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“Toma la Plaza”: Frustration with Unemployment, Budget Cuts Fuels Grassroots Protests in Spain

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Tens of thousands of Spanish protesters are demonstrating across the country calling for better economic opportunities, a more representative electoral system, and an end to political corruption. The pro-democracy protests started on May 15 in Madrid when people gathered in the central plaza to advocate for change, calling the budding movement “Toma la Plaza,” or “Take the Square.” In the past week, protests have spread to more than a dozen cities across Spain. The country has the highest unemployment rate in Europe — nearly half of its population under 30 years old is jobless. Protesters are sustaining their decentralized movement through donations of food, fuel and even computers. Daily assemblies democratically vote on all decisions, and local committees are assigned different tasks, from cleanup operations to legal affairs. We speak with independent journalist Maria Carrion and protest spokesperson Ivan Martinoz in Madrid. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Madrid, Spain, where the central square, known as Puerta del Sol, has become an urban encampment for tens of thousands of protesters. They are calling for better economic opportunities, a more representative electoral system, and an end to political corruption.

ALEJANDRO, unemployed electronic engineer: [translated] I hope this changes our situation and that we improve our quality of life. We have a right to regular jobs, a future and a decent salary, to more opportunities in life, the chance to get a house, to pay for that house, without being enslaved, but especially a better quality of life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The protests started on May 15th and have since spread to more than a dozen cities across Spain. The country has the highest unemployment rate in Europe. Nearly half of its population under 30 is jobless.

AMY GOODMAN: The protests continued this past weekend despite a ban on demonstrations the day before local elections. Spain’s conservative party made major gains over the Socialist incumbent, but protesters remain undeterred. They’re sustaining their decentralized movement through donations of food, fuel, and even computers. Daily assemblies democratically vote on all decisions, and local committees are assigned different tasks, from cleanup operations to legal affairs.

To further discuss the protests in Spain, as well as Sunday’s local elections, we turn now to two guests in Madrid by Democracy Now! video stream. We are joined by Maria Carrion, independent journalist, who is a former producer of Democracy Now! And we’re joined by Ivan Martinoz, a spokesperson for the pro-democracy movement, Toma la Plaza, Take the Square.

It’s great to have you both with us. Maria, why don’t you lay out the big picture so people in the United States and around the world understand what has been happening in Spain, the significance of this movement, and what it’s called?

MARIA CARRION: Well, it has many names. One of them is Take the Plaza. Another one Democracia Ya, or Democracia Real Ya, Real Democracy Now.

And what has been going on in Spain — you very well pointed it out — is that there’s a massive unemployment rate. Five million people are unemployed, and a large percentage of them are really young people. The crisis, the economic crisis, has really affected all aspects of society. And the Socialist government has panicked, and basically it’s trying to avoid a Portugal or a Greece-like bailout, or an Ireland-like bailout. And it’s doing so by cutting back tremendously on social welfare programs, on education, on a number of key things that the Socialists ran on and that people expected.

And so, as a result, people have taken to the streets, they have organized, and they’ve almost turned their backs on the political system. The political system is broken. The elections on Sunday proved that, because a party that basically ran on no platform, which is the conservative PP, swept through municipal and regional elections, won almost everything, and based on nothing, and also with a large number of candidates who are being either investigated or tried for corruption. So, young people have taken to the squares, not only in Puerta del Sol, but almost everywhere in Spain. And the movement is even spreading beyond Spain, because we’re really sharing the same global situation. People are saying, no matter what happened on Sunday, the entire system has to change, not just — this is not just about two-party system, because the two main parties are really not responding to people’s needs.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Maria, how did this change occur, given the fact that when the Socialists came in, José Luis Zapatero, after those terrorist bombings in Spain, there was so much hope; and he withdrew troops from Iraq, the Spanish troops from Iraq; he attempted to institute — well, he did institute gay marriage and gender equality? What happened to the Socialist government that it became so distant from its own people?

MARIA CARRION: Well, part of what happened is really that all these agencies, like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, and so on, began to go after the Spanish debt and talk about how Spain is not — you know, was not going to be able to sustain its social spending. And together with the IMF, really has been — they have been asking the Spanish government to make cuts. And I think Zapatero panicked. And, you know, he’s dealing with massive, massive unemployment, in large part caused by the housing bubble, because a lot of people who are out in the street now with no jobs were in construction and were in other aspects of the economy that were sustained by this housing bubble. So they began to basically institute conservative economic policies.

So they started off on a good note, in the sense of some social programs like gay marriage and like withdrawing the troops from Iraq. But at the same time, you know, their economic policy is cutting back on pensions, raising the age for — you know, to be eligible for a pension. You know, basically pensions are going to be cut by 20 percent because of these reforms. You know, they began to disconnect from their own electorate.

As a result, what you find with these elections is that the PP hasn’t so much gone up as the Socialists have gone down tremendously and lost many, many votes. Some of those votes actually have gone to smaller parties, like the Izquierda Unida, which is to the left of the Socialist party. A lot of them were blank votes. Almost a million people decided to cast a protest vote and just vote blank. And some people stayed home. And so, you know, I think that, you know, listening to the IMF and listening to these agencies that are saying the only way to get out of crisis is to cut social spending, cut social spending, while not resolving the unemployment problem, has created this disconnect between the population and government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me bring in Ivan Martinoz. The influence on the young people who are protesting, the impact of what’s been going on in the Arab world, especially Tunisia, which has always had close relationships with Spain, could you talk about that, as well?

