MADRID (AP) -- Spain's prime minister defended his conservative government's imposition of austerity measures during its first year in power on Monday, even as thousands of people hit the streets to protest government spending cuts.
Spain, with 25 percent unemployment, is battling to reduce its deficit and emerge from its second recession in three years, and Mariano Rajoy said 2012 will be remembered as the year in which the foundations for the country's recovery were placed.
"There are no easy answers for difficult situations, (but) we are trying because it is our obligation to rectify this situation," the prime minister said, adding that he expected the economy to improve during the coming year.
Since ousting the socialists in elections last year, Rajoy's government has raised taxes, slashed the budget for health care and education, and reduced pensions, among other tough measures.
Late Monday, demonstrations against the government's painful policies were held in 55 Spanish cities. But the number of protesters fell well short of the hundreds of thousands the country's labor unions had called upon to show up.
"The country needs to educate and care for its citizens if it wants to move forward," said Nacho de la Torre, a 35-year-old topographer marching in Madrid's city center. "I'm not saying we mustn't save, but with these cuts we are mortgaging the future of people with education and training who have to go abroad because here there are no jobs."
Spain has seen several major protests since the beginning of its economic downturn.