Fightback in Spain grows: ‘the movement will itself become the future’ / FRFI 227 June/July 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012

In France and Italy, voices are being raised against harsh ‘adjustment programmes’ imposed by the EU; the Greek people look poised to reject them altogether. But the Portuguese and Spanish governments are setting a fine example of budgetary discipline and obediently slashing public spending, rapidly exacerbating poverty and inequality. But as the attacks increase, so does the resistance. The Spanish movement born on 15 May last year (15M) has celebrated its anniversary by once again occupying streets and squares across the country. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Spain.

In less than five months, Rajoy’s government has increased VAT, made it easier to sack workers, and agreed to cut €10 billion from health and education spending. More clinics are to close, paving the way for patients to pay part of the costs in public hospitals. Thousands of teachers will be dismissed, university fees increased by 66% and the number of pupils per classroom is to go up 10%. Outraged teachers, unions, students and parents called the first ever general strike in education on 22 May. Up to 80% of the country’s teachers, from kindergarten to university, took part as tens of thousands of people marched in cities across the country.

Spain is in a second recession. Rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which downgraded Spain in April, expects the economy to shrink by 1.5% this year and 0.5% in 2013, and sees no prospect of new jobs being created before 2015. There is no way the Spanish government will reach its deficit target of 5.3% – and they acknowledge that the real deficit is actually 8.9%. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is almost 25%, with 1.7 million people living in households where all the members are unemployed. Two million children in Spain are living below the poverty line.

For years, the real estate bubble drove the economy: local governments competed to gain funding and build more and more holiday resorts, monuments and underused and overpriced infrastructures. When the bubble burst, the banks had to deal with mortgage defaults as growing numbers of people handed back their keys. It is this accumulated stock of empty properties that make up most of the ‘toxic assets’ that are threatening the Spanish banking sector. Bankia, Spain’s fourth-largest bank, foundered in that crisis. The bank was run by politicians of the conservative Partido Popular, who funded absurd megalomaniac projects. Since 80% of the money lent was for the construction industry, the bank was on the brink of collapse. Rather than nationalise it, the government bailed it out to the tune of €14 billion of taxpayers’ money – even as it announced record cuts in social services. That’s why protesters shout in the streets: ‘It is not a crisis; it is a rip-off’. As we go to press, Bankia is demanding even more and its shares have been suspended.

Meanwhile, the Royal family is embroiled in scandal. The king’s son-in-law, Iñaki Urdagarin is on trial for fraud and corruption, having run organisations that illegally benefited from millions of euros of taxpayers’ money – a scam King Juan Carlos is said to have known about. And, while vast sections of Spanish society are pushed further into poverty, King Juan Carlos managed to fall and injure himself while on a luxury safari hunting elephants in Botswana, at about €40,000 a pop.

People respond

Although some sections of society have remained passive in the face of the harsh measures imposed by both social democrats and conservatives, others have been pushed to take a stand. The broad movement born last year is maturing politically, proving itself ready to confront the injustice of the system with imaginative alternatives. The 15M movement holds popular assemblies in city squares, in a network that links neighbourhoods and municipalities. The movement has worked collectively with citizen associations, social organisations, alternative left-wing and anarchist unions and squatted social centres.

On the 29 March several unions called for a general strike in defence of public services (see FRFI 226). Hundreds of thousands came out – but many seemed disaffected with the mainstream unions and instead joined critical contingents involved in imaginative direct action. In Barcelona, banks were attacked; the day ended with burning barricades, police vans stoned and riot police using tear gas and rubber bullets, which caused several injuries, including a man who lost his sight in one eye. In April, there were demonstrations against the Labour Market Reform Bill and all main towns had open assemblies to discuss it. On May Day, nearly a million people poured onto the streets in every town and picketed businesses and banks.

The 15M movement planned to celebrate its anniversary with three days of action from 12-15 May. In Bar­celona, Valencia, Sevilla and other cities, camps and assemblies were set up. But in Madrid, the authorities refused to allow any stalls or tents. So half a million people brought the capital to a standstill for the day, as large groups of activists marched for hours from nearby towns and a 5,000-strong assembly was held in central Sol Square. In defiance of the 10pm curfew imposed by the authorities, at midnight tens of thousands created a chilling silence, followed by a roar of outrage. But at 5am, police used the excuse of a single stall to disperse the crowd violently and arrested 18 people.

