by Ilan Brat / August 9, 2012

A small Spanish union orchestrated raids on two supermarkets in one of the poorest parts of the country earlier this week, in an attempt to draw attention to the problems faced by the unemployed. On Tuesday, hundreds of members affiliated with the Andalusian Union of Workers, which represents mainly rural laborers in southern Spain, forcibly carted off a dozen shopping carts full of milk, pasta, beans and other food from one supermarket, and pressed a second to donate a similar amount of food the next day. Most was distributed to local food banks.

Spanish police arrested two participants in the raids on suspicion of theft; they were released Thursday, and likely will be called to testify in court. A group of Spanish supermarket and distribution associations in a statement condemned the “unjustifiable acts of violence” and said that though the sector has been one of the worst hit, its stores have nonetheless lowered prices and showed “solidarity” with the Spanish people. A spokesman for Mercadona, the private supermarket chain that owns the first store, declined to comment. A representative for Carrefour SA FR +0.16% confirmed that its local store’s manager reached a deal with the union to make a donation in order to avoid a forcible raid, and that it is company policy to make some donations. Leaders of Spain’s largest unions also decried the raids. But members of SAT, as the union is known in Spanish, vowed to carry out more such “expropriations” of food to draw attention to the toll that a jobless rate of nearly 34% is exacting in the region. “This is an act of desperation in the name of families facing desperate situations,” said José Caballero, an SAT organizer who participated in the raids.

Though thus far an anomaly, the raids underscore mounting displeasure, particularly at a grass-roots level, with the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party as it pursues the most severe austerity program in the country’s history. Mr. Rajoy is planning spending cuts and tax increases valued at more than €100 billion ($124 billion) in the next two years that include raising the sales tax, cutting central-government worker salaries and trimming unemployment benefits. The government hasn’t yet said whether it would renew one benefit, due to expire in mid-August, that provides some people who have exhausted unemployment benefits with about €400 in monthly income for six months if they pursue job training.

Public workers, students, taxi drivers and others have been taking to the streets almost daily around the country. The Popular Party’s poll numbers have declined since its November election, and Spain’s biggest unions are pushing for a referendum on the austerity plans. They are also gearing up for a possible nationwide strike later this year. “A lot of things are pointing to a difficult autumn” for the government, said José Félix Tezanos, a sociology professor at the National Distance Education University and director of think tank Fundación Sistema in Madrid. “It’s difficult to govern a country with public opinion against you.”

The rising discontent is unlikely to shake the government’s ability to enact budget cuts any time soon. The Popular Party still has a comfortable parliamentary majority, while poll numbers for the main opposition Socialist Party have barely improved since the election. Alfonso Alonso, a parliamentary spokesman for Mr. Rajoy’s party, on Thursday decried the raids, saying they damage Spain’s image abroad.”Now is the time for acting with loyalty and support for the government,” he said.”Through our behavior, our solvency and seriousness are being judged.”

The numbers of those in need are growing. Spain’s unemployment rate has climbed to a record 24.6%. As jobless benefits run out for the long-term unemployed, the percentage of out-of-work Spaniards receiving assistance has fallen to 65% from 78% in 2010. In Espera, one of the towns that received the supermarket food “aid,” Mayor Pedro Romero says declines in revenue transfers from the central government are forcing difficult decisions on his administration. The local unemployment rate is more than 50%, he says, and the town this year canceled an annual festival celebrating the return for vacation of emigrants who have left for other parts of Spain or the world. The town has stopped providing temporary contracts that paid about €500 for about two weeks of work to locals who are having trouble making ends meet.

Carmen Álvarez, who volunteers at the local food bank, says demand for donated food is the highest she has ever seen. She says the food bank sometimes runs out of basics such as sugar and milk amid heavy demand. “Spain was a rich country. How we’ve fallen,” says the 63-year-old retired farm worker. “Sometimes my morale falls so low that I can’t do anything.”


