Amaia Engana didn’t wait to be evicted from her home. On Nov. 9, in the town of Barakaldo, a suburb of Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country, officials from the local judiciary were on their way to serve her eviction papers. Amaia stood on a chair and threw herself out of her fifth-floor apartment window, dying instantly on impact on the sidewalk below. She was the second person in two weeks in Spain to commit suicide as a result of an impending foreclosure action. Her suicide has added gravity to this week’s general strike radiating from the streets of Madrid across all of Europe. As resistance to so-called austerity in Europe becomes increasingly transnational and coordinated, President Barack Obama and the House Republicans begin their debate to avert the “fiscal cliff.” The fight is over fair tax rates, budget priorities and whether we as a society will sustain the social safety net built during the past 80 years.
The general strike that swept across Europe Nov. 14 had its genesis in the deepening crisis in Spain, Portugal and Greece. As a result of the global economic collapse in 2008, Spain is in a deep financial crisis. Unemployment has surpassed 25 percent, and among young people is estimated at 50 percent. Large banks have enjoyed bailouts while they enforce mortgages that an increasing number of Spaniards are unable to meet, provoking increasing numbers of foreclosures and attempted evictions. “Attempted” because, in response to the epidemic of evictions in Spain, a direct-action movement has grown to prevent them. In city after city, individuals and groups have networked, creating rapid-response teams that flood the street outside a threatened apartment. When officials arrive to deliver the eviction notice, they can’t reach the building’s main door, let alone the apartment in question.
The general strike across Europe ranged from mass rallies in Madrid, with participation from members of Parliament, to protests in London, to outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, to high atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, where protesters flew anti-austerity flags and banners. In calling for the first pan-national general strike in Europe in generations, the European Trade Union Confederation hoped to express “strong opposition to the austerity measures that are dragging Europe into economic stagnation, indeed recession, as well as the continuing dismantling of the European social model. These measures, far from re-establishing confidence, only serve to worsen imbalances and foster injustice.”
Back in the U.S., a group from Occupy Wall Street, which itself was inspired in part by the Spanish M-15 movement against austerity that began on May 15, 2011, has taken a creative approach to the blight of debt that is afflicting millions. Calling itself “Rolling Jubilee,” after the ancient practice of forgiving all debts every 50 years, the group is buying debt from lenders, for pennies on the dollar, and canceling it. This discounted debt market exists primarily because collection agencies and “vulture capitalists” acquire bad loans that people have stopped paying for 2 to 3 cents on a dollar, and still make a profit by hounding people to pay back some or all of that debt. Rolling Jubilee, according to its website, “believes people should not go into debt for basic necessities like education, healthcare and housing. Rolling Jubilee intervenes by buying debt, keeping it out of the hands of collectors, and then abolishing it ... to help each other out and highlight how the predatory debt system affects our families and communities. Think of it as a bailout of the 99 percent by the 99 percent.” To date, Rolling Jubilee has raised $175,000, which it says will be used to abolish $3.5 million in debt.
The amount may be symbolic, but an important message to President Obama and House Republicans as they wrangle over the future of the U.S. tax rates, deficit reduction and how to fund so-called entitlements. Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies prefers to call Social Security and Medicare “earned benefit programs, because these are programs that American workers are paying into over their lives, and they have a right to that money, to have these basic social programs that have made us a much stronger society with a stronger middle class.” Anderson told me, “The approach to the debt should be to look at the ways that we could raise revenues through ... taxing financial transactions ... cutting fossil-fuel subsidies and using carbon taxes, and cutting military spending. That kind of combination could raise trillions of dollars over the next decade."
Amaia Engana must have felt she had no safety net in Spain, as she jumped to her death. As the movement for that strong social safety net grows around the world, and locally here at home, the mandate is clear: Austerity is not the answer.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.