Mayor's Robin Hood tactics banish joblessness from Spanish village

Marinaleda Mayor Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo with fellow activists who now work on seized land. Photo / AFP
Marinaleda Mayor Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo with fellow activists who now work on seized land. Photo / AFP

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

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 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 (1200 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 being lost at the rate of about 500 a day, any work is good work.

Marinaleda's Mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez 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 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 Sanchez 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 Sanchez 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 ($24) a month.

When asked about the gulf between Spain's 27.2 per cent unemployment rate - the highest in the European Union - 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 huge agricultural estates dating back to Roman times by landless workers. Sanchez 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 20km from Marinaleda, where the only visible"green shoots" belonged to weeds flourishing amid the patchworkof rusting streetlights, crumbling service roads and pedestrian crossings that lead 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 Sanchez Gordillo.

He laments that the village's initiatives are not being adopted elsewhere in Spain and even across the world. And it seems Sanchez 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 Sanchez Gordillo's party belongs 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 remove only when they have their own state), Sanchez Gordillo also cultivates a very different image from 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.

He 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 ..."

However, like Robin Hood, Sanchez Gordillo's politics have 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.

A right-wing newspaper reported his administration is in debt to the tune of €2.83 million ($4.5 million) and quotes sources saying there are months of back payments owed to workers in the co-operatives. Other villagers claim, according to one newspaper, that "if you don't go to protest" as happened recently at another land-grab in the military area of Las Turquillas "then you don't get a job".

There have been repeated assertions that Sanchez 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 since 1979. Independent

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