Spain: Fightback against austerity /FRFI 232 Apr/May 2013

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After the announcement of the EU bailout to Cyprus, the Spanish government hastened to claim that the situation in Spain is in no way comparable and will be unaffected by European Union intervention in the island. The cabinet of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has avoided asking for a second bailout by means of radical cuts in social services and benefits, leading to record levels of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. This doctrine of ‘austerocracy’ manifests itself in Spain through a twisted combination of rampant corruption and megalomaniac projects on the one hand and, on the other, conditions of misery for the vast majority. From Madrid, JUANJO RIVAS reports.

The Spanish government has proudly stated that the deficit stands at 6.7%. This is a blatant lie – once the bailout of the banks, funded with public money, is included the figure rises to 10.2%, according to the European Commission. The pace of the destruction of jobs, closures of small companies and the migration of qualified workforce are unprecedented. However, Rajoy’s ministers insist that their most recent reform of the labour market (which led to two general strikes in 2012) is ‘bearing fruit’. That ‘fruit’ is the highest rate of unemployment for people under 30, the most unfair law relating to mortgages and one of the most corrupt systems based on property speculation in the whole of the EU.

The cuts have victims

The overall rate of unemployment is 26%, rising to 50% for young people, with 1.8 million people living in households where all members are unemployed. While growing numbers are being pushed below the poverty line, the ‘austerocrats’ dare to claim the solution lies in greater work ‘flexibility’ for the youth, by implementing the German system of precarious, low-paid ‘minijobs’.

The economic crisis and the lack of prospects for ordinary people can create intolerable stress. Last year there was a sharp increase in cases of suicide directly related to the economic crisis. In two and a half months, 12 cases of suicide due to eviction or severe poverty have been reported, including two people who set fire to themselves on the street. On 18 February, a woman set herself alight inside a bank office, and only a prompt reaction from customers saved her life. As she was carried, badly burned, to the ambulance she shouted ‘You have taken everything from me!’ In addition, since the beginning of 2013, five people have died as a result of lack of ambulances or the closure of health centres – something barely touched on by the mainstream media.

The problems of housing and evictions and the popular reaction to them are a central feature of the crisis. Mariano Rajoy whines that it would be ‘harmful’ to change Spain’s outdated mortgage law, which is generating more than 500 eviction orders a day. On 14 March, the European Court disagreed, declaring it ‘contradictory to EU law’ by leaving consumers defenceless against abusive clauses from banks. The Minister of Justice has now been forced to back down and make adjustments, although there is no guarantee that these will meet the demands of the social movements, supported by 1.5 million signatures delivered to Parliament.

The ‘Stop evictions’ campaign has grown stronger, spreading solidarity in confronting evictions and challenging through the courts the cruelty of the system. The sight of single mothers and elderly people being left homeless led some judges to complain about the unfairness of a process in which they could not intervene. Civil disobedience has systematically taken shape with neighbours picketing flats to defend tenants, then locksmiths refusing to do the dirty job for the courts and now firefighters have joined the struggle. In four Autonomous Communities of Spain, firefighters have decided not to knock down doors to carry out evictions and have instead started a strike under the slogan ‘We rescue people, not banks’.

Corruption rooted in the system

The New York Times has published several articles on Emilio Botín, the most influential banker of Spain, whose Santander Group took over Britain’s Abbey National and the US Sovereign Bank. The newspaper exposed how the president of Santander and his family have stashed vast sums of money in Swiss accounts to avoid paying taxes in Spain. A whole list has been published of others playing the same game, a list which includes entrepreneurs, former ministers and leading conservative politicians. The Revenue Office estimates that 74% of tax fraud comes from billionaire families, banks and transnational corporations, although government officials target self-employed professionals and freelance workers, who account for only 8% of the overall fraud.

The Spanish media has ignored these foreign sources of information, but can not help reporting on the daily scandals of corruption which arise from court cases. It has been revealed how a network of entrepreneurs and conservative politicians exchanged favours for bribes, making illegal concessions of land for speculative, massive and absurd projects. Then they used public money to pay their private companies for building opera houses without shows, train stations without passengers and airports without planes. The King’s son-in-law was found guilty in a case which is now proved to be connected to this corrupt network (see previous issues of FRFI).

Another group consisting mainly of politicians, executives and officials has been faking companies’ bankruptcies in order to be allowed to carry out mass redundancies, claim subsidies and share the bounty. On 19 March, police arrested 30 people in connection with this. Meanwhile, the treasurer of Rajoy’s People’s Party is on trial for ordering illegal payments to his MPs and false accounting. The conservative cabinet has claimed that the treasurer had not been in their employment for some time, yet it has been proved that he was in office, enjoying a salary and official car, right up until January. As a result, a left-wing party has sued the conservative PP for illegal enrichment with public money; the PP has sued this party for slander and the treasurer has sued the PP for unfair dismissal. It looks like a bad comedy but it is a bite of reality.

Meanwhile, the state seems determined to base its plans for economic recovery on the same method which brought about the crisis: the property bubble. The Community of Madrid has a debt of €8bn, which means that a quarter of the yearly budget goes straight to pay the banks. Not that this has prevented the council from applying to host the 2020 Olympics, despite claiming not to have money for services and civil servants. Also, the government of Madrid has agreed with magnate Sheldon Adelson the construction of Eurovegas, a complex of four hotels, two casinos, restaurants, a golf course and other leisure facilities. The project of Las Vegas Sands Corporation and the subsequent investment in infrastructure by the government will deepen the ruin of the economy and the already widespread practice of money laundering.

Fighting ‘austerocracy’

Social movements continue to fight in terms of their presence on the streets and their slow battles through the courts. They have adopted distinctive colours, to denote different struggles, so that in marches to defend public education the dominant colour is green, the ‘white tide’ represents health care workers, the ‘black tide’ involves miners and so on. This symbolic action is an expression of unity. It also allows demonstrators on big marches to follow different itineraries by colour, before regrouping in the city centre and leaving police confused. On 23 February, social movements organised large demonstrations simultaneously in 16 Spanish cities, to fight the ‘coup d’etat of markets against people’. The coloured ‘tides’ advanced vigorously; only in Madrid were there clashes with police, with police brutality, infiltration by plain clothes officers and mass arrests, followed by mistreatment of those arrested and open disdain for their lawyers.

In the last two months there have been protests and strikes by health care staff, firefighters, shipyard workers, pensioners and underground staff. On 5 and 6 March, students marched against the new education law and demanded the resignation of the whole government. All Iberia workers went on strike to complain about the loss of work, rights and wages since the company merged with British Airways.

The growing anger and frustration is prompting more direct and spontaneous actions. In the last month, activists have picketed the homes of several politicians, embarrassed others in public places and successfully boycotted some rallies and official events. Some conservative voices already speak of a new form of ‘terrorism’ from ‘radical protesters’. The truth is that Spain is fulfilling the old slogan – that without justice there is no chance of a lasting peace.

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