There are many stereotypes of Spaniards. They are generally perceived as a vertically-challenged, slightly greasy, sangria-swigging bunch, who party too much and work too little, famed for their inefficiency and disorganisation. During a year spent in Madrid, though I abhor stereotypes, I have found at least some of these perceptions to be true. They are generally rather short; botellón, the art of drinking cheap alcohol outside in parks/on the street, is practically a national sport; and you do NOT mess with the siesta. It is sacred, like grandma’s cooking or bull-fighting.
The inefficiency too is painfully true. Anything official will require at least two phone calls, five forms and trips to three separate offices at different ends of the city, which will all be open for about eight hours a week.
However, this caricatured external perception of Spaniards may be being blown apart thanks to a series of protests taking place all over Spain in a movement that has been dubbed ‘The Spanish Revolution’.
It all began just over a month ago on the 15th May when tens of thousands of young people took to the streets of sixty Spanish cities in an anti-government protest. The protests were organised via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter by a citizen organisation called ‘Real Democracy Now!’
Taking to the streets one week before important autonomous and municipal elections, protesters, who did not affiliate themselves with any political party, called for radical change within Spanish politics.
The Spanish political system is such that all power is more or less distributed between two main political parties: the PSOE, the socialist party, and the Partido Popular (PP), the right-wing party.
The PSOE, who currently hold majority power in government, have been blamed for Spain’s descent into its current financially-crippled state, whilst the PP has a reputation for representing only the wealthy.
What started out as a peaceful afternoon protest on May 15th, soon turned into an overnight sit-in in the Puerta del Sol main square in Madrid, and has now become an encampment which is still going three weeks after the initial protest. Today the surprisingly organised encampment boasts a canteen, a crèche, bathrooms, a library, a construction site and it even has its own legal team.
At the encampment’s peak over 60,000 protestors, dubbed ‘los indignados’ (the outraged), were filling the square each night to peacefully express their indignation towards the government, and now, though attendance has decreased to a core 300 or so protestors, the encampment has an impressive infrastructure of committees and commissions who gather several times a day to discuss logistics, communications and to prepare a list of demands to submit to the government.
Since the initial camp was established in Madrid on May 15th similar camps have since sprung up in cities all over Spain and even internationally.
This movement is being led primarily by young people, and top of their list of demands is for action to be taken to reduce unemployment amongst the under 25s, which currently stands at almost 50%, the highest youth unemployment rate in Europe. Protestors are also calling for the reversal of privatisation of the healthcare and education systems, for a separation of the church from the state and for restoration of workers’ rights.
Comparisons have been drawn by many between events in Spain and the Arab Spring protests. It is true that both movements were organised primarily by the medium of social networks, both have gathered large numbers of citizens together to take part in continuous calls for democracy and both are being maintained by citizen committees set up to organize and maintain the camps. However, Spanish protestors have been quick to deny any such links, pointing out that Spain, unlike Egypt, is already a democracy, and that the Spanish protests have been generally peaceful, whilst violent and destructive clashes have taken place in Egypt between protestors and police.
The autonomous and municipal elections have come and gone, seeing the PP wrestle power from the PSOE in almost every area of Spain, but for many the results mean only a change from one unsatisfactory government to another.
Whilst the efforts of the indignados may not have resulted in the revolution they were hoping for, they have certainly gone a long way in changing the world’s perception of Spain. Such organised and sustained political action has long been absent here, one could assume because the dictatorship under which Spain was governed between 1939-1975 raised several generations who lived in a society where there was no right to free speech.
With the rise of the indignados this political action drought has ended: the fiesta-siesta stereotype is being replaced with a new perception of the Spanish as a serious, politically-minded population that isn’t afraid to fight for democracy and justice.