Struggling town wins big in Spain's Christmas lottery

Madrid (AFP) - Spain's annual Christmas lottery on Thursday showered 56 million euros ($58 million) on residents of a struggling town where nearly a third of the population is out of work.

Celebrating residents in Pinos Puente in the southern farming region of Andalucia danced, sang, embraced and sprayed sparkling wine in the streets, images broadcast on public television TVE showed.

"The tickets went to people with low incomes, people who really needed it," Carmen Capilla, a local United Left town councillor told AFP by telephone.

Much of the winnings came from tickets sold by the local branch of the tiny United Left political coalition in Pinos Puente, with 258 of its tickets hitting the winning number for the second prize, each paying 125,000 euros.

Many charities and associations buy the tickets from the state-run lottery and resell them with a small markup as a way to raise funds.

The winning tickets will bring 32.2 million euros in prize money to the town of around 13,000 residents, which has an unemployment rate of 29 percent and a yearly municipal budget of just eight million euros.

Other winning tickets were sold by the local lottery office or other associations.

"It is a lot of money for a town that has been punished hard," Pinos Puente mayor Jose Enrique Medina told AFP.

"The prize money was widely distributed, it went to many families that really needed it."

- 'Promenade of Hope' -

Spain's annual Christmas lottery, known as "El Gordo" ("The Fat One"), is ranked as the world's richest, handing out a total of 2.3 billion euros this year.

Unlike other big lotteries that generate just a few big winners, the draw aims to share the wealth, and millions of numbers yield some kind of return.

The draw spread cheer across Spain, where the unemployment rate stood at 18.9 percent in the third quarter, the second-worst rate in the European Union after Greece.

A state lottery office on Madrid's Paseo de la Esperanza, which means "Promenade of Hope", sold 1,650 tickets with the winning number for the top prize, each of which wins 400,000 euros.

The winning tickets will bring around 600 million euros to the lower middle class neighbourhood in southern Madrid.

Among the lucky winners was Vicente Villaverde, a 44-year-old technician with Gas Natural who learned he had won as he got ready to go to work.

"I went to look for my tools when I got a call to say to check my ticket, I had won 400,000 euros," he told reporters outside the lottery store.

"I have a child with a handicap, this is going to make our lives easier," he said, adding he would also help his brothers, including one who recently lost his job.

The lottery, which dates back to 1812, is an important Christmas tradition in Spain, with many families, offices and bar regulars clubbing to buy tickets which cost 20 euros each.

The draw, which goes on for over three hours, informally ushers in the Christmas season.

Children from a Madrid school that used to be a home for orphans pick small wooden balls bearing the winning numbers and prizes out of two giant tumblers, and sing them out.

Many Spaniards spend the morning glued to TV sets, radios and computers, waiting to see if they are among the lucky winners.

The United Left, which includes the Communist Party of Spain, backs greater state intervention in the economy and less reliance on the power of markets.

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