If there is one city in Europe that you would think is obviously run by a top flight, ambitious and business-oriented politician, you would think of Barcelona. Right.
Well, not altogether wrong, but not in the traditional sense of what one would expect.
Graeme McIver looks at the rise of Ada Colau, the new radical Mayoress of Barcelona, who has moved from the Spanish occupy movement to occupying the highest civic post in the Catalan Capital.
by Graeme McIver (September 2015)
“With very few resources and with very little money, we achieved victory in the elections of such an important city as Barcelona. But partly it was not surprising, because there’s a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change. We have serious political problems here in Barcelona and in the entire country, and so there was a need for change, which you could see in the streets There are problems related to the economic crisis, but this economic crisis is a consequence of a political crisis, of a profound democratic crisis. We’ve had a form of government where the political elites had a cozy relationship with the economic elites who have ruined the economy of the country, and the ultimate representation of this was the behavior of the financial institutions, of the banks. They’ve defrauded thousands and thousands of people with abusive mortgages. They’ve evicted thousands of families, and they’ve ruined the country’s economy. And this has happened because of the cozy relationship between the political and economic elites…”
[Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona]
Outside the Ajuntament de Barcelona in the Plaza Sant Juame a handful of protestors gather each day. Some are there to highlight animal rights issues, some are Catalan Nationalists with their petitions, leaflets and newspapers whilst others raise global environmental issues. One is a middle-aged man who sits quietly by himself. People glance at his placards as they hurry past and every now and then someone pauses, spends a bit more time reading and then offers an encouraging word or two whilst dropping small change into his cup. His hand-made sign states. “I Feel Shame.” On another piece of cardboard he lists his employment history and qualifications. A public CV. He has 20 years computing experience, speaks Spanish, Catalan, English and German and is learning French. He has experience of working in the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, the University, in publicity and an accountancy business. He is unemployed and cannot find a job. There are many like him in Spain.
Before the economic crash of 2007/08 the national employment rate was around 8%. By 2012 it was 25%. Although there has been a slight reduction in recent months the figure remains above 20%. Amongst young people the figures are even higher. In 2007 youth unemployment was around 17%. By 2013 it had reached an all-time high of 55.9%. In July 2015 when I visited Barcelona the figure was 48%. The Spanish economy, heavily dependent as it was on tourism and property, collapsed following the crisis of 2008. Subsequent Governments implemented some of the harshest austerity measures of any of European member state in a bid to arrest the decline. It didn’t work. Whilst there has been recent modest increases in growth and a reduction in unemployment even right wing economists fear that the economy of Spain remains an accident waiting to happen.
Another consequence of the collapse of the economy has been the exodus of young people from Spain, the “lost” generation. Hundreds of thousands have left already with an incredible 25,000 Spanish young people estimated to be in Berlin alone. They claim they did not leave as such, instead they were forced out in search of work. “No nos vamos, nos echan” cries the exiled youth of Spain.
I met with Maria Dumenjo, a Doctor who lives in a Northern suburb of the city. Maria studied medicine at the University in Barcelona and now brings up her own children in the city of her birth. She explains that public sector workers in Spain have borne the brunt of successive Governments austerity policies.
She tells me public sector workers have suffered and continue to endure a 20% across the board pay cut, a reduction in holiday entitlement and attacks on other conditions and employment benefits.
“My colleagues and I lost thousands of Euro’s almost overnight. I know many doctors and other medical practitioners who have left Spain to work abroad. I have considered moving also but my life is here, my family is here, I don’t want to move but it’s difficult to stay.”
Roy Campbell moved to Barcelona from Edinburgh over a decade ago to teach English as a foreign language. He loves his new life in Catalonia but I asked him what were the biggest changes he had encountered since the economic crash of 2008?
“When I first arrived here I could never have imagined that I would see people searching in the bins for food”, he said. “In my area of the city petty crime and burglaries have increased whilst tens of thousands of young people have left the city to find work in other European countries. When I first moved here I met many people from South American countries who were working in construction and other industries. Most of them have now returned home. I would also say that in Catalonia people generally are more supportive of the independence movement since the crisis started.”
In November 2014, after a series of massive rallies and demonstrations, what the Madrid Government described as an, “informal vote” over 80% of Catalonians voted for Independence from Spain.
In these extraordinary economic times, extraordinary political events have taken place.
In 2009 a pressure group called Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) was formed to prevent the growing number of evictions caused by Spaniards falling into negative equity, low pay and unemployment. Whilst the grassroots, direct action approach of the organisers of the POH gained popular support, few could have predicted that within a relatively short space of time one of the groups most radical spokespeople would be elected the first ever female Mayor of the Catalan capital. In June 2015, Ada Colau, an activist best known for occupying public buildings, now occupies the most important civic position, L’Alcaldessa de Barcelona.
