Spain: The 'indignant' beat back authorities; 'Nothing will be as it was before'

Demonstrators in Madrid's famous Puerta del Sol protest against politicians, bankers and authorities' handling of the economic crisis on May 19, 2011. Photo by Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images, via The Atlantic, which has more graphic photos.

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

May 29, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- The central plazas of dozens of cities and towns across Spain bear an uncanny resemblance to Tahrir Square in Cairo. They have been taken over by thousands of demonstrators demanding a "new system". As of May 29, dozens of other central plazas in Spanish cities and towns look the same — taken over by thousands of ordinary people demanding “a new system”.

The movement, known as "#spanishrevolution" after the Twitter hashtag used to spread news, pictures and footage of the revolt, began with an internet call for a May 15 protest to demand “Real Democracy Now!”.

Across Spain, more than 100,000 people turned out. In Madrid, protesters decided to establish a permanent camp in the central plaza, the Puerta del Sol.

The protesters — dubbed indignados (the indignant) — were violently attacked, but tens of thousands of people retook the plaza. The plaza occupations spread across Spain, despite the fact that no major unions or political parties have taken part.

The movement is driven by anger at the savage austerity imposed by the government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero from the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Having spent billions of euros bailing out the big banks after the 2008 financial crisis, the government is making ordinary people pay the cost. Suffering is widespread among Spanish people. The official youth unemployment rate is more than 40%.

This led to the rout of the PSOE in local and regional elections on May 22.

The occupations were originally planned to last until the May 22 poll. But the assembly at Puerta del Sol voted to continue the encampment for at least another week — and to use the plaza as a base to spread the protest movement to neighbourhoods throughout the city.

The strength of the movement was shown when, on May 27, the Catalonian government carried out an ill-fated attack on the occupation of Plaza Catalonia in Barcelona...

Continue reading Dick Nichols' eyewitness report at

'Nothing will be as it was before'

Miguel Romero interviewed by Daniel Tanuro 

May 21, 2011 -- International Viewpoint -- Miguel Romero is a member of the Anti-capitalist Left (Izquierda Anticapitalista, section of the Fourth International in the Spanish state) and editor of the magazine Viento Sur”.

What was at the origin of this extraordinary mobilisation which is shaking the Spanish state?

To understand, we need to go back to the general strike of September 29, 2010, against the proposed pension reform. In relation to what we had known in previous years, the strike had been a success. Around a quarter of the population participated. You should be aware that the number of strikes has fallen in recent years in the Spanish state; there is a permanent dialogue between the trade unions and the employers on wages and all the other questions. The strike marked a social remobilisation.

But a media offensive was immediately launched presenting the movement as a setback. The union leaderships were strongly affected by this campaign and the mobilisation remained without follow up. It is not certain that a new strike call would have met with success, but it would have sent a message of determination and courage: “We remain opposed to the project of the government.” Instead, the unions negotiated with the government and accepted the pension reform in return for some minor modifications.

The balance sheet was very heavily against labour: those now active aged 40-45, when they retire, will draw a pension 20% lower than the current one. This agreement sowed frustration but also passivity in the workers’ movement. However, it led to anger among the youth who had supported the strike, solidarised with the pickets and so on. The idea spread that there was nothing to expect from the majority union. As to the minority unions, like the CGT, they have little weight. They would have the strength to become a point of reference, but their sectarian line prevents them doing this. They are content with a declaration. The conditions were thus met for an initiative to emerge from the youth themselves.

What sectors are at the base of the movement?

In early 2011, you could sense a certain tension in the universities. But at the level of the anti-capitalist left, we were fairly pessimistic. We noted above all the absence of perspectives: the social impasse continued. In March, in Portugal, a “precarious youth” appeal was launched on the internet and led to an extraordinary demonstration of 250,000 people, in Lisbon. The demonstration had very little political content: “We are humiliated”; “We are the best-trained generation and we are unemployed or in precarious jobs”. But the number of demonstrators was impressive.

This example had an immediate effect in the Spanish universities, notably in Madrid. We should say that unemployment affects nearly 20% of the population, or 4.9 million people. Unemployment among those under 25 is 40.5%. Most young people between 20 and 30 survive thanks to little jobs, on 600 euros per month. They are not then in a situation to have a life independent of the family.

