400,000 evictions, a hunger strike by Carmen Armaña, and the suicide of Amaia Egaña as the eviction police came up the stairs to put her family out on the street, have brought mass anger and fury at unjust political and financial decisions in Spain, says Liz Cooper
It is very difficult even today to meet a Spanish person over 30 who does not own the flat they live in or is not saving to buy one. Renting is still seen as some kind of failure or at the very least a waste of money. The building boom was an important stage in turning Spain into the land of holiday hotspots and happy homeowners. The last part of the dream has just come crashing down to a hideous end.
On the 25th of October in Granada a 53-year-old man hanged himself rather than suffer eviction by the police for non-payment of his mortgage. Two weeks later on Friday November 9th a 45 year old woman threw herself over the balcony of her fourth floor flat in Barakaldo, a suburb of Bilbao, as the eviction police came up the stairs to put her and her family on the street. Amaia Egaña was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. The seven days that began with this second suicide saw a storm of outrage and anger that had been brewing for well over a year explode with the media reporting incidents all over Spain. On Saturday the banks started to back down, quickly followed by groups of judges and magistrates coming out in protest against the evictions, police in some areas refusing to enforce them, town mayors threatening their local banks by withdrawing funds, locksmiths refusing publicly to force open doors; and practically permanent demonstrations. On Tuesday the major political parties went into a three day huddle to try to find agreement on what to do. On Wednesday the third general strike against the cuts took place and was swollen to enormous proportions by further demonstrations against the current mortgage law. On Thursday the government, without support from the opposition, rushed through a law to stop evictions “in extreme cases”.
A letter to the largest local Basque paper from a woman in Barakaldo, published the day after the suicide, pleads for the society to respond with anger and fury at the loss of a life rather than accept with sadness the horrendous consequence of unjust political and financial decisions. This anger has been growing from initial beginnings of indignation, as in the movements of “los indignados” and “15 M” in summer 2011, expanding out to groups ready to fight for an end to evictions, which advocate negotiation, rental agreements and a more civilised response in times of extreme unemployment and generalized welfare cuts.
Ignoring the clamour but finally kick-started by the suicides of two of their clients, the banks moved under pressure in an attempt to save the situation. On Saturday November 10th the Basque bank “Kutxabank” who handle 40% of mortgages in the area, became the first bank to call a halt to all evictions with immediate effect. Two days later on Monday 12 November, AEB, the professional association of nearly all banks in Spain, and clearly after talks with the government, announced a two-year moratorium for those “cases of extreme necessity”. They did not explain the meaning of extreme necessity but the move had the effect of stopping the evictions temporarily, whilst the major parties thrashed out their political differences.
Amaia Egaña held her mortgage in La Caixa, whose banking arm “CaixaBank”, created in 2011, was named by the British financial magazine Euromoney as the “Best Bank in Spain 2012”, with 13 million customers and assets of 342 billion euros. A collection of smaller savings banks that also regrouped as a bank in 2010 under the name “Bankia” rapidly became the 4th largest bank in Spain, and went bankrupt just as quickly in 2012. It was bailed out with public money. The banks initially responded to criticisms with a blur of statistics about non-eviction of large numbers of mortgage repayment defaulters, but did nothing to halt the brutal reality except under extreme pressure. Last week, in the town of Santa Cruz in Tenerife, Carmen Armaña took up residence in front of the office of “Bankia”, with support from the “Plataforma Stop Desahucios”, the Stop Evictions movement.
She was in the fifth day of a hunger strike against eviction. The mayor of the town, José Manuel Bermúdez, who is now something of a national hero, also supported her case and put pressure on “Bankia” by withdrawing 1.5 million euros of town hall funds from the bank. The bank capitulated and stopped eviction proceedings in the case of Carmen Armaña and in a further three cases in the area. Other town mayors have also taken a stand.
“Bankia” should perhaps be excused. They are after all expecting 32 members of their previous executive including their ex-president Rodrigo Rato - ex Minster of Finance in the previous PP government and ex-director of the IMF- to face charges of fraud, misappropriation of funds, falsification of accounts and manipulation of share prices on going public. The story of “Bankia” must represent one of the ugliest and most corrupt faces of Spain.
Both major parties have been criminally slow in responding to the situation. There are no consumer protection laws of any force in Spain and the law relating to mortgages and evictions has remained with few alterations since it first became law in 1909. Minor recent adjustments were made in 2011 and a package of voluntary “good practice”, useless in its effect, was approved by the government in March. The law was and still is a measure to protect banks, not citizens and was recently described by the European Tribunal as having an abusive attitude toward the client. After 400,000 evictions and two suicides the major parties suddenly went into overdrive to find a solution. The Government announced on Thursday November 15th a package of immediate changes as a “first step” but without the support of the socialist opposition. Since 2009 when the socialists were still in power, and through 2010 and 2011, the abusive nature of the 1909 law on mortgages has been debated in parliament time and time again, debates brought by smaller parties arguing for a change in the law. Both the conservative PP and the socialist PSOE voted down, every time, any attempt to change the law.
It is difficult to comprehend the scale of what has been happening. And it is by no means over yet. The changes approved so far are extremely limited and are not retrospective. But all the words and mouthing of banks and political parties are at least now seen for what they really are: prolonged and determined efforts to keep the lid on a corrupt financial system with laws that have always favoured the banks as against the citizen. Both major political parties should remember this week with shame. What the hundreds and thousands of people who came out to protest have achieved so far they will surely remember with pride. A protestor on the general strike on the Wednesday pointed out on being interviewed: “for the first time this is a strike by society”. It would seem so. The original dream is over perhaps but as the neighbour from Barakaldo wrote in her letter to her local paper “They have lied to us about the welfare state. Laws, institutions and police have been set up in such a way that we think we can do nothing. Not true…We must get angry, take to the streets, work together in solidarity …to understand how they have “dis-organised” our society…..we must re-organize from the roots….so that we all are part of it,…and where care of the environment, equal rights, respect and the right to decide, are no longer utopian ideas…” A new dream.