On the streets in Spain: not only the homeless

The monarchy, the political and economic systems, even the judiciary and the church appear to be failing the people of Spain as they face what amounts to a right-wing coup by a Government that legislates by decree. Their only option seems to be to protest on the streets, says Liz Cooper.

Liz Cooper
14 January 2013

Not long out of hospital, the King of Spain gave his traditional speech at Christmas last year, leaning nonchalantly against his desk rather than sitting bolt upright behind it. His casual new pose did not prevent the speech from being heavily criticised for being out of touch with reality, lacking self criticism, and saying little under a smoke screen of empty words: wounds, suffering, sacrifice, solidarity.  A “blood, sweat and tears” speech indeed, but without the grandiose prose and resounding style of Winston Churchill. One commentator suggested it could have been made by a competitor in a beauty contest. There seems little doubt that in spite of his apologies earlier last year for going off to Africa to kill elephants, coupled with the fact that his son-in-law is facing charges of corruption, respect for and trust in the King seems to be melting away. Certainly the gratitude felt for him after his intervention in stopping an attempted rightwing coup by the military in 1981 has passed its sell by date. Over thirty years later the King has nothing to say as a different kind of right-wing coup takes its casualties.

Corruption is endemic in Spain. It is no surprise that the son-in-law of the King is having to answer such charges. Everybody does it. From the bribes offered to town hall civil servants by house buyers and builders, to the embezzlement of millions of euros of public funds by politicians and banks, it goes on all the time. It is a known fact that billions of euros from Spain are stashed in Swiss bank accounts. It is also known that the Government has a list of the names of over a thousand account holders with large amounts of money in the Swiss banking system, a list they have kept secret. The Government has in fact ensured that there will not be a parliamentary inquiry into tax evasion and has even offered an amnesty to those who may have avoided paying tax.  People on the street know this. They also know that there is enough money hidden away in those accounts to solve many of the economic problems Spain suffers at the moment. In a country known to be the third in the list of countries with major fraud in Europe, with tax evasion at the level of 23.3% of Producto Interior Brute (GDP), Treasury efforts to trace tax fraud are laughable. The results of a poll just before Christmas last year put politicians once again at the bottom of the scale of approval, and the banks only two positions further up a scale covering 38 institutions and social organizations.

For clearly very good reasons, in 2012 large numbers of people have been almost permanently on the street in protest against the destruction of public services and the welfare state, against corruption at all levels, against the banks apparent impunity, and the injustice of much of the practice of the current conservative government. There were moments of hope when something akin to a concern for human rights seemed to be stirring in the bowels of the Spanish judicial system in the last quarter of the year. A stand against the high level and abusive nature of evictions by mortgage lenders, made by a very small group of judges in early November, (46 out of nearly 5000 judges and magistrates in Spain) accused the government of injustice and went on to the streets to say so. It was at first rejected out of hand by the powerful General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), the supervisory body that oversees the work of all judges and magistrates. Finally the CGPJ decided to back the initiative and, as a result, helped to drive both government and banks to make a gesture in favour of the people in dire straits. However the judges continue to authorize evictions, without protest, which by the end of 2012 had resulted in 5 suicides and a massive number of forced evictions reaching a new record level of 47,943 in three months: an average of 526 a day according to the figures released by the CGPJ itself.

Although workers from all parts of the judicial system demonstrated in December along with citizens outside the Palacios de Justícia in major cities against large tax increases for claimants bringing cases to court, it became apparent that the judges had themselves demanded an increase to these charges initially. The main focus for their demonstrations has been to “preserve their independence”, which is puzzling as there is considerable doubt as to whether the Judiciary has ever been independent as stated in the Constitution. Ruiz Gallardón, the Minister for Justice, apparently has no doubts. Having previously campaigned for the de-politicization of the Judiciary, by offering to allow 12 of the 20 positions in the CGPJ to be chosen by the judges themselves, the Minister has now made a U-turn. Without considering opposition demands, he announced just before Christmas that all members would continue to be chosen by Parliament. As the Government has an absolute majority this will ensure that at least for the life of this Government the Judiciary will be under political right-wing control: so no change there.

The now ex-president of the Supreme Court and the CGPJ, Carlos Dívar, was found to be charging his frequent weekend breaks to government funds, up to 20 on record to various southern holiday resorts in Spain. Under pressure he resigned stating that he did not regard himself as guilty of anything wrong. More importantly, it was under his presidency that the internationally renowned judge Balthazar Garzón, while trying a case of corruption that went deep into the conservative Popular Party (PP) now in government, was “sacked” and deprived of his career and livelihood. The judge was also warned by the Court not to investigate the deaths of 114,000 people killed during the Franco regime, claiming that Spain’s Amnesty Laws ruled any examination of the Franco past out of order... A right-wing coup by the courts, making it difficult to believe that the Judiciary is now on the side of justice for all.

As for the church, which might be seen as a last hope of institutional support in a still largely catholic country, there is little help. The Archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco, who is also President of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, concentrated his Christmas speech on predicting the disintegration of society if traditional marriage and family values were destroyed by measures allowing same sex marriage and abortion. It is the message as ever: exhorting heterosexual couples to be strong and to stand by their “amor fecundo”, for which there really is no other translation but “fertile love”. And recently, the Bishop of Segovia pointed out that the latest suicides - there were 2 more just before Christmas as eviction orders were carried out in Malaga, in Southern Spain - had nothing to do with politics: “people do not kill themselves for these kinds of reasons” he said. Hard to believe but his words were uttered and recorded at a special press conference he gave to assess the year.

It is clear that many Spanish people are up-in-arms against their Government’s anti-crisis policies, forced through without debate in parliament and in the face of which the major institutions have put up very little fight. Instead they sit on their hands as their society is destroyed around them, or actively support Government’s policies, however destructive, leaving the protestors on their own in the battle to change direction. 2013 is unlikely to be a happy year for the majority of Spaniards and the next step is very uncertain indeed.

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