The 41 year old, born on the same day as the last Catalan activist to be executed by the fascist Francoist regime has vowed to reduce both her Mayoral salary and expenses including eschewing the tax-payer provided limousine and opting for traveling by public transport instead. She lives modestly in rented accommodation with her partner and young son. Her candidacy was part of a left/Green coalition called “Barcelona en Comú”. Barcelona in Common is one of a number of radical groups that have gained popularity since the economic crisis began. The best known were the Indignados – the Indignants or the 15M Movement who occupied public spaces of Spanish towns and cities throughout 2011 and 2012 generating mass protests and online campaigns against austerity and the corruption endemic in Spanish politics.
Elsewhere in Spain similar campaigns to Colau’s have proved equally popular. In Madrid retired lawyer Manuela Carmena also was elected Mayor as leader of Ahora Mardrid (Now Madrid) a coalition of left activists and anti-austerity campaigners. Although both Colau and Carmena were backed by Podemos, neither are members of that or indeed any party. Podemos (We Can) have also enjoyed a surge in popularity led by Pablo Iglesias, a lecturer in political science who spent some time in Glasgow as a student. The party has risen to become the second largest political organisation in Spain after the conservative People’s Party (PP). Instead of standing candidates the 2015 Municipal Elections in Podemos chose to support grass roots campaigns such as those led by Colau and Carmena.
A cornerstone of Colau’s electoral campaign was opposition to further tourist development in Barcelona. Often caricatured as being anti-tourist, (in fact one member of the PP branded her a terrorist) Colau has instead insisted that she is fighting to defend poor families being driven from the centre of the city by rising house prices and the cost of living driven by tourist development. Colau also claims that the proliferation of tourist developments allied to the homogenisation of areas like Las Ramblas are helping to destroy the uniqueness, attractiveness and essence that makes tourists want to visit the city in the first place.
Speaking in an interview in the Guardian, Colau stated,
“More and more tourists are disappointed when they visit Barcelona because in the centre of Barcelona they find a theme park. Everyone wants to see the real city, but if the centre fills up with multinationals and big stores that you can find in any other city, it doesn’t work.” She has also attacked the scandal of low wages and insecure employment in the tourist sector stating, “We’re saying that we need to put conditions on the industry, such as restaurants and hotels, so that they better distribute the wealth.”
Activists from the various strands that make up Barcelona en Comú have taken to occupying hotel and other tourist development building sites and Colau has promised to crack down hard on licenses to stop the proliferation of pubs, bars and restaurants. Over 7.5 million tourists visit Barcelona each year with this number predicted to reach 10 million. Colau and her activist base feel these figures are unsustainable and will damage the long-term viability of the city.
I asked Roy Campbell his feelings on the new Mayors controversial attitude towards tourism. He understands the popularity of Ada’s message, agrees with many of her policies but wonders about her priorities?
“The new mayor of the city is certainly radical and she is targeting tourism and the “takeover” of the city by non-natives is high on her agenda. I’m not sure however if she has the right priorities. She has a solid base of support from her community politics and activism fighting against house repossessions which I support, of course but her attacks on tourism may be a bit scattergun and she should be careful not to bite the hand that feeds. She has successfully tapped into a feeling that there are too many tourists in the city and that local shops only sell ice cream and souvenirs rather than basic food items. It is clear that with the increase in rents and the cost of living many locals cannot afford to live in the city centre as they did before. I have noticed a change in the last 10 years as the areas that were quiet residential streets before are now full of tacky shops selling more or less junk. You have to go further out from the centre to find what you might call “real Barcelona” where locals can afford to drink and spend time. I can say that without exception all my students avoid the city centre due to the high prices and overwhelming amount of tourists.”
Nick Lloyd is originally from Stockport but has lived and worked in Barcelona for almost 30 years. He stays in the Poble Sec Barrio in the city and has seen it change almost beyond recognition due to the effect of tourism in recent times.
“Where we live we have seen unbelievable change over the last couple of years, you never would have guessed it could have changed so much. We had a lovely Rambla in Poble Sec that used to have couple of bars. There was a kind of village atmosphere, it was nice. Then there were 10 bars, then 20 and now there are over 50 bars in that one area. Because these licenses have already been granted then Colau can’t revoke them. Whilst she doesn’t have the power to close them immediately she is telling them all that her administration will come down on them like a ton of bricks on any mistake or any infraction in their licenses. People like to come to cities like Barcelona to look for authenticity, but that amount of tourism destroys it.”
