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Spain's Crisis Leads To Rise Of Grass-Roots Groups

Dec 10, 2012
Originally published on December 10, 2012 8:44 pm

A year and a half ago, recession-ravaged Spanish society reacted to the economic crisis with the "Indignados," a mass protest that inspired the worldwide "Occupy" movement.

The "angry ones" are long gone from Spanish streets, but they've evolved into many grass-roots associations now filling the gaps left by the eroding welfare state, spawning a new form of anti-austerity resistance that embraces all branches of society, from those who have lost homes to foreclosures, to the entire judiciary.

Hardly a day passes in Spain without a noisy demonstration by one sector of society or another. One day, it's doctors. With drums beating, thousands of white-clad health workers protest government plans to overhaul the country's highly respected public health system.

"What they want to do is privatize the hospital, and we are here to just say we don't want that to happen. We want that to stop because we think it has to be universal; everybody has to be able to go to hospital," says Olwen Leaman, a young oncologist at Madrid's Princesa hospital.

A Growing Resistance

The next day, it's university professors and students.

In a central square in the nation's capital, a political science professor lectures on Hobbes and the nature of power to note-taking students sitting on the pavement. Holding a class outdoors in frosty weather is a way to protest the billions of dollars in public education cutbacks, from nursery school to university.

In Madrid alone, more than 250 professors have been sacked. One of the students attending the outdoor class, Arturo Samis, 19, says the government wants to privatize everything.

"They are trying to steal our education," Samis says. "Now it is getting so expensive we cannot afford it. In some years maybe there won't be any public education in Spain. This is in the long term a shout that we need help to keep on studying."

Violetta Assiego, an analyst at Metroscopia, a public opinion institute, says the new activism cuts across ideological lines and takes place outside traditional trade unions and political parties.

The spark of the new social mobilization was the Indignados movement that for months last year occupied Spanish squares.

"The Indignados gave birth to a myriad number of citizens' groups that are channeling much of the protest and people's sense of desperation," says Assiego. "Without these groups, there would have been a social explosion."

Organizing Against Evictions

One group was created in response to the wave of evictions triggered by Spain's massive real estate bubble. Some groups acted as human shields trying to prevent officials from reaching foreclosed homes. This summer, a group of activists prevented police agents from trying to enter a ­building, shouting, "This apartment will not surrender."

In Spain's capital alone, the movement has successfully blocked 500 evictions, according to the head of Madrid's anti-eviction movement, Cristina Escribano. In the capital, officials say the total number of eviction orders is 8,000. Nationwide, there have been a total of 350,000 eviction orders.

The anti-eviction movement gained further momentum after three people waiting to be kicked out of their homes killed themselves. The three suicides, which happened last month, became symbols of the devastating effects of the economic crisis and forced the center-right government to suspend a few evictions under very narrow conditions.

This was a small victory that offered some hope to others facing eviction, such as Irene Gonzalez, a single mother with three children. By coming to a neighborhood association, she discovered a new sense of solidarity and was able to overcome a feeling of shame.

But facing the bank was not easy.

"When I found myself going to the bank to beg them to pardon my unpaid mortgage payments, I couldn't afford feeling embarrassed," pausing as her voice cracks. "I cannot feed my children with embarrassment."

And it's precisely food that more and more newly poor Spaniards desperately need. The jobless rate is spiking above 26 percent — Europe's highest. One-third of the unemployed are completely outside the social safety net, and the cushion of grandparents' pensions is rapidly being devoured by new taxes.

Crisis Outpaces Food Donations

At the Madrid food bank, a huge warehouse on the outskirts of the capital, dozens of trucks from various NGOs are being filled with foodstuffs — from rice, lentils and milk to fresh fruit and vegetables. Everyone at this nonprofit is a volunteer, mostly retired professionals and managers.

Communications director Pilar Saura says the food bank is able to provide for 70,000 people, which represents only 20 percent of the actual need in Madrid, despite a growing quantity of donations from individual citizens.

"All that generosity is impressive, but simultaneously, as the crisis is so big, it is almost impossible to cover all the needs," Saura says.

Spain's new citizens groups have each adopted a protest color of their own — white for health workers, green for teachers, orange for social workers. The latest group, judicial employees, chose yellow.

Legal Workers Protest Court Levy

Outside the Madrid courthouse, Justice Ministry employees are gathering signatures to protest a new government law. It imposes a tax on every citizen who wants to go to court to challenge a fine or a layoff, to file for divorce or appeal a lower court ruling.

Inside the courthouse, Jose Luis Armengol, Madrid's chief investigating magistrate, says the new judicial levy means that justice in Spain is only for those who can afford it. If the government doesn't repeal this violation of the rule of law, he says, the entire judiciary will go on strike.

"In an unprecedented action, we've all joined together — judges, prosecutors, lawyers and clerks, from left to right. We feel this incompetent political establishment is trying to dismantle the basic pillars of Spanish society — health, education and justice," Armengol says.