The greatest success of the 15M movement in the last year has been its involvement with other groups to stop the evictions of families strangled by debt. Solidarity action has prevented 230 evictions in the last 11 months. Squatting abandoned buildings has been another practice to host evicted families. Madrid now has seven new people’s social centres.

Again in Madrid, in April, in protest at a 50% rise in transport costs, the emergency brakes of trains on nine underground lines were activated simultaneously, bringing the network to a halt. In Catalonia, hundreds of drivers are refusing to pay tolls on privatised motorways, blocking the way until the bar is lifted. There is a growth in independent cooperatives, urban orchards, the exchange of goods and collecting leftover food from markets, as well as teams to monitor police raids against immigrants.

But all these actions have incurred numerous arrests and heavy fines. Now the government is to pass a law classifying peaceful resistance as ‘assault’, and the use of email and e-networks calling for non-authorised protests as ‘belonging to a criminal organisation’. The movement will have to learn how to deal with greater repression, but many times it has proved itself stronger when attacked. As one protester put it: ‘The movement will not evolve in the future, it will itself become the future’.

Spain: Austerity plans face growing resistance /FRFI 226 April/May 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012

In February, the 2012 growth forecast for the Spanish economy was revised down from 2.3% to a decline of 1.7%. Immediate negotiations started with the European authorities, given the impossibility of meeting Spain’s commitment to reducing the deficit from 8.5% to 4.4% this year. The new agreement with Brussels sets the figure at a difficult to achieve 5.3%, requiring 35 billion euros of cuts. The government of Mariano Rajoy wants to prove its commitment to European capitalism, at whatever cost to the Spanish people. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Spain.

The conservative government lost no time in signalling its willingness to implement the austerity programme. While raising taxes, the ruling Partido Popular has frozen the minimum wage and the salary of civil servants. In some provinces, people have to pay for all medical prescriptions – eventually everyone will have to pay half the costs of their health care. In March, the government announced the dismantling of 27 state-owned companies and a drastic reduction in state funding for many others. Alongside economic cuts come right-wing social measures, such as changes in the law to restrict access to abortion and to promote private education.

But the backbone of the anti-working class policies is the new Labour Market Reform Bill. It reduces redundancy payments and increases the ability of companies to fire workers without compensation. If a company’s sales or profits fall, it is allowed to modify employees’ shifts, salaries, job specifications and place of work. Time off for illness, even with a doctor’s note, can be counted as absenteeism and grounds for dismissal; job centres are to be cut back to make way for private agencies providing temporary work, and the power of the unions to negotiate is to be severely restricted.

Nationalist unions in Galicia and Basque Country called for a general strike on 29 March, a call echoed by the main unions – although the latter called on Rajoy for last-minute negotiations to avoid conflict. On 11 March, 1.5 million marched in 60 Spanish towns against the labour market reforms. In Madrid, half the demonstrators split off, abandoning the union leaders and their blithe talk of the ‘responsibility to negotiate’.

Debt and corruption have exhausted state budgets in some areas, and the lack of resources has resulted in Dickensian conditions. While waiting lists grow in hospitals, complete floors are locked or underused. On 13 February, a month after the heating was cut off for non-payment, students at a state high school in Valencia decided to protest peacefully against the unbearable conditions. Afterwards, parents and school authorities described how police had attacked the students, ripping their clothes and arresting a protester. The outrage spread and in the days that followed growing numbers of students, teachers and parents protested against the cuts and police repression. A wave of police brutality resulted, as teenagers were kicked and dragged away, teachers viciously hit and screaming students truncheon-charged. When asked about the excessive use of force, the Chief Officer described the protesters as the ‘enemy’. In Barcelona, tens of thousands demonstrated against education cuts on 19 February; here some fought back police violence, and the skirmishes ended with a car and rubbish bins set alight, a bank office attacked and nine people arrested.

Community resistance

In Spain, when a household cannot pay the mortgage, the financing company repossesses the property and forces payment of the outstanding interest. This has led to a social crisis and people getting organised to defend each other. The Association of Those Affected by Mortgage (PAH) has managed to stop 156 evictions throughout Spain in the last eight months.

So far this year, in Madrid alone, eight evictions have been prevented or delayed. Neighbours and activists block access to the buildings to prevent eviction orders being carried out. Increasing pressure has also led to 20 cases where banks accepted the surrender of mortgages without imposing extra charges, and some even negotiated low rents for families to stay. The housing problem is so acute that in March, the government had to extend this practice to households where all family members were unemployed.

