From Bilbao, in the north, to Granada, in the south, Spain is racked by crisis. In one corner of the southern province of Seville, however, a little village called Marinaleda (population: 2,778) is resisting the tidal wave of economical pessimism and financial adversity that is crippling the country. While thousands of Spanish families face having their home repossessed, the 400-odd households of Marinaleda all own their own house, paying no more than €15.52 (HK$156) a month. And whereas the overall unemployment rate in Spain has risen to 24 per cent (and has reached a dramatic 33 per cent in Andalusia, the area in which Seville lies) only 3.75 per cent of the population of Marinaleda are jobless.
Marinaleda has a secret weapon: Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo. The charismatic communist mayor, who has recently made global headlines by leading "workers' marches" across southern Spain, some of which have resulted in the looting of supermarkets and the distribution of their stock to the poor, has held the reins in this community for 33 years.
It's high noon in Marinaleda. I cruise along Calle de Ernesto Che Guevara, across the Plaza Salvador Allende, entering the heart of Marinaleda along the Avenida de la Libertad. The Andalusian sun burns down mercilessly on my head. Just an hour's drive from the city of Seville, this is what they call " la sarten de Andalucia", "the frying pan of Andalusia"; a monotonous and flat land dotted with olive trees. The heat rises from the scorched earth in waves.
It's the weekend of Marinaleda's yearly feria (fair) but there are no signs of any festivities. We drive alongside the sports complex, revolutionary slogans giving a touch of colour to its white walls. Marinaleda's graffiti artists don't excel in originality: their work displays a lot of flying banners - even the old Soviet flag - raised fists, marching men and women, slogans against capitalism and images of rockets being set on fire.
While Spanish miners fight the Civil Guard in Madrid and thousands of citizens elsewhere march against recently elected politicians and their drastic austerity measures, in Marinaleda, the people are preparing to party.
Ferias are a ubiquitous feature of Spanish life, but this year most have been dampened by cutbacks - some have even been shortened by a few days. Marinaleda is looking forward to its usual four days (and nights) of fun and fiesta.
The central square has been adorned with flags and in front of 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 watch the first festive game of the day - piggy catch - from behind a fence. A teenager is trying to get a grip on a greased piglet but the poor beast keeps slithering through his hands, shaking from fear and squealing like, well, a pig.
Early birds are seated at tables set in the shade. A sprinkler system of thin rubber tubes and nozzles sprays cool mist over the terrace, reducing the temperature by a few degrees: from 42 degrees Celsius to a slightly less uncomfortable 38 degrees.
At the bar, 19-year-old Abismael is serving tinto de verano: a concoction of red wine and a local type of lemonade called Casera. He, like all the helping hands today, wears a red T-shirt bearing the slogan, " Ni recortes, ni despidos, ni desahucios, ni deuda": "No cutbacks, no lay-offs, no evictions, no debts".
"In Marinaleda we may not be rich, but we don't have any debts either, and we have a house to live in for very little money," says Abismael. "But we work 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.
"The project developers have no business here," he says, smiling. "Juan Manuel chased them out of the village."
It's the first time I hear the mayor's name mentioned today, but it won't be the last. Gordillo is a living legend in politically progressive circles around the world. Delegations of dignitaries from Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba have come to Marinaleda to study his utopian socialist model; comrades from Romania, Germany and Britain have travelled to the Andalusian village to see his socialist miracle with their own eyes.
A year ago the Spanish socialist party (PSOE) received one of the severest electoral defeats in history, from the People's Party (PP), the right-wing conservative party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. In Marinaleda, 73 per cent voted for Gordillo and his party, the Colectivo de Unidad de Los Trabajadores. The rest of the votes went to the PSOE; there is no place for right-wing politics in this socialist stronghold.
When the Andalusian head of the PP, Javier Arenas, came to campaign in Marinaleda in 1995, he left with his tail between his legs; all the bars and shops closed their doors, as if it were a day of mourning. Arenas was confronted by a crowd (all workers had been given an hour off by the co-operative), calling him a fascist and a " hijo de puta" ("son of a bitch").
The PP hasn't visited since.
Gordillo's politics are based on two popular pillars. His housing policy, which he calls autoconstruccion (self construction), dictates that villagers build their own homes, in which they can stay as long as they live. They can't sell their house (although they can give it to their children), thus prohibiting speculation. The town hall provides the land, the architectural plans and the building materials, although future occupants are expected to help with the construction. To help with the build, the municipality can provide two bricklayers, electricians and plumbers at a rate of €45 per day, per worker. The resident then pays €15.52 a month. If an occupant moves away, the municipality regains possession of their house and refunds them the investment made.
Gordillo's success has also been built on the acquisition of farmland from the Duke of Infantado, a local seigneur. After a long legal battle, the town hall, together with the Andalusian government managed to wrest from the duke 1,500 hectares of undeveloped land. Critics of the plan say the duke has yet to recover from a lengthy bout of laughter, having sold his land for far more than it was worth. The fact is, though, that this stretch of agricultural land now belongs to the village co-operative and is used to grow peppers, artichokes, beans and broccoli.
A lack of farmland had been a major problem for the village. A legacy of the Franco era, when the Andalusian nobility ruled over a feudal system, the land had been given to the duke by the head of state in return for the former's support.
After the acquisition, the unemployment rate in Marinaleda dropped from 70 per cent to 3.5 per cent. Jobs materialised on the land and in the co-operative's cannery, where vegetables are pickled and canned. Each worker makes a little over €1,000 a month, an ample income when you take into account the low mortgage rate and the fact that most municipal facilities are free.
GORDILLO HAS ASKED me to call him at 2pm, to arrange a meeting. I finally get through to him at 5pm. He apologises; he was working as a waiter at the feria and didn't finish until 7.30am. He's just woken up. It's tradition for the mayor to participate in the festivities, he says.
