March 30, 2012 < Previous Entry | Next Entry >

General Strike in Spain: Report from Madrid on Growing Anti-Austerity Protests

Workers in Spain staged a general strike Thursday, shutting down factories and parts of the transportation sector and holding massive marches. The strike was called by two major trade unions to protest labor rules that make it less costly for employers to hire and fire people in a country where unemployment is near 23 percent. We speak to former Democracy Now! producer María Carrión, an independent freelance journalist based in Madrid, Spain.

AMY GOODMAN: Workers in Spain staged a general strike on Thursday, shutting down factories and parts of the transportation sector, holding massive marches. The strike was called by two major trade unions to protest labor rules that make it less costly for employers to hire and fire people in a country where unemployment is near 23 percent. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is expected to deliver a budget today that includes some $26 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes.

To talk more about the situation in Spain, we’re joined by María Carrión. She is an independent freelance journalist based in Madrid. She’s a former Democracy Now! producer

It’s great to have you back, María.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you flew in just before the major strikes hit the airlines of Spain. Talk about what’s happening there.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, in November, we got a new conservative government, so the Socialist Zapatero was ousted from power. And he didn’t even run for a third term, because his ratings were so bad because of the deep social cuts that he had to enact. And this was all because of, you know, the directives of the European Union and the troika, as they’re called, which includes the IMF. So now we have a conservative government. We have a deep economic crisis. We have 5.3 million people out of jobs. And the rate, which is 23 percent, is expected to go up. And among young people, over half are unemployed. So you have also a massive exodus of young people leaving the country and going to Germany and other places in search for work.

So this is the perfect scenario for a conservative government to do what it could never have done a few years ago, which is to privatize, which is to come up with a new labor law that basically makes it very inexpensive to hire and fire. And Rajoy keeps talking about, you know, this is in the benefit of the unemployed, the 5.3 million, but there’s no sense that more people will be hired. In fact, the—what we’re seeing is that, you know, a lot of companies have waited for this law in order to begin to fire people. And even the government is recognizing that next year we may face an unemployment rate of 25 percent. So these protests are a result of this new law. The PP, the governing party, has absolute majority, which means they don’t need to really negotiate with any other political party.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, how did this happen? I mean, you had the movement before Occupy Wall Street, the indignados, the thousands of people that took to the streets, and then the Socialist prime minister is out.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, this movement, which grew out of a total indignation, happened during Zapatero’s presidency as a result of these deep social cuts. Zapatero spent the first four years, basically, enacting progressive policies and financing social spending that was needed in Spain, and then the economic crisis hit. So, for the past few years, not only has he had to backtrack on a lot of these promises, but also enact terribly deep social cuts. And that has led to, you know, young people saying, "We don’t have a future here in Spain anymore."

So these social movements and the indignados that rose up, and that were parallel or even a little before Occupy Wall Street, took the streets, but they never endorsed any other political candidate or party. And this citizen movement must be seen in a—out of a political context, outside of the two political parties, main political parties, and even some of the other political parties. This is a citizen movement that is no longer so visible in the streets. It has gone into the neighborhoods. It is now active, for instance, stopping evictions from taking place. Any time there is an imminent eviction, there they are, and they stand between the police and the families.

AMY GOODMAN: This is very similar to what’s happening in the United States.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: It is. And in fact, what happened—this has been going on in Spain before it happened in the U.S. And there was an international committee that took place—or a big meeting that took place during the occupation in Spain over the summer, and it was an international committee that wanted to internationalize this model of movement. And a lot of people that participated in Occupied Wall Street were part of this. So, you see these—you know, these movements coming here.

Will Occupy Wall Street influence the elections in the United States? Occupy Spain didn’t influence the elections. What they’re saying is they want deeper social transformation. This is not about the political parties, because the political parties are doing what Europe wants them to do and what the IMF wants them to do. They’re not really paying attention to alternative models.

