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Spain’s New Summer of Discontent

On July 11, thousands of people took to the streets of Madrid to support the coal miners from the Northern Asturias region that had marched into the country’s capital to protest the reduction in subsidies to the mining industry. When the coal miners, who had began the strike in May, finally arrived to Madrid, they were met with a wave of support and solidarity from a population that is reaching a tipping point in social discontent and resistance against austerity measures demanded by the European Union. Three days after the miners’ protest, on Friday 13, thousands of civil servants followed their example and demonstrated against the budget cuts in the public administration.

Spain, it seems, is undergoing an unprecedented series of protests that are the culmination of a process that started in May 2011 with the birth of “the Indignant” movement. These series of protests, since the inception of the movement, demand a radical change in Spanish politics. The protesters, and in fact, a growing number of Spanish citizens, no longer consider themselves represented by traditional politics. Back in May 2011, the initial protests were staged close to the local and regional elections, held on May 22 that resulted in the conservative candidate for the People’s Party, Mariano Rajoy, winning the elections. The Indignants movement drew inspiration from the Arab Spring and sought to express the deep discontent over the soaring unemployment figures and continuous demands of restructuring pouring from the European Union to sort the country’s public treasury. In turn, the organizing methods and ideas that set the Indignants in motion, crossed the Atlantic and helped shape the Occupy movement that grew in North America last summer. However, whereas nowadays the Occupy movement struggles to find a way to channel the protest and maintain a presence in most cities, the Spanish Indignants have grown in numbers, support and boldness, with Unions now calling for a national strike at a yet to be determined date in September. According to statistics published by RTVE, the Spanish public broadcasting company, between 6 and 8.5 million Spaniards have participated in protests.

The key to the movement’s success appears to be a solidarity that is finally cutting through class lines. CBS News reported on this past week’s events:

Marcher Pepi Garcia, a 52-year-old hotel waitress, makes Euro 900 ($1,105) per month and has her 35-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son living at home with her. They are unemployed and have never had jobs lasting more than six months.

“I’m not here just to show solidarity,” she said. “We have to protest to stop the madness that is happening in Spain.”

She added, “Rajoy is defending the banks and the rich. He would rather save the bankers than the miners.”

Her grown children “can’t even think about getting their own apartments or starting families” due to the miserable economy.

A year ago, Nobel Laureate and globalization skeptic Joseph Stiglitz addressed the crowd of Indignants during an open Social Forum held in Madrid. In his address, Stiglitz said:

The economic crisis has demonstrated the problems that capitalism is currently suffering, with markets that are run without regulation. The experience of the last three decades shows us that there is a necessity for states to recover an important role and to regulate the markets.

With an unemployment rate at nearly 25 percent overall and more than 50 percent among the under-25s, the country is taking the words of Stiglitz at face value. Poverty seems to have extended to what used to be an affluent middle class. France 24 reported on Friday:

Before the Spanish economic crisis hit, Mercedes Gonzalez and her family lived comfortably, she working in a shoe shop and her husband and second son in construction.

But one by one, over five years each of them lost their jobs.

Now, like millions of other middle-class casualties of the recession, the family of five scrapes by on welfare benefits, cash-in-hand cleaning work and the diminished salary of their eldest son.

The future looks even more bleak, though, as investors and analysts are worried that the latest budget cuts will only make matters worse for a country already in recession. On July 20, The European Commission and the European Central Bank will finally determine the extent of Spain’s banking aid. The Spanish government anticipates that, due to the new austerity measures demanded by Brussels as part of the aid package, including a possible pension reform, the economy will continue contracting until the end of 2013.

When asked last month for his opinion about Spain’s bailout, a year after he spoke in Madrid’s Social Forum, Joseph Stiglitz called the deal “voodoo economics”, he added “It is not going to work and it’s not working.” In Stiglitz’ opinion, what the European Union has done so far has been minimal and wrong in its policy direction because austerity measures to restore risk have the effect of reducing growth and increasing debt. So far, this has been at the core of the struggle that saw the emergence of the Indignants. Spain’s protests set the pace for a growing movement that spread across the rest of Europe, especially to countries with economies devastated by crisis and similar unemployment figures like Greece and Italy, shaping a new form of civil engagement outside traditional political parties. This summer, the protests seem to have taken a renewed impulse due to a new round of austerity measures demanded by the European Union not only in Spain but in Greece as well. Only this time, the Spanish middle classes are joining workers and identifying more with working class struggles than with corporate interests or EU mandates. It remains to be seen if these protests could, once again, push for a movement across borders, inspiring workers in the rest of the continent and eventually reshaping the way Europe’s bureaucracy takes into account citizen’s discontent. For an increasing number of Southern Europeans, the situation is dire enough to require immediate solutions, not long term growth plans like those proposed by the EU.


Front page photo by Mar del Sur, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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