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Back in 2001, after borrowing more than any other developing nation, Argentina’s credit ratings plunged, pushing it to the brink of default. An enraged population converged on the central Plaza de Mayo, in front of the presidential palace, banging spoons on pots and shouting ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (they should all go). On 21 December, President De la Rúa was eventually forced to escape by helicopter.
Ten years after the events in Argentina, the scenario of popular revolt has shifted from South America to southern Europe, whose countries have seen their own credit ratings fall in the wake of the global financial crisis. In the past two months Spain and Greece have seen the birth of a popular movement calling itself ‘Los indignados’ (the outraged), after the title of a pamphlet authored by the nonagenarian former French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, calling on young people to act against the follies of the financial markets.
Inspired by the Arab Spring, they have set up protest camps in symbolic squares like Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona and Syntagma Square in Athens. And their adherence to nonviolent principles has earned them broad support among a public grown resentful of the economic system and distrustful of democratic institutions that appear to have been emptied out of all power.
Momentous protest wave
Few journalists in Spain had taken notice of the protests called for 15 May 2011 by Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), a citizen grass-roots organisation started a few months before and supported by around 200 civil society organisations. On the day a total of 100,000 people marched in different cities across Spain to ask for changes in electoral law and economic policy.
In Madrid the police responded with truncheons to a sit-in set up in the Gran Via avenue. In protest around 100 people decided to camp overnight in central Puerta del Sol. That was to be the beginning of a momentous wave of protest.
The following day hundreds more gathered in Puerta del Sol, and by the day after that they had become thousands. In imitation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, activists set up a haphazard cluster of blue tents to protect participants from the scorching sun, and to house the different committees managing the camp.
A giant L’Oréal billboard towering over the square was defaced by a huge banner affirming ‘No nos representan’ (they do not represent us), and the camp soon filled with thousands of hand-written placards, banners and post-its, while political and union flags were banned.
Tweets using hashtags such as #spanishrevolution, #acampadasol, #yeswecamp and #europeanrevolution helped the movement make ripples across the world; solidarity camps were erected on five continents. In the meantime the indignados proliferated at the local level, with camps reaching the most remote towns of Castilla and Andalusia, and tens of neighbourhood assemblies being born in the metropolitan areas. On 19 June, more than half a million people marched in Madrid to present their demands to parliament. Further demonstrations took place in Barcelona, Valencia, Las Palmas, Bilbao, Sevilla, Málaga and numerous other cities.
In the meantime, the movement had moved across the Mediterranean to Greece. After so many general strikes and street battles with the police had proven incapable of halting the austerity drive of Papandreou’s government, the Greeks found inspiration in the nonviolent and popular character of the Spanish movement.
On 25 May, following a call made through a Facebook page, thousands of people converged on Syntagma, where they set up their own camp to oppose a new bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
The pulsing hearts of the indignados movement in both Spain and Greece have been its popular assemblies. Beginning in the evening and often continuing well into the night, they have seen people of all ages and walks of life sharing their anger at the economic impasse, the loss of jobs and the state of countries that feel they have been betrayed by the political class.
Spain and Greece are among the countries that have been experiencing the harshest consequences of the financial crisis in Europe. In Spain, since the phenomenal crash of the building sector in 2008, the government of José Luis Zapatero has put forward a series of draconian austerity measures. These include a rise in the pension age to 67, a deep reduction in public employees’ salaries and a 9 per cent cut in public spending approved in the last budget alongside pro-employer labour reform. Meanwhile, unemployment is stuck at 20 per cent and according to recent figures 43.5 per cent of young people don’t have a job.
The situation is even harsher in Greece. Despite the protests, the country is now facing the consequences of a second bailout package, which will probably total €110 billion, the same as the one given in 2010. To appease the IMF and the European Central Bank, the Papandreou government has recently approved a new, fifth round of austerity measures. The plan includes 150,000 public sector job cuts and a €50 billion programme of privatisation of public assets. Among them is the Piraeus port, the biggest in the Mediterranean.
Many analysts believe that the new bailout plan will not stop Greece from defaulting and will only make its recovery slower and enable the banks to get their money back at the expense of the taxpayer. In the meantime, recorded unemployment in the country remains above 15 per cent, and after the new public sector job cuts it is forecast to reach the same level as Spain.
Talking with people in the protest camps, one can see how these numbers translate into a daily experience of personal hardship. ‘I am glad to be here also because there is something to eat and somewhere to sleep,’ admits Dimitris, a 26 years-old social worker I met in Syntagma Square, who is struggling to live on the €400 monthly benefit given by the Greek state. The situation is not rosy for those who are in employment either. ‘My friends tell me you should be happy: at least you have a job!’ says Laura Blanco, a 28-year-old social researcher camping at Puerta del Sol. ‘But how can I be, when most of the money goes away with the rent and bills?’
Part of a ‘lost generation’ who have seen labour rights and welfare entitlements progressively vanish as a consequence of neoliberal policies, the indignados are critical not only of the right but also of the organised left. The governments they oppose in Spain and Greece are in fact headed by Socialist politicians. But the trade unions and parties of the radical left, such as Izquierda Unida in Spain and Syriza and the Communist Party (KKE) in Greece enjoy little credibility either.
‘There is quite a lot of distrust towards parties,’ says Sissy Vovou, a member of the Greek Syriza who has been active at the Syntagma camp. ‘One of the resolutions of the assembly here was even to dissolve all parties. This might not represent the spirit of the square as a whole. But definitely left parties are not going to earn many votes as a consequence of this protest.’
Beyond the protest camps
Highly critical of what they see as corrupt political institutions and suspicious towards unaccountable parties and trade unions, the indignados have found some reasons for hope in assembly democracy. At the same time, they are not as naive as some media have portrayed them, and are well cognisant of the fact that the only way to secure social change is via deep reform of the democratic institutions they have lost trust in. Thus, topping the official demands of the assemblies in Spain and Greece are proposals for constitutional and electoral reform whose rationale is seemingly to regain some form of national sovereignty after years of market-led globalisation.
This ‘back to the nation’ strategy is causing a lot of concern among some on the left and those who had been at the forefront of anti-globalisation protests. Such a turn is quite understandable, given that it is at the national level that the management of the economic crisis and the politics of austerity are unfolding. But it raises questions as to whether the real solution to the problems faced by southern European countries is simply to exit from a European Union identified with the euro, as some of the indignados (especially in Greece) seem to believe, or rather to refound Europe on democratic and social grounds as it is argued by others in the movement (particularly among the Spaniards).
Now that most of the protest camps have ended (though the Syntagma camp was continuing as Red Pepper went to press, despite the approval of the new austerity package), the indignados are looking for new ways to harness public attention. In Spain, walking and cycling caravans are already leaving from different cities to head towards the capital, gathering support and proposals on the way. The movement was due to assemble in Puerta del Sol in late July to present its demands to the people as much as to parliament. In both Spain and Greece, the indignados movement will face an uphill struggle to turn its impressive popular support into concrete political results, but it has already succeeded in creating political institutions of a new kind. n
Photographs by Lara Pelaez, Madrid