As the backlash to austerity gathers force, a village mayor is leading raids on supermarkets and stoking a rebellion that could catch fire across Europe

By Jeffrey Tayler

Cañamero (above) and Sánchez Gordillo in Marinaleda


In the farming village of Jódar in southern Spain, 2,000 demonstrators march down the heat-buckled tarmac toward a police checkpoint at the edge of town where, they’ve just heard via megaphone, their hero has been detained. In front stride men in green T-shirts printed with the letters SAT, the Spanish acronym for the 40,000-strong Workers Syndicate of Andalusia, a leftist trade union building a network abroad. It’s Oct. 4, a general strike is on, no shops are open, and the sidewalks are lined with hulking members of Spain’s Guardia Civil and the local police force, clean-shaven and dressed in black. The demonstrators’ chants resound, rhythmic and rhyming, in Spanish, punctuated by clenched fists raised high. “¡Que no! ¡Que no! ¡No queremos pagar la deuda con la salud y educación!” (“No! No! We do not want to pay off debt with health care and education!”) and ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated!”) Half of Jódar’s 12,000 residents, who are mostly jornaleros, or day laborers, are out of work and receive no unemployment benefits. “The government is answering our demands for jobs with repression,” says one marcher. “And now they’re holding our leader.”

Before things get out of hand, the police release the march’s main attraction. Within sight of the demonstration and a pano-rama of olive groves (Jódar’s main cash crop), a charcoal-gray Citroën rounds a curve and slows. The passenger, with his salt-and-pepper beard and keffiyeh, is immediately recognizable: Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, a former history teacher, longtime village mayor, and deputy of the region’s socialist party, Izquierda Unida. Sánchez Gordillo, 60, is something of a folk hero in Andalusia — the Spanish Robin Hood — and as he steps out of the Citroën he is embraced and kissed by an adoring crowd. Smiling, he bashfully keeps his eyes down.

For 33 years, Sánchez Gordillo has been mayor of Marinaleda, pop. 2,700, another farming settlement about 100 miles west of Jódar. Like Jódar, Marinaleda is mostly inhabited by jornaleros. Over the decades, Sánchez Gordillo has transformed the poor village into an islet of social justice and relative prosperity, with almost full employment through communal farming, low taxes, a salary of €1,200 ($1,572), food and housing considered as rights, and “direct democracy” exercised through frequent general assemblies. Sánchez Gordillo and his townsmen launched their movement to build what he calls “a communist utopia” after the death of general and dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, occupying land owned by a member of the royal family and distributing it for communal ownership as well as taking over local airports.

His efforts in Marinaleda long ago earned him a regional following, but Sánchez Gordillo and his lieutenant, the 57-year-old Diego Cañamero, the SAT union’s national spokesman, have gained renown in recent months with a series of controversial protests against the austerity measures embraced by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish government. On Aug. 7, the two led union members on raids on Carrefour and Mercadona supermarkets, leaving the stores with shopping carts full of “expropriated” food they gave away to the hungry poor.

Sánchez Gordillo directed the raid in the small town of Ecija, 15 miles north of Marinaleda, remaining outside while 30 SAT members entered, loaded carts with cooking oil, salt, sugar, pasta, and rice, and wheeled them out after shoving aside the staff. Cañamero led the action in the southern port city of Cadiz, but there the staff caught on and locked the doors before the activists could exit. Cañamero finally negotiated a compromise: 12 carts of unpaid-for food and permission to leave for all.

On other occasions they occupied a hotel in the municipality of Cordoba to protest managers failing to honor their obligations; they held sit-ins on fallow fields to highlight the need for agrarian reform in Andalusia, where 2 percent of the landowners own half the land; and they even massed in the lobbies of a bank in Jaen province to show, in Sánchez Gordillo’s words, “who are the ones guilty of causing the crisis.”

To “welcome” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s chief austerity hawk, during her June trip to Spain, SAT members, including Cañamero and Sánchez Gordillo, occupied a branch of Lidl, a German supermarket chain. Merkel, Cañamero said then, had come to inflict “more suffering on our people” and “impose more cuts on us.”

If Spain continues down the path of austerity, Sánchez Gordillo may revive a militant leftism that could spread through Europe’s debt-beleaguered southern-tier countries. He has recently visited Greece and Italy to spread his message and methods of nonviolent struggle and maintains ties with leftist leaders and peasant revolutionary movements as far afield as Venezuela and Brazil. (Cañamero, for his part, boarded a boat in the “Freedom Flotilla II” that was due to sail from Greece to the Gaza Strip last year, but never did.) Mostly, though, Sánchez Gordilla focuses on Spain and reproducing his success in Marinaleda.

