Sunday, 16 December 2012

The streets wake up.......

The extent of the crisis has finally brought Spaniards from all walks of life out to protest in vast numbers and on a multitude of fronts.


July 20th 2012

The streets were a powder keg of rage, and the spark has finally gone off. The sheer duration and depth of the economic crisis has pushed thousands of citizens on to the streets -- health workers, educators, judges, anti-eviction activists and many more -- while thousands of others are now convinced protesting does make a difference after all.

In one case, the insistence of health professionals got the regional government of Madrid to rethink its plans to turn La Princesa Hospital into a center for seniors; in another, hundreds of activists managed to stop dozens of home evictions by physically preventing bank officials from entering the premises, and getting some rules changed along the way. And experts forecast that in the near future the protests will increase, not decrease.

Just a few months ago, Spaniards were angry but not quite to the point of doing something about it. But the time for action has come.

"The spark is going off sector by sector," says José Félix Tezanos, a sociology professor at distance-learning university Uned who back in April 2011 gave this newspaper an accurate prediction of things to come: there was a breeding ground of unemployment, a lack of future expectations and a series of spending cuts (which began in 2010 with the previous Socialist administration), all of which constituted a time bomb that could go off at any minute. And so it has.

"An innovative trait of these conflicts is that they cut across categories: at the doctors' protests you can also see department chiefs, interns, patients, PP voters and Socialist voters," he adds. "This is an explosive cocktail because it represents an increasingly angry social movement that is confronting an increasingly less representative political power."

The turning point was the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid on May 15, 2011 -- what became known as the 15-M or Los indignados movement, which inspired similar protests such as Occupy Wall Street.
 The occupiers shared a somewhat vague, if strongly felt, sense of indignation at the economic and social deterioration of Spain, says Belén Barreiro, director of the studies department at Fundación Alternativas, a progressive think-tank.

Daniel Kaplún, a sociology professor at Carlos III University in Madrid, agrees. That original protest gave rise to other successful movements such as the anti-eviction group Platform for those Affected by Mortgages (PAH), and served "to create awareness that institutional channels were no longer useful to improve things," says Kaplún.

That grassroots movement took traditional institutions such as labor unions and left-wing parties by surprise - these did nothing more than trail behind the protestors - and the groundswell of indignation began growing in different directions, "with the kind of legitimacy that only people can give it," adds Kaplún.

One example of this is the Madrid Association of Specialist Physicians (Afem), created just a few months ago by a group of doctors who led the protests against the Madrid government's plans to bring private management in to a good number of public hospitals in the region.
 Their indefinite strike is being followed by 30 percent of physicians, according to the Madrid health department.

"It was born out of a feeling of disillusionment at the grassroots level and among professionals as well; we felt we were not being represented, either by the unions or by the associations," says Afem president Pedro González, a neurosurgeon at Madrid's 12 de Octubre hospital.
 "The 15-M movement highlighted the people's discontent, but we believe we professionals need to go a little further; we have to provide solutions and show that there are alternatives out there that we can put into practice to improve things without making it excessively taxing on society."
Belén Barreiro adds that if 15-M showed the way forward, the subsequent deterioration of Spain's social and economic fabric has opened up a growing number of fronts.
 "Society is worse off now than it was a year-and-a-half ago, and the cuts keep affecting more areas, even the untouchable pillars," she says. 
A doctor in political science and sociology, Barreiro is talking about the foundations of the welfare state - health, education and pensions, entitlements that should be defended by the left but also by broad sectors of  "a Catholic right with a strong sense of solidarity."

In any case, after five years of crisis the situation has become unbearable for growing numbers of people.
The jobless rate has jumped from 21 percent a year ago to 25 percent at the present moment, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE).
For the first time in 25 years, Spain has surpassed the record figure of two million people with no jobs and no unemployment checks.
There are nearly 1.7 million households that have all their members unemployed, 312,700 more than a year ago.
Pensioners have become the main providers of income in thousands of homes, but family support, that traditional cushion that Spaniards could always fall back on at times of need, is starting to wear out, warn the experts and retired people now have to face more expenses than ever before, such as co-payment for prescription medicines.

