Spain: We don’t owe, we won’t pay

Iolanda Fresnillo reports from Spain on the myriad ways Spanish people are facing down austerity

March 10, 2013
10 min read

Protesters target a bank – the signs say ‘Stop evictions’. Photo: Fotomovimiento

The impact on the Spanish people of the financial crisis and austerity gets steadily worse. Social and economic rights are systematically violated to prioritise debt repayments. As banks are bailed out, public debt increases, and in order to meet deficit limits imposed by the EU social spending is cut. The 2013 budget provides for a 34 per cent increase in debt interest payments, more than £32 billion, at the same time that health expenditure is being cut by 22 per cent, education by 18 per cent and the women’s equality budget by 35 per cent. The consequence is greatly increasing poverty and inequality.

Almost 1.4 million people received food aid in Spain during 2012. There has been an unprecedented increase in child poverty, with 27 per cent of children living in households below the poverty line (up from 13 per cent in 2010). Unemployment has reached 25 per cent (5.7 million people), rising to 50 per cent among the young. About 1.7 million families have no one in work, leading to huge difficulties in paying bills, especially mortgages. There are now more than 500 evictions a day, leading to an epidemic of eviction-related suicides.

These are some of the realities that can help us picture the human disaster behind the economic crisis and austerity. Beyond this foreground of despair and vulnerability, though, there lies an increasingly combative civil society that refuses meekly to accept what is being inflicted upon it.

Permanent mobilisation

The spontaneous turnout of hundreds, and then thousands, of young and not so young people who took the squares of many Spanish cities and towns on 15 May 2011 was the beginning of what became the massive 15M movement. The indignados, as the media baptised the 15M activists, provided the kick-off for a permanent mobilisation that has continued until now. Of course, the intensity is not the same as during those first few weeks in 2011. But sustained – and often massive – protests have continued, facing down austerity and the dictatorship of debt.

In many towns and neighbourhoods the 15M camps turned into local assemblies, supporting or leading local demands and protests. Joining or building from scratch consumer co-operatives, providing advice to those losing their jobs, or organising popular education events, the local assemblies are far less visible and spectacular than the occupied squares but much more closely linked to people’s everyday hardships and struggles.

Many local assemblies have developed citizen’s support networks, a space where people meet and face together the abuses inflicted on them by the crisis. Mostly working on housing and labour issues, they try to look for collective answers to people’s everyday problems. They provide support to those who are about to be evicted, or they organise collective services such as city vegetable gardens, clothes exchanges, food distribution or ‘time banking’ schemes (whereby people ‘bank’ time they can offer in a particular service or skill and receive the equivalent back). But they also organise collective direct action, such as resistance to an eviction, occupying an empty building for social use or boycotting a local company that exploits its workers. Consumer co-operatives have grown too in the wake of the 15M movement. They establish a close relationship with producers, generally local eco-agriculture or farming projects, and offer food at affordable prices in self-organised spaces.

Many of those occupying the squares joined, individually or through the citizen’s support networks, the anti-evictions movement Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (literally, ‘platform for those affected by the mortgage’, PAH). Almost daily, whenever a family in contact with PAH is about to be evicted, an open call for support is launched and dozens of activists gather to try to stop the police kicking out more people from their home. PAH has halted more than 500 evictions in this way. It has also initiated a popular legislative initiative to change eviction and housing law, collecting more than a million signatures in a few months.

Among the actions promoted by PAH have been several protest camps or occupations at banks’ offices. The objective of the camps, which have been set up in Madrid, Alicante, Santa Cruz de Tenerife and other cities, is to put pressure on the banks to offer families the chance to rent properties from which they are about to be evicted. Bankia, the Spanish bank that has received the biggest state bailout, has been one of the main targets. Coordinated #AcampadaBankia actions started in early October 2012, prior to which, on 15 May 2012, protests included setting up a living room outside a Bankia office in Barcelona, followed by a popular tribunal calling the company to account in front of the bailed-out bank’s headquarters.

The protests at Bankia offices have been effective. For instance, on 31 October last year a call from PAH led to nine simultaneous Bankia office occupations, and to successful negotiations for four families facing eviction to remain in their homes on social rents.

Civil disobedience and protest

The indignados movement has given birth to a wide range of civil disobedience and protest groups. Among them are the iaioflautas: a group of people aged over 65 who engage in civil disobedience and direct action denouncing those responsible for the crisis. Occupations of government buildings, the Stock Exchange in Barcelona and several banks have been their most visible actions. The police find it difficult simply to repress a group of older people, and the iaioflautas have drawn widespread media attention to social movements’ demands.

