Spanish 'utopia' keeps jobless rate low
A stroll along the high street of Marinaleda is enough to make you realise that it’s not quite like other towns in Andalusia. A large mural of Che Guevara’s face is painted on one wall; a few yards further on the slogan “Socialism and Sovereignty” can be seen; and a nearby square is named after Chilean leftist leader Salvador Allende.
For Marinaleda’s staunchly leftist mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo, this place is a utopia-in-progress.
“We try to go against the current. It’s not easy, but we have to find ways of making sure the weakest in society don’t pay the consequences of an economic crisis that they didn’t cause,” he says.
Mr Sánchez Gordillo is speaking in his semi-detached house, which sits opposite Marinaleda’s town hall. The mayor since 1979, he is now 60, with a long, greying beard. He is wearing his trademark Palestinian-style scarf and on the wall behind him is a large photograph of Che Guevara.
The crisis he is talking about has seen Spain’s jobless rate rise to a new high of 25 per cent. In Andalusia, traditionally one of the country’s poorer regions, that figure is about 35 per cent.
But in Marinaleda, with less than 3,000 inhabitants, the jobless rate is believed to be much lower, although because of seasonal fluctuations that affect the town’s agricultural activity, no official figure is available.
The main reason for the town’s relatively low jobless rate is the El Humoso food co-operative, which provides work for unemployed local people. In the 1980s, Mr Sánchez Gordillo and fellow activists occupied a large plot of unused land belonging to a duke, demanding it be handed over to local workers. In 1992, the Andalusian regional authorities caved in and did exactly that, leading to the co-operative’s creation.
The work involves cultivating and harvesting artichokes, beans and peppers and it offers a modest wage to those who take part. The produce is then tinned in a nearby factory that also belongs to the co-operative.
“The idea is to cover the employment problem,” Mr Sánchez Gordillo explains. “Having a job is a constitutional right but it’s something that’s hard to achieve in the real world at the moment.”
Spain’s joblessness and the austerity programme being implemented by the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy have provoked a seemingly endless series of street protests. A general strike is scheduled for November 14th.
But even in the way he protests, the mayor of Marinaleda is unorthodox. In the summer, he supervised two raids on supermarkets by members of his Sat union, who filled shopping trolleys with food, then left without paying.
They gave the produce to local charities, earning the mayor the nickname “Robin Hood”.
“These are actions that are designed to draw people’s attention to the current situation, that’s all,” he says. “I think the actions we carried out are the kind of actions that Ghandi, or any pacifist would approve of.”