And those are not the only consumer goods that have gone up in price. The government has raised both income tax and value-added tax. It has increased college tuition fees and daycare center rates, reduced the number of scholarships that it grants, fired teachers, and sent home workers in the public health sector, social services and the justice system.

"We are now in phase two of the adjustment. The bulk of the necessary adjustment to reduce the deficit is now complete, but we're still pending a purge in the public sector because of its excess size," says Sara Baliña, an economist at Analistas Financieros Internacionales, a consulting firm. "These measures create a lot of unrest because they have more direct repercussions.
 [...] Is the worst over? I hope so, but we don't believe that the economic situation, both in terms of GDP and of employment, is going to be normalized until late 2013."

Amaya Egaña, a 53-year-old woman who jumped to her death just as she was going to be evicted from her home in Barakaldo in early November, has become one of the symbols of the growing sense of despair in Spanish society.
Soon after that, the government announced a two-year moratorium on evictions for a few, very specific cases in which the homeowners in default were considered to be especially vulnerable.

For now, the legality of things is being questioned but there is no violence
"The decree against the evictions is insufficient and it leaves a lot of people out, but it is a small victory and that's why people trust us," says Adrià Alemany of the PAH, who is a great defender of civil disobedience.

His association and a like-minded group called Stop Desahucios have managed to stop nearly 500 evictions. "It is these small battles that open up a different horizon of possibilities," adds Alemany.
 "In 2009, when our organization was born, we were preaching in the desert; in the last few months, we have become a popular cry. Things have been achieved, and people have realized that protesting does help effect change."

A major step forward was the recent incorporation of judges - from the most progressive to the most conservative - into the protest against the abuse of home evictions.
 In a rarely seen gesture, Spain's justices denounced the defenselessness of evictees, since the law does not allow the judge to decide whether the payment arrears have justified causes or not.
Soon after, judges, lawyers and attorneys criticized the new legal fees introduced by the government, which they said will hurt citizens. Authorities say the goal is to end the backlog created by excess litigation.
 "They cannot relieve our workload by reducing citizens' access to justice," explains Joaquim Bosch, spokesman for Judges for Democracy, a progressive judges' association. "The court fees and the evictions have shaken judges out of their world. With the crisis, we were seeing more eviction cases in court and witnessing the defenselessness of the defendants compared with the lenders."
These protests come at a very tense moment between the judicial establishment and the justice minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, who has enacted more cuts and put a freeze on new court positions even though the courthouses are overflowing with cases.

Western society needs to consider that stability is not guaranteed
And so every other day a new group of people is joining the protests.

 Associations representing disabled persons have organized a big march in Madrid this Sunday to complain about the regional and local governments' failure to extend them the disability checks to which they are entitled.

Meanwhile, long-running conflicts keep flaring up now and then. One of these is in the education sector, which suffered billions of euros of cuts in 2010 and from which an April 2012 decree is set to slash another three billion euros. After many months of isolated protests over regional cuts, the movement has coalesced into a more unified group with greater visibility.

In Madrid, it has been teachers who, since mid-2011, have spearheaded protests that resulted in what later became known as "the green tide."
This led to a rainbow of "tides" in the demonstration that united thousands of people on Madrid's streets on September 15: there was a white tide for the health sector, a black one for public services, a violet one for equality, and an orange one for the social services.

The fact that the march was organized by 230 groups may be the single most illustrative example of a social mobilization that includes unions, political parties, long-standing associations and newly created ones of all shapes and sizes.

Professor Kaplún says that besides the speed and breadth of the cuts - "There is a middle class that is becoming impoverished at lightning speed, and inequalities are growing at the same rate," he notes - there is growing disgruntlement at the fact that "the losses are not being shared out: a few continue to earn more and more while the majority gets increasingly poorer." Amid all this, the political class seems to be bound to economic interests. "The contrast between the bank bailouts and the cuts is increasingly blatant," he says.