AMY GOODMAN: I think most people will be surprised to hear that the unemployment rate in Spain is worse than in Greece.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Far worse. When you have over half of the young people between the ages of 18 and 23 unemployed, it is serious. People are moving back into their parents’ homes. People are not having children, young people. You have a situation where maybe someone with three higher degrees cannot find a job, even like washing dishes in a restaurant. So it’s very serious.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who Rajoy is, how he came to be in power?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, Rajoy has been the perpetual PP candidate for presidency, and he has lost every single election until now. And what he’s done, basically, is just waited. The first two elections he lost because Zapatero—the first time Zapatero won was right after the March 11th attacks, and the PP lying about the authors of these terrorist attacks and saying it had been—

AMY GOODMAN: Saying? Remind us.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, this was al-Qaeda bombing several commuter trains in Madrid in 2004, and the PP government, because it had gone to war in Iraq—

AMY GOODMAN: And this was Aznar.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: This was Aznar. President Aznar, who supported the Iraq war and who went the Azores with Bush and Blair, basically did not want the public to know, because these bombings took place three days before the elections, the general elections, did not want people to think that these bombings might have been related to a stance on the war. And so, the government tried to cover it up by saying it was the Basque independence movement, ETA, that had authored these attacks. Once the lies were exposed, there was a social clamor. And the day before the elections, there was a huge demonstration in front of PP headquarters. And Rajoy, who had been expected to win the elections—he was sort of the Aznar protégé selected to take over from him—lost. And Zapatero came to power.

AMY GOODMAN: And Zapatero’s first promise was to pull the troops out of Iraq.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: And he did. And for the next—well, his entire presidency, he was basically ignored by the United States. Bush would never want to talk to him. It was a big deal for him, because it almost was like he had become the persona non grata for the United States, and he was afraid that it would affect all kinds of things like commerce with the U.S., etc. But yes, he pulled the troops out of Iraq. And for the first few years, Spain was doing well, in the sense that there were a lot of progressive social policies. The second time—the second elections, Rajoy lost again against Zapatero. Zapatero was still very popular at the time.

So, Rajoy was able to win these elections because the situation in Spain is catastrophic, and anyone in power would have lost the elections. And in fact, you know, Rajoy was told, "Shut your mouth. Don’t say anything about what you would do to resolve the crisis." It’s just let Zapatero basically disintegrate, and whoever takes over from him—and his former interior minister, Rubalcaba, was the Socialist candidate—will lose automatically, because people are so discontented. And the left was demobilized. And so, a lot of people who usually voted Socialist, in November, did not—either stayed home or voted for United Left, which is a more progressive political party.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you see happening now? The significance of this mass protest that’s taking place today in Spain?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Unfortunately, this government does not need any kind of political consensus to enact any policy that they want. So Rajoy privately told his colleagues at the European Union in a meeting—and this was caught on one of those mics that was left on—saying, "I totally expect a general strike to take place, but it’s not going to matter. I’m going to continue with my policies." And that’s basically what’s going to happen on a political level in Spain.

On a social level, upheaval. Hopefully, the indignados will continue to press on. And I think that their role in society is very important, because now that we’re facing cuts in education and basic medical services and that people are being evicted, the indignados are there to remind society of what is happening on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Baltasar Garzón, the crusading judge in Spain—we followed the trial of the judge himself. You have been covering this for a long time, what is happening in Spain. I mean, he took on Pinochet. He took on the Bush administration around war crimes. He also took on September 11th. Talk about his history, but what it was—what was the fatal blow to his position in Spain, what he dared to take on at home?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, Garzón, as you know, has inspired universal justice, the concept that any crime against humanity can be tried outside of the country where it is committed, if the country itself does not investigate and prosecute. And that’s what he did with Pinochet. After many, many years of inaction in Chile, he said, "Well, I’m going to go after Pinochet," and had him arrested in London. Garzón has continued on this crusade. The only good thing about the whole situation now is that Garzón is out of the judiciary because of his investigation of Franco crimes, but he has left a legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Franco, the former general—

MARÍA CARRIÓN: The former dictator of Spain.

AMY GOODMAN: —dictator of Spain.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people died under his reign, and how long did he rule for?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Millions died. I’m not sure about the exact amount. Many people were disappeared, too. And the problem is that the disappeared have not—a lot of them have not been found. And that’s what he wanted to do. There are survivors. Even though Franco died in 1975, and many of these crimes took place over 60 years ago, 70 years ago, there are people who remember their mothers and their fathers being taken away and disappeared. This was a brutal civil war, and with brutal repression during the dictatorship, mass graves all over Spain. And what has happened is that these families have formed these associations, and they are the associations that brought the case before Garzón. And Garzón said, "They have not gotten relief in any court in Spain. I’m going to try to investigate, see what happened to these people."

