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Spain’s Bolivarian Revolution (Part One)

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Spain’s Bolivarian Revolution

The recent European Elections has more than lived up to its billing as top notch entertainment, even if the EU Presidential debates did not. There was plenty of excitement, with Nigel Farage delivering his usual theatrical performance; there was tragedy as France practically went into mourning following the blow-out performance by Marine Le Pen’s odious National Front; and now we have the farce of David Cameron and Angela Merkel horse trading for the EU’s top job, which was supposed to be “democratically” given to the front-runner of the winning parliamentary party.

However, no country has provided more entertainment in these elections than Spain. The elections have been particularly bloody here, already claiming two victims: Alfredo Rubalcaba, the leader of the Socialist Workers Party, which was bludgeoned in the polls; and now Juan Carlos de Borbón, who as King of Spain doesn’t even stand for election or have a party. But the King’s abdication is nonetheless directly attributable to the electoral massacre suffered by the “victorious” People’s Party and Socialist Workers Party, who have suffered the largest electoral slide in Spanish history.

The Spanish monarch got out while the getting was good: in addition to having driven the popularity of the royal institution into the ground – with help from his forgetful daughter – the Bourbon scion needed to ensure that his son’s coronation, and his own lifetime immunity from prosecution, was in the hands of well-disposed politicians, like Messrs. Rajoy and Rubalcaba. The next Socialist leader after the summer might be a republican; and the next head of government might be one too after the 2016 general election.

victims

Yet these were not the most surprising developments. Mr. Rubalcaba had served in the Zapatero Administration as a Deputy Prime Minister and suffered a landslide defeat[1] at the hands of the current PM, Mariano Rajoy. Calls had gone out after those elections over 2 years ago for him to resign and let new blood into the top spot of the party. Similarly, Juan Carlos has been under similar pressure to vacate the throne at least since his major gaffe in 2012 when he was caught on a secret elephant safari with his German lover in Botswana after breaking his hip.

The real shocker was the utterly unexpected electoral success of Pablo Iglesias and his Podemos Party. “Podemos” means “We Can” in Spanish, perhaps borrowing somewhat from President Obama’s successful 2008 electoral slogan. Mr. Iglesias has tapped into the repressed anger, institutional disenchantment, fear and rage of millions of Spaniards who have been victimized by the Spanish housing bubble and resulting crisis; the millions who have slid into extreme poverty while their politicians wallowed in the mud of corruption scandal after corruption scandal; of those told they are too lazy to work when they balk at the infamous temporary contracts now prevalent in Spain while the number of millionaires in Spain grows by 13% per year[2]. Mr. Iglesias’ party won 5 seats and over 1.2 million votes on a shoe-string budget and having never before contested an election. The United Left candidate, Willy Meyer, gained an extra million votes over his 2009 performance. If we then consider that the mainstream PP and PSOE parties contrived to lose 5.1 million votes between them, the scope of the disaster begins to become clear.

podemos

Politicians might play down the importance of the European elections, at least when it is convenient; but the alarm bells were chiming in Calle Génova and Ferraz[3] all week long. The depth of fear of these parties and their supporters can be gauged by the visceral reaction against the insurgents, especially against Mr. Iglesias. So far, Mr. Iglesias has been accused of being a disciple of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, with Trotsky thrown in for good measure; of being pro-separatist and pro-ETA; of being a tool of Iran’s Ayatollahs; of being on the payroll of the Venezuelan government[4].

Much of this is probably true. Mr. Iglesias works for Producciones Con Mano Izquierda (“Left Hand Productions”), which lists him on their website as Director of Content and Creativity[5]. He is also a presenter on the show “Fort Apache”, a live debate forum on Spanish-language broadcaster HispanTV, which is owned by Iranian public television (also affirmed on the website)[6]. Mr. Iglesias has worked for and is on the Board of the Center for Political and Social Studies (CEPS)[7], a Spanish NGO based in Valencia, which has received funding from the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro to conduct research in that country. It should be noted that CEPS has been contracted by numerous Latin American countries, not just Venezuela.

None of which seems to have much relevance to anything. None of these details are secret: it took me all of 5 minutes to verify these facts through a Google search.  There are American journalists and politicians who have worked for or made appearances on Al Jazeera, Russian Times, China Central Television yet that does not make them stoolies or puppets of those organizations. More to the point, nothing that Mr. Iglesias is accused to have done is either illegal or unethical: it may be ideologically repugnant to the Spanish conservative class, but no laws have been broken.