IVAN MARTINOZ: Yeah. Obviously, it’s not the same situation in Spain as in the Arab countries. I have to say, we have freedom, or a certain amount of freedom here. But what has affected us is the spontaneity of the people over there, that it’s probably the same that has happened over here in Spain. People feel outraged by the political class. That’s something I’d like to say, because we believe, in our movement, this is not against the Zapatero government or the PSOE. This is against the whole political class. We’ve come to a point in which we don’t feel represented by them, which is what we pay them for. And we have seen that it’s not a matter of asking them to represent us or to tell them to please do what they should do, but we have to force them, because they, on their own, are not going to do what they have to do.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re watching pictures of tens of thousands of people who have taken over the square. Ivan, can you talk about how the mobilization took place? And what are the countries that have inspired you?

IVAN MARTINOZ: Well, this is not truly inspired by anything, as long as it was absolutely spontaneous. There was a — as Maria said, there was a demonstration that took place on the 15th of May, and at the end of that demonstration, a couple people decided to stay camped in Puerta del Sol. I’m talking just about 200 people the first day. They were kicked out of the plaza violently by the police. And many people just the next morning went there to see what was going on. And that was considered a new demonstration and was forbidden by the government. So, what happened then is that spontaneously, spontaneously, everyone said, “Well, how can we not demonstrate? How can we not say what the lack of our systems are? How can we not ask for our rights?” And that was the beginning of it all.

That created an horizontal, non-vertical assembliary movement in which everyone is a mutual — an eventual volunteer. Of course, it needs a huge — a lot of organization. Many of our energies are focused at the beginning on that organization. But due to the goodwill of the people, to the logic of all the movement, and mostly the level that we, as citizens, are approaching, our consciousness are being awakened. And that makes us move in any way. We are mostly pacific ones, a pacific movement. We are — we want to be legal. This is not a fight against the system or the government. The system is wrong at this moment and needs to be changed. Politicians are not going to do it, so we have to force them to do it. And the way to organize all the people, all the tens of thousands of people in the Puerta del Sol and in all of the main cities in Spain, which is over 30 demonstrations taking place now, is just a good organization and horizontal one. I mean, we don’t want any pyramidal organization in which we have a leader you can look at, because that’s not the point of it, of this. This is the people standing against something that they feel — they really feel — it’s not worth, it’s not fair. And it’s our right, is to get something better. That’s about it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ivan, Ivan, I’d like to ask you about the role of the Spanish trade unions while all of these austerity measures of the Zapatero government were being implemented. What were the trade unions, supposedly representing the interests of the workers, doing during this time?

IVAN MARTINOZ: At the end, as I said before, this political system we have, in which we include the trade unions, it’s a very dark one. It’s a political system that gives the back to the people. So, at the end, what the people in the street think in Spain about the trade unions is that they haven’t been representing them anymore. They have just been dealing with the enterprisers and just negotiating with them, so that all of them can get as more as they can, and of course forgetting about the people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how is this expected to play out? What is the list of demands that you have made — as you talk about people in the square doing things democratically, food is being brought in — and also the role of social media in all of this, Ivan?

IVAN MARTINOZ: Well, we have — at the moment, we have general reunions every day, in which all the new points are considered and decided. At the moment, we are working on four main points, which is a renewal of the election law, which would end up in each vote meaning the vote and the voice of one person; more control of the corruption, not only in the political area, but in all the high areas of our society; the true separation of powers, because, as you all know, in Spain, and probably most of the world, but we’re talking about Spain now, all the law power is very related to the political parties. So we find that every four years, when we get a new government, a new political party in the government, all the judges, the top sides of the — top parts of the judges, are just on the side of the politics. So we have no real separations of powers. And we do want — I mean, it’s not that we want; it’s that we are going to have a real separation of powers.

And the fourth one is control over the politicians. It’s very usual and very harmful to see in Spain, whenever you see a Congress meeting, to see more than half of the seats empty. We pay the politicians to represent us, and they have to go to the Congress. They have to tell us what they decide, and they have to let us decide for ourselves. It’s not of them. So, if one politician doesn’t go one day to work — we see it in the camera, because we’ve got the meanings, we’ve got the technology — he doesn’t get paid. That’s — it’s as simple as that. It’s the same as happens with me, as with everyone else.

Those are the four points we are working at the moment. We have working commissions right now working on them. And tomorrow, Friday, we are having a general meeting to put them all together, all what they have decided. And on Saturday, we are going to start meetings in every neighborhood and every town of Spain. Only in Madrid, which, you know, in terms of space, it’s a small space of Spain — only Madrid, there will be 250 meetings on Saturday, after which, on Sunday, will come back — well, the camp will still be in the Puerta del Sol, and all the people from these neighborhood extensions meetings will come, and we will put together all this infrastructure so we can go on and, as I said, not ask the politicians to do what they should have done much earlier, but force them to do it, because they are not going to do it by themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Ivan Martinoz, we want to thank you for joining us. Ivan Martinoz is the spokesperson for the pro-democracy movement in Spain. And Maria Carrion, a former Democracy Now! producer, independent journalist.

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