Robin Hood Strives for Utopia in a Small Town in Spain

Marinaleda Spain

The leftist mayor of the small town of Marinaleda
has sidestepped capitalism with his unusual
economic model. Spain’s crisis may be biting, but in
this town the jobless have an alternative.

The El Humoso estate doesn’t look particularly
impressive to the outsider. After a day of heavy
rainfall, the ground is muddy and uneven. Due to a
harvesting lull a small band of chickens pecking at
the ground is virtually the only sign of life. But the
words daubed on a wall near the entrance to the
estate hint at its importance for the local people:
“This land is for the unemployed workers of
Marinaleda.”

“If you’re a businessman, this place wouldn’t
interest you, because you wouldn’t make any money
out of it,” said Juan Prieto, who has worked at El
Humoso for many years. “But those of us who work
here do so simply to be able to survive.”

Maverick mayor

El Humoso may lie several kilometers outside the
Andalusian town of Marinaleda, but the estate is at
the very heart of its economic model. It is the base
for the town agricultural cooperative, which
provides work for those from the town who have lost
their jobs.

This is part of an attempt by the town’s maverick
mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, who has
held his post since 1979, to create a genuinely
socialist environment that sidesteps capitalism and
market forces.

In the 1980s, Sanchez Gordillo, Prieto and other
members of a local labor union occupied this land
in protest at the fact it was not being used. They
eventually persuaded Andalusia’s regional
authorities to expropriate it from its owner, an
aristocrat.

Ever since then the land has belonged to Marinaleda
and its workers, who grow artichokes, peppers and
beans on it. The produce is then tinned in a nearby
factory, which is also part of the cooperative project.

Seeking utopia

“The idea is to ensure that the wealth that is created
is distributed with as much justice as possible,” said
Sanchez Gordillo. Now 60, the mayor has become an
instantly recognizable figure in Spain, with his long,
graying beard and Middle Eastern neck scarf. He is
talking in his home, and the picture of Che Guevara
hanging behind him is a reminder of his leftist
convictions.

His aim, he says, is to create a “Utopia [that] seeks
to convert people’s noblest dreams into reality,
whether it’s decent housing, a job, or good
healthcare – the basic elements that allow people to
live well and with dignity.”

Sanchez Gordillo has been implementing his leftist
vision here for three decades. But as Spain’s
economic crisis has bitten deeper, Marinaleda’s
unique status has become more and more apparent.

The country’s unemployment rate recently rose to a
record 25 percent, the highest in Europe. In the
southern region of Andalusia, traditionally one of
Spain’s poorer areas, that rises to 35 percent. Due to
its reliance on agriculture and seasonal
fluctuations, there is no reliable jobless data in this
town, although all estimates put the figure much
lower than the national average. Many local people
attribute this to the El Humoso cooperative and the
mayor’s economic vision.

“Other towns are worse off than us. We notice the
crisis a bit less than other places,” said Menchu de
Juan, the owner of a bar and nightclub.
Nonetheless, she said Marinaleda hasn’t fully
escaped Spain’s employment crisis and recession.
“In this country we need to get rid of [Mariano]
Rajoy, because he’s killing us,” she says of the
conservative prime minister.

Another initiative Marinaleda has used to confound
the orthodoxy of the market is its housing plan.
Local people take part in the building of their own
homes, which they then buy for much lower
amounts than they would normally. The aim is not
only to provide cheap housing but also to avoid the
kind of property and credit bubble that is blamed for
sparking Spain’s current crisis.

The legacy of the property bubble

In the rest of Spain, the jobless issue and housing
crisis have been closely entwined. The bursting of
the property bubble in 2008 saw tens of thousands
of jobs in the construction industry destroyed,
leaving many families unable to pay their mortgages.
A recent report commissioned by Spain’s judicial
oversight body estimated that 350,000 evictions had
taken place since the economic crisis started, due to
unpaid debts.

Marinaleda’s status as a town swimming against the
political current is visible all over the town. Along
its main street are colorful murals dedicated to
Cuban socialism and Latin American
revolutionaries. There is a Che Guevara sports
complex and a square named after Salvador Allende,
the Chilean socialist leader.

But Sanchez Gordillo himself insists that he is
pursuing a unique political vision, rather than
strictly adhering to one particular ideology.

“Jesus Christ was a great utopian and he wanted
equality and sought the redistribution of wealth with
justice,” said the mayor. “Gandhi is another. There
are also important Marxists, anarchists and
humanists. I think you have to bring together
different ideas in an effort to achieve a better world.”

Sanchez Gordillo insists that his methods of striving
for the utopia he outlines are always non-violent.
However, critics point to one of his more
controversial actions earlier this year as evidence
that this is not true.

The “Robin Hood mayor”

In the summer, the mayor supervised two raids on
supermarkets in Andalusia by members of the SAT
labor union. They entered the stores, filled up
shopping trolleys with foodstuffs and then left
without paying. The food was then given to
charities. According to Sanchez Gordillo, who
became known as “the Robin Hood mayor” after the
raids, these were symbolic gestures to highlight the
depth of the economic crisis.

But several members of the union were
subsequently arrested and Interior Minister Jorge
Fernández Díaz criticized the move as a stunt: “We
all know that there are people who are having a
difficult time, but the end doesn’t justify the means,”
he said.

There is also criticism of Marinaleda’s leadership
from within the town itself. Sanchez Gordillo and
his United Left coalition have controlled the town
hall for 33 years, while the more mainstream
Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which sees
Andalusia as its heartland, has been marginalized.

“We shouldn’t be chasing utopia, we should be
trying to achieve concrete goals and Marinaleda
hasn’t managed to do that in over 30 years,” said
Hipolito Aires Navarro, a local member of the PSOE.

He says the town needs more industry and should
rely less on agriculture. He also queries the town
hall’s claims of low unemployment, especially when
there is a lull in farming activity.

But with new figures released by the European
Commission forecasting a further increase in
unemployment for Spain in 2013, as well as another
year of recession, Marinaleda’s critics are finding it
hard to be heard. For the moment, Sanchez Gordillo
appears to be safe in his post and in this corner of
Andalusia, the search for utopia will continue.

Published in Deutsche Welle November 9, 2012 and distributed by PORTSIDE (Seen Links)

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