Let’s call a spade a spade: Mr. Iglesias is currently the target of a right-wing smear job.  It is not even the first time the Spanish right has gone after some of these organizations: in 2008, the Spanish daily ABC accused CEPS and its executive director, Roberto Vinciano, of shadow writing the controversial Venezuelan constitutional reform[8], but was forced to retract that accusation in a subsequent article[9]. The new hatchet job is being run out of the same old papers: ABC for one, and online journal Periodista Digital. This last periodical is owned by Alfonso Rojo López, which is humorous, because Mr. Rojo is anything but a “red”. On the contrary, Mr. Rojo has a long career with ABC as a writer, with EsRadio of Federico Jiménez Losantos, and El Gato al Agua of Intereconomía; all of which are notably right-wing and conservative in their outlook.

podemos2

But if Mr. Iglesias is the target of a McCarthy-esque smear campaign, he is also dishing it out with gusto. Mr. Iglesias makes no effort to hide his contempt for mainstream politicians of both the People’s Party and the PSOE, calling them the “mayordomo’s of the wealthy”[10]. Regarding the (mostly) unfavorable media coverage that follows him, the Podemos candidate laughs scornfully and asks what you can expect from “the servile journalism of the media elite” which is the hands of the “rabid dogs of the extreme right.”[11] Mr. Iglesias makes no secret of his being a leftist nor in his disdain for the “traditional left” as represented by the Socialist Workers’ Party. He considers the PSOE to be little better than pro-monarchy, oligarchical sell-outs clothed in social democratic clothing. Given the PSOE’s support for the monarchy, the salaries of party leaders and the corruption scandals that afflict it in Andalucía, it is difficult to fault him for his opinion.

The new MEP has also expressed open support and admiration for less than democratic regimes like Castro’s Cuba, Maduro’s Venezuela, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. Closer to home, Mr. Iglesias has called for the nationalization of the Spanish financial system[12], the expropriation of all foreclosed bank properties to form a public housing pool, the closing of the revolving door between  public administration and private boards,  and a fiscal reform to increase taxes on the richest Spaniards.[13] Mr. Iglesias is not making this up as he goes along; these are ideas which gaining currency among the hardest hit segments of Spanish society. They are the ideas that formed the explosive anger in the Can Víes rioting; they are the ideas that led the Junta of Andalucía to expropriate some foreclosed properties and allocate them to the local dispossessed.

Podemos and Mr. Iglesias have been very ably tapping into this groundswell of anger and opposition to “the system”. Some of their ideas are very good: certainly closing the revolving door in the public administration would be a means of combating corruption and “amiguismo”. Increasing taxes on the rich, if not done in a punitive fashion, is necessary in Spain, which has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in Europe as well as one of the lightest tax burdens on wealth and highest levels of tax evasion as well. But what lies behind the “arguably sensible” policies appears to be nothing more than the old mantras of almost Soviet-style collectivization and expropriation which failed to achieve equality except in poverty. And his support for brutally authoritarian regimes – especially North Korea – is one that must raise eyebrows and provoke skepticism.

Mr. Iglesias clearly delights in the barking of the “rabid dogs of capitalism” and the more frenzied the better. Indeed, he has stated that if the dogs are barking, it is because he is doing a good job, and the right is worried[14]. And he is undoubtedly right: both the Spanish right and the center-left are very worried by the growing strength of Podemos and the United Left. What we should all be worried about is the emptying of the Spanish political center and the concentration of voters and parties in the political extremes. Podemos is one symptom, but the Spanish right is also dissatisfied with the current administration of the People’s Party and some conservatives have split off to form VOX, a party that defines itself as “economically liberal and morally conservative”.

linearalignment

A further cause of worry is the increased frequency in the use of alienation and hate speech as valid political messages. These tactics are not yet part of the mainstream discourse, but they are being heard more and more often on the political extremes. The verbal fusillade between Podemos and conservatives is one disturbing example; but the situation in Catalonia adds an additional dimension of complexity. Both sides accuse the other of “fascism,” using the word rather loosely to mean nationalistic intolerance; and there is palpable tension in the air. During the Can Víes disturbances last week, the Spanish National Police (CNP) dispatched 300 reinforcements to complement its regular contingent of police guarding public property in Barcelona. This provoked a sharp protest from the Generalitat; the additional CNP officers have since been withdrawn.

The Wheel Turns

The Catalan Republican Left defeated Convergence and Unity within Catalonia during the elections last weekend. The last time this happened was in 1931, when Francesc Maciá and Lluís Companys led the ERC to triumph in the municipal elections that year. On that day, they announced their intention of declaring an independent Catalonia, though they soon back-tracked in order to maintain solidarity with the other republican parties in Spain[15]. The triumph of the republican left across Spain in those municipal elections on 12 April and the proclamation of the Second Republic two days later caused King Alfonso XIII, the father of Juan Carlos I, to go into exile though he did not abdicate.