Opinion polls show both the government and opposition parties plummeting in popularity, as the gap between government and people widens.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is increasingly absent from the political stage. It appears the center-right government is trying to ignore the mounting resistance of Spain's angry middle class.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

In Spain, where the economic crisis has ravaged society, public protest has become a way of life. A year and a half ago, it was Indignados - or angry ones - who filled the streets. The mass protests inspired the worldwide Occupy Movement. Now the protests have evolved to encompass all of society, from victims of foreclosures to the entire judiciary.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Madrid on this new form of anti-austerity resistance.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: Hardly a day passes without a noisy demonstration by one sector of society or another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND PROTESTERS)

BYLINE: Today, it's doctors. Olwen Leaman, a young oncologist at the Princesa Hospital, is one of the thousands of white-clad health workers protesting government plans to overhaul the country's highly-respected public health system.

DR. OLWEN LEAMAN: What they want to do is privatize the hospital and we are here to just to say we don't want that to happen. We want that to stop because we think that it has to be universal; that everybody has to be able to go to hospital.

BYLINE: The next day, it's university professors and students.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: In a central square, a political science professor lectures on Hobbes and the nature of power to note-taking students sitting on the pavement.

Holding a class outdoors in frosty weather is a way to protest the billions of dollars in public education cutbacks, from nursery school to university. In Madrid alone, more than 250 professors have been sacked.

One of the students, 19-year-old Arturo Samis, says the government wants to privatize everything.

ARTURO SAMIS: They are trying to steal our education. Now it is getting so expensive we cannot afford it. In some years, maybe there won't be any public education in Spain. This is, in the long-term, a shout that we need help to keep on studying.

BYLINE: Violetta Assiego, analyst at the Metroscopia Public Opinion Institute, says the new activism cuts across ideological lines and takes place outside traditional trade unions and political parties. The spark of the new social mobilization was the Indignados movement that, for months, last year occupied Spanish squares.

VIOLETTA ASSIEGO: (Through Translator) The Indignados gave birth to a myriad number of citizens' groups that are channeling much of the protest and people's sense of desperation. Without these groups, there would have been a social explosion.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

BYLINE: One of the first groups was created try to block the wave of evictions triggered by Spain's massive real estate bubble.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

BYLINE: A group of activists - preventing police agents from trying to enter a building - shout this apartment will not surrender.

In Madrid alone, the movement has successfully blocked 500 evictions. There have been a total 350,000 eviction orders nationwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

BYLINE: The anti-eviction movement gained momentum after three people waiting to be kicked out of their homes killed themselves in November. The three suicides became symbols of the devastating effects of the economic crisis and forced the center-right government to suspend a few evictions under very narrow conditions.

A small victory that offered some hope to other eviction victims, such as Irene Gonzalez, a single mother with three children. By coming to this neighborhood association, she discovered a new sense of solidarity and was able to overcome a feeling a shame. But facing the bank was not easy.

IRENE GONZALEZ: (Through Translator) When I found myself going to the bank to beg them to pardon my unpaid mortgage payments, I couldn't help feeling embarrassed. I can't feed my children with embarrassment.

BYLINE: And it's precisely food that more and more newly poor Spaniards desperately need. The jobless rate is more than 26 percent, Europe's highest. One third of the unemployed are completely outside the social safety net. And the cushion of grandparents' pensions is rapidly being devoured by new taxes.

This is the Madrid food bank, a huge warehouse on the outskirts of the capital. Dozens of trucks from various NGOs are being filled with foodstuffs, from rice, lentils and milk to fresh fruit and vegetables. Everyone at this nonprofit is a volunteer, mostly retired professionals and managers.

Communications director Pilar Saura says the food bank is able to provide for 70,000 people, only 20 percent of need in Madrid, despite a growing quantity of donations from individual citizens.

PILAR SAURA: All that generosity is impressive. But as the crisis is so big, it is almost impossible to cover all the needs.

BYLINE: Spain's new citizens groups have each adopted a protest color of their own: white for health workers, green for teachers, orange for social workers, the latest group has chosen yellow.

We're outside the Madrid courthouse, where Justice Ministry employees are gathering signatures to protest a new government law. It imposes a tax on every citizen who wants to go to court to challenge a lay-off, to file for divorce, or appeal a lower court ruling.

Inside the courthouse, Madrid's chief investigating magistrate, Jose Luis Armengol, says the new judicial levy means that justice in Spain is only for those who can afford it. If the government doesn't repeal this violation of the rule of law, he says, the entire judiciary will go on strike.

JOSE LUIS ARMENGOL: (Through Translator) In an unprecedented action, we've all joined together - judges, prosecutors, lawyers and clerks, from left to right. We feel this incompetent political establishment is trying to dismantle the basic pillars of Spanish society - health, education and justice.

BYLINE: Opinion polls show both the government and opposition parties plummeting in popularity, as the gap between government and people widens. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is increasingly absent from the political stage.

It appears the center-right government is trying to ignore the mounting resistance of Spain's angry middle class.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.