The 15 May (15M) movement was born last year as an expression of collective outrage, and has made the streets and squares its main platform for protest and political discussion. From its assemblies comes the network that aims to link all struggles. Together with alternative trade unions, teachers’ groups, activists from social centres and political organisations, the movement campaigns on a broad range of issues that directly affect the vast majority of society. Actions include a referendum to prevent the privatisation of the water canal in Madrid; pickets of banks; health care workers demonstrating against the closure of clinics in Barcelona and people’s assemblies in squares to discuss the new labour market reforms.

In Madrid, the network organised the Week of Struggle for Dignified Housing between 18-25 March, which involved many discussions at an abandoned building squatted for the occasion, as well as peaceful street direct actions. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Bilbao groups of up to 150 people have been getting onto the underground without a valid ticket, with placards denouncing the rising costs of public services as a result of state subsidies to banks.

In Catalonia, a group of pensioners linked to the 15M movement has got involved in direct action. Many were involved in the struggle against the fascist dictatorship and today fight the dictatorship of the market. In October 2011, they occupied the Head Office of Santander Bank in Barcelona, seized the offices of rating agency Fitch and even temporarily took over the offices of the Catalonian Institute of Directors.

The 29 March general strike is not an end in itself. But, given the main union leadership’s passivity, it could become an opportunity to gather forces around real campaigns. If we are to confront the hard times ahead, it is essential to strengthen the movement. It must involve community participation and mass political organisations, practising the most radical democracy, pushing for real change in the social, political and economic conditions of the working class.

Spain: corruption and social struggle / FRFI 225 Feb/Mar 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 225 February/March 2012

Mariano Rajoy - Prime Minister of SpainOn 21 December 2011 Mariano Rajoy was sworn in as the new Spanish President. The success of his conservative Popular Party exposed the decay of the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and their worn-out popularity. It took no more than nine days for Rajoy’s government to raise taxes, although during his election campaign he repeatedly stated that he was determined not to do so. From the start of his presidency, Rajoy made it very clear that he would impose the austerity policies demanded by France and Germany. Yet despite this, the IMF predicts a new recession in 2012. JJ RIVAS reports.

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Spain: On the march against austerity/ FRFI 224 December 2011/January 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 224 December 2011/January 2012

On 20 November, exactly 36 years after the death of the fascist General Franco, the conservative People’s Party (PP) won a landslide victory in the Spanish general election. This was expected: there was massive disaffection with the previous Socialist Party (PSOE) government because of the austerity measures it adopted in the face of Spain’s economic crisis. Throughout the electoral campaign, the PP and its leader Mariano Rajoy were intentionally vague about what they intended to do that would be different; however, Rajoy has said that the key to recovery is ‘increasing trust and confidence’, reducing public debt via cuts in social expenditure and ‘fulfilling demands from the EU’. Juanjo Rivas reports.

A system where two parties alternate in government, both more concerned about market expectations than about the welfare of the people, has been rejected by many of those Spaniards who have witnessed an example of real participation and political involvement in the mass assemblies of the 15 May. This was reflected in the general election: abstentions and spoiled votes accounted for 30% of the electorate, over 11 million people – more than the votes gained by the victorious PP. Despite the unjust voting system, left-wing parties have significantly increased their share in Parliament, the United Left gaining nine seats.

That the conservatives won was no surprise. Every poll pointed to people wanting to punish the PSOE because of the regressive reforms it carried out at the behest of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the Merkel-Sarkozy duo. In the last year, the Spanish working class has seen the wages of public sector workers fall, thousands of state school teachers dismissed, primary care centres closed, numbers of ambulances reduced, benefits slashed, pension schemes put at risk and a reform of the labour market that has led to record figures for unemployment and unskilled jobs. Youth unemployment stands at 42%; overall unemployment at 23%. As a consequence, the PSOE lost almost four million votes.

Aware that the ruling PSOE was unpopular and riven by internal crises, the conservatives decided not to reveal their hidden agenda, which would have scared many voters away and frustrated their bid for electoral victory. In reality their plans include wholesale privatisation, reduced redundancy payments and forcing people to pay 50% of the costs of health care, as well as abolishing gay marriage.

