Copyright notice: This feature is protected by copyright and may be used only after purchase from IFA-Amsterdam
“We’ve never been tempted by greed and the flattery of banks and real estate brokers."
Crisis? Qué crisis?
Can Marinaleda’s flamenco comunism save Spain from the recession?
Whilst all of Spain, from Bilbao to Granada is racked by crisis, in one far corner of the southern province of Sevilla a little village called Marinaleda bravely resists the tidal wave of economical pessimism and financial adversity that is affecting the country. While thousands of Spanish families face repossessions due to missed mortgage payments, the odd 400 households of Marinaleda all own their house paying no more than 15,52 euro a month. And whereas the general unemployment rate in Spain has risen to a deplorable 24% (and has reached a dramatic 33% in Andalusia!) only 3,75% of population of Marinaleda is jobless. Marinaleda’s secret weapon’s has a name: Juan Manuel Sanchéz Gordillo. The charismatic communist mayor has held the reins in this community for thirty three years.
It’s high noon in Marinaleda, when we cruise along Calle Che Guevara, across the Plaza Salvador Allende, entering the heart of Marinaleda through Avenida Libertad. The Andalusian sun burns down merciless on our heads. This is what they call la sartén de Andalucía, the frying pan of Andalusia; a monotonous and flat land dotted with olive trees. Just an hour’s drive away from Seville, Andalusia’s capital city. You can literally see the heat rise up from the scorched earth in vibrating waves.
It’s the weekend of the yearly feria (fair) of Marinaleda, but there are no signs of any festivities at this hour yet. We drive along the sports complex, where revolutionary slogans give a touch of color to the otherwise white walls. The graffiti artists don’t excel in originality: their work displays a lot of flying banners - I even recognize the old Soviet flag - and many raised fists and marching men and women, slogans against capitalism and images of rockets being set on fire. The atmosphere of the newly built neighborhoods in this part of the village, together with the revolutionary graffiti, involuntarily evoke memories of my own youth, in the beginning of the eighties, when Margaret Thatcher forcibly closed the cole mines and the protest marches against the American nuclear missiles were organized all over Europe. The communist parties of that era used the same style of propaganda slogans and imagery.
But today Spanish miners are fighting a battle against the Guardia Civil in Madrid and in other Spanish cities thousands of citizens are marching against the recently elected politicians and their drastic measures. Meanwhile in Marinaleda people are having a party.
While most of the feria’s in Spain have suffered from the cutbacks - some were even shortened by a few days - Marinaleda celebrates their feria as usual: four days (well, nights rather) of fun and fiesta. The 2708 souls of the village sing the praise of their mayor, who’s reigned since 1979 and introduced his own system of village development: for only 15,52 euro per month you can build your own house where you can stay as long as you live. The town hall pays for building materials and the builders, but you have to help build your house yourself as well. You can’t sell your house (but you can give it to your children) thus excluding speculation.
The central square of the village is decorated with little flags and in front of the Union House a temporary bar with plastic tables and chairs has been set up for the occasion. At the edge of the square a handful of grown ups and their children are watching the first festive game of the day from behind a fence: piggy catch. A teenager is trying to get a grip on a previously greased piglet, but the poor thing keeps slithering through his hands, shaking from fear and screaming like - well - a pig. The bystanders are clearly enjoying themselves, but we shudder at the cries of the pig. Andalusians and animals remains a difficult combination. To the left and right of us a few early birds are seated at tables that are positioned in the shade. A sprinkling system made of thin rubber tubes and nozzles sprays cool mist over the terrace making the temperature drop a few degrees: from 42°C to 38°C seems negligible, but to all of us present it makes a big difference. I hurry into the temporary feria bar for a tinto de verano, a concoction of red wine and a local type of Seven-Up called Casera. A nineteen year old boy named Abismael serves me swiftly. He, like all the helping hands today, wears a red t-shirt with the text ‘Ni recortes, ni despidos, ni desahucios, ni deuda’, which translates as ‘No cutbacks, no lay offs, no evictions, no debts’. Among these volunteers you won’t hear a negative word about the mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. “In Marinaleda we may not be be rich, but we don’t have any debts either, and we have a house to live in for very little money. But we work very hard too and we are always vigilant; we’ve never been tempted by greed or by the smooth talk of banks and real estate agents.’ Abismael smiles: ‘The project developers have no business here: Juan Manuel chased them out of the village.”