He will later confide that he always opts to work the first two days of the feria, so he can party the other two. Long live flamenco socialism!
He invites me to Marinaleda's cultural centre, where he's about to begin his weekly television interview. The mayor has established his own TV and radio network. He will be interviewed for the show Linea Directa by Suzana Falcon, an Argentinian journalist who's in charge of broadcasting.
When I arrive at the studio, recording has already started. The director pulls up a chair for me. It is the first time I have seen Gordillo in person and, with his long grey beard, he looks uncannily like Fidel Castro. He is wearing a red checked shirt; beneath the desk, the mayor's bare legs stick out from red shorts, slightly undoing the illusion of Castro, and like a good revolutionary, he is wearing a Palestinian scarf. Falcon and the mayor discuss current affairs - Syria and Palestine - but the financial crisis and the precarious situation of the Spanish treasury take up most of the airtime. The mayor gets worked up about interest rates.
"Crises, just like wars, are caused by rich people," he says. "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, Andalusia in particular; we have a record number of unemployed. The Spanish banks 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. 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, 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: 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 but they are being saved by their allies in the PSOE and PP parties, who should be thrown in jail with them. Ah, prison is 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."
His short legs waggle frantically beneath the desk. The revolutionary fire burns inside of 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," stated an employee in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
Before she finishes the interview the presenter wants to discuss the feria with the mayor. She apologises to the viewers for the fact that no images of the festivities of the previous day can be shown. The TV studio had to be evacuated because of a plague of mice.
"Now you mention it, it's actually a shame that you didn't broadcast yesterday," says Gordillo, sensing a new outrage. "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," counters the mayor. "By the way, I don't see any mice. Do you see a mouse? Show it to me."
He swings his arms about fiercely. The shocked presenter 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 why you didn't do your job. But mice? Mice! Give me a break!"
A tear runs down Falcon's cheek. I wonder how many people are watching Marinaleda TV this afternoon.
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," said Antonio, earlier, in one of the two bars in the village. It's a small, dingy canteen where you can get a beer with a tapa for €1. "If he could, he'd also tell you what colour underwear to wear," he added, with a cynical smile. Antonio only started talking when the other customers had left and the bar was empty. "Nobody in this village dares to open their mouth, out of fear of saying something wrong about Señor Alcalde ['Mr Mayor']. He is the one who hands out the jobs at the Humoso [the agricultural co-operative]. And if you criticise 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 neighbouring village they suddenly dare to speak to me again." Antonio constantly keeps an eye on the door, on the lookout for eavesdroppers.
"If it were up to Gordillo, he would create one central co-operative 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," said Antonio, explaining the relative lack of bars and eateries in the village. "Maybe Gordillo doesn't mean harm but he aims for total control over the village: from the town hall, the housing politics, the co-operative, wherever he's got his men he cracks the whip."
"Isn't there anything positive to say about the mayor," I asked. After all he's been elected by 73 per cent of the village.
"Oh, surely there is," he said. "It's hard to deny that his politics of autoconstruccion 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 real estate prices haven't risen at all in the past few years. There simply is no real estate market in Marinaleda; you can't sell your house, because the autoconstruccion houses will always be a better bargain. And the co-operative is a good thing; it only needs better management, because its productivity is now lower than in neighbouring farms. And this year the wages were paid later than normal, so business is probably not really flourishing."
SUCH CRITICISM RUNS off Gordillo like water from a duck's back. After the broadcast, he takes me on a tour of the village. It's 7pm but it's still scorching hot.
The mayor, in his bright red shorts and matching red sandals, and I stroll through neighborhoods built in the 1990s under his system of governance. We are enthusiastically greeted by residents who sit and chat on the pavements and by a group of children playing football. Everybody knows the mayor and the mayor knows everybody.
"The plans for these houses were drawn by the municipal architect. They are standard and contain three bedrooms, a garage and a garden. Whoever wishes can build an extra room above the garage, at his own expense. We've built 400 of these houses and we are planning 200 more. The houses are basic but efficient and they are 80 per cent cheaper to build than normal social houses. Demand exceeds supply and unemployed people from all over Spain flock to Marinaleda in 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, who was once a high-school history teacher, stops: "Look, this is my house. I don't have any extra privileges and I live among the labourers who work on the land. My wife is also jornalera, a day labourer, who goes out to work on the land every day.
"I make €3,000 a month as an MP, of which I donate €1,500 to the party. I spend €500 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 - we don't consider one necessary in a village of less than 3,000 inhabitants. That saves us €300,000 a year. What we do have is an elaborate sports centre, football and basketball courts and a swimming pool. All free to use. The cultural centre: free. The library: free. We have a children's day-care centre which costs only €17 per month per head, including a daily hot meal for the children."
Is there such a thing as a free lunch?
"Of course not," says Gordillo, affably. "I get my financial donation from the Spanish government and the Junta of Andalusia, who in turn receive their money from the Spanish taxpayers. Every village and every town in Spain is allocated a yearly budget according to the number of inhabitants. The only difference is that I spend these means in a different way to 99 per cent 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 needs when spending the municipal budget."
Gordillo takes me to the swimming pool, a gigantic, impeccably maintained complex of three different sized pools.
"Socialism isn't meant to make everybody poor, as 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 get ready for the feria.
" Otro mundo es posible!" he says, when we shake hands. Another world is possible. I suspect he's trying to give me a headline for my story.
As I drive down Avenida de la Libertad and past the mayor's house, he steps outside, freshly showered and in trousers (not red ones). Gordillo waves and turns to walk briskly down Calle de Ernesto Che Guevara.
Hasta la victoria siempre, alcalde.
IFA – Amsterdam