Important sections of society feel that they have been left behind, while the interests of speculative capital and the corrupt political class are protected. When the PSOE government turned a blind eye to the harsh conditions imposed by the crisis, the 15 May social movement tried to strengthen solidarity with the poor. Over the last few months about 200 evictions have been ordered every day, half of them in Madrid. Activists squatted an abandoned hotel building in October, gathering hundreds of willing helpers to make it habitable to host families evicted from their homes.

The 15 May movement was born out of a massive protest where hundreds of thousands of outraged people took to the streets and camped for weeks in the squares of Spain’s towns and cities. Open political discussions and huge assemblies took place all the time, where people raised their main concerns and expressed their anger, disgust and hope. In June, the 15 May movement went through a process of decentralisation, setting up weekly assemblies in hundreds of neighbourhoods and municipalities. Each developed commissions to work on specific subjects regarding work, housing, public services and women’s rights, and to identify local problems, discuss alternatives and agitate to put pressure on politicians at all levels.

Over the summer, low-paid workers and the unemployed involved in the 15 May movement marched on the capital. Contingents joined the march from all over the country, including Galicia in the northwest, Catalunya in the northeast, and Andalucia in the south. Protesters walked hundreds of miles, gathering support in every village and town, organising assemblies where they stopped and growing in numbers as more joined them on their way. On 23 July they reached Madrid, where there were breathtaking scenes of massive columns of workers from all over Spain embracing each other. Next day half a million people took to the streets and stopped the city. A revolutionary camp was set up near the Home Office and the central Sol square was occupied once again. Police forces brutally attacked and dismantled the camp, arresting several marchers. Some protesters joined a 50-year-old community threatened with eviction following a speculative land agreement between the conservative mayor and multimillionaire owner of Real Madrid. There, resistance has proved an invaluable experience for marginalised Gypsy and non-Gypsy inhabitants.

In mid-August, Pope Benedict XVI visited Madrid to attend the Catholic Youth Festival; he was offered overwhelming state funding and resources. Banks and electricity companies sponsored pilgrims’ bags, caps and shirts. While the Council of Madrid rejected a demand for reduced fares on public transport for the unemployed, it provided international pilgrims with heavily subsidised travel cards. Governments and banks, who claim not to have the funds to implement social policies for the poor, manage to cough up plenty for religious events. Protests against state funding of one particular religion ended in senseless police aggression against peaceful protesters and left several wounded and others detained in police stations.

Throughout September and October, the 15 May movement has slowly consolidated its network in some parts of Spain and slightly drifted in others. Overall, it has deepened its roots in collective struggles such as those for public health care and education. Secondary school teachers have been on strike seven times against education cuts since the beginning of the struggle. The movement has also joined the struggle of Catalonians against the dismantling of clinics and severe cuts to hospitals. On a regular basis, the movement gathers people to block the way when judges and the police go to evict a family from their home. On 15 October, the movement brought one million Spaniards out on to the streets under the banner of the international day of struggle ‘for a global change’.

The day before the November elections, hundreds gathered in city squares, holding placards and speaking at open microphone sessions, and more buildings were squatted to host those evicted and to hold new assemblies during the winter. On 27 November, a five-column march from neighbouring towns to Madrid was held to defend public services and mobilise for the first general strike not directly organised by the two main trade unions.

Angela Merkel has already met Mariano Rajoy to urge him to deepen reforms without delay. Before the elections, some voices from the PP admitted that they expected social reaction against some ‘necessary measures’ they would have to take, but said that they were ‘ready for that, too’. We therefore expect a whole raft of reforms directed against the working class and, when confronted, a tougher display of state violence. The question now is what kind of reaction can we expect from a movement that involves young and old, and so far has been based on peaceful resistance and civil disobedience?

Spain: revolt of the outraged / FRFI 221 June/July 2011

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 221 June/July 2011

‘My voice is broken, body exhausted but heart full of hope. After long years of frustration, collective dreams are on the march...How to begin to describe the Syrian man who couldn’t continue on the mic and burst into tears when thousands shouted ‘Long live the struggle of the Syrian people’?...Or the Colombian brothers agitating and embraced by us, the extraordinary moment as thousands raised their arms in a silence full of wrath, the unemployed sobbing and explaining how they can’t afford dental assistance? This is the closest thing to May 1968 I could have ever imagined. You can sense solidarity and anger in the air.’

JUANJO RIVAS was amongst the demonstrators, who, inspired by the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, filled city squares across Spain at the end of May.

He reports from Madrid.