AUTO CONSTRUCTION AND EVICTION
It’s the first time today that we hear someone mention his name, and it won’t be the last. Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. The man is a living legend in politically progressive circles around the world. Complete delegations of dignitaries from Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba have come to Marinaleda to study his utopian socialist model; comrades from Romania, Germany and the UK have travelled to the Andalusian village to see this socialist miracle with their own eyes. Whereas a year ago the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) received one of the severest electoral punishments in history from the PP, the right-wing conservative party of current prime minister Mariano Rajoy, in Marinaleda seventy three percent voted for the Mr. Sanchez Gordillo and is party, the Colectivo de Unidad de Los Trabajadores. The rest of the votes went to the PSOE. There simply is no place for the right-wing politics of the PP in this socialist stronghold. When the Andalusian head of the PP, Javier Arenas, came to campaign in Marinaleda in 1995, he left again with his tail between his legs before he even could get started: all bars and shops had closed their doors the day of his visit, as if it were a day of mourning, and Mr. Arenas was met by a crowd of people (all workers had been given an hour off by the cooperative), calling him a fascist and a ‘hijo de puta.’
That was the last time anyone from the PP was seen in the village.
To what does Mr. Sánchez Gordillo owe his success? Which ingredients contains the magic concoction which he serves his loyal villagers? His politics are based on two pillars that earned him lifelong popularity: first, his idea of urbanism, which he calls autoconstrucción (self construction). The town hall provides the land, the architectural plans and the building materials to build your own house. If you aren’t very handy, the municipality also provides two bricklayers, electricians and plumbers (at a rate of 45 euro per day per worker). In return, you pay a little over fifteen euros per month. You cannot sell your house, but you can pass it on to your children. If you move away, the municipality regains possession of the house and refunds you the investments made. The second pillar of Mr. Sánchez Gordillo’s success is his achievement to expropriate 1500 hectares of farmland from the Duke of Infantado, a local seigneur. Maybe ‘expropriate’ wouldn’t be the right term. After a long legal battle, the town hall, together with the Junta de Andalucía (the Andalusian government) managed to trick the Duke out 1500 hectares of undeveloped land. Some critical voices say that the Duke has yet to recover from laughter because his land was sold for far more money than it was actually worth. Fact is that this stretch of agricultural land now belongs to the cooperative, and is thus in the hands of the laborers who use it to grow peppers, artichokes, beans and broccoli.
Previously, a lack of farmland was the main problem of the village. The duke owned valuable acres and let it lie fallow. A legacy of the Franco era, when the Andalusian nobility still ruled in a feudal manner and in exchange for their support of Franco were allocated large pieces of land.
After the expropriation the unemployment rate in Marinaleda went down from a staggering seventy percent to a modest three and a half percent. The jornaleros (laborers) work on the campo or in the cannery of the cooperative where vegetables are being pickled and canned. They make little over thousand euros a month, which is ample income taken into account the low mortgage and free municipal facilities like the sports center, swimming pool, library and low fee for kindergarten and child care centers (for which locals pay seventeen euros a month).
“HANG THE BANKERS!”
A few days prior to my visit I had called Mr. Sanchéz Gordillo to set up an interview. He had told me to be in the village at two o’ clock in the afternoon and to call him as soon as I had arrived. After a few hours of vainly redialing his cell phone number I finally got a hold of him around five o’ clock. He called me back personally and apologized for the delay: he had been on service during the night as a camarero (waiter) at the feria and had been working until half past seven in the morning. He’d just woken up. It’s a yearly tradition for the mayor to actively participate in the festivities.
Later on he confides that he always chooses to work the first two days of the feria, to be able to party the other half. Long live flamenco socialism!
He invites me to the cultural center of the village, where he’s about to begin his weekly television interview. According to good practice, the communist mayor established his own tv- and radio network. In the weekly talk-show Linea Directa he will be interviewed by Suzana Falcón, an Argentinian journalist who’s in charge of the broadcasting. When we enter the studios, the tv recording has already started. The director invites us into the studio and pulls up a few chairs, so that we can enjoy the show first row. It is the first time I see Sánchez Gordillo in person and with his long gray beard he really looks like a mini-version of Fidel Castro. He wears a red checkered shirt, which must give his viewers headaches as the small checkers will certainly start dancing and swarming on screen. Under the sober desk I can see the mayors bare legs stick out from underneath red shorts, which is very unlike Castro, and as a good revolutionary he wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck. Together with presenter Falcón the mayor discusses current affairs. Syria and Palestine pass by, but naturally the financial crisis and the precarious situation of the Spanish treasury take up most of the program. The Spanish interest rate has recently crossed the border of 7% and the mayor gets all worked up about it.