  • 15-M. A spontaneous, diffuse movement resulted in the occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid on May 15, 2011. For months, the general discontent over spending cuts and the mismanagement of Spain's democratic institutions took the shape of very varied public debates; the protest eventually simmered down and morphed into neighborhood projects and other initiatives.
  •  Evictions. Since 2007 there have been 350,000 foreclosures. A groundswell of protest gelled around the groups Stop Desahucios and Platform for those Affected by Mortgages, forcing the government to make a move, even if many people consider that move insufficient. Judges have also spoken out in defense of evictees.
  • Education. The education cuts are measured in billions of euros and the government is forecasting a 10 billion-euro reduction between 2010 and 2015. The last year has seen two milestones: a complete strike at all levels, from pre-school to university, on May 22, and a parent strike to support the student stoppage on October 18.
  • Health. The health cuts total upwards of 10 billion euros in three years (including the upcoming cuts of 2013). To this must be added plans to privatize health services in several regions. In recent weeks, Madrid has spearheaded the protests, with a major strike this week.
  • Social services. Social workers and the neediest people have seen the Dependents Law budget lose nearly 500 million euros in two back-to-back blows. Meanwhile, the budget for basic social services at the local level has dwindled by 65 percent in two years.
  • Equality. The outlays have been reduced by 13 million euros over the last two years, and are now down to 18.9 million euros. The fight against domestic abuse has also lost financial support.
  • Justice. The new fees for starting court proceedings have gotten judges angry. The fees range from 100 euros for claiming an outstanding debt to 1,200 euros for appealing to the Supreme Court. Penal jurisdiction and cases of abuse are exempt from paying fees.
  • Public servants. They lost their Christmas bonus and their wages will be frozen in 2013 for the third year in a row.
  • Culture. The cuts to the 2013 budget are 30 percent, putting the entire sector on the warpath. Value-added tax has ballooned from eight percent to 21 percent for movie, theater, concert and exhibition tickets.

Barreiro also talks about the frustration of many Popular Party (PP) voters who were convinced the conservative party "held the key to get out of the crisis" yet have found that "things are not better but actually worse."

All of which increases the call to action, even more so if this action is seen to bear fruit, as in the case of the eviction moratorium.

 "As the crisis starts affecting more and more sectors, people are becoming increasingly aware that they can make a difference and that resignation is no longer an option," says Jordi Mir of the Center for the Study of Social Movements at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. "The situation is growing dire because there are no elements to indicate that things are going to improve; representative democracy is failing, and the mobilization drive is recruiting population sectors that were traditionally less active, both among the young and the old.  For now, the legality of things is being questioned, but there is no violent confrontation, the protests are peaceful."

The crisis of the political parties is one of the factors at the heart of these grassroots protests. For the PP, the loss of potential voter support is happening fast and hard, to the extent that only 56 percent of those who voted for the conservatives just a year ago continue to back them, according to figures gathered by José Félix Tezanos in the latest issue of Temas magazine. And in a further unusual development, this fall by the party in power is not resulting in a popularity rise for the main opposition party.

Tezanos says he is concerned about a situation that does not yet have a predictable end result. "We are headed toward a period of great conflict and loss of power for the political parties," he warns. "Western society needs to think about the fact that stability is not guaranteed."

The sociologist says that parties must confront this situation, or else "we are faced with non-viable societies where discontent can hardly be channeled," leaving the door open for extremist and populist movements. "And if the government were to consider the protests a public order problem and bring out the riot police, this peaceful movement could turn violent."

All the experts agree that social action will only grow.
 "This will not end with a demand for a return to the way things used to be; going back is not possible.
 This is going to result in a new model of society," says Tezanos. "I don't know what that model will be, but I think there are only two ways out: through the extreme right or through the left."

El País in English - 9th December 2012