Strikes, independence and indignados

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Rafel Sanchis and Estelle Cooch spoke to David Fernández, an MP for the Catalan parliament, about the origins and politics of the anti-capitalist coalition, CUP, and its relationship to the wider movement

An important feature of the crisis in Europe has been the rise of radical left political formations in Greece, France and elsewhere. In last November's elections to the Catalan parliament, an anti-capitalist and pro-independence coalition, the CUP (Candidatura d'Unitat Popular, or Popular Unity Candidates), got three MPs elected.

The 2012 elections were the first time that the CUP has decided to run for Catalan parliamentary elections. Why was this?

The Catalan lands are in a state of emergency - politically, economically and socially. The CUP is a leftist municipalist coalition, so it was a very big jump for us to decide to stand for the Catalan parliament. But we chose to because of three simultaneous crises: national, socio-economic and democratic. The Catalan lands (the areas in the Spanish state where Catalan is spoken and that share a common culture) are made up of Catalunya, Valencia, the Balearics, Andorra and a few smaller parts of Spain. This national crisis didn't begin recently though. It began with the end of the dictatorship of General Franco following his death in 1975.

In 2006 a new statute that gave the parliament of Catalunya some new powers was approved by 73 percent in a referendum. And yet immediately the Spanish People's Party launched a legal challenge that resulted in a decision in June 2010 that the change was "unconstitutional".

In other words the decisions of the ten judges of the constitutional court counted for more than the whole people of Catalunya. So that is one of the crises.

Another crisis, however, is socio-economic. There are 1.3 million people living in poverty, 800,000 unemployed and 150,000 people have been evicted from their homes over the last five years. And that is in Catalunya alone.

Across all the Catalan lands there are three million living in poverty and two million unemployed. And the democratic crisis is exacerbated by the level of corruption at the top which fed into the wild financial speculation that we have seen over the past 20 years.

Could you say something about the roots of the CUP and its involvement in radical movements?

The election took place against the background of the 1.5 million strong march in Barcelona for Catalan independence in September and the one million who marched on 14 November during the general strike across Iberia on the European day of action.

For the CUP the social movements are the only solution to the crisis, so we were heavily involved on both days.

For the roots of the CUP we have to go back to 1978 and the transition to democracy. We don't believe it is possible to have true social liberation without true national liberation.

We conceive of it as two legs. If the leg of national liberation moves forwards it cannot move further until the leg of social liberation moves with it. So for us both demonstrations, but particularly the European day of action, were major focuses. The general strike was the central event of our electoral campaign.

The CUP is the only political space here that says that both fights are converging - the social and the national. Some groups talk about the crisis in order to not talk about national liberation, while others talk about national liberation in order to not talk about the crisis. But we talk about both.

The indignados movement has seemed quite hostile to parliamentary methods. What is your relationship with the indignado movement?

Well, I am one of the indignados! I was one of the 57 injured when the police evicted hundreds of indignados from the Placa Catalunya in Barcelona in 2011.

The eviction took place at 7am on 27 May and was extremely violent, led by 350 police officers with the justification that the square had to be cleaned for the Champions League final! We say that we don't represent the 15-M movement (the indignados), but that the 15-M movement represents us. We try to respect their autonomy.

Why is it important to raise the question of Catalan self-determination for an anti-capitalist coalition?

There are very many reasons. The right of self-determination comes back to the question of legitimate power. Who are the legitimate owners of any country - surely it is the people?

The enemy of the Catalan people is not just the Spanish state; it is also the free market. And so when we talk about the future of Catalunya we are not only talking about culture or language; we're talking about creating genuine democracy.

We don't call ourselves nationalists - we call ourselves "independentists". The Catalan tradition is one that is open, diverse and inclusive. For example, I was born into a poor family in Castilla, the region around Madrid.

The Catalan people have suffered in many wars, defeats, concentration camps, prisons and sometimes exile. The transition to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975 was not a total rupture from the old regime. It included a "pact of forgetting" that made both left and right in Spain promise not to dwell on the legacy of Franco. In reality it meant what we call "reform with immunity" for those who had committed the worst horrors of the Franco dictatorship.

And so Catalan self-determination is also a question linked to that period. The constitution then, as now, still does not recognise our right, or the right of the Basque Country, to decide our own fate. For us it is not a question of identity - it's a question of democracy.

The CUP is assembly based. How do the assemblies organise?