“Crisis, just like wars, are caused by rich people. Their criminal gluttony lies at the base of this financial crisis and as usual the victims are the poor who will have to pay for it and moreover have to compromise their rights. This crisis is hitting hard on Andalusia in particular; we have a record number of unemployed: 33 %, i.e. 1 250 000 people! At the same time three million people are living below poverty level. The Spanish banks have indebted themselves with the German and French banks to finance the real estate bubble, and when it burst they turned to the government to ask them to take over the debt with public money. To pay off this debt the government has to make severe cuts in their spending budget. These cuts directly affect the weakest in our society. It’s a debt that we shouldn’t have paid off, for it’s a private debt made by private banks that overplayed their hand through risky speculation driven by money-hungry bankers. We should refuse to pay off this debt, because it’s not a legitimate debt and it will drive innocent people into unemployment and poverty. Wages are reduced, pensions are cut, the reimbursement of medicines is suspended and austerity cuts are being made in health care, education and social services. And as I speak the cost for electricity is rising again, a VAT increase is being implemented and with one stroke of the pen more rights for which we have fought for years are being abolished. This crisis has its own executioners which are the bankers. Capitalism has gone bankrupt and banks are rescued with money that these same capitalists steal from the workers. I call it terrorismo capitalista! They should have been thrown in jail a long time ago for their crimes, but they are being saved by their allies in the PSOE and PP parties who should be thrown in jail together with the bankers! Ah, prison is actually too good for them; for destroying so many lives, for taking away so many jobs and for looting the treasury, for stealing the people’s money they should be dangling from the highest tree. The time is ripe for a socialist utopia.”
While he continues to fulminate against the economic policy of Spain and Europe, I see his short legs frantically bobbing up and down under the desk. The revolutionary fire still burns inside of Sánchez Gordillo. That, according to his friends and enemies, is both his strength and his weakness. “He is fighting a permanent revolution. From a philosophical viewpoint that is commendable, but socially his battle constantly evokes conflicts”, states an employee in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Just before she finishes the interview the presenter wants to discuss the feria with the mayor. She also casually excuses herself with the viewers for the fact that no images of the festivities of the previous day can be shown, because the tv studio had been evacuated due to a mouse plague.
The poor woman had better not brought that up, because the mayor now really seems to lose his temper. “Yes, now you mention it, it’s actually a shame that you didn’t broadcast yesterday. You could have, but you just chose not to.” The presenter flushes and stumbles: “But Juan Manuel, the place was infested with mice: there were mice droppings on my desk, which is not very hygienic.”
“So what, you just bring a couple of cats to the studio and they solve the problem in half a day. By the way, I don’t see any mice. Do you see a mouse? Show it to me!” The mayor is now flushing too and he fiercely swings his arms. The shocked presenter is highly embarrassed with the situation and tries to defend herself: “But mouse droppings, Juan Manuel...”
“Mouse droppings? You just clean them up and get on with your work! After all they’re only mice. It would have been different if there had been lions or tigers on the loose, in which case I would have understood the fact you didn’t do you job. But mice? Mice?!? Give me a break will you!”
I notice the presenters lip starts to tremble. A tear runs down her cheek. She’s clearly affected by the direct attack of the mayor, live on air on Marinaleda TV. I wonder how many people are watching their local TV station this afternoon. It must be difficult to preserve your journalistic independence if your direct boss is sitting on the other end of the desk. Which brings us to the biggest criticism of Sánchez Gordillo. Adversaries and supporters alike have problems with the mayor’s headstrong approach. “He decides what’s being sown on the land, while he knows nothing of agriculture”, says Antonio in one of the two remaining bars in the village. It’s a small, dingy canteen where they charge one euro for a beer with a tapa and where you have to ask the key to open the servicios at the back. “If he could he’d also tell you which color underwear you’d have to wear”, adds Antonio with a cynic smile. The man only started talking to me when the other clients had left and the bar was empty. “Nobody in this village dares to open his mouth, out of fear to say something wrong about Señor alcalde. He is the one who hands out the jobs at the Humoso (the agricultural cooperative). And if you criticize his politics, you fall from grace. He’s torn the village apart. The locals know I’m critical of his politics, and when they see me in the village they’re afraid to greet me. But if they see me in a neighboring village they suddenly dare to speak to me again.”
I’ve noticed, I tell him, that for a village of almost 3000 souls, there are very few bars and restaurants. Only two cafes, no restaurants, one bakery and two small groceries.” “You’re right”, sighs Antonio, who constantly keeps an eye on the door, to watch for eavesdroppers. “If it were up to Gordillo, he would create one central cooperative bakery, and he already proposed the idea to close the existing bars and instead open one communal bar in the Sindicato (the Union House). The barkeepers could then join forces and work for him. Maybe Gordillo doesn’t mean harm, but he aims for total control over the village: from the Town Hall, the housing politics, the cooperative, wherever he’s got his men he cracks the whip.” “Isn’t there anything positive to say about the mayor”, I ask Antonio. After all he’s been elected by seventy three percent of the villagers. “Oh, surely there is”, says the man. “It’s hard to deny that his politics of autoconstrucción have been a big success. Although I’d have to add that some people who already owned a house in the village aren’t very pleased because the real estate prices haven’t risen at all the past few years. There simply is no real estate market in Marinaleda; you can’t sell your house, because the autoconstrucción houses will always be a better bargain. And the cooperative is a good thing; it only needs better management, because its productivity is now lower than in neighboring farms. And this year the wages were paid later than normal, so business is probably not really flourishing at the moment.”
