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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself