Conflict & Justice

Spain's Unemployed Youth Rise Up

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Madrid protest (Flickr image: César Astudillo)

The right trounced the left in local elections in Spain on Sunday. Most people expected the Socialist Workers Party to lose big, given Spain's economic crisis. What no one saw coming? The spontaneous takeover of Spain's main squares by tens of thousands of young people. Angry young people.

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Youth unemployment is 43 % in Spain. The protestors are demanding a radical overhaul of Spanish politics and society. They've been camping for over a week now and say they have no plans to disperse.

As polls closed last night, thousands of people gathered in Barcelona's main square, Plaza Catalunya, erupted in cheers and banged on pots and pans. But they weren't celebrating the election results. They were vowing to continue their protest against a two-party electoral system they believe has allowed corruption to flourish, even as jobs disappear.

The protest camp in Barcelona is still standing on Monday. People took turns with a megaphone to complain about a host of things.

One man denounced the publicly financed bailouts of banks — banks that are reporting profits again this year.

A woman complained about drastic cuts in healthcare as Spain slashes spending to reduce its deficit.

"When politicians get sick," she said, "they get an entire floor of the hospital to themselves!" The crowd erupted in cheers.

There are scenes like this in over 60 Spanish cities today. The camps went up a week ago. Spontaneously. Via Facebook. And Twitter.

Concerned About Many Issues

Take a tour of the plaza in Barcelona and you'll find dozens of tents dedicated to fighting different issues: corruption, tax hikes, cuts in education. But above all, these mostly young people are demanding jobs.

Last week at a protest camp in front of city hall in Valencia, a 21 year old electrician named Ramon said he'd been looking for work but couldn't find any.

"I'm unemployed like most of Spain," he joked.

Then he turned serious. "The politicians all use the same slogan: change. But what change? Politicians come and go. We do need a change. Personally I don't know what it should be, but we need it now."

To be sure, these protests are more about venting frustration than proposing solutions. But an out of work construction worker named Antonio said that's because Spain is dominated by two political parties, and young people haven't had a platform for protest until now.

"Sometimes," he said, "I ask myself how it is that the people haven't just started looting the stores for food. With the level of unemployment that we have? The hunger? What's going on with us? Have we really been that afraid?"

If fear was holding Spain's young people back until now, it is clearly gone.

On a recent night in Madrid's Puerto del Sol square, tens of thousands of protestors drove the point home by chanting, "We're not afraid!"
Madrid's Tahrir Square?

The revolt has caught the Spanish establishment by surprise. Politicians are, of course, blaming one another. The press has compared the movement to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Washington Post last Wednesday said Madrid was like Cairo's Tahrir Square.

There's even a new video on Youtube, allegedly showing young Egyptians offering words of solidarity to the Spanish. "God be with you," says one young unidentified man, "and may no one be hurt or killed." Aother says, "the most important thing is to achieve your freedom!"

In form, the Spanish protests do look like the Arab uprisings. But Antonio the out of work construction worker said that's as far as it goes. He pointed out that Spain is already a democracy.

"Here," he said, "no one is going to shoot us. There might be some scuffles with the police, but if we're all vigilant things will stay calm. The cops are trained to confront violence."

So far the government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has refused to have police clear the squares…despite a court order to do so. But he may have to take some action soon. Because protestors insist they're not going away.