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Pablo Iglesias Takes Podemos’s Bottom-Up, Anti-Austerity Politics to New York

The general secretary of the leftist Spanish party paid homage to American radicals while denouncing “the party of Wall Street.”

Alexandros Orphanides

While in New York, Iglesias appeared on CNBC's Squawk Box.

Politics, Pablo Iglesias tells us, is the struggle for the meaning of words. 

Financial power and the politicians that support it, Iglesias said, “represent the supreme soviet of global political power. … They are what David Harvey calls the party of Wall Street. This party represents those living in the attic of the economic system. It is the same party that favored the subprime mortgages, that served to evict millions of Americans from their homes. It is the party that Angela Merkel serves—she is a militant of that Wall Street party.”

At a time when democracy and the very viability of Europe are at a stake,” Iglesias said Tuesday, “[we] must tell the defenders of dogmatism that they are responsible.”

Listening to Iglesias, the 36-year-old Secretary General of the relatively new leftist Spanish political party Podemos, speak, one hears about the haves and the have-nots, of financial elites and of everybody else, of creditor countries and debtor countries, of democratic politics as an instrument for the common people to better their lives.

Podemos (“we can” in Spanish) was born in the wake of the 2011 anti-austerity protests and the Indignados movement, widely considered a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Their rapid rise has them poised to break Spain’s two-party deadlock.

With Spanish polls indicating that Podemos is garnering almost 25% of the public support in Spain — 3 percentage points ahead of the conservative, Christian democratic ruling People’s Party (PP) — Iglesias is seen by many as a viable political leader. The pony-tailed political science professor-turned-politician represents the hope of an escape from politics as usual and crushing austerity imposed by the European Union. Podemos is the party that brought more than 100,000 people to the streets of Madrid last month in a massive political rally. To his detractors, he is a dangerous populist with no real plan, opportunistically riding a wave of anti-austerity popularity.

Recognizing their similar approaches to austerity and inequality, many in the media are linking Podemos’ electoral viability to Syriza’s electoral victory in Greece. These connections are not unfounded: Pablo Iglesias and Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras call each other friends and have publicly displayed support for the other’s policies. In a recent editorial for the Guardian, Iglesias supported Syriza’s stance on renegotiating Greek debt with the Eurozone as a mutually beneficial olive branch.”

The world is watching Iglesias. For a few days, he is in New York City delivering talks to crowds, being interviewed by journalists, and meeting with academics like the Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in search of inspiration for an economic program that will pull Spain out of austerity and debt peonage.

In short, the professor and activist with deep roots in Spain’s left is looking more and more like a statesman.

We Can,” Outside Spain

Though the night was frigid, the energy in Circulo Español, a Spanish cultural center and restaurant in Queens, New York, was palpable. About 500 people, young and old, packed into the center’s auditorium to hear Iglesias speak.

The general atmosphere was one of excitement and curiosity. Many Podemos supporters were in the crowd, which was majority Spanish or Spanish-American, but equally plentiful were those who came to see what Iglesias had to say about the political direction of a country rife with unemployment, homelessness, evictions and the dismantling of public health care and education.

Ana Maestre, a postdoctoral researcher in microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine, came to the event because she is particularly interested in whether Podemos has a platform on scientific research. Were she to return to Spain now, her employment prospects would be grim.

As he spoke, Iglesias attacked austerity and corruption in a country that currently suffers from 23% unemployment.

The crisis, he says, means that many people have had to leave [Spain], that there are unacceptable levels of unemployment, especially among young people and that the debt of the country are unpayable.”

This strikes a chord in Spain, where recent revelations have exposed government officials like Luis Barcenas, former treasurer for the PP, arrested on charges of money laundering and tax fraud. Barcenas has said that the PP has used secret funds to pay party officials for 20 years. Bluntly addressing such economic and political failures seemed to make Iglesias popular with the crowd.

In criticizing the government of Prime Minister Manolo Rajoy for its betrayal of la patria,” the homeland, Iglesias said the current government had promised to lead Spain out of the crisis, but over the last seven years had only punished the Spanish people further with painful austerity policies. These parties were the parties of no,” he said, and Podemos is the party of yes to change.”

