Rural America

Monday, Aug 24, 2015, 1:32 pm

Rural Spain: The Challenge for Podemos, the Country’s New Left

By Tomás de León Sotelo

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On May 3, 2015, Podemos supporters gathered in the northwestern city of Zamora to discuss Spain's agricultural future and empower the “abandoned villages, corpses of an economic battle.”   (Agronews Castilla y León)

Spain’s Podemos (We Can) political party started as a grassroots phenomenon less than two years ago, but its first foray into the country's two-party political arena netted the party more than 1.5 million votes and five seats (out of Spain’s 53) in the European Parliament. In May 2014, what began with people gathering in círculos (circles)—open assemblies in urban neighborhoods to discuss political change—led to Podemos-backed mayoral candidates getting elected in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. Often ideologically compared to Syriza in Greece, Podemos’ recent successes could mean significant gains for the party in December’s general election.

The movement’s founder and secretary general of the new party—pony-tailed political science professor Pablo Iglesias, 37—is already campaigning for the presidency. And having galvanized an active, politically engaged and interconnected audience in the cities, the party is now reaching out to rural Spaniards. With the issues of income inequality and high unemployment at the center of its campaign, Podemos is seeking to inspire the rural areas left behind in the wake of European debt crisis. And because it is common for Spaniards to spend the summer in the village where their family originated, Podemos supporters are now spreading the party’s message throughout the countryside.

The need for change in rural Spain

Like many European countries, Spain is still suffering through the 2008 economic crisis. But for rural Spain, the crisis initiated a dramatic drop in what was already a slow and silent decline. Back in 1900, 67 percent of Spaniards worked in the agriculture and fisheries sector. In 2014, it was 5 percent. Economic development, following Spain’s transition to democracy in 1975 crafted an economy focused primarily on coastal tourism and real estate development. This attracted people to the growing cities and suburbs, leaving rural villages all but deserted. In fact, some of the country’s rural regions are among the least populated in Europe, and one can easily find whole empty villages for sale for the price of a city flat. Under the austerity dogma, public services have been dramatically cut, leaving many communities a two-hour drive away from the nearest health care facility or high school.

While mainstream media attention remains fixated on Podemos’s recently elected mayors, organizers like Javier Bilbao, a spokesperson for the Agriculture, Livestock and Fishing circle of the Podemos party, is reaching out to these villages. One circle out of many, he points out that his primary goal is not to win elections, but to end the bi-partisan stranglehold on rural areas.

While this may sound revolutionary, Bilbao maintains the objective is simply to “have the law enforced correctly.” Indeed, subsidies from the European Agrarian Policy are often misused, as the peasant union Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores / Andalusian Workers Union (SAT) exposed in 2013, almost €100 million were paid in subsidies to some 80 landowners, most of whom were not involved in actual agrarian activity. Among them, aristocrats and real estate investors who had no interest in agriculture whatsoever, but owned large tract of land for which they received subsidies.

Podemos demands that European money be paid to serve its purpose, which is “to promote a sustainable rural development” as the EU–law requires. Similarly, coastal communities are facing fishing quotas disproportionately allotted to industrial fishing vessels. Only 15 percent of permits go to traditional fishing operations, who make up 80 percent of the fleet, and sustain many communities in rural coast areas like the northwestern region of Galicia.

Podemos owes much of its success to the Indignados movement, the Spanish predecessor of Occupy, whose slogan “¡No nos representan!” (“They [traditional politicians] don’t represent us!”) galvanized the party once it started campaigning against the “caste” of bi-partisan politics. While both Indignados and Podemos originated and gained momentum in cities, the message applies to rural and urban citizens alike. The party’s message in rural communities, critical of the incumbent political elite, is demanding fair access to revenue and restoration of public services. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling in rural Spain that farmers’ livelihoods are being traded to serve political agendas rather than actually representing people’s interests.

“They shouldn’t negotiate production quotas in order to get someone appointed as EU-commissioner or to the IMF," says Bilbao. He observes that Spain was one of the greatest advocates for Morocco being granted EU-wide preferential trade status—a dangerous decision for Spanish farmers who had to compete with cheaper Moroccan produce. Spanish governments have traditionally supported Morocco’s demands, even against the interests of Spanish farmers, in exchange for Morocco’s cooperation in keeping migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.

Corporations and the geopolitics of rural food production

Farmers are one among many cards in the gamble of international power politics. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the EU imposed trade sanctions to Russia, which retaliated with a ban on European fresh food produce. European farmers saw their demand shrink and prices drop. Spain’s Agriculture Ministry had to remove some 20,000 tons of fresh fruit from the market to keep prices from slumping. Producers only got paid for their production costs, taking no profit from their labor.

The dairy industry is also a paradigm of the Spanish rural economy’s structural contradictions. Dairies produce over 5,500 tons of fresh milk every year, while more than 4,000 tons of processed dairy products are imported annually. Lacking local dairy processing facilities, farmers depend on large corporations to buy their milk and are sometimes forced to accept prices below their production costs. The fact that a local dairy processing industry would create hundreds of jobs has been ignored in favor of the current system—one that impoverishes entire villages by forcing them to depend on (historically undependable) corporate mercy.

Earlier this year, the Spanish Market and Competition Commission (CNMC) fined some of the largest milk processing companies, like Nestlé, €88.2 million for artificially fixing prices. Even then, the government publicly supported those companies. Bilbao claims that corporations’ oligopolistic power has forced over 9,000 dairy farms to shut down since 2000.

With the recent end of EU-wide production quotas—fixed maximum production limits for each country—more than 2,000 dairy farmers face an uncertain future. Unable to compete with large-scale producers many will probably be forced to close. On top of this, average production costs have risen twice as fast as producers’ income, and EU-subsidies scarcely fill the gap, even after the recent Common Policy reform sought to achieve the opposite by delegating funds from the Rural Development Policy to struggling farms.