Spain’s Creative Protests: Flamenco Flash Mobs and Supermarket Robin Hoods
by Lisa Abend / August 15, 2012

On a sweltering Saturday evening, a small crowd gathered in Madrid’s La Latina neighborhood to kick off a festival dedicated to one of the city’s patrons, the Virgin of the Paloma. In the nights to come, there would be paso doble contests, heaps of fried sheep intestine to consume at outdoor stalls and plenty of drunken dancing to Shakira at 2 a.m. But now, at this more politically inspired celebration, the biggest attraction was a carnival booth, called the Pim Pam Pum Indignado, where people paid 50 cents for the chance to throw a ball at a target adorned with the cartoon faces of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Rodrigo Rato (the recently resigned head of Bankia, which had to be nationalized earlier this year to the tune of 21 billion euros) and other protagonists of Spain’s economic crisis. As one bearded young man aimed carefully and toppled Angela Merkel with missile-like accuracy, the crowd erupted in a gleeful “Olé!”

Protests are everywhere and in almost every form these days in Spain. Ever since the Spanish government requested a bailout from the E.U. for its troubled banks in June, the growing list of austerity measures (a 7% reduction in civil servants’ pay; an increase in the value-added tax on goods and services; the abolition of subsidies for most medicines; rising power rates) has pushed a steady tide of demonstrators into the streets. Most of these protests are of the chanting and placard-waving variety; hardly a day goes by in Madrid without some kind of angry march in front of a government building or down a central artery. But as the crisis wears on and Spain appears to approach a second bailout — this one of its rapidly growing sovereign debt — new varieties of protest are emerging. Like the Pim Pam Pum Indignado, the criticism and outrage are becoming downright creative.

No one knows the value of a little dramatic action better than Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. A member of Andalucia’s regional parliament and mayor of Marinaleda, 115 km outside Seville, he is also one of the leaders of the Andalucian Workers’ Syndicate (SAT), a union composed primarily of agricultural day laborers. Reviving a tradition that dates to the 19th century, about 1,000 SAT members occupied an estate owned by the Spanish military on July 24 and demanded that the land be redistributed to the area’s workers. When that action failed to garner much attention, the SAT resorted to another tactic: members entered two supermarkets, loaded carts with staples like milk, pasta and olive oil, and walked out without paying (though with a bit of scuffling from management). They later turned over the stolen goods to charity.

“We robbed to give to the poor because the rich are already robbing,” says Sánchez Gordillo. “This crisis is a great robbery.” Sánchez Gordillo has been a political activist for decades. After years of sit-ins and other actions, in 1991, he and his organization convinced the regional government of Andalucia to expropriate nearly half of an aristocratic estate in Marinaleda and transfer it to the town, whose 2,700 residents now farm it collectively. But the situation now is worse, he says, than at any time since the death of Francisco Franco, which is why more dramatic measures are warranted. “People are losing everything,” he says. “We wanted the authorities to really pay attention to what is happening.” They certainly did. Police arrested several participants in the thefts and, on Aug. 10, dislodged the SAT from the estate it had been occupying. But Sánchez Gordillo, who says the accompanying media attention has helped publicize the plight of average families in southern Spain, says his union will continue its unorthodox protests. “We’re planning more supermarket actions,” he says. “And we may occupy some banks.”

For one effective way of doing that, he might look to Flo6x8. A group of Seville-based flamenco performers (the name comes from a standard flamenco rhythm), it has been staging flash mobs with a decidedly critical edge. At a Bankia branch office not long ago, a portly man in sunglasses suddenly burst out with the characteristic wail of a bulería — a traditional flamenco song. As dancers stomped their heels on the bank floor, the singer declared, “You’ve lowered my salary and raised everything else.” By the time he got to the song’s closing lines (“Even if you lowered my interest rate, Bankia, I wouldn’t love you anymore”) the bank’s customers — and even a clerk or two — were clapping along in earnest. “It’s a form of civil disobedience,” says member La Paca Monea (Flo6x8′s performers use pseudonyms). “We go into a place where the powerful are and invert the order of things. We demand attention and say, ‘Here we are, using our bodies to fight the financial system.’” After a performance, Flo6x8, which hopes to mount a continental tour of European banks, posts videos on YouTube and its own website. “After the Bankia flash mob, we got 600,000 visitors to our site,” says La Paca Monea. “People really responded to it.”

