How a divided Spain started a revolution

The Spanish Revolution is a result of deep underlying divisions running through the Spanish society, which the political class and mainstream media continue to ignore at the peril of the country's democracy.

Bernardo Gutiérrez
1 June 2011

Over the last two weeks I have become a compulsive twitterer. I update my Facebook account as I walk. I write - for blogs, sites, media - about the #spanishrevolution. I think collectively. "How would you explain the #spanishrevolution to a German?", I tweet. Miguel Martinez, a person I have never met, replies: "Spain followed the dictates of Angela Merkel and continues to support German banks." Had I asked, “how do you explain the protests to a banker?", the response would have been even more aggressive.

I don't understand why most media outlets framed the protests in Spain as anti-government. Or against unemployment and the dire situation of the youth. Why relate Madrid to Cairo when the real reasons for the demonstrations lie elsewhere? 

It strikes me that the Twitter account of Wikileaks was busier than many international newspapers recommending the text The Icelandic revolt of Spain. They saw a clear parallel between the #spanishrevolution and the country in the Atlantic that refused to pay for the mistakes of their banks. The link is so clear that Hördur Torfason, the man who prompted Icelanders to fight politicians and bankers, recorded a greeting to the Spanish people. In fact, the rage against a world governed by rating agencies and financial speculation has been one of the seeds of Spanish indignation. 

In late 2008, when the crisis started to unfold, the socialist president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero injected billions into the banking sector to save Spain's failing financial institutions; with money that Spain didn't really have. The debt subsequently skyrocketed, pushed by the IMF, rating agencies, and rumors that Spain would need EU assistance, spread by Angela Merkel. Zapatero's sole reaction was to cut the salaries of public servants. 

However, while unemployment reached record highs in 2010, the 35 largest companies at Madrid's stock market announced profits of 50 billion euros, 24.5% more than in 2009. Telefónica caused an outcry when the company fired 6,000 workers in Spain while announcing EUR 450 million in bonuses to its executives and 6.9 billion in dividends to its shareholders. The economic divide grew steadily.

But despite a catastrophic job market, growing unemployment and record corporate profits, a different divide accounts for the #spanishrevolution: the digital one. 92% of Spain's young people are Internet users (12 points above the European average). But only 10% of Spanish MPs use Twitter. This goes a long way to explain why Ángeles González-Sinde, Minister of Culture adopted one of the most antiquated internet laws, the “Ley Sinde”, which allows the shutdown of a website without court permission within four days. 

The law provoked a cyber-revolution. In January 2010 Sustainable Network - a digital platform of resistance - was born. A year later #nolesvotes (Don't vote for them), a platform that called to punish parties who supported the Ley Sinde followed. Soon after, the group Anonymous joined, as did Alex de la Iglesia after having resigned from his position as president of the Spanish Film Academy. #nolesvotes became the focal point of the online movement.

But something was missing. A spark to light the fuse. Unemployment was still on the rise. Companies continued to announce huge profits. The parties revealed their candidates for the regional elections, including figures who had illegally profited from the housing boom (and subsequent bust). When the conservative Francisco Camps, who the New York Times would later term "the Spanish Berlusconi" who provoked the revolt, smiled for the cameras unapologetically, the bomb exploded. 

How and when did the digital and economic divides cross? How did the digital outrage turn into analog protests? The collective Franconohamuerto.com offers a nice illustration. Its initial goal was to raise money on the Internet for advertisements on buses in support of Judge Baltasar Garzon, famously removed from the High Court for investigating the crimes of the Franco regime. The cause of Garzon had revived a number of leftish people. The non-existing separation of the judiciary from politics fed the outrage.

But Franconohamuerto.com was just one out of many protest groups. Hundreds of movements emerged on the internet. The hurricane was approaching. The group Estado del Malestar (State of Discomfort) called its members out into the streets with megaphones. Juventud Sin Futuro (No Future for the Youth) filled the streets in April. The revolution was knocking at the door, but no-one seemed to take notice.

Until Real Democracy NOW called a demonstration for May 15th, taking place in over 50 cities under the slogan: "We are not puppets in the hands of politicians and bankers." And the protests became a huge success with ten thousand people in Madrid's Puerta del Sol on May 16th. And Spain finally woke up on the 17th with major protests taking place all over the country. 

Crisis. Greedy bankers. Corruption. Unemployment. And the #spanishrevolution set Twitter on fire. A cartoon by El Roto for El País offered the best summary: "The youth took to the street, and suddenly the parties were sidelined."

The results of the elections revealed another, more dangerous divide than the digital or economic: the democratic one. The international press highlighted the demise of the Socialists. The national press declared the Conservatives winners. But the most important political force were those who abstained, a majority of 33 percent of the votes. 

Meanwhile, Spain is full of campers. Young. Adult. Leftists. Nonpartisans. Even a couple of conservatives. But the parties still don't mention the so called 15-M movement. As the world interprets the #spanishrevolution as a revolution towards a system 2.0 that is more participatory and democratic, the political class has yet to understand this message. Spanish society demands a genuine dialogue, a more open system.

But politicians have retreated to their offices, refusing to engage, while I am still tweeting, navigating, guided by hashtags through the #spanishrevolution.


An earlier version of this article appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel.

Bernardo Gutièrrez can be reached via his Twitter account @bernardosampa and his website www.bernardogutierrez.es

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData