From Occupying Banks to City Hall: Meet Barcelona’s New Mayor Ada Colau (Video)

Democracy Now

HAVANA TIMES – A longtime anti-eviction activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor. Ada Colau co-founded the anti-eviction group Platform for People Affected by Mortgages and was an active member of the Indignados, or 15-M Movement.

Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary. She enjoyed support from the Podemos party, which grew out of the indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. Ada Colau joins us to discuss her victory.


AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Stanford University in California. But we end today’s show in Spain ,where a longtime anti-eviction activist has just been elected mayor of Barcelona, becoming the city’s first female mayor. Ada Colau co-founded the anti-eviction group, Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, and was an active member of the Indignados, or 15-M Movement, the protest movement that inspired Occupy Wall Street. Ada Colau has vowed to fine banks with empty homes on their books, stop evictions, expand public housing, set a minimum monthly wage of $670 per month, force utility companies to lower prices, and slash the mayoral salary.Colau enjoyed support from the Podemos Party, which grew out of the Indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. She’s been arrested repeatedly for her protests. I spoke to Ada Colau last week. I began by asking if she was surprised by her victory.

ADA COLAU: Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by your victory?

ADA COLAU: Well, in reality, partly yes and partly no. It was a victory that was accomplished in a very short amount of time. It was a candidacy that was supported and driven by the people. With very few resources and very little money we achieved victory in the elections of such an important city as Barcelona. But, partly, it was not surprising because there is a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change. We have serious political problems here in Barcelona and in the entire country. And so there was a need for change, which you could see in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what those problems are?

ADA COLAU: Of course. Well, there are problems related to the economic crisis, but this economic crisis is a consequence of a political crisis, of a profound democratic crisis. We’ve had a form of government or the political elites had a cozy relationship with the economic elites who have ruined the economy of the country. And the ultimate representation of this was the behavior of the financial institutions, of the banks. They’ve defrauded thousands and thousands of people with abusive mortgages. They’ve evicted thousands of families and ruined the country’s economy. And this has happened because of the cozy relationship between the political and economic elites.

In the face of the situation where there have been losses of billions of Euros that have caused social cutbacks in areas as basic as health care and education, it’s caused, for example, in a city rich like Barcelona, a city where there is a lot of money and a lot of resources, the inequality has shot up. That means there are people that are getting more and more rich at the same time, more people are getting poorer. So the middle class is disappearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, two years ago you testified at a Spanish parliamentary hearing on Spain’s foreclosure crisis. On the panel, you spoke right after a representative of Spain’s banking industry. You famously turned to the banker and said, “This man is a criminal and should be treated like one.”

ADA COLAU: We’ve been negotiating for four years with the banks, with the public administration, with the courts, and therefore we know exactly what we’re talking about. And this leads me to question the voices of the supposed experts, who precisely are the ones being given too much credit, pardon the irony. Such as the representatives of financial institutions. We just had an example. I would say at the very least it was paradoxical, to use a euphemism, if not outright cynical. For the representatives of financial institutions who just spoke, telling us that the Spanish legislation was great.

To say that when people are taking their own lives because of this criminal law. I assure you, I assure you that I did not throw a shoe at this man because I believed it was important to be here now to tell you what I am telling you. But this man is a criminal. And you should treat him as such. He is not an expert. The representatives of financial institutions have caused this problem. They are the very same people who caused the problem which has ruined the whole economy of this country, and you are treating these people as experts.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ada Colau. Who is now the Mayor-elect of Barcelona, Spain. The speech made lawmakers’ jaws drop. And you got a reprimand from the Parliament, but your speech and your deep to millions of Spaniards. Can you talk about that moment that you decided to speak out and did you have any regrets?

ADA COLAU: Well, the reality is that I went to speak in front of the Parliament after many years of housing rights activism and working closely with the thousands of families that were affected by the mortgage fraud, which the banks had committed and by the evictions I came after that. The evictions and interest rates have literally destroyed the lives of thousands of families. By the destroyed lives, it is cause depression, diseases, even suicides. The only thing I did was describe what I knew and what I’ve been living on the front lines for many years. When I encounter this banker, who denied their reality, and said there were no problems in Spain, when there were thousands of families in a dire situation, the least I could do was to denounce these lies and talk to them about what was happening in reality.

I think what surprised people more and what generated a media phenomenon after this appearance in the Parliament, was that someone was talking about reality inside Parliament, because sadly, this was something that had not happened in a long time. In Spain, you have the paradox that while the corrupt politicians see the statute of limitations for their crimes lapse, and they make off without going to jail, the families who got into debt for something as basic as accessing housing become indebted forever because it is impossible to forgive this debt.