Which is the same thing that humorist Fito Vasquez discovered with his Pim Pam Pum Indignado carnival game. When he drew the cartoon faces that would serve as targets, he chose, he says, “the people that would be the most hated because of their involvement with the crisis.” But the level of intensity that people brought to the game surprised even him. “People were throwing those balls with real ire,” he says. “Some of them didn’t even want the beer you won if you hit three targets. They just wanted a chance to knock out Merkel.”

Post image for Spanish workers expropriate food from supermarkets
Man enjoys a meal in a soup kitchen in Spain (photo by F. Otero Perandones)

Spanish workers expropriate food from supermarkets
by Carlos Delclós On  / August 11, 2012

On Tuesday, some 200 members of the Andalusian fieldworkers’ union (the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores, or SAT) went to two supermarkets (the WalMart-esque Carrefour and Mercadona), filled up ten shopping carts with milk, sugar, chickpeas, pasta, rice and other basic necessities, and walked out without paying. They proceeded to donate that food to 26 families in La Corrala Utopía (Sevilla) and three civic centers in three towns in the province of Cádiz.Described by the SAT as an expropriation, the action is a spectacular example of the type of civil disobedience people all over Spain are engaging in to resist the government’s simultaneous imposition of neoliberal austerity and their pardoning of financial criminals and kleptocratic elites. Citizens refusing to pay outrageous fees for public transportation and toll roads, doctors refusing to deny free health care to undocumented immigrants, and police refusing orders to assault protesters are just some examples of how, like the budget cuts, the Spanish regime’s crisis of legitimacy extends to all sectors of Spanish society.Until now, most of the widespread civil disobedience against austerity in Spain has been carried out by average citizens active in or inspired by movements like the indignados. What makes the SAT’s reaction so remarkable, however, is that it was spearheaded by a labor union and led by… a politician? Andalusian Rep. Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo is a member of the Izquierda Unida party (IU) and mayor of the mythical farming village of Marinaleda.

Described by the New York Times as a “communist enclave”, the town started in the 1980s as an occupation of a local aristocrat’s estate with the idea of becoming a “utopia for peace”, with no police, no mortgages, a job for everyone and astoundingly affordable housing. As the most visible face of the SAT’s action, Sánchez Gordillo has been fiercely criticized as a populist and a demagogue by both the conservative Partido Popular (PP), the liberal Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and even his own party’s orthodoxy, which currently governs Andalusia in coalition with PSOE. But despite the establishment’s adversity to the SAT’s action, popular support remains extremely high, even in the conservative press.

Perhaps this support is especially high because austerity is affecting Spaniards at the most basic, biological level. According to a recent report by the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis, 350,000 Andalusian families are currently under-nourished. Meanwhile, 1.25 million Andalusians are out of work (roughly 34% of the working- age population), nearly a quarter of the Spanish population is under the poverty line, hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers are about to stop receiving their meager unemployment pay, corruption amongst elites with access to public funds remains rampant and unpunished, and hundreds of billions of euros are going to buy up the toxic assets circulated by Spanish banks. To add insult to injury, several prominent supermarket chains took the charming initiative of pressuring regional governments to start closing dumpsters outside their stores with locks and chains, ostensibly due to the health & safety concerns arising from fights over their near-expired contents.

“In this situation, we feel that the media and the government need to see that the crisis has first and last names, faces and ID cards,” Sánchez Gordillo explains after reciting a litany of numbers in a television interview at La Turquilla, a plot of land owned by the military which the SAT has been squatting for over two weeks (they were evicted today). “Enough statistics. Look at people, look them in the eyes. If the government can’t look its own people in the eyes, if it always imposes austerity on the poor, then it’s illegitimate and should step down. It presented itself to elections with a program, and it’s imposing exactly the opposite.”