Meanwhile, the ongoing Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) negotiations between the EU and the United States have instilled fear among smaller producers who are struggling to remain competitive in a global agrarian market. The fear is rooted in an agricultural economic system contingent on corporations not farmers.

A shared claim among many Spanish farmers is that agro-industrial corporations have too much influence over market conditions and regulations, while traditional political representation of rural citizens is no longer effective. This “democratic deficit,as Bilbao argues, partly results from the agrarian unions’ dependence on public subsidies that are distributed by local incumbents within a political system that perpetuates allegiance to the locally dominant party—leaving little room for dissent and effective bargaining. Podemos’s ambitious bid to dismantle this traditional system is baseed on the basic principle that collective action can ameliorate the livelihoods of a marginalized population.

The logo for Podemos's Agriculture, Livestock and Fishing Circle, depicting the party's signature intertwined purple circles on a green field, represents the party's grassroots origins.

The structure and plan of Podemos

As a result of its rapid rise in popularity, there are two different levels of political action within Podemos. At the top, strategic decisions are implemented by the party’s  leaders which include a Citizen’s Council comprised of 60 elected members. This group (selected in an online election and consisting mostly of “normal” people not previously engaged in professional politics) receives substantial input from political scientists and social researchers. At the grassroots level, the Podemos’ circles, like the Agriculture, Livestock and Fishing Circle, remain vectors of political mobilization, campaigning and debate. In rural areas, as Bilbao recognizes, it is crucial to have a constant presence in villages to spread the political message.

In early May, Podemos organized a national meeting in northwestern city of Zamora, the capital of a scarcely populated province along the Portuguese border. It gathered farmer associations, labor representatives, organizers and villagers to discuss policies that could empower the “abandoned villages, corpses of an economic battle.” Rural organizers recognize that while the party’s leadership is focused on the December 2015 general election, their on-the-ground activity is a long-term process. Rural circles, like their urban counterparts, were not created top-down by Podemos, but originated from the association of numerous grassroots actors who then chose to adhere to the party’s structure.

Podemos conceives a new rural economy where economic development would sustain social justice and environmental respect. They maintain that sustainably managed resources—abandoned lands, forests, water, historic heritage sites, etc.—could provide a living to new inhabitants who would, in turn, revitalize the Spanish countryside’s aging population. As Spain’s unemployed (25 percent of the working population) live predominantly in urban areas, fertile lands are left unseeded and prone to desertification. With almost one in two workers under 30 unemployed nationwide, there were only 4,660 young farmers actively farming as of 2010. The unattractive future of a life on the countryside once pushed the youth toward cities, but unemployment has become so massive that some may consider returning to the villages. There is little doubt that if rural Spain can offer jobs, it will get its population back.

The party’s ambitious program is aimed at restoring the appeal of rural regions. Where past governments conceived rural development as managing a sweeping decline, Podemos’s strategy intends to reverse the vicious cycle haunting rural Spain: population exodus, desertification and abandonment. Podemos’ seeks to bring landowners and farmers together to restore agrarian activity on idle but fertile lands, and do it with support from local governments. The focus on sustainability further proposes the use of natural crop varieties which are adapted to local climates, rather than the use of genetically modified seeds in the fields. The belief is that by combining traditional savvy with modern technologies, small-scale initiatives can significantly improve living conditions (see The New Economics of Plentitude, an article by economist Juliet B. Schor that I edited in Chicago as a Rural America In These Times intern).

Ultimately, Podemos hopes to link rural and urban populations closer together. They advocate connecting farmers and consumers through “consumer groups”—associations where farmers directly deliver seasonal produce to communities, and are thus no longer dependent on large retailers’ pricing policies. Spreading the practice of ecologically certified agriculture, could increase farmers’ revenue while providing better food to communities. While many farmers are already using ecologically responsible growing methods, little is being initiative taken by the government to implement a certification system.

A long road ahead

In Spain, agriculture and fishing account for only 2.3 percent of  GDP and 4.1 percent of total jobs (down from 11.5 and 29.5 respectively in 1970). In order to empower rural Spaniards, Podemos will need to overcome major obstacles prior to December’s general election. Spain has the lowest rate in Europe of rural broadband Internet access—a major handicap to a party heavily relying on social media to spread its message. This is why on-the ground organizers like Javier Bilbao hit the road as often as they can to visit villages and communities. The countryside has been historically reluctant to accept drastic political changes, especially now that subsidies from the European Common Policy are distributed along networks of patronage dependent on local and regional incumbents. Indeed, support for Podemos in the recent municipal elections were lowest in predominantly rural regions.

But it would be a mistake to argue that because Spanish peasants are traditionally conservative, Podemos cannot succeed in rural areas. The fact is that Spain’s agricultural sector has been suffering long decades of politicians’ idleness, and will certainly be open to any promising alternative. Low voter turnout last May should not be seen as a rural rejection of the Podemos project—the grassroots movement had yet to reach rural voters and many see the need for long-term, structural change.

A significant showing by Podemos in November, even if not an overall victory, would signal a major change in the rural mentality. It would herald a shift from the status-quo conformity and apathy that is traditionally associated with rural citizens in Spain. It would mean, as a party slogan goes, that people in the countryside are “voting with hope.”



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Tomás de León Sotelo is a Summer 2015 editorial intern at In These Times. He is a political science student in Bordeaux, France and Madrid, Spain. Follow him on Twitter: @tomasdeleon_. You can also read his papers at https://sciencespobordeaux.academia.edu/TomasDeLeon

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