Then came the real estate agents and the alarm system salesmen, the furniture deliveries and the trips to the Caribbean.

Small Luxuries

"We bought a new mattress," says Bonet. Thanks to the additional tickets she bought, the housewife is now a millionaire. She says that she now eats ham more often, but that not much else about her life has changed. She isn't interested in luxury, and she still wears her cheap costume jewelry and old skirts. She and her husband had lived modestly until now. The husband, a construction worker, lost his job three years ago, when the Spanish real estate bubble burst in the wake of a construction boom paid for with borrowed funds.

Local residents say that the owner of a bar in the neighboring town of Tardienta left for Cuba on the day the winning number was announced. He left the bar open and told residents: "Drink what you want!"

The mayor of Sodeto shakes her head. That sort of thing won't happen in her village, she says. "We're still the same people," adds the secretary of the housewives' club, although she did splurge on a Harley Davidson. You have to treat yourself to something, she says.

They insist that they are unimpressed by the salesmen who hang out every day in the only bar in Sodeto, men in pinstriped suits and ties, who order a "cortado" and set their thick folders on the bar while the bearded locals, ignoring them, continue playing cards at the nearby tables.

"What I'm doing here is detective work," says Fernando Redondo, a car dealer. "I have to gain the trust of people here and find out who has won a particularly large amount of money."

He turns around on his barstool. Times are not good. The number of new cars sold in 2011 was the lowest since 1993, and Redondo lost his job in August. He was rehired in January, and this time his territory was the newly wealthy province of Huesca. "It's as if I had won the lottery myself," he says.

Borja Viñuales, 26, maneuvers his tractor out of the garage. The young farmer sees his future in the region, in pig-fattening and genetically modified corn operations. In his bright blue jogging outfit, he looks as if he would be more at home at a HipHop party, but today he is driving to a field near Sodeto, against a backdrop of sand-colored mountain ranges. The rye has to be turned over. Viñuales used his share of the lottery prize to buy himself a liquid manure spreader.

Can Win Reverse Village's Shrinkage?

"Agriculture is stable," he says. According to Viñuales, the farmers in Sodeto benefited very little from the boom, and now they are also doing poorly in the crisis. He completed a course in farm management and moved back to the village from the city of Huesca. He wants to build a house in Sodeto.

His grandparents moved to Sodeto in the 1960s, when the village was something of a model project for then dictator Francisco Franco, who was trying to develop agriculture in dry regions. Each settler was given a piece of land, a cow and a horse.

In its best days, Sodeto had more than 400 residents. But then the young people, realizing that they had no prospects there, moved to the cities and Sodeto shrank. Today there are only 15 children in the village.

But Viñuales is convinced that the young people will come back. At 23-percent unemployment, he says, farming is becoming attractive again. The lottery win is just the right incentive for investment, a real opportunity, he says. He points out that families can now buy bigger fields or finally pay off their irrigation systems, which are now mandatory everywhere, because of water shortages.

Perhaps the residents of Sodeto will actually succeed in investing their money smartly. However, similar cases offer little reason for optimism. One such case was that of the southern Italian village of Peschici, whose residents won the equivalent of €32 million in a lottery in 1998. Suddenly the supposedly good life descended on the village, and Peschici became filled with the accoutrements of the nouveau riche. Ten years later, there was little left of the wealth: one custom-made Alfa Romeo with a built-in computer and a wooden dashboard, as well as a few vacation apartments in a place where hardly anyone wants to go on holiday today. The residents had made nothing but bad investments. In the end, some Peschici residents envied their fellow villagers who had spent their money on cocaine and travel right away.

Winners as Unhappy as Paraplegics

According to a study by Harvard Professor Dan Gilbert, lottery winners are often as unhappy as paraplegic accident victims within a short time. In Peschici, some of the winners became the victims of protection rackets. People quickly learned to hide their wealth.

In Sodeto, many people are now saying: "I really didn't win all that much."

It's Sunday. After mass, the Sodeto residents meet in the village hall to eat warm chocolate pudding and hold a raffle. They are raffling off all the promotional gifts the bankers had showered on the village: wine, dishes, office supplies. The women have prepared a small gift for each village resident. Everyone is in good spirits, but Bonet is pensive. She is thinking about the four tickets that were paid for with club funds. "That means that the club won €400,000," says Bonet. They already spent several tens of thousands on the New Year's party, for lobster, a tent with red carpeting inside, and three singers in sequined dresses.

The women of Sodeto wanted to invest the rest of the money in a social project. They considered building a center for the elderly, complete with a soup kitchen and a laundromat.

Now more and more club members favor dividing up the money among the membership. For legal reasons, however, this isn't so easy with a non-profit club. To disburse the money, they would have to disband the club, which Bonet would find regrettable. But some of her friends have already told her that each of them would like to be just a little richer.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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