Of course, the political establishment is hostile to this sort of talk. Like most regimes undergoing a crisis of legitimacy, the government has opted to reaffirm the state’s authority through a histrionic application of repression. Pointlessly, undercover police officers showed up at the homes of several SAT members, handcuffing them and throwing them in unmarked cars in front of their neighbors without letting anyone know where they are headed, as one might expect police to do with terrorism suspects (or as one might suspect terrorists to do with hostages).

In an interview with Pú, Sánchez Gordillo says that he finds these measures “a bit ridiculous” and “a stupid expense”, since in cases like these, police normally just arrest the culprits and take them to declare in front of a judge, instead of keeping them in custody for several days or even months, as was the case with Laura Gómez of the anarcho-syndicalist CGT union after the general strike on March 29th.

If the last few weeks in Spain are any indication, this heavy-handed use of state violence against Spaniards will do little to stop people from engaging in acts of civil disobedience. The SAT has already called for more expropriations, bank and farmland occupations, and marches from rural areas into the cities to connect the plight of the rural poor with that of the urban dispossessed. People all over the country are referring to taking a Robin Hood stance on shop-lifting as “pulling a Gordillo” (via the hashtag #HazteUnGordillo).

In the extreme social climate that permeates everyday life in today’s Spain, what seems to be changing is more than just some political affinities. Through resistance to neoliberal austerity, a new common sense is taking shape, and it’s doing so from a position that is antagonistic to the self-destructive, de-democratizing impulses that reside in the heart of global capitalism. Isidro López, a sociologist at Madrid’s Observatorio Metropolitano, has an especially compelling take on this shift:

Years ago, communiqués signed by ‘the black block’ described their actions as urbanism. Burning a McDonalds was the correction of an error in urban planning. The Yes Men maintained a communications guerrilla website called that fooled several people into thinking it was the official page of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. On some occasions, they were even invited for interviews on CNN and gave talks at OECD conferences, where they explained that the GATT/WTO’s objective was to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They called this personality correction: the speaker said nothing more than what the GATT/WTO really did. In this sense, what Sánchez Gordillo and the SAT are doing is a ‘public policy correction’. An action which should be routine in public administration, redistribution, and the guaranteeing of access to material reproduction is criminally omitted, and somebody, an activist group, must come along and symbolically correct this error.

In a sense, this is exactly what we see when societies respond to toxic policies and authoritarian imposition by taking their lives into their own hands, against unjust laws. We should never forget that democracy means “people power”, and that correcting a lack of democracy means exercising power from the bottom-up, occupying the cracks in the architecture of repression, and breaking it open like rhizomic roots shattering concrete.

Workers from the nearby town of Écija worked at the farming cooperative in Marinaleda, a Communist enclave of 2,700 people.

The Spanish Robin Hood
by Dan Hancox  /  15 August 2012

Last week, and not for the first time, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo found himself in the Spanish headlines. Dubbed “Robin Hood” by El Pais, Sánchez Gordillo, the mayor of a small town in rural Andalusia, led farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic living supplies: they filled trolleys with pasta, sugar, chickpeas and milk, left without paying, and distributed the loot to local food banks. His reasoning was blunt: “The crisis has a face and a name. There are many families who can’t afford to eat.” It’s hard to overstate how close to the brink Spain is at the moment. Unemployment is at 25% nationally (higher than Greece), 34% in Andalusia and 53% for 16-to-24-year-olds; miners in Asturias are firing homemade rocket launchers at riot police; repossessions and the collapse of the construction industry have left 800,000 empty homes, and, last May, the 8 million-strong indignados protest movement, a forerunner of Occupy, announced its total lack of faith in parliamentary democracy to solve any of these problems. And this is just the phoney war: last month, the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced spending cuts of ¤65bn (£51bn) over the next two years.