Thus around a hundred students formed the group, Jovenes sin future (Youth without a future).The platform described itself as an initiative of youths “sin curro, sin casa, sin pension, sin miedo” (“without job, without house, without pension, without fear). The most important in this list is sin miedo. I interviewed these youths at the time, for Viento Sur. These are intelligent and modest people. Their platform called for a demonstration for April 7. A few hundred people were expected. There were 4000 to 5000.

The success of the demonstration of April 7 led the organisers to call another for May 15. Meanwhile, another group appeared: Democracia real ya (Real democracy now!). Its platform was very weak politically. At the social level, it condemned unemployment, the dictatorship of the market, and so on. But at the political level it described itself as “neither right nor left”. On the radical left, this initiative appeared as very suspect, because today in the Spanish state we face a very aggressive right. Moreover, nobody knew the initiators of this group.

Initially, Democracia real ya was exclusively Madrid-based. Appeals were also launched in other towns. Rallies were very modest elsewhere, but in Madrid the demonstration drew 20,000 to 25,000 people. It was a very combative and joyous cortege, very different from traditional demonstrations, which are boring. The demonstration ended at Puerta del Sol, with speeches very much to the left, very critical of the majority unions, made not by youths but by personalities, notably Carlos Taibo – a libertarian academic.

There was a small group from the black blocs in the demonstration, as is often the case. They provoked incidents. But the repression was very strong. Fourteen of them were arrested. That led to immediate solidarity against the police. At that point a series of people, totally unknown, unorganised, had a fantastic idea: organising a camp the next day at Puerta del Sol. The initiative was very inspired, but it could seem bizarre. There were barely 20 or 30 people remaining on the ground. Yet the initiative snowballed. Initially dislodged from the square by the police the morning of May 16, about a hundred people were brought to court. In the afternoon, several hundred, in fact several thousand people gathered at Puerta del Sol.

Sympathy from the people was huge. The rallies every evening at 8 pm swelled: 15,000, then 20,000 people. Immediately, the [local government] electoral campaign was completely transformed. Rallies were organised in more than a hundred towns. A town like Valencia, which is rather right wing, saw a rally of 10,000 on May 20. This hasn’t been seen for a very long time. There were 15,000 demonstrators in Barcelona, 30,000 in Madrid – so many that access to the square was no longer possible.

The rally on Friday was forbidden by the electoral board. The minister of the interior then gave the order to disperse people but it wasn't possible. This minister, Rubalcaba, is a politician without principles, but intelligent. He was close to Felipe Gonzales and was at the origin of the GAL [1]. He said “in reality, the function of the police is to resolve problems, not create them. Dispersing a demonstration of 30,000 people is to create a still bigger problem. The police should intervene only in case of conflict. Indeed, there is no conflict”. Rubalcaba acted intelligently while playing his personal card, since he was a candidate at the election. The people feared an expulsion of the demonstrators after midnight. At 2 am, the police withdrew: there was an explosion of joy. Another fact to note is that there were solidarity rallies in 538 towns around the world!

Who leads this movement? Is its content now clearer? What is the role of women? And that of immigrants?

The coordination involves around 60 people. They are aged from 25 to 28. These are graduates with good professional qualifications, unemployed, precarious, suffering poor work conditions, without political experience or affiliation. There were no students among them. In the rallies, there were very few youths from the popular neighbourhoods. To avoid giving the image of being a city centre movement the Madrid coordination decided to go into these neighbourhoods. As for the Manifesto, it was quite good. It favours the nationalisation of the banks, the protection of the unemployed and so on. It also opposes the electoral law. It is a program of democratic and social reforms. Ecology is there, though in a marginal way. There is no huge anti-capitalist consciousness. The slogan “a-a-a-anticapitalista” is often taken up in the demonstrations, but without great ideological content.

A lot of women are involved in the movement but the feminist movement is absent as are feminist demands: there are many posters or cards relating to May 1968, but not one on a feminist question. It is worrying. It is perhaps a result of the fact that the feminist movement in Spain has over the past 30 years turned around specifically women-related questions. The word “woman” is even absent from the Manifesto. The same goes for the young immigrants: there are many in the movement, but not in the coordination. All the spokespersons are native to Spain [2].