At the rally in Jódar, Cañamero and Sánchez Gordilla climb atop a low stone wall to begin their speeches. Cañamero starts out calmly but soon attacks “the corrupt 10 percent of politicians...who don’t represent us” and warns that soon “we will end up as in Greece and Portugal, being fed meals from vans in the street.” When it’s his turn, Sánchez Gordilla also starts in a low key but is soon waving his arms and stirring the crowd with fiery rhetoric. The economic crisis, he exclaims, “is no chance happening but an out-and-out fraud perpetrated by financial capital that has robbed us and left us without the slightest way of responding.” It all adds up, he charges, to “the greatest robbery in the history of capitalism.”

Sánchez Gordillo and Cañamero make a dynamic if incongruous pair, the former folksy and roughhewn, the latter more polished and ruggedly handsome. Both are regarded as men of integrity, devoted to helping the poorest of Andalusia. They appear anachronistic, yet their recent fame is less a case of two activists recycling communism than an increasingly desperate public seizing on their message of socioeconomic justice.

Claiming Mahatma Gandhi, Karl Marx, and Che Guevara as inspirations, but also “anonymous people who think differently,” Sánchez Gordillo defends his protest actions as “symbolic, designed to show who is to blame and who is the victim” in the country’s deepening crisis. He rails against the supermarket practice of throwing out food when people are going hungry and accuses the stores of setting artificially low prices for farmers’ produce to reap huge profits. He claims that Spain’s current financial woes, in general, stem not from “excessive debt, but from excessive theft” with, in particular, “the banks buying money [from the European Central Bank] at 0.75 percent and lending it to the state at 7 percent.” This, he says, constitutes “a swindle within a swindle” and is abetted by both the main political parties. (He’s slightly out of date as the lending rate has shrunk to 6 percent.)

Fernando López Noguero, a professor in the sociology department of the University of Pablo Olavide in Seville, says protests such as theirs “with great media resonance” are needed. But he’s concerned that if the crisis worsens, “they could slip into ‘the law of the jungle’ where the domain of law is no longer respected.” He worries that “violent demands may begin to spread, thanks to the breach opened by the crisis.”

As poverty has grown in Spain, with few credible solutions being discussed, the agrarian socialist model of Sánchez Gordillo’s Marinaleda, with its promise of guaranteed income, food, and housing, has piqued popular interest. In the wake of the supermarket raids, Spain’s two establishment political parties rushed to disparage him and, by extension, the policies he pursued as mayor. Alfonso Alonso, the ruling Partido Popular’s parliamentary spokesman, dismissed Sánchez Gordillo as someone who “wants to be famous” and declared that “you can’t be both Robin Hood and collect a salary as Sheriff of Nottingham.” (Sánchez Gordillo serves pro bono as mayor of Marinaleda.) The president of Andalusia’s regional government and a member of PSOE (Spain’s primary, mainstream socialist party), José Antonio Griñán, called Sánchez Gordillo’s raids “an act of barbarism”; the PSOE itself has come out in favor of legal action against the mayor. That the PSOE has shown him no sympathy proves to Sánchez Gordillo’s followers that the main socialist party colludes with the country’s banking and financial sectors, which they hold responsible for the economic crisis.

Andalusia has always been one of Spain’s poorest areas, but this year’s drought has worsened matters. In Jódar, the olive harvest fell by more than two-thirds. The immediate motive for the Oct. 4 protest was to demand aid for Jódar’s jornaleros who could not work the minimum 35 days required annually to qualify for unemployment assistance. Migrating elsewhere in Spain in search of a job, as jornaleros have done in the past, hardly seems worth the trouble now: Unemployment in Andalusia has reached 34 percent, compared with 25.1 percent nationally, according to Eurostat. Just over half of Spain’s young people are out of work.

Yet Spain is not Greece. As recently as 2007, Spain enjoyed a budget surplus, its sovereign debt was low, and no bloated public sector dragged down the economy, the euro zone’s fourth-largest by gross domestic product. In 2008 a real estate bubble burst, and the aftershock, combined with inflation, rendered Spanish goods uncompetitive. The country was not stiffing foreign creditors, but the markets — and soon its own government — began punishing it all the same.