In the heart of it all, like Asterix’s village in Gaul implausibly holding out against the Romans, is Sánchez Gordillo’s town, the self-described communist utopia of Marinaleda. With a population of 2,600, the town has virtually full employment, communally owned land and wage equality. Over the past three decades, the townspeople have built 350 family homes with their own hands. Residents pay a “mortgage” of just ¤15 a month towards their homes, but have no opportunity to profit from selling them on. When you first arrive, Marinaleda looks the same as any small town in rural Andalusia, with olive groves stretching towards a dusty horizon, children kicking footballs against worn stone walls and parasols fluttering gently outside tapas bars. Soon, you begin to notice the little differences: the lack of advertising or brand names, the streets named for Fermín Salvochea, the 19th-century anarchist mayor of Cadiz, and for Salvador Allende, Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. In the mayor’s office hangs a framed portrait of Che Guevara, along with three flags: one for Andalusia, one for the Spanish Second Republic (the elected government displaced by Franco’s military coup), and one sporting the red, white and green of Marinaleda itself; it’s very clean, and endearingly untidy. In one corner is a flip-chart covered with semi-legible marker pen scribbles, bullet points and wonky arrows; this, it transpires, is the town’s budget.

Sánchez Gordillo was born in Marinaleda in 1949; back then, he explains, it was a town of migrant workers. “They would go to Germany, or France; or for two months a year, to the wheat fields to the north, to look for work. Otherwise, they were unemployed. It was misery. The surroundings were all huge expanses of private land. Andalusia is like Latin America: 2% of property owners own 50% of the land.” After Franco’s death in 1975, Marinaleda began struggling towards its own definition of freedom. Organising around a new trade union, a new workers’ party, and with weekly mass meetings, the townspeople began occupying some of the land around the village, owned – and unused – by the Duke of Infantil. The police would arrest or evict them, and they’d start all over again. They blocked roads, broke into and shut down Malaga and Seville airports, marched on Madrid, and went on mass hunger strike. Sánchez Gordillo has been to jail seven times, and survived two assassination attempts by rightwing extremists. After 12 years of persistent struggle, with 1992’s Seville World Expo just round the corner and the regional authorities’ resolve finally weakening, incredibly, they won, securing 1,200 hectares of the duke’s land for their farming cooperative. “Our union gathers people of many political stripes,” Sánchez Gordillo explains, “but we carry the torch of anarchism’s direct action.” He cites 5,000 years of Andalusian struggle for land, and thinks for a moment. “Even the weekly assembly is direct action.”

The town’s relationship with the state is complicated. They are still subject to Spanish electoral law (Sánchez Gordillo is re-elected with a huge majority each time), but have abolished their police force. “By law, due to the number of inhabitants we have here, we should have around four to seven cops,” he tells me. “But we don’t want police here. Because we have our voluntary work, because we fight together, because we make our lives together, there is a high degree of coexistence. When we plant trees, we do it together too.” Sánchez Gordillo’s articulation of what “community” can mean is striking, when you consider how blithely the word is used by politicians across the west. “Utopias aren’t chimeras, they are the most noble dreams that people have. The dream of equality; the dream that housing should belong to everyone, because you are a person, and not a piece of merchandise to be speculated with; the dream that natural resources – for instance energy – shouldn’t be in the service of multinationals, but in the service of the people. All those dreams are the dreams we’d like to turn into realities. First, in the place where we live, with the knowledge that we’re surrounded by capitalism everywhere; and later, in Andalusia, and the world.”

Leaving the gleaming white town hall building and departing into the dusk, you find a metal arch spelling out the slogan OTRO MUNDO ES POSIBLE. Another world is possible. In Marinaleda, the words represent not an aspirational mirage, but a statement of fact.

{Adapted from Utopia and the Valley of Tears: A journey through the Spanish crisis, an ebook available from from 20 August.}

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