Other remarkable actions have been carried out by the Andalusian Union of Workers (SAT, a member of the global small-scale farmer coalition La Vía Campesina). In August last year the trade union took basic living supplies from two supermarkets, claiming them for families that could not afford to pay for their food, before its activists turned themselves over to the police. The union has also been involved in squatting houses and disused farms. Last year it occupied a publicly-owned but abandoned 400-acre farm. After negotiations with the regional government, previously unemployed agriculture workers are now growing organic food in the fields of Somonte.

Recent months have also seen an increasing number of sectoral protests. As privatisation and other reforms threaten social rights, the mareas (literally ‘tides’) in defence of public health and education have filled the streets and emptied hospitals and schools with strikes. In Madrid, where the regional government is privatising several public hospitals, health workers started a four‑day strike on 29 November that lasted for five weeks. About 400 health professionals have tendered their resignations as a protest against the privatisation; four workers even went on hunger strike. Doctors, nurses and other health workers have been camping out in hospitals in Madrid and Catalunya, sleeping in tents inside the hospitals as part of the protests.

Strikes, demonstrations and repression

In February 2012, hundreds of thousands protested in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and other major cities against spending cuts, the privatisation of public services and attacks on labour rights. This was followed by a general strike on 23 March. This was a relative success but ended with brutal police repression in Barcelona and Madrid. A follow-up general strike on 14 November was backed by around 60 per cent of Spanish workers, a much higher proportion than the previous one. Again, the massive demonstrations in the main cities faced violent police repression, in what seems to be a state-sanctioned response that Spanish activists will have to confront for as long as mobilisations continue. The government, backed by the mainstream media, has promoted an increasing criminalisation of the social mobilisations. This includes new public order laws against passive resistance and protest.

Beyond the general strikes, mobilisations and protests have continued unabated. Between 12 and 15 May 2012, marking the first anniversary of the 15M movement, tens of thousands of protesters marched all over the country. In early July, several hundreds of miners finished their march to Madrid. They met in the capital with thousands of other trade unionists on strike and tens of thousands of supporters from the 15M movement. A week later, on 19 July, more than half a million people in 80 cities protested against the austerity package being pushed through parliament.

On 15 September, the ‘social summit’, a coalition of more than 150 trade unions and social organisations, brought together hundreds of thousands in a big march in Madrid. Ten days later, tens of thousands of protesters marched on the Spanish Congress and surrounded it with the claim: ‘Democracy is kidnapped and we are going to rescue it.’ After the protesters were violently repressed by the police, a new demonstration gathered thousands of people in front of the Spanish parliament, just four days afterwards. The demonstrations at the Spanish parliament were repeated again in October as the new budget for 2013 was being discussed.

Alternative media

While mainstream media only cover the major demonstrations and strikes, a flourishing alternative media offers up-to-date information and comprehensive coverage of the mobilisations. Alternative online and print media projects such as Diagonal, Periodismo Humano and la Directa, or TV projects such as TeleK and, which existed prior to 15M, have gained much support and visibility. But the movement has also produced new media spaces, such as the television internet channel tomalatele and the local newspaper Madrid15m, among many local media projects on radio, online and in print.

Layoffs in mainstream newspapers have also led jobless journalists to develop several media projects, such as La Marea, El Diario, Mongolia and Alternativas Económicas, some of them in the form of cooperatives. Though not activist‑led media, they do provide a social and alternative news coverage, and have a potentially larger audience than the more alternative media projects arising from the social movements. The explosion of new or reinvigorated media projects, together with the social networks, especially Twitter, have played a key role in the dissemination of information and proliferation of many of the actions and mobilisations described here.

Fighting the debtocracy

On 13 October, following the Global Noise call to action, thousands of protesters nationwide marched under the slogan ‘We don’t owe, we won’t pay’, and called for a citizens’ debt audit. The Citizens’ Debt Audit Platform (PACD) was created last March in Spain, and has since engaged in a mobilisation and popular education campaign, together with gathering and analysing information on Spanish debt. The PACD, formed by both debt and 15M activists, is working closely with other movements, providing them with arguments against the payment of illegitimate debt.

The citizens’ debt audit is conceived by the PACD as a participatory process that aims to empower people to be able to decide, in a democratic and sovereign way, what to do with the debt and our future. The PACD believes that there is enough evidence of illegitimacy in Spanish public debt to justify the non-payment of that debt. One of its objectives is to make that evidence more visible.

As more people come to understand that the cuts are being imposed to pay the debt – a debt that is being accumulated to bail out the banks – increasing numbers are joining the fightback against debtocracy.

Iolanda Fresnillo is a member of the Citizens’ Debt Audit Platform in Barcelona. Fellow PACD members Mireya Royo and Tom Kucharz also contributed to this article

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