The government’s proposed budget cuts have led to outrage that’s increasingly motivating people to take to the streets — and to take Sánchez Gordillo seriously. Certainly, the resentment sounds in the voice of Cañamero, who is quick to point out that former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the PSOE predicted in 2007 that Spain would soon be in the “champions league of job creators, that he would create 3 million jobs, that our government was solvent. ... But then he began saving the banks, using public money. It was clear what was going to happen. The cuts started coming, to the health service, to education, to pensions and programs to help small landholders.”

The prospect of more cuts to social services, demanded by the EU in return for aid to the banking sector, is generating unrest. On Sept. 25, tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded the congress in Madrid and clashed with the police. The violence led one government official to warn of an attempted “coup d’état.” After a second night of demonstrations, Prime Minister Rajoy, in response, bizarrely thanked “the immense majority” of Spaniards who “don’t protest” and “don’t appear on magazine covers or lead television news broadcasts,” and pressed ahead with new austerity measures.

The next day, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santa-maría announced the state budget for 2013, which included slashing ministerial spending by 12 percent, freezing public sector salaries, and introducing a 20 percent tax on lottery wins. Borrowing costs on 10-year Spanish bonds dropped slightly but then soared to nearly 7 percent — a level Rajoy has said would prompt him to seek a bailout. Even more troubling, the cuts have rekindled secessionist sentiment, with Catalan President Artur Mas calling early elections in his region, Spain’s most prosperous, and declaring that Catalonia reserves the right to “emancipate itself ” — that is, to declare independence.

In conversation, both Sánchez Gordillo and Cañamero stress the peaceful nature of their movement. Spain’s 20th century history — a brutal civil war that ended with the Franco dictatorship — has left the population averse to violence. Even so, Cañamero cautions, “It would only take a spark — say, police shooting a demonstrator — and things could explode.”

Following the Oct. 4 demonstration, I accompany Sánchez Gordillo to the Casa de Cultura, in which, for the past three weeks, 800 or so unemployed jornaleros have shut themselves, demanding to be put to work. Strident on the podium, Sánchez Gordillo is shy in person but grows warmer — even effusive. Asked his opinion of Barack Obama, he shrugs. “Presidents are always the puppets of the financial powers. We believe political power should outweigh financial power.” He quickly focuses on the tenants at the Casa de Cultura. “Workers have lost rights here in the last 30 years. Now we have to co-pay our medicines. We have more than 1.7 million families with no income at all, and many are losing their homes or living on €425 a month, if they’re still eligible.” The solution, he says, lies in “developing a system of dialogue between peoples that lets us use the planet’s resources wisely, or we will end up with an uninhabitable planet.” The community of Marinaleda is his model, though he concedes “there’s still much to be done there.” (Marinaleda receives financial aid from the EU for its social programs.) He appears not to have considered running for national office. “Such a choice would have to come from the people.”

Both Sánchez Gordillo, a grandfather, and Cañamero say they’re willing to face prison for their cause. “I’ve been in jail five times and tried [in court] some 60 times,” Cañamero says. He’s a born revolutionary, coming from impoverished jornalero parents and having begun his run-ins with the law at age 16, when, under the Franco dictatorship, the police caught him distributing pamphlets decrying the problems suffered by his fellow jornaleros. (They beat him brutally for 24 hours, he says.) Illiterate until age 11, he has never read Marx and came to his avowedly leftist positions “from observing life, not from reading.”

Sánchez Gordilla has twice survived assassination attempts at the hands of right-wing extremists and been arrested multiple times. Currently refusing to obey numerous subpoenas, he declares himself to be in a state of insumisión judicial (“insubordination toward the courts”). “I’m sick of being unjustly accused, sick of them persecuting our union. I do not recognize their form of justice,” he says. “Let them put me in jail. Bread and water are fine by me.”

Echoing Sánchez Gordillo, Cañamero says, “It makes no sense to feed middlemen and speculators, as we do when Spain sends a trainload of potatoes to France, which sends a trainload of potatoes back to Spain. All so that middlemen profit, while the farmer gets a few cents for his crops. Remember, the objective of an economy should be to feed people. That’s all.”

The two frankly acknowledge the quixotic, even utopian element of their strivings, but Sánchez Gordillo says Spain has run out of alternatives. “Both parties here, as in the United States, represent capitalism. One just tightens the screws more than the other. But the problem is the systemic nature of the crisis, a crisis inherent in capitalism. Capitalism has proved to be too cruel for the people to bear.”

Sánchez Gordillo is perversely optimistic. “The truth will transform us,” he says. “Our dreams are tough to achieve, but they are just. People won’t go on with no jobs, eating food from the garbage. If things keep going the way they are and there’s no change, they will revolt.”


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