Spain halts evictions under popular pressure

    Graffitti on bank wall in Madrid on November 9. (Diagonal/Olmo Calvo)

    After two years of struggle for housing rights, the Spanish government and the country’s banks have announced an end to evictions for two years in cases of extreme need. Although activists say that this will not stop the “drama of the mortgages,” as it is called by the mass media in Spain, this was the fruit of a long fight by the Platform of the People Affected by Mortgage (PAH) and the housing-rights groups of the 15M assemblies, which have used direct action to prevent nearly 500 evictions.

    One of the last actions before the announcement was an encampment in front of the main Madrid office of Bankia, the bank that is behind 80 percent of the evictions in this region. Three weeks ago, nearly 60 people affected by the mortgage crisis decided to sleep in front of the bank to push for a fair solution to all the cases of evictions carried out by Bankia. After several days sleeping and living in the street, the bank agreed to negotiate, case by case, and stopped the evictions planned for that week. For the occupiers, however, this was not enough.

    “We don’t want them to stop only these evictions, we want a solution for all the people who will be evicted by Bankia,” said Tatiana Koleva, a PAH activist whose own eviction was the first to be prevented by the campaign in Madrid.

    For three weeks, the protest in front of the bank’s office building continued. At the same time, several people were collecting signatures on behalf of a popular initiative calling for a policy of dación en pago, which would make it possible for mortgage-holders to hand back the keys and the property to the bank and end the debt obligation. Despite having already gathered more than the half million signatures needed to introduce dación en pago to the Congress, their goal is to present at least 700,000 signatures to ensure that there is a debate.

    Meanwhile, evictions continued day by day, sometimes with grizzly consequences. On October 25, a 53-year-old man hanged himself in his house in Granada minutes before he was to be evicted. A few days later, in Valencia, another man tried to to commit suicide by jumping out the window in front of his son after opening the door for the police who had come to evict him. Last Friday, 53-year-old Amaia Egana — a former council member in the Basque Country town of Barakaldo — also jumped out of a window before being evicted.

    These suicides represented a turning point. The same night that news was spreading about Amaia Egana in Barakaldo, thousands of people joined demonstrations in many Spanish cities protesting against the evictions and the government’s inaction. Even police joined the effort; one of the major police unions announced legal and financial support for policemen who refuse to participate in evictions. In several cities, mayors have prohibited city police officers from participating in evictions as well.

    In Alicante, several dozen people followed the example of the encampment in Madrid and camped by the doors of the main Bankia office in their city. Across the country the next morning, hundreds of ATM and bank offices had the word “assassins” burned or painted on them. A new call, under the name #OpLolaFlores, invited people to put coins in ATMs to “save the bankers.” This recalled a famous story from the 1980s, when the flamenco singer Lola Flores, accused of swindling the treasury, made a plea for everyone in Spain to give her one peseta — the old currency — in order to pay her fine.

    “The poor bankers are suffering with the crisis,” explains the #OpLolaFlores video. “They need a citizen rescue, a direct rescue. If each citizen puts a cent directly in the ATM, we can help them — but not if we put it in the the wrong groove and accidentally ruin the ATM. Ahem…”

    Two days after the suicide of the woman in Barakaldo, the ruling party, the PP, and the socialist PSOE said that they would join forces to “alleviate the drama of the mortgages.” The Spanish Society of Banks also announced the two-year moratorium in cases of extreme need, although it turned a deaf ear to the proposals for dación en pago and for a public housing stock made up of empty bank-owned properties.

    “They were the parties who voted last year against the dación en pago,” said one person on Twitter after the announcement. Another tweet added, “They are professional politicians running to take credit as the savior against the evictions, #quehablelapah [#letPAHspeak], they are the ones who have worked on this issue.” Over the weekend, #quehablelapah was a trending topic in Spain, and what PAH had to say about the announcement of PP and PSOE was clear. Ada Colau, a founding member of the collective, put it this way in a press release:

    We want to express our absolute distrust for these two parties for several reasons. First, because Partido Popular and Partido Socialista are the two parties that until now have provoked this situation of hundreds of thousands of evictions in this country, commodifying housing and letting the banks swindle people. … Moreover, when the housing bubble exploded and the drama of the evictions was known, for four years these two parties have prevented the approval of any measure to address this problem. The Platform of People Affected by Mortgage has brought this issue to the Congress several times, and the Partido Popular and Partido Socialista have blocked the Congress from adopting any kind of measure.

    Housing, however, has not been the only pressing issue these days in Spain. For a week, workers in at least 12 hospitals have been holding sit-ins in their workplaces to protest the privatization of health care announced by the government in Madrid. Thousands of people joined the protests of the workers, and they have called for a “white march” for next Sunday. Today also marks the second general strike of the year, in coordination with other European countries such as Portugal, Italy, Malta, Cyprus and Greece.

    The Spanish government has only begun to react, but the people’s demands remain unfulfilled, and now the struggle is spreading across Europe.

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