On 22 May municipal and regional elections were held in Spain. The government's response to the crisis – slashing social expenditure, reforming the labour market and pension schemes – has led to widespread disappointment and loss of faith in the social democrats. The result was a low turnout and a loose victory for the right-wing conservative PP. But the landmark of this period has been the mass revolt of an outraged population that has turned streets and squares into a multitude of assemblies and camps in about 60 towns across the country.

For several weeks before the election, people had been organising themselves via internet social networks, setting up a website named ‘Real Democracy!’ that called for demonstrations in every city on 15 May. It contained forums where people agitated, expressed their demands and suggested ways to build the protest. The first draft of popular demands included ‘deepening democracy’ – currently some politicians are receiving two or even three separate public salaries, and several conservative candidates have been charged with corruption. The second focus is social and economic inequality. Unemployment has risen to 4.5 million people, 1.5 million of whom do not receive any benefits, while the main shareholders and executives of the most powerful Spanish corporations seized historical record profits in 2010.

Activists acted locally to spread the feeling that something must be done, but the success of the movement was still uncertain. However, on 15 May tens of thousands poured into the streets and outnumbered all expectations. Dozens of loud and colourful marches peacefully occupied the main squares, bringing central Barcelona and Madrid to a standstill.

Later in the evening, police tried to disperse protesters; there were a few isolated incidents and undercover police made some arrests. In response, the ‘outraged’ decided to camp in the central Puerta del Sol of Madrid, action emulated elsewhere. Local governments nervously witnessed their squares being turned into campsites, where an angry population discussed politics all night long.

On the second night, Madrid’s right-wing council again attempted to repress the movement and remove protesters by force. This mistake provoked an immediate response, as large crowds gathered in Sol and reclaimed their right to stay, understanding that continuing resistance was the way forward. The attacks ripened the movement, as collective tactics of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience were adopted, combined with an amazingly quick ability to organise. Plastic tents and lines of food supplies were set up, volunteers managed first aid and permanent workshops, activists climbed onto scaffolding to hang huge banners while the crowd roared in ecstasy. They were there to stay and their success was due to their rejection of sectarianism and independence from all political parties and trade unions.

In an emergency meeting the Spanish Electoral Commission declared the protests would be illegal from Saturday 21 May – since the day before elections in Spain is a ‘day of reflection’ when political campaigning is forbidden. In massive assemblies people stated they were not seeking to support any party, so nobody could take away their right to make their rage and discontent visible.

On Saturday at midnight hundreds of thousands answered the call and packed the streets in a well-organized action. To highlight the system’s attempt to silence them, the ‘outraged’ stuck tape over their mouths, raised their hands and performed a ‘silent scream’ that chilled people’s souls. Nobody moved that night. They also challenged the authorities on election day itself, making it clear that the polls would not solve the problems of poverty, evictions of unemployed families, rampant political corruption and an unfair voting apparatus that promotes a two-party system.

General assemblies of the 15 May Movement decided the popular campsites should remain for at least one more week. Meanwhile, the surrounding streets and squares filled with people openly discussing topics such as economic reforms, culture and education, democracy, ecology and so on. This unprecedented exercise of democratic strength made the movement grow broader. Sound systems were installed in many towns, where open microphone sessions allowed citizens to share experiences, express their disillusionment with politicians and make proposals for the newborn movement. People gathered in their hundreds to listen to moving speeches by students, retired pensioners, unemployed, exiles, immigrants, anti-fascist ex-combatants...

However, it was obvious the revolutionary camps could not last forever, so the movement realised it was necessary to ensure the main demands were discussed in popular assemblies in every municipality and neighbourhood. Mass gatherings in all squares were held on 28 May. In Madrid alone there were 200 assemblies with 200-700 people at each. Their conclusions will be passed on to general assemblies to draw up a programme representative of the struggle, expressing concerns and solutions. Artistic and symbolic actions are being carried out. One of them encourages people to simultaneously withdraw 150 euros from banks on 30 May, to show that the banks can and must be punished for their role in the economic rip-off of the working class.

The same moral and political drive that empowered the 15 May Movement will continue to seek collective strategies for action, coordinating a network of platforms for the people’s voice to be heard and promoting political participation of the whole community, as a means of building real pressure for change ahead of next year’s general elections. As the demonstrators said, ‘They call it democracy, but it’s not. They don’t represent us’ and ‘Clowns change, the circus carries on’.