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General Strike Sweeps Europe as Millions Reject Austerity as Solution to Economic Crisis

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Pía Figueroa | Pressenza

A general strike is underway across Europe today as millions are protesting spending cuts and tax hikes they say have deepened the region’s economic crisis. Spanish and Portuguese workers are coordinating their strike with work stoppages underway in Greece, Italy, France and Belgium. We go to Madrid for an update from independent journalist María Carrión. She notes the general strike comes after a 53-year-old woman jumped from a balcony to her death as she was about to be evicted. The death of Amaia Egana marked the second suicide in two weeks related to evictions in Spain as a growing mass movement has put pressure on the authorities to act.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin the show in Europe, where today millions of workers have joined a general strike to protest spending cuts and tax hikes they say have deepened the region’s economic crisis. Spanish and Portuguese workers are coordinating their strike with work stoppages underway in Greece, Italy, France and Belgium. In Spain, one out of four workers is unemployed, and protesters say they’re furious at banks being rescued by the government while ordinary people suffer.

NARCISA OSORIO: [translated] Stop stealing, and do something useful, but please do not steal from us. They are very needy people. It’s a shame. It’s a shame to see how they will leave the country.

ISABEL RUBIO: [translated] There are so many reasons behind today’s strike in all the society—the cuts, the situation. And as far as Iberia is concerned, it’s also the announcement made that 4,500 jobs will go, and salaries will be cut and so on. I think we have so many reasons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today’s strike comes as most European governments have cut pensions and benefits, while also raising taxes. This includes not just the most financially troubled governments, like Greece, but also more stable ones, like Britain and France. French Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault responded to the strike saying officials face tough challenges trying to control their debt.

PRIME MINISTER JEAN-MARC AYRAULT: [translated] One must not forget that we’re governing in a period that is extremely difficult, in France, in Europe and in the world. And never since the 1950s has a government had to face up to such difficulties. We are confronting them with determination. What is essential and what the president has said yesterday is that France isn’t just any country; it is a great country with a specific social model. Today, this social model is in danger. There are many things to correct, change and reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Spain, the country’s General Workers’ Union said today’s general strike is being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and construction industries. This is union spokesperson David Materiani.

DAVID MATERIANI: [translated] We are not that bad off here, but we all have an unemployed brother or friend. Everyone says the same, that it was easy to get a job before, even though it was a bad one, and now you just don’t. Everyone is fed up with cuts in healthcare—especially healthcare—education, evictions. People talk a lot about that. There’s a big anger everywhere at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the second general strike this year in Spain. It comes after a 53-year-old woman jumped from a balcony to her death as she was about to be evicted this weekend. The death of Amaia Egaña marked the second suicide in two weeks related to evictions in Spain as a growing mass movement has put pressure on the authorities to act.

For more, we go to Madrid, where we’re joined by María Carrión, independent journalist, former Democracy Now! producer. Her latest piece is in The Progressive magazine, called “Spaniards Take On the Banks.”

María, welcome back to Democracy Now! Start with the story of this woman who committed suicide.

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Hi, Amy. It’s good to be with you.

Amaia is a former city council member in a town—the town of Barakaldo in the Basque Country. And her case is especially tragic because she actually didn’t share just how bad off the situation was even with her husband. So, most people had no idea that there was a whole—there had been a repossession and an eviction process. She was so desperate and so ashamed of the situation that she jumped out of her balcony, her fourth floor apartment, as court employees came to evict her. This comes two weeks after police found a man dead in his apartment as they went in to evict him from his home after repossession.

And—but, you know, the movement to stop these evictions and repossessions has been working very hard on this for almost two years, and this is just the watershed. This has been the one situation that has actually forced government and the opposition and banks to come to the table and talk about real reform. Before this, you had these evictions taking place—500 orders every single day—silently. And thanks to the 15M movement—this is—was the Occupy movement in Spain just over a year ago—the platform against evictions was incredibly energized. And so, they have been able to stop hundreds of evictions.

But those are evictions of people who come to them and who say, you know, “My home is being repossessed. I’m facing eviction. Can you help me?” There are a lot of people like Amaia who did not do this, out of perhaps a sense of guilt or embarrassment. And so, her case is really representative and emblematic of what has gone wrong in Spain with, you know, thousands of people being left homeless after repossession and eviction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: María Carrión, can you also explain the particularity of Spanish law when it comes to home repossession and debt repayment? In other words, even once a house is repossessed, people are obliged to pay back the debt?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: That’s right. The law dates back to the early 20th century, and it’s very much of a pro-bank law, has never been looked at or reformed. And I was at an eviction of a family, or an eviction attempt of a family, back in September, and basically it was—you know, they were underwater. They had paid about 300,000 euros for their apartment—I’m sorry, 200,000 euros for their apartment, and had paid 90,000 on the apartment, until they—both, the couple, became—lost employment and couldn’t, you know, make their payments. And after paying all that money to the bank, they find themselves in a situation where their home is repossessed and they owe more than they paid, so now they owe 300,000 euros to the bank on top of it. Once the home is repossessed and you’re evicted, you still owe the full amount, and this includes, you know, fines, late fees, you know, and you owe the value of the home as it was before. So, in other words, if you bought the house 10 years ago or eight years ago, the house was worth a lot more than it is now; you’d owe the full amount.