Iglesias called for a new kind of patriotism, one that involves Spaniards working together through institutions to create an improved society, that guarantees a strong education to its children and that doesn’t foster the social conditions that lead to immigration. The current government, Iglesias said, had betrayed the people and la patria.

Iglesias identified these traitors as the Rajoy government that engaged in privatization, invited young people to leave [Spain] and destroyed social services and public education.”

After the talk, Ricardo Isea Silva, a Venezuelan doctoral student in political science who has lived in Spain, noted that Iglesias was redefining terminology like la patria, giving it a broader meaning than its older nationalist implications. If I was living in Spain, I would vote for him,” Silva says.

Understanding Spain’s Political Change

During the second day of Iglesias’ speaking tour in New York City, he delivered a talk, hosted by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and the Left Forum, to students, activists and notable radical academics such as David Harvey and Stanley Aronowitz.

The midday event, held at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, was well-attended by over 400 guests, with dozens more unable to enter the auditorium.

Iglesias began his discussion by expressing his admiration for change in American history, citing events and activists ranging from the Gettysburg Address and Rosa Parks to Angela Davis and Harvey Milk. Further, he acknowledged contemporary struggles like those surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin. Iglesias explained that the radical American tradition taught him that dignity is disobedience.”

In describing the roots of Spain’s current predicament, Iglesias gave a nod to David Harvey’s analysis of the 2008 global economic crisis and delineated the origins of the problem as the rise of neoliberal doctrine in the United States and the mechanisms of global finance — not only unjust but a serious threat to democracy. Since the crisis began, he stated, Spain has seen the number of billionaires rise even as evictions have skyrocketed.

Financial power and the politicians that support it, Iglesias said, represent the supreme soviet of global political power. … They are what David Harvey calls the party of Wall Street. This party represents those living in the attic of the economic system. It is the same party that favored the subprime mortgages, that served to evict millions of Americans from their homes. It is the party that Angela Merkel serves — she is a militant of that Wall Street party.”

An ardent critic of capitalism and a Marxist, Iglesias emphasized that any change for the better in Spain must happen within the margins of capitalism, and that the Left’s obsession with analysis and technical terminology may not always be useful — particularly if it works to alienate those which it seeks to represent.

In returning politics to the people, he prescribed a program that would adjust Spain’s debt so as to align it with human dignity and social justice, comprehensive tax reform that would effectively tax multinationals and eliminate tax havens and an end to evictions.

Politics, he said, should be a cluster of tools” people can use to improve their lives. In order to change things, Iglesias added, leftist organizations would have to put away old flags.” The dichotomy of left and right is not always useful, he explained, if it means the bankers win.”

His talk was followed by a Q&A session with the largely academic crowd. Iglesias joked that the audience was providing him with the most difficult oral exam he had ever taken — in English, no less. He addressed a broad range of topics, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, Basque terrorism in Spain and calls for Catalan independence.

Iglesias explained that he supports a Palestinian state based on the 1948 borders. On the question of Catalan independence, he said he would favor a constituent process throughout Spain to decide the relationship between the country and its various autonomous regions.

After the presentation, Rosa Sanchez, a visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center from Switzerland who also holds Spanish citizenship, was enthusiastic, saying Everything was a positive.” On the question of Podemos’s electability in Spain, she felt the party definitely held the potential to win.

At a time when the Spanish establishment press is attacking Podemos, Iglesias came to New York to bring the party’s message directly to the American media, scholars and supporters. Equally fluent in the language of the university seminar and the expatriate cultural center, Iglesias is proving himself capable of articulating his political vision to diverse groups.

Iglesias believes the left can win. He emphasizes that it will take new strategies to do so, and his trip to New York is part of that process. If he’s right, the next time we see him in U.S., he may be Prime Minister of Spain.

Alexandros Orphanides is a New York City-based freelance journalist, researcher and teacher of Greek-Cypriot and Honduran descent. He writes on political, social and cultural issues with an emphasis on marginalized communities. Follow him on Twitter: @subsentences.
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