Fightback in Spain grows: ‘the movement will itself become the future’

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’.