Spain: Anti-eviction pickets drive gov't rage

April 29, 2013
Protest against housing evictions in Barcelona organised by the Platform of Mortgage Victims (PAH), February.

The citizens of the Spanish state awoke on April 14 to shocking news ― acts of “pure Nazism” were spreading across the country.

Not only that, but they were being organised in concert with “elements close to ETA” (the armed Basque independence group that has declared a permanent ceasefire).

Who was responsible? A Spanish equivalent of the Greek neo-Nazi outfit Golden Dawn? Some surviving cell of the Falange (one-time shock troops of the Franco dictatorship and admirers of Hitler’s New Order in Europe)?

Not quite. According to the bearer of this alarming news ― ruling conservative People’s Party (PP) secretary and Castilla-La Mancha premier Dolores de Cospedal ― the author of the outbreak of “pure Nazism” was the Platform of Mortgage Victims (PAH), the most powerful movement of social resistance in the Spanish state.

Peaceful pickets

Cospedal said the “pure Nazism” of the PAH consists in its peaceful pickets of the homes and offices of PP politicians.

This tactic (escrache in Spanish) was widely used by Argentinian human rights activists against officials trying to avoid responsibility for their actions under that country’s bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

The PAH is organising escraches to highlight the stance of PP politicians refusing to support legislation starts to address the ongoing tide of evictions. With nearly 400,000 evictions since 2007, it is destroying lives, and boosting homelessness and the suicide rate.

While this tragedy rolls on as joblessness climbs (to a record 26.7%), 3.4 million housing units remain vacant across the country. This immense pile of unsold “brick” (as it is called here) lies at the heart of a banking crisis that has required a 40 billion euro European Union bailout.

The national PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has had great difficulty dealing with the PAH. Its broad base of support even extends to magistrates who have had to rubber-stamp eviction requests from banks and developers.

With groups in most main Spanish cities, the PAH collected 1.4 million signatures in 10 months for a People’s Legislative Initiative (ILP) demanding that parliament amend the country’s mortgage law.

The terrible law not only requires courts to evict defaulting debtors, but also allows them to embargo assets and future income to guarantee debt repayment.

The PAH ILP called for the suspension of evictions and for legal changes to allow outstanding mortgage debt to be liquidated on surrender of the mortgaged property (called “giving in payment”).

It also demanded that the homes of people facing “giving in payment” remain available to them at a rent no higher than 30% of income. It demanded the stock of hundreds of thousands of housing units held by the state’s “bad bank” SAREB be drawn upon to create a large pool of social housing.

Bad new law

In the Spanish parliament, the PP was initially tempted to vote down the PAH’s ILP but, conscious of the ILP's 90% support in opinion polls, eventually allowed it to pass.

Then, in the light of a European Court of Justice ruling that the country’s archaic mortgage law violated EU consumer protection standards and after extensive consultation with the finance industry, the Rajoy government introduced a parody of mortgage relief law into parliament on April 18.

This will suspend evictions for only two years and only for families that can prove they earn less than 19,000 euros a year. It allows “giving in payment” only in those few extreme cases where there is no chance of the indebted ever again having an income.

It requires banks to accept discounts on some housing mortgages ― 35% if the remainder of the debt is paid off in five years and 20% if it is paid off in 10 (a provision basically applicable to lottery winners).

The PP claims that its new law will help up to 120,000 families. But it is so paltry ― and the anger mobilised by the PAH so strong ― that even the PP’s traditional allies on national Spanish issues, the Catalan conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), have opposed it.

For its part the PAH withdrew its ILP in protest.

The PP’s isolation has also been increased because the Andalusian regional government, a coalition between the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and United Left (IU), adopted a law in early April requiring landlords to lease vacant private housing or face fines.

Now the CiU government in Catalonia is considering taxing proprietors who do not make vacant housing available for rent. However, it may still back down in the face of outrage from the region’s powerful financial and real estate interests.

PP outrage

It was against this background that the PAH decided to increase the pressure on the PP with its escraches.

From the Nazi point of view they have been pretty tame affairs. Rigorously controlled by a code of non-violent conduct, these noisy pickets aim to dramatise the desperateness of a situation that is becoming worse by the day.

The response of the targeted PP pollies has been utter outrage ― how dare the PAH try to threaten the elected representatives of the people! One after another, leading PP figures, including Rajoy, denounced the “intimidation” involved.

On April 10, the interior minister instructed police to keep escraches at least 300 metres from the homes of politicians.

On April 8, Ada Colau, the national PAH spokesperson, replied to the prime minister in an open letter: “Let’s talk about the escraches. It annoys you that we can come and protest outside your house. I understand. I wouldn’t like it either.

“But if you had ever come to an eviction you would understand that something much more annoying is involved. There are thousands of people living in the streets in this country, indebted, unemployed and with nothing to eat…and all the while surrounded by abundance.

“Thousands of families live in the streets of the European country that has piled up most empty housing. They go hungry in a state that allows tons of food in good condition to be thrown away.

“And you govern that country, for which reason you shouldn’t be surprised if those families knock on your door after having tried in vain to get your attention.

“This absolutely exemplary movement has exhausted all the channels that inadequate Spanish democracy has to offer: for more than four years we have tried to negotiate with financial institutions, we have talked with political parties, social services, local government.

“We have put resources into court cases and, toiling like ants, have collected nearly 1.5 million signatures. But all for nothing, the PP has not moved a millimetre and announces that it will reject the measures proposed in the ILP.”

On April 24, the drama moved Brussels. Ada Colau addressed a commission of the European Parliament, asking it to send a delegation to Spain to see the situation for itself.

But the PP’s European MPs were ready for her. PPer Carlos Iturgaiz said: “You present yourself here like a wolf in sheep’s clothing and don’t tell the whole truth … say whether you condemn those escraches or not.”

Colau replied: “I don’t have to condemn anything.”

Raul Romeva, European MP for Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), told the commission that the mortgage drama in Spain reflected “a failure in the system of representative democracy … what the majority of citizens want finds no reflection in a parliamen1tary majority”.

Right to be nervous

The PP is right to be nervous about the PAH. Here is a very broad movement that has refused to be swayed by PP claims it is the first party prepared to do anything about mortgage default and evictions: even the tears of deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria at the plight of the homeless have been in vain.

Its resolute defence of mortgage victims threatens the government’s plans for a recovery of the Spanish finance sector (and economy). This is based on the repayment of the vast majority of mortgage debt and allowing only the most minimal debt relief.

The PAH channels popular anger at the injustice of the Rajoy government “solution” more than the trade unions or any political party ― even those, like IU, which agree with its positions and does what it can to help it.

The PP’s hysteria campaign against PAH “Nazism” also shows all signs of flopping. An April 11 Metroscopia poll found a clear majority in favour of the right to carry out escraches, even among PP voters (52%).

On April 25, the president of the High Court said that peaceful escraches were in line with the right to demonstrate.

That reality, and not some fit of hysteria from an increasingly unpopular politician, is what explains de Cospedal’s attack on the PAH’s “Nazism”.

The longer PAH legitimacy grows in the eyes of the peoples of the Spanish state, the harder it will be for the Rajoy government to impose its policies without fatally undermining what little legitimacy it retains.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.