This type of criticism runs off Sanchéz Gordillo like water from a duck’s back. After the broadcast he takes me on a tour through his village. It’s seven o‘ clock in the evening but it’s still scorching hot in Marinaleda. The mayor still wears his bright red shorts and matching red sandals. Together we stroll through new neighborhoods that were built in the nineties according to his ‘self-construction’ system. We are enthusiastically greeted by residents that are sitting on the sidewalks and by a group of children playing football. Everybody knows the mayor and the mayor knows everybody personally.
“The plans for these houses were drawn by the municipal architect. They standardly contain three bedrooms, a garage and a garden. Whoever wishes can build an extra room above the garage, at his own expense. So far we’ve built four-hundred of these houses and we are planning two hundred more. The houses are basic but efficient and they are eighty percent cheaper to build than normal social houses. Demand exceeds supply and today unemployed people from all over Spain flock to Marinaleda in the search of a job and a home. But as a village we have limited resources.” In the middle of one of the streets the mayor stands still. “Look, this is my house. I don’t have any extra privileges and I live among the laborers who work on the land. My wife is also a jornalera, a day laborer, who goes out to work on the land every day.”
Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, who in a former life was a history teacher in high-school, speaks openly about his own income. “I make three thousand euros a month as an MP, of which I donate fifteen hundred to the party. I spend five hundred euros a month on charity: doctors without borders, the Palestine Committee, the needy in general. I don’t want to earn more money than the people around me, because I want to know how they live. I don’t own a car. Nobody working in the Town Hall is paid, which saves us a lot of money. Nine annual wages to be exact. We have no municipal police force, which we don’t consider necessary in a village of less than 3000 inhabitants. That saves us three hundred thousand euros per year. What we do have is an elaborate sports center, football and basketball courts and a swimming pool. All free to use. The cultural center: free. The library: free. We have a children day care center which only costs seventeen euros per month per head, including a daily hot meal for the children.”
“There’s no such thing a a free lunch”, I tell the alcalde. “Of course not”, he answers affably. “I get my financial donation from the Spanish government and the Junta of Andalusia, who in their turn receive their money from the Spanish tax payers. Every village and every town in Spain are allocated a yearly budget according to the number of inhabitants. The only difference is that I spend these means in a different way than 99 % of the other municipalities. I think a house is a basic human right, just like a job. That’s why I give priority to these two basic needs when spending the municipal budget.”
Sánchez Gordillo takes me to the swimming pool, a gigantic, impeccably maintained complex that exists of three pools of different sizes. “Sheer luxury”, I say admiringly. The mayor grins. “Socialism isn’t meant to make everybody poor, like my opponents always tend to say, it’s about making it possible for everybody to live a comfortable life.”
It’s time to say goodbye. The mayor wants to take a shower and is going to prepare himself for the feria tonight.
“For which newspaper do you write?” he asks just before he leaves. I tell him. The mayor nods and walks a few meters with us. “Otro mundo es posible!” he says when we shake hands. Another world is possible.
"I really believe that the old fox at the very last moment tried to impose the title of your article to you”, says my girlfriend as we get into the car for the journey back home. “I feel great admiration for the old fox”, I reply as I steer our old Volkswagen into the Avenida Libertad. “But I’m not sure if I would want to live in his village. The uniform houses, the very obvious propaganda machine, the imposed community spirit, the lack of any doubt or self-criticism just aren’t my thing. But then again I'm a spoiled independent little writer with the luxury to make my own choices in life. If I were a poor laborer, I'd probably vote for Sánchez Gordillo too. I only fear that this socialist experiment is a little too tightly connected to the man’s own personality and his untamable fighting spirit.”
We drive past the mayor’s house, where we see him stepping outside, freshly showered and in trousers this time. Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo waves at us from far away and with a brisk pace he walks down Calle Che Guevara. Hasta la victoria siempre, alcalde.
© IFA-Amsterdam 2013.
All text and pictures published on this website are subject to copyright protection. Reproduction of any text published on this website, in whole or in part, in any form or medium, without express written permission from IFA is prohibited. All use is subject to our Terms & Conditions. To request reprint rights, please contact us.