Interestingly enough, the next municipal elections in Spain are in May 2015.The referendum on Catalan independence is scheduled for 09 November 2014. Juan Carlos abdicated on 02 June. History never repeats itself, but it often moves along well-defined ruts. Just as the terrible economic conditions and institutional malaise led to a constitutional crisis in the 1930’s, so those same conditions are leading to another constitutional crisis later this year and early next year.

civilwar

We cannot push historical parallelism too far. There are many critical differences between the 1930’s and the 2010’s. Spain is a democracy today, whereas the Second Republic followed the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. Perhaps more importantly, Europe is also democratic: there are no rival totalitarian ideologies actively working to expand their geopolitical influence. Even the economic parallels are relatively weak. Spain has disastrously high unemployment, and both government austerity and the ongoing foreclosures are wildly unpopular, but the social welfare net has worked as designed for the moment. In the 1930’s, campesinos literally starved to death because the landowners preferred to let crops rot in the fields rather than pay the higher wages the field hands demanded[16], while industrial strikes were often put down with cavalry charges and infantry bayonets[17].

Nevertheless, the situation is dangerous enough that it ought to ring alarm bells in European capitals. The IMF has predicted that Spain’s unemployment rate will remain above 25% until 2018[18] and the latest data from the National Institute of Statistics provides little comfort. Despite some slight improvement in 2013, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly above 25% and might even be trending slightly upwards despite the fact that the Spanish economy has shed half a million workers in the same period. What this data doesn’t show is that more than half of the jobs being created are on temporary contracts, which pay less, have fewer benefits and offer less security to workers; they are not comparable to the full-time positions.

employment

Five years into the economic crisis, Spain faces an insurgent radical left, an increasingly motivated separatism in Catalonia and the Basque Country, and a constitutional crisis. What can we expect in 5 more years if the IMF is correct? Spain’s democracy is still relatively recent and untested: this crisis represents the first serious challenge since the transition. What needs to be done to stave off the challenge is clear enough:

  • End corruption and commit to greater transparency;
  • Create jobs;
  • Commit to a renegotiation of the social contract with all parties in Spain, especially the Basques and Catalans.

It is difficult to see how the government will be able to accomplish these tasks in the face of the entrenched interests in favor of the corrupt status quo, a ballooning public debt and demands for austerity from Europe, and domestic opposition to negotiation on the right. The answer is clear: Europe needs to take a larger role in helping Spain, before Spain takes on a larger role in collapsing Europe.

We are in for a very rocky road.


Sources and Notes:

 

[1] To be perfectly fair to Mr. Rubalcaba, if Jesus Christ himself had run on the Socialist ticket, I would still have lost the election.

[2] Álvaro Romero, “Stock market recovery helps boost number of millionaires in Spain by 13%,” El País in English, 09 October 2013

[3] Calle Génova is where the People’s Party has their headquarters while Calle Ferraz is where the Socialist Workers’ Party has its headquaters. Both streets are in Madrid.

[4] “Los papeles secretos que demuestran las mentiras de Pablo Iglesias y ‘Podemos’,” Periodista Digital, 23 May 2014

[5] Equipo, Producciones CMI

[6] Fort Apache, HispanTV: Nexo Latino

[7] Quienes Somos, Fundación Centro de Estudios Políticos y Sociales

[8] Isaac Blasco, “Un español que pertenció a Fuerza Nueva se convierte en el <> de Chávez,” ABC, 25 November 2007

[9] “Vinciano niega ser el <<cerebro gris>> de Cháves,” ABC, 14 January 2008

[10] Pedro Simón, “’Los mayordomos de los ricos son los que nos están gobernando’,” El Mundo, 27 May 2014

[11] Daniel Forcada, ““Si los perros de la extrema derecha nos señalan con rabia es que lo hacemos bien”, El Confidencial, 22 May 2014

[12] Aitor Riveiro, “Pablo Iglesias: “Estaría dispuesto, si los compañeros lo ven así, a presentarme a las generales””, El Diario, 19 May 2014

[13] See note 10.

[14] See note 11.

[15] All of the republican parties and leftist parties in Spain had agreed to form a unified front against a return to monarchy and reactionary dictatorship on 17 August 1930 in what was known as the Pact of San Sebastian.

[16]Paul Preston, “The Spanish Holocaust,” W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2012. ISBN 0-393-06476-X.

[17] In 1934, Asturian miners went on strike against the inhuman conditions they were subjected to. General Franco was ordered by the right-wing government of Alejandro Leroux to suppress what it considered a rebellion. This was accomplished with such brutal efficiency that it cost the lives of 2,000 miners and earned Franco the sobriquet of “Butcher of Asturias”

[18] Tobias Buck, “IMF forecasts alarming Spain unemployment outlook,” Financial Times, 02 August 2013

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