So in the face of this barbarity, what happened is that hundreds of thousands of hard-working families who just wanted to have a normal life suddenly lose their jobs, they lose their house, and they become indebted for life. And becoming indebted means economic and civil debt. This leads to people committing suicide, to diseases, to broken families. And the positive aspect of this was the birth of an exemplary people’s movement, which has succeeded in stopping thousands of evictions. That forced the banks to negotiate. And it showed that if our institutions did not resolve this problem, it was because our institutions were accomplices in this fraud.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, you have broken through so many ceilings as the first woman Mayor of Barcelona, together with the new Mayor of Madrid. In your victory speech, you talked about a democratic revolution all over the south of Europe. Can you start there? What do you mean?

ADA COLAU: What is happening in Spain and in Barcelona is not an isolated event, rather there is a crisis in the way we do politics. There’s a political elite which has become corrupt and has ended up as a compass is a financial power which only thinks to speculate and to make money, even at the expense of rising inequality and the impoverishment of the majority of the people. Fortunately, there’s been a popular reaction, here and other parts of the Mediterranean, for example, Greece, to confront the neoliberal economic policies which are not only a problem in Spain, but in Europe and around the world.

We see very clearly that the city councils are key to confronting this way of making policy, meaning, that is were the everyday policies are made and where we can prove there is another way to govern, more inclusive, working together with the people, more than just asking them to vote every four years. And that you can fight against corruption and have transparent institutions. So we think the city governments are key to democratic revolution to begin governing with the people in a new way, but on the other hand, we are very aware that the real change must be global. That one city alone cannot solve all the problems we are facing, many of which are global because today, the economy does not have borders. The big capital and the markets move freely around the world, unlike people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, what would a public banking system look like?

ADA COLAU: I think in the financial world, there’s been a problem of absolute misrule. You cannot leave something as important as economic policy and money which has a social function, in the hands of speculation and private interest. Here, there’s been a democratic deficit and lack of global collective and democratic control over money and the economic system in general. So we have to take back that democratic control. And it doesn’t mean all the banks have to be public. It could be in implemented in different ways. What we need are laws that make private banks comply with the law. Because now in Spain we have a banking system that breaks the law systematically and nothing happens.

For us, the people, they don’t forgive anything. They make us pay all our debts, all our taxes. They make us pay each small traffic ticket. They don’t forgive anything. But the big banks, on the other hand, which have lied, defrauded, and destroyed thousands of families are forgiven for, for example, breaking the European Consumer Protection Regulations. So this is unacceptable. The first thing we need is governments to observe their people, not the private interest, and enforce the law. We’re talking is something as basic as enforcing the existing law. The first thing we need is to force the financial power to comply with the law and to obey the democratic powers. Something that is not happening now. It is also true that it would definitely be good if this private financial power is complemented by some form of public bank that offsets and currencies there is financing for what is in the public interest. because if not, what happens is the private financial system has the power to decide what is funded and what is not funded.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, one of the most tweeted photos in Spain these days shows riot police hauling you away. The image is from July 2013 when you are trying to occupy a Barcelona bank that was foreclosing on homes. The caption added by Twitter users reads, “Welcome new Mayor.” Can you talk about that moment that you were being dragged away?

ADA COLAU: Well, there were many similar moments in past years. Because when we have unjust laws like the ones we have now in Spain, one has to massively disobey these unjust laws to defend human rights. Here, the right of housing is being infringed upon, and that’s why thousands of people in a peaceful manner have had to practice civil disobedience to defend human rights. In this sense, this action was one of the many that have been performed in this country. And not by me, but by many other people who have been defending the human rights of all the others. Throughout human history, it has happened this way. In order to defend rights and to win rights, many times it has been necessary to disobey unjust laws. Of course, now as future Mayor of Barcelona, I hope the police will be at the service of human rights and not of the banks.

AMY GOODMAN: In the United States there’s Occupy. You were part of the Indignados. Talk about the different protests, from anti-war to anti-corporate globalization, that have shaped you.