How do you see the perspectives of the movement?

Barring a surprise, the [May 22, 2011, local] elections will give a big victory to the right [see "Spain: Ruling party rout boosts right and left"], who will win in numerous regions and municipalities, and thus a defeat for the [social-democratic] Socialist Party (PSOE). It will be interesting to see the results of Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left). IU has tried to appear as the political expression of the movement. It is very opportunist, because IU is an institutional left, and not anti-capitalist. The polls give IU 6 to 8% of the vote. If it gains more than 8%, it will be the effect of the movement. IU plans a meeting with the leadership of the movement. There is a certain danger there.

IU has no possibility of hegemonising the movement, because it is not an activist organisation, but rather a sectarian and institutionalist one. But the institutional weight could appear interesting to the leadership of the movement, who could believe that they will thus have a voice in parliament. That would represent a risk for the independence and radicalism of the mobilisation. The unions have also requested a meeting. In fact, the movement has become a political reference for everyone.

A question which will be posed now: “What next for the camps?” It needs to be raised, but it will be the subject of a debate, and other initiatives should take up the impetus, notably initiatives aimed at the popular neighbourhoods. The media say “it's over”, as do the sociologists. They shouldn't be believed. I am perhaps too optimistic, but it seems to me unlikely that the movement will disappear. It involves too many people, too many young people who think that this is “my movement”, and who wish that “the struggle continues”.

In Portugal, the big demonstration of 250,000 was not followed up. Here, the originality is that of a movement in an electoral period, whose most popular slogan is "PSOE, PP, la misma mierda es” (PSOE, PP, it's the same shit”), and which becomes a reference point for the majority of people. The enthusiasm is huge. The (correct) idea is that “nothing will be as it was before”, that all will be better than before. For our current (young, non-sectarian, non-doctrinaire, closely linked to the social movements) it is an opportunity. But to continue will be difficult.

A key condition for the movement to continue is that it grows and makes links with other social movements: the women’s movement, the ecologist movement and of course the workers’ movement. That requires a medium-term perspective, an accumulation of forces and inputs from outside of the movement. We had a negative experience in 2009, with a very strong movement on the housing question: it could not continue due to internal dissensions provoked by sectarians. Movements of this type can only last if they are unitary.

Has there been any input from trade union sectors?

There is no left current in the big unions and the CGT [3] is marginal. There is nothing other unhappily than the statements of leaders in favour of the movement (they could not do otherwise). There have been no communiqués of solidarity from the workplace committees or from workplaces on strike. Thus the movement is completely new, without any link with existing mobilisations [4].

What is the impact of the Arab revolutions? One notes a certain resemblance in the forms of action…

There is certainly an echo of the Arab revolutions from the viewpoint of the occupation of public space and the means of communication. The courage of the demonstrators is also something which has been impressive. But while a comrade has spoken to me of “Tahrir Square in Barcelona” we should not exaggerate: there is no comparison from the viewpoint of the toughness of the struggle!

How should anti-capitalist activists act?

We have been present at the rallies since the beginning. Before, we were already present in Jovenes sin future. On the contrary, we were completely outside Democracia real ya, like all other political currents. We have then participated in the drawing up of the Manifesto. We have very good relations with the non-sectarian autonomous current, which is very present in the movement. In a general way, it is necessary to be very prudent and reserved, notably in relation to self-affirmation: flags, stickers and so on.

[Miguel Romero is the editor of the Madrid-based journal Viento Sur.


[1] Clandestine paramilitary groups responsible for assassinating activists and sympathises of the Basque pro-independence group ETA.

[2] Miguel Romero has informed us that from May 21 onwards, there was a very significant presence at Puerta del Sol of persons of immigrant origins, Moroccans, Saharans and Latin Americans.

[3] A libertarian trade union federation.

[4] The CGT has issued several communiqués in support, as has the CCOO in Catalonia. In Asturias, the occupations have spread from the two main cities of the region, Oviedo and Gijon, to the small towns of the mining basin with strong traditions of working class struggle.