27% of Spaniards out of work. But in one town everyone has a job

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Sun May 12 20:07:26 BST 2013

27% of Spaniards are out of work. Yet in one town everyone has a job

Special Report: Marinaleda is run along the lines 
of a communist Utopia and boasts collectivised lands
  Alasdair Fotheringham


  Sunday 12 May 2013

As Spanish unemployment reaches another record 
high, the residents of rural Marinaleda could be 
forgiven for feeling a little smug.


Marinaleda resodent Simono Fairlimondo

In the small village in deepest Andalusia, the 
joblessness remains firmly – and almost certainly 
uniquely within Spain – at zero. With one set of 
traffic lights, two bars (one jammed with 
football paraphernalia for the First Division 
side Seville) and one central avenue lined with 
of low terraced houses, Marinaleda looks like 
many villages in western Andalusia.

But huge wall murals depicting the destruction of 
tanks and weaponry, the binning of Nazi symbols, 
and a column of workers marching through the 
fields, are far from the usual graffiti found in 
such places. Nor do many villages name their 
sports hall after Che Guevara, or have oversized 
placards of doves of peace dotted on streets 
named after left-wing heroes such as Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda.

Marinaleda is run along the lines of a communist 
Utopia and boasts collectivised lands (1,200 
previously unused hectares, seized by a mass 
land-grab in 1990 from an aristocrat’s estate) 
which offer every villager the opportunity to 
work the fields, tending to root crops and olive 
groves. In Andalusia, where jobs are currently 
being lost at the rate of about 500 a day, any work is good work.

Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, 
has gained national notoriety and has even been 
dubbed the “Robin Hood of Spain” after he and a 
group of labourers refused to pay a supermarket 
for 10 shopping trolleys filled with food, which 
they distributed to the area’s food banks, 
sparking headlines in countries as far away as Iran.

“That was to draw attention to the fact there are 
so many people in Spain who have a hard time 
getting enough to eat right now,” says Mr Sánchez 
Gordillo. “We wanted to say, in the 21st century 
in Spain, ‘this problem exists’. Gandhi would have supported it.”

But the supermarket “raids” were just the tip of 
the iceberg for Mr Sánchez Gordillo, who has 
spent more than 30 years fighting for wealth 
redistribution via land occupations, cheap 
housing and co-operatives. In Marinaleda, he has 
promoted equal wages policies, scrapped the 
police force and offered mortgages on previously 
state-owned properties, which cannot be sold on 
for profit, of just €15 a month.

When asked about the gulf between Spain’s 27.2 
per cent unemployment rate – the highest in the 
EU – and full employment in Marinaleda, the 
57-year-old former history teacher and 
father-of-three, who works unpaid as mayor, says: 
“It fills me with hope and desperation, both at the same time.”

He says the village is not completely insulated 
from the country’s severe unemployment, which is 
only part of Spain’s financial crisis. He cites 
the cases of young villagers who had been working 
in the construction industry but were forced to 
return to Marinaleda after work dried up. But he 
says he believes Marinaleda is “beating the 
recession better than elsewhere, thanks to our co-operatives and industries”.

Andalusia’s history is peppered with occupations 
of latifundias – huge agricultural estates dating 
back to Roman times – by landless workers. Mr 
Sánchez Gordillo claims these estates make up 
about 50 per cent of the region’s land, but are 
owned by just 2 per cent of Andalusia’s 
population. He says Andalusia is also covered, 
now, with dozens of empty industrial estates that 
are mute testimony to the unemployment that 
blights the region – one sits just 12 miles away 
from Marinaleda, where the only visible “green 
shoots” belonged to weeds flourishing amid the 
patchwork of rusting streetlights, crumbling 
service roads and pedestrian crossings leading nowhere.

“It is true we form part of a tradition, but 
we’re doing something new here too: we’re 
insisting that natural resources should be at the 
service of people, that they have a natural right 
to the land, and that land is not something to be 
marketed,” says Mr Sánchez  Gordillo. “Food 
should not be speculated with either. It is a 
basic human right. We also believe in the 
[common] sovereignty of [food] as a way of 
profoundly changing agriculture in the world, not just one particular place.”

He laments that the village’s initiatives are not 
being adopted elsewhere in the country and even 
across the world. And it seems Mr Sánchez 
Gordillo may not be alone in seeing Marinaleda as 
spearheading a global change “towards a peaceful 
Utopia” – as the road signs leading into the 
village pronounce. Support for moderate to 
hard-left politics is certainly growing in Spain. 
The Communist-led coalition to which Mr Sánchez 
Gordillo’s CUT-BAI party belongs, Izquierda Unida 
(“United Left”), netted 15.6 per cent of the 
votes in a recent poll, more than double than at the 2011 elections.

With his bushy beard, preference for jeans and 
Palestinian scarf (which he says he will only 
remove when they have their own state), Mr 
Sánchez  Gordillo also cultivates a very 
different image to the majority of Spain’s 
politicians. A portrait of Che Guevara, rather 
than the standard picture of King Juan Carlos, 
hangs in pride of place in his mayor’s office.

Mr Sánchez  Gordillo believes Spain’s deep 
recession is the fault of its government. 
“Unfortunately, this [national] government’s 
policies have not been directed towards the 
people’s problems; they were directed towards the 
banks’ problems,” he says. “People are more 
important than banks, particularly when the 
profits are received by a handful of bankers who 
have speculated with basic human rights. The 
money they’ve provided doesn’t reach the base of 
the social pyramid, which is why the economy is 
paralysed. It’s the small property holders and 
businesses who have been hurt the most. [We have] 
six million unemployed and twice that number living in poverty.”

However, like Robin Hood, Mr Sánchez Gordillo’s 
politics has seen him fall foul of the law. The 
land appropriations he encourages are illegal, as 
are the supermarket raids. Imprisoned seven 
times, he has reportedly survived two 
assassination attempts by right-wing extremists. 
Recently he appeared in court over the occupation 
last summer of military terrain in the sierras south of Seville.

The right-wing newspaper La Razón has reported 
that Mr Sánchez Gordillo’s government is in debt 
to the tune of €2.83m (£2.4m), and also quotes 
sources close to the town as saying there are 
months of back payments owed to workers in the 
co-operatives. Other villagers claim, according 
to La Razón, that “if you don’t go to protest” – 
as happened recently at another land-grab in the 
military terrain of Las Turquillas – “then you 
don’t get a job”. There have been repeated 
assertions that Mr Sánchez  Gordillo does not 
share his power and has not held a full village council meeting for 13 months.

But his policies are clearly popular. He has been 
re-elected by massive majorities in each election 
since 1979.  “I wish our mayor was like him,” one 
woman in her forties from a nearby village said 
as she patiently waited for an audience with Mr 
Sánchez  Gordillo outside his office.

Though his methods are frequently debated in 
Spanish media, Mr Sánchez  Gordillo (with some 
financial support from the regional government) 
has been able to offer his village three things 
that much of Spain is desperately wanting: 
employment, affordable housing, and a greater say 
in  government. “The most important thing we’ve 
done here is to struggle and obtain land through 
peaceful means, and to ensure that housing is a 
right, not a business,” Mr Sánchez Gordillo 
concludes. “And as a village we work together, 
discuss and collaborate together: that’s fundamental for any society, too.”

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