That was too much for the conservative judiciary. You have to think that Supreme Court justices, a lot of them swore their loyalty to Franco. They are the remnants of the conservative fascist courts that we used to have. And they decided to put a stop to it, so they initiated a series of investigations against Garzón. He was actually acquitted in the trial on his Franco investigations, where he was being accused of abuse of power. But he was convicted on another case involving the taping, the wiretapping, of conversations between a corrupt network associated with the governing party and their lawyers. So, he’s been ousted from the judiciary.

Now, many judges remain in the national court in Spain, the court responsible for trying these crimes against humanity—against humanity, who continue doing Garzón’s work. So there’s a judge, for instance, who has taken on the Guatemala genocide case. And recently, General Ríos Montt was arrested in Guatemala. And that’s a direct result of these investigations going on in Spain. Once these investigations take place and the arrest orders take place, a lot of the countries begin to act and begin to bring these people to justice. And I think that’s Garzón’s legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: He will try to get back into the judiciary? He’s appealing?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: He’s appealing. It’s difficult, because he was ousted by the Supreme Court, and technically, there’s no place to appeal in Spain. But he is a very good judge. He knows the judiciary well. And he knows how to get around it. The problem is that I think, from the start, there is a policy of not allowing him back. So I doubt very much that he’s going to find relief in Spain. I think he’s going to have to go to the European Court of Human Rights for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, María, you’re in the United States promoting a film festival that’s taking place in the Western Sahara. Can you just tell us what is happening in the Western Sahara? And then tell us about the significance of this film festival.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, Amy, I think Democracy Now! is one of the few media outlets even talking about the Western Sahara. I think most people—most Americans don’t know where it is or what it is. It’s Africa’s last colony. It was occupied—well, there was a brutal military invasion by Morocco when Spain, the former colonist, stepped out. They gave the green light, along with Henry Kissinger, for this invasion to take place. And the Western Sahara is south of Morocco. There are a lot of natural resources, and Morocco had a huge interest in occupying and incorporating it into its country. As a result of the brutal invasion, over 100,000 people fled on foot.

AMY GOODMAN: When did it take place?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: This was in 1976. So the refugees went to Algeria to one of the most remote—one of the most remote parts of the world, the Sahara Desert. And they set up refugee camps and a parallel society, and even a parallel government in exile that has been acknowledged by many countries, including South Africa, for instance. And they subsist, and they survive. And the problem is that there’s a stalemate at the U.N. Security Council. There have been resolutions calling for a referendum on self-determination. But Morocco has refused to hold the referendum, and because of its powerful allies at the council, including France and the United States, they continue to avoid making a final decision. And in the Western Sahara, there is tremendous brutality. It is truly a military occupation, in every way possible. There’s a U.N. delegation there that is supposed to be overseeing the preparations for the referendum. Their offices are surrounded by Moroccan military perpetually, and Moroccan flags have been planted around the U.N. delegation. And it’s supposed to have a human rights mandate, and it does not, because the Security Council won’t allow it. So that’s the situation.

The film festival is an attempt to bring some entertainment and culture and education into the camps. And it’s held every year. Spanish filmmakers like Javier Bardem have supported it. And I’m here in the United States to let people know that it exists and that it needs support.

AMY GOODMAN: When is it taking place?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: This year, it’s May 1st to 6th.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s films about the Western Sahara and also other films.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Other films, as well. So they get to see everything, from comedies to dramas. But, of course, all films that are made about the Western Sahara, and even by the refugees themselves, are screened. And this takes place at night on this huge screen under the stars. And it’s this—I went to the first one, and one of the first films they showed—I forget the name of it, but it’s a beautiful documentary on bird migration that was done a few years ago. And the sense that these refugees in the middle of the desert all of a sudden were flying over the North Pole and over all these oceans—and these are, you know, people who often have never seen the sea before—was just magnificent.

AMY GOODMAN: And there is a film school that has been set up for people to document what is happening in the Western Sahara?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Yes. That was established last year. So now the young Sahrawis, and especially women, because this has a—the school has a 85 to 90 percent female enrollment, can document their own stories. They can produce fiction and documentaries at the same time. They use them as educational tools. And it’s fledgling, but it’s at least a permanent production. It’s something that—it does not go away when the festival goes away.

AMY GOODMAN: María Carrión, thanks so much. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.