There are no procedures to review these cases and, first of all, to look at whether the—whether the loan was made recklessly by banks. And a lot of these loans were made very, very recklessly. People would go into the bank to make a deposit, and the bank employee would say, “Hey, would you like to buy a house? We can give you the loan, and you can do it, and you don’t even have to give us a down payment.”

A lot of these families were immigrant families, too. And there was a whole movement to get immigrants to open up bank accounts in Spain back when, you know, Ecuadoreans and Colombians were moving to Spain, fleeing their own crises, economic crises and the war in Colombia. They were lured into these situations by the banks, who made these irresponsible mortgages. And people thought that they could pay them, because at the time they seemed affordable. But a combination of rising mortgage prices and the unemployment rate being the way it is now has made it so that, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of families are now unable to make payment.

What has happened now with these suicides—and there was a suicide attempt; someone tried to—they jumped out of their balcony but, fortunately, were not killed in the process—is that there is a negotiation process going on between the government and the Socialist opposition party. And in this negotiation, what they’re trying to do is bring a stop to evictions, or least some evictions, the ones that are—you know, that families with no resources face, families who have children. Here, if you are put on the street and you have children, social services take away your children. And so, they’re trying to look at the most vulnerable people and trying to come up with a moratorium, and also, for the—for everyone, a renegotiation. There has been no due process at all for families. And a lot of the times, the evidence that they have, the facts that—the information that they have is not looked at by banks, when banks—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: María, could—

MARÍA CARRIÓN: —make these final decisions to repossess and evict.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: María, can you—can you talk a little bit about what—

MARÍA CARRIÓN: And on top of it, there is so much housing now, millions and millions—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: María, can you talk a little bit about what the scene was in Madrid—outside Bankia, for example, a number of people now facing eviction—and what the scene is in Madrid? You were on the streets. What does it look like in the midst of this general strike?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, you know, several families have camped out now for quite some time in front of Bankia, which is a—one of the big banks that was bailed out. It was—you know, former IMF director Rodrigo Rato was the head of Bankia. And they’re responsible for 80 percent of evictions in Madrid. And so, they’ve been camping out now for a number of weeks in front of Bankia, you know, having people sign petitions to stop their own evictions from taking place. They are now completely surrounded by riot police.

The 15M movement was planning a demonstration leaving out of that particular place. I don’t know if they are able to do it now, because they are so surrounded by riot police. There are a number of demonstrations right now going on on the streets. The big demonstration is this evening at 6:00 p.m., but the health workers are marching now. Educational workers are marching now. My local schools, elementary and high schools, are completely on strike. There’s very few people inside the buildings, and they have just in fact been surrounded by human chains.

So, I think that the eviction campaigns—the anti-eviction campaigns have crystallized the movement. They—the 15M has put its resources to work and its human power to work by stopping these evictions. And now it has reinvigorated social movements in Spain. Now you actually have everybody marching together, where before, you know, these strikes would only attract union members or certain union members. Now you have everyone on the street—the unemployed, families, people who are working but are afraid to lose their jobs. Everybody is out on the street today.

AMY GOODMAN: María Carrión, as we wrap up, can you put Spain in the context of Europe right now, this general strike that’s sweeping across Europe?

MARÍA CARRIÓN: Well, the strike itself is much more of a southern European strike. So you have Portugal and Spain who are on general strike. And Greece, Italy have work stoppages. And then, the rest of Europe is coming out in solidarity with southern Europe. The austerity measures are being felt everywhere, but especially in southern Europe. Those countries that have been bailed out or are on the verge of being bailed out, like Spain, are the ones who are seeing these terrible cuts. By the way, today is when the Spanish parliament will debate and vote on our 2013 budget, which is—has 39 billion euros in cuts. That’s about $50 billion in cuts. So, you’re seeing Germans come out, you’re seeing Belgians come out, in solidarity for southern Europe.

Next week is a big budget meeting. All 27 member countries will be getting together, EU countries will be getting together. And there are obviously two blocs. The bloc that is the southern bloc, saying, “Please do not cut any further; austerity is not working. Let’s try to, you know, stimulate these economies. Let’s try to create employment”; and then countries that are more euro-skeptic, like Britain, saying, “Let’s live only within our means,” which means more austerity cuts.

AMY GOODMAN: María, we want to thank you for being with us. María Carrión, independent freelance journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent. Her latest piece is in The Progressive magazine, called “Spaniards Take On the Banks.”

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Democracy Now! is a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program hosted by journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez.

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