There are 150 local assemblies across Catalunya. It is a bit like an inverted pyramid. Those in the grassroots have the most power. Those assemblies feed into 11 territorial assemblies.

There is also a body called the political council that meets once a month, and a secretariat that meets every week. But the sovereign body is always the general assembly which meets twice a year. Anyone can go and it is one person, one vote. We think of ourselves as urban Zapatistas.

There are probably about 1,500 militants involved in different assemblies. At the last election the CUP won 126,000 votes. That's 3.5 percent of the total across Catalunya, our biggest vote ever.

What is your relationship with the Communist Party led United Left?

In Catalunya there is no United Left. But there is a coalition between their Catalan equivalent, the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), and the Initiative for Catalunya (IpC). Our relationship with this coalition is complicated.

Before the current government of the centre-right Catalan nationalist party of Artur Mas (the CiU), the allies of United Left were in government in Catalunya and they started with the cuts. I always say that left wingers going into government is like playing a violin. You might pick it with your left hand, you rest it on your left shoulder, but you'll inevitably end up playing it with your right hand. We have been fighting for eight years to change government policies. The other left groups think that the parliament is the best place to change what is happening in southern Europe but in Catalunya the left lost power due to its own mistakes.

We conceive of the CUP as being one part of a broader popular unity, similar to that under Salvador Allende in Chile in the early 1970s. That popular unity will come from the street, not from the offices or parliament.

We look to theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein and Claus Offe who argue that social democracy in Europe has cut all links with its base. When the allies of the United Left were in the government they were extremely arrogant. They took their support for granted and forgot about immigrants and the unemployed. They use the social movements as a ladder to power and then as soon as they get to the top of the ladder they throw it away.

There are, of course, also ideological differences between us. We have an excellent relationship with the base of the United Left, but we think the leadership is too soft on Europe. We are much more critical of the EU as a neoliberal project.

The Spanish state faces its biggest crisis since the transition to democracy after Franco. How do you see this crisis developing and what ideas and movements inspire and influence the CUP?

Democracy has been kidnapped in Greece, Cyprus and Iceland, and it has been kidnapped by the banks. We call this a debtocracy. In Catalunya they want to cut the budget by 3,000 million euros. But just paying the interest of the debt in 2013 will cost us 4,300 million euros - just the interest! They are saving the banks, but sinking the people.

It is the poor countries of southern Europe that are saving capitalism. We are not against Europe - we are against this Europe of the capitalist. We want a radically democratic Europe. For the CUP it is also important to look outside of Europe as well. Three hundred people in the world have the same wealth as half of the global population.

Our own history is one inspiration. The co-operative movement has a long past in Catalunya alongside the anti-fascist movement. We also look to Greece and Iceland. Iceland is not a model, but we do look to the Icelandic people as symbolic of the kind of spirit of resistance we want to foster here.

We look to Greece, and the rise of Syriza has given us hope as well.
Latin America is, of course, an inspiration too with the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, José Mujica in Uruguay and the Zapatistas in Mexico.

Latin America is also important to us because of what happened there in the 1980s. The then imposition of neoliberalism and consequent repression mirrors the experience of southern Europe today.

What for you amounts to real democracy?

Real democracy comes from our hands! [David makes consensus decision making gestures.] For instance, in a municipality like Sant Celoni we stopped a building project with a referendum where 80 percent of the people opposed the project.

Remarkably the co-operative economy already makes up 6 percent of GDP in Catalunya. But I think genuine democracy will be a network between three types - direct, participative and representative. We don't know how to do it in detail because we don't claim to have all the answers, but the one thing we do know is that democracy has to be resuscitated from below.

Can the CUP model be replicated in the rest of Europe? Do you have relationships with left reformist parties such as the Front de Gauche or Syriza?

Perhaps the CUP model could be replicated, but we do have very specific circumstances, although there was an article in the socialist newspaper En Lluita that said someone from Alcorcon (just outside of Madrid) has asked about the CUP model.

We have drawn attention from all sorts of media from Latin America to Japan, the US and Eastern Europe. After the nuclear disaster at Fukushima we were contacted by people there who wanted to translate our writings on ecology into Japanese. We don't really have a relationship with the Front de Gauche or Syriza, because we are not a normal political party. We work mainly in local areas. We are sympathetic to all the social movements in Europe but we don't always have organic links with them.

But we do have good relationships with the left independentists in the Basque country. The world has shrunk and while now is the time of the markets, it is about to be replaced by the time of the people.