Nick is an expert in the authenticity of Barcelona. He runs a Spanish Civil War walking tour that takes visitors on a chronological route through the history of the city during the Civil War. Nick’s tour is sensational. Informative and engaging, detailed but never dry and boring dealing with questions as diverse as George Orwell and his time in the city and the POUM militia, revolutionary politics and anarchism, the war as a prelude to the WW2, the violence on both sides of the Civil war, the role of women, the International Brigades, Hitler and Mussolini and the part they played in the conflict, the long shadow of Stalinism that culminated in the Barcelona May Days of 1937 as well as the bombing of the city, Francoism and the Spaniards in the Holocaust.
As we travel from one historical site to another it is easy to see the homogenisation of the city that Ada Colau describes, whilst at the same time discovering the quintessential essence that makes Barcalona such a wonderful and unique city when disappearing up the myriad of small streets and passageways of the Gothic Quarter. To mis-quote the Manic Street Preachers, we walked Las Ramblas, (but not with real intent) and Nick read aloud perhaps the most famous description of the city’s best known street by George Orwell in his Spanish Civil war memoires, Homage to Catalonia. Orwell describes a Barcelona where the, “working class was in the saddle…”
“Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties….Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal….The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”
There are no speakers bellowing revolutionary songs in Las Ramblas today. Instead it is the sound of the Punch and Judy style swazzles of street vendors or the cries of purveyors of brightly lit toy helicopters that are fired high by a rubber band into the magnificent canopy of trees that embrace the pedestrianised centre of the street. Along with Irish Bars, McDonalds, KFC and Burger King there are a proliferation of tourist shops with almost identical stocks of Gaudi Fridge magnets, ornaments of all shapes and sizes of the Sagrada Familia and most commonly of all the famous red and blue of, (100% unofficial) replica Barcelona FC football tops.
Writing in the Guardian in September 2014, Ada Colau argued;
“In Barcelona, the democratic crisis that is taking place across Europe has been accompanied by the replacement of the welfare state with the debt-collecting state and the crisis of the post-Franco regime (a regime controlled by Brussels), and delegitimised by kleptocracy and systematic corruption. The tourism crisis in Barcelona is further proof of the emptiness of the promises of neo-liberalism that deregulation and privatisation will allow us all to prosper. Of course, the answer is not to attack tourism. Everyone is a tourist at some point in their life. Rather, we have to regulate the sector, return to the traditions of local urban planning, and put the rights of residents before those of big business. The way of life for all Barcelonans is seriously under threat. And the only solution is to win back democracy for the city….and put its institutions at the service of the common good.”
Nick Lloyd’s excellent Civil War tour provided a sobering reminder that a previous economic crisis had led to perhaps the darkest chapter in European history. The rise of growth of far-right and xenophobic voices across the continent shows that there are always those who will seek to apportion the blame for the crisis not on those who’s greed and avarice caused the collapse but on those of a different skin colour, nationality or religion. Colau’s electoral triumph along with the rise of her allies in Podemos, the success of radical movements across Europe, the mass participation in progressive politics in Scotland following the referendum and the galvanising effect of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign provide hope that after years of being told there was no alternative to austerity, people are looking for other answers and solutions to the crisis in capitalism in socialist and progressive politics in greater numbers than at any time in the recent past.
Ada herself describes this phenomenon thus in an interview with the Democracy Now website;
“I think a political change is happening, a change in the way politics are done in Spain, but also beyond Spain, in Southern Europe and, we hope, in all of Europe. I think what happened in Spain is a democratic revolution. The people have been empowered, and they have spoken. That’s why I think the main player here is not any political group. It’s not Barcelona en Comú. It’s not Podemos. It’s not Ada Colau. It’s not Pablo Iglesias. The main players here are the people, the people who have decided to take back the institutions, to democratize them, to take back politics so the people can be the real players and the ones who make the decisions. In this movement of democratic revolution from below, there are different political parties, different acronyms, which must be a tool in this process of empowerment and democratic revolution. So this is why Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau, and other parties that are emerging right now are just instruments at the service of a wide people’s process that has decided to take back the institutions for the people.”
Ada Colau finds herself in a unique position to ensure that at least some of those institutions are at the service of the people and the common good. As in Greece, where the people sought a radical alternative to the mainstream then how Ada Colau and her administration deal with the challenges of being in power rather than being a vocal opposition will play a pivotal role in determining the future success or failure of radical politics in Catalonia and the rest of Spain. I wish her and her beautiful city well.”
Le deseo a ella ya su hermosa ciudad buena suerte.