ADA COLAU: In reality, there’s been a continuity in the past 15 years at least. In the early two thousands, late 1990’s, when they begin the anti-globalization, Seattle, there was a wide cycle protest that began the continues to the present day. During this time, there’s been the anti-globalization movement, the international anti-war movement, there’s been the Indignados, there’s been many fights for housing rights, for peace. In all of these mobilizations, not only here but also on the global level, have had many things in common. First, the global dimension. The awareness that our political and economic problems that have a global dimension, so we need to work as a network. Because there is a single global and economic reality. And it is essential to work in alliances. Also the necessity for a real democracy. The awareness that even if we have formally democratic institutions, we have the sense the decisions are not being made in Parliament, but by the boards of directors or by international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, which are profoundly anti-democratic, in which the people do not control, and that they also make decisions against their own people, generating misery around the world. This awareness of a kidnapped democracy has led to the rise of many grassroots mobilizations propelled from the bottom by the people, which are also seeking a way of direct representation. They have seen that formal democracy is not enough, that we need to find new ways of political participation where everyone can be an actor and each person can directly contribute as much as each person can contribute. So I think all of these mobilizations that have happened in the past 15 years that have also increasingly used new technologies, the Internet, social media, that have pursued new forms of innovative and direct communication, in some way we are seeing an upgrade of democracy, an upgrade of the forms of political participation that have had many different expressions and different global movements, but there’s clearly a nexus that unites them all.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, you are the first woman Mayor of Barcelona, Spain, you’re a woman, you’re activist. Also a female activist is now going to be the Madrid Mayor. Talk about the significance of this.

ADA COLAU: Without a doubt, it is important because with women making up half the population, it is completely inexplicable that in 40 years of formal democracy, I should be the first woman mayor of this city. This is not normal because women, we built this city, and we are key players in the city. But what has happened is that this is not transferred to political representation in the decision-making positions. Clearly, we live in a sexist society. This is not a problem exclusive to Barcelona or Spain. Unfortunately, it’s a global problem. But also I think what is happening now are signs of change. Of rights being won, of many women and men who’ve come before us, and we, women, take this testimony and we keep moving forward.

It is clear that women are overrepresented in the sectors of care and housework, and the time has come for women to have more representation and places of economic and political power. But in addition, I think that we have something more to contribute and that we can learn from the feminist struggles. And in this moment of change that we are in, we can contribute by feminizing politics. This will not happen just by putting more women in decision-making roles, but also by transforming the values more than anything, and by, in this moment of change, upgrading forms of political participation to demonstrate that cooperation is more effective and satisfactory than competitiveness, and that politics done relatively are better than individualistically. I think these collective values of cooperation and solidarity are values that we can contribute to feminize politics. And with that, not just women will win. Women and men both will win.

AMY GOODMAN: What do think your victory means for Podemos possibly winning and in the national level later this year?

ADA COLAU: I think a political change is happening, a change in the way politics are done in Spain but also beyond Spain and southern Europe, and we hope and all of Europe. I think what happened in Spain is a democratic revolution. The people have been empowered and they have spoken. That’s why think the main player here is not any political group, it’s not “Barcelona en Comú,” it is not “Podemos,” not Ada Colau, not Pablo Iglesias. The main players here are the people. The people who decided to take back institutions to democratize them, to take back politics of people can be the real players and the ones who make the decisions. In this movement of democratic revolution from below, there are different political parties, different acronyms which must be a tool in this process of empowerment and democratic revolution. So this is why Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, Ada Colau, and other parties that are emerging right now, are just instruments at the service of a wide peoples’ process that has decided to take back the institutions for the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, finally, what will be your first act in office as the new Mayor of Barcelona?

ADA COLAU: Well, we have developed an emergency plan that includes 30 measures which are viable. Ambitious, but perfectly viable, for the first months in office. This emergency plan consists of three main areas: first, create jobs to fight against job insecurity. Another is to guarantee basic rights. And the other is to fight actively against corruption. To make City Hall more transparent and do away with the privileges. For example, lower the salaries of public officials—elected officials. Eliminate privileges like paid expenses, official cars—things that can seem simple but are symbolically important because they send the message of ending impunity, of an end to a political class removed from the reality of the people. So to do away with these privileges is something we can to immediately as soon as we take office. It depends only on political will. Without a doubt, one of the first steps as Mayor will be to publicly convene all of the banks who work in the city, and to sit them around the negotiating table in order to stop the evictions and to say that we need the empty homes they have in the city, as social affordable rental housing, for the families who need it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ada Colau, thank you very much for joining us, and congratulations as the first woman Mayor of Barcelona, Spain. Thank you.

ADA COLAU: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Barcelona Mayor-elect, Ada Colau. We will be posting the original interview in Spanish on our website, Just click on Español.