The leftist mayor of the small town of Marinaleda has sidestepped capitalism with his unusual economic model. Spain’s crisis may be biting, but in this town the jobless have an alternative.
The El Humoso estate doesn't look particularly impressive to the outsider. After a day of heavy rainfall, the ground is muddy and uneven. Due to a harvesting lull a small band of chickens pecking at the ground is virtually the only sign of life. But the words daubed on a wall near the entrance to the estate hint at its importance for the local people: "This land is for the unemployed workers of Marinaleda."
"If you're a businessman, this place wouldn't interest you, because you wouldn't make any money out of it," said Juan Prieto, who has worked at El Humoso for many years. "But those of us who work here do so simply to be able to survive."
El Humoso may lie several kilometers outside the Andalusian town of Marinaleda, but the estate is at the very heart of its economic model. It is the base for the town agricultural cooperative, which provides work for those from the town who have lost their jobs.
This is part of an attempt by the town's maverick mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, who has held his post since 1979, to create a genuinely socialist environment that sidesteps capitalism and market forces.
In the 1980s, Sanchez Gordillo, Prieto and other members of a local labor union occupied this land in protest at the fact it was not being used. They eventually persuaded Andalusia's regional authorities to expropriate it from its owner, an aristocrat.
Ever since then the land has belonged to Marinaleda and its workers, who grow artichokes, peppers and beans on it. The produce is then tinned in a nearby factory, which is also part of the cooperative project.
"The idea is to ensure that the wealth that is created is distributed with as much justice as possible," said Sanchez Gordillo. Now 60, the mayor has become an instantly recognizable figure in Spain, with his long, graying beard and Middle Eastern neck scarf. He is talking in his home, and the picture of Che Guevara hanging behind him is a reminder of his leftist convictions.
His aim, he says, is to create a "Utopia [that] seeks to convert people's noblest dreams into reality, whether it's decent housing, a job, or good healthcare – the basic elements that allow people to live well and with dignity."
Sanchez Gordillo has been implementing his leftist vision here for three decades. But as Spain's economic crisis has bitten deeper, Marinaleda's unique status has become more and more apparent.
The country's unemployment rate recently rose to a record 25 percent, the highest in Europe. In the southern region of Andalusia, traditionally one of Spain's poorer areas, that rises to 35 percent. Due to its reliance on agriculture and seasonal fluctuations, there is no reliable jobless data in this town, although all estimates put the figure much lower than the national average. Many local people attribute this to the El Humoso cooperative and the mayor's economic vision.
"Other towns are worse off than us. We notice the crisis a bit less than other places," said Menchu de Juan, the owner of a bar and nightclub. Nonetheless, she said Marinaleda hasn't fully escaped Spain's employment crisis and recession. "In this country we need to get rid of [Mariano] Rajoy, because he's killing us," she says of the conservative prime minister.
Another initiative Marinaleda has used to confound the orthodoxy of the market is its housing plan. Local people take part in the building of their own homes, which they then buy for much lower amounts than they would normally. The aim is not only to provide cheap housing but also to avoid the kind of property and credit bubble that is blamed for sparking Spain's current crisis.
The legacy of the property bubble
In the rest of Spain, the jobless issue and housing crisis have been closely entwined. The bursting of the property bubble in 2008 saw tens of thousands of jobs in the construction industry destroyed, leaving many families unable to pay their mortgages. A recent report commissioned by Spain's judicial oversight body estimated that 350,000 evictions had taken place since the economic crisis started, due to unpaid debts.
Marinaleda's status as a town swimming against the political current is visible all over the town. Along its main street are colorful murals dedicated to Cuban socialism and Latin American revolutionaries. There is a Che Guevara sports complex and a square named after Salvador Allende, the Chilean socialist leader.
But Sanchez Gordillo himself insists that he is pursuing a unique political vision, rather than strictly adhering to one particular ideology.
"Jesus Christ was a great utopian and he wanted equality and sought the redistribution of wealth with justice," said the mayor. "Gandhi is another. There are also important Marxists, anarchists and humanists. I think you have to bring together different ideas in an effort to achieve a better world."
Sanchez Gordillo insists that his methods of striving for the utopia he outlines are always non-violent. However, critics point to one of his more controversial actions earlier this year as evidence that this is not true.
The "Robin Hood mayor"
In the summer, the mayor supervised two raids on supermarkets in Andalusia by members of the SAT labor union. They entered the stores, filled up shopping trolleys with foodstuffs and then left without paying. The food was then given to charities. According to Sanchez Gordillo, who became known as “the Robin Hood mayor” after the raids, these were symbolic gestures to highlight the depth of the economic crisis.
But several members of the union were subsequently arrested and Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz criticized the move as a stunt: “We all know that there are people who are having a difficult time, but the end doesn't justify the means,” he said.
There is also criticism of Marinaleda's leadership from within the town itself. Sanchez Gordillo and his United Left coalition have controlled the town hall for 33 years, while the more mainstream Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which sees Andalusia as its heartland, has been marginalized.
“We shouldn't be chasing utopia, we should be trying to achieve concrete goals and Marinaleda hasn't managed to do that in over 30 years,” said Hipolito Aires Navarro, a local member of the PSOE.
He says the town needs more industry and should rely less on agriculture. He also queries the town hall's claims of low unemployment, especially when there is a lull in farming activity.
But with new figures released by the European Commission forecasting a further increase in unemployment for Spain in 2013, as well as another year of recession, Marinaleda's critics are finding it hard to be heard. For the moment, Sanchez Gordillo appears to be safe in his post and in this corner of Andalusia, the search for utopia will continue.