This Anti-Bank Activist Could Be the Next European Leader to Stand Up to the Banks
While the anti-austerity Syriza coalition has taken power in Greece, the grassroots party Podemos is also quickly gaining popularity in Spain, Europe’s fifth largest economy. Last May, Podemos surprised many when it received 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European Parliament elections. The party grew out of the "indignados" movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. The indignados rallied against austerity cuts, rising unemployment and Spain’s political establishment.
Podemos Secretary General Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old political science professor and longtime activist, was elected to the European Parliament last year. If Podemos wins Spain’s national elections later this year, he could become Spain’s next prime minister. In a conversation with Amy Goodman, Iglesias said: "We want democracy, and we don’t feel represented by this elite of all politicians. So, we think that there is a big difference between the old situation and the new situation. And people in Spain is starting to understand that the old political elites are not able to improve the situation and to resolve the economic and political problems in my country."
Below is an interview with Iglesias, followed by a transcript:
AARON MATÃ‰: We turn now to Europe. On Monday, talks between Greece and eurozone finance ministers over Athens’ debt broke down when the newly elected leftist Syriza government rejected a deal to extend the terms of the current bailout. Meanwhile, a new anti-austerity party is also gaining popularity in Spain, Europe’s fifth-largest economy. On January 31st, as many as 150,000 people rallied in Madrid to show support for the Podemos party—it translates into "We can." Podemos only became an official party last March, but a recent poll found 28 percent of the population supports it, enough to possibly win Spain’s next general election.
AMY GOODMAN: Last May, Podemos surprised many when it received 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European Parliament elections. The party grew out of the indignados movement that began occupying squares in Spain four years ago. The indignados rallied against austerity cuts, rising unemployment and Spain’s political establishment.
On Monday, I sat down with Pablo Iglesias, the secretary general of Podemos. He is a 36-year-old political science professor, longtime activist, who was elected to the European Parliament last year. If Podemos wins Spain’s national elections later this year, he could become Spain’s next prime minister. He is in New York. I began by asking him to talk about Podemos.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Probably we are the answer, the answer to austerity policizing in our country. I never thought it was possible, a political phenomenon as us in our country, and probably we are the result of the disaster of these policies of austerity in Spain. And probably, we are the expression of the hope now. People in my country is starting to understand that in democracy, when something is going wrong, you can do the things well. And probably we are a new opportunity, a new opportunity of change in Spain. And we are pretty happy to be an instrument of the people for the political change.
AMY GOODMAN: What exactly does austerity mean?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Austerity means that people is expulsed of their homes. Austerity means that the social services don’t work anymore. Austerity means that public schools have not the elements, the means to develop their activity. Austerity means that the countries have not sovereignty anymore, and we became a colony of the financial powers and a colony of Germany. Austerity probably means the end of democracy. I think if we don’t have democratic control of economy, we don’t have democracy. It’s impossible to separate economy and democracy, in my opinion.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the indignados movement is, what it means?
PABLO IGLESIAS: The indignados movement is probably the best expression of organic crisis in the political regime in Spain. In Gramscian terms, that means these demonstration in Puerta del Sol and in other places in Spain means the end of—the end of the consensus with this political regime in Spain. Even if the electoral expression of that new situation was not immediately, I think that it was the basis, it was the key element, that allow us finally to get this support we are getting now.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve won in the European Parliament. What is your strategy going forward?
PABLO IGLESIAS: The first thing is to make visible the problems that European citizen have. And we use all the time the European Parliament in order to give visibility to social groups and to give visibility to problems, in order to open a discussion in the society. And in fact, the media attention to the European Parliament since we are there is great, is growing, and we are happy with that.
AMY GOODMAN: Podemos has organized citizens’ assemblies.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yes, we have circles. Circles are the local agrupaciÃ³n of people of Podemos. And we have more than 1,200 in Spain and overseas. In the United States, there is a circle, a Podemos circle. And we will—I will meet them today. And tonight, we have a meeting with them and a conference. And I’m—
AMY GOODMAN: And what do these circles do?
PABLO IGLESIAS: The circles are activists, and they organize campaigns. They have meetings with civil society, with civil society in their cities and in their districts. They are the basis. They are the most important instrument of Podemos in order to have relationship with society.
AMY GOODMAN: Pablo Iglesias, can you explain the political landscape in Spain—the PP, the socialists, your own party, Podemos, even the other parties, Esquerda Unida—
PABLO IGLESIAS: Unida.
AMY GOODMAN: —and why your party rose up and pulled away support from these other parties?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Probably, we have been able to change the chess party, the chess game, because we don’t accept this old distinction, distinction between left and right. Obviously, I am a leftist, but I think that this game that separate the political field, between center-left and center-right, sometimes is something very useful to make the banks win. And we say we have a program. We have a program defending democracy. We want social services. We want public education. We want sovereignty. And we are sure that there is a majority of the society that is supporting us. So it’s not a problem for us the past of the people. If you in the past vote for the right, no problem for us. If you support our ideas, if you support the possibility of a political change in Spain, if you support democracy, you can be with us. In fact, the two messages of the 15-M movement in our country—
AMY GOODMAN: That was May 15th.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yeah, exactly, May 15. It was: We want democracy, and we don’t feel represented by this elite of all politicians. So, we think that there is a big difference between the old situation and the new situation. And people in Spain is starting to understand that the old political elites are not able to improve the situation and to resolve the economic and political problems in my country.
AMY GOODMAN: Pablo, how did you move from being a movement to a party? How was that decision made?
PABLO IGLESIAS: For necessity, because we understood very well that if you need to change the things, you need political power. And we were activists, and we used to work in social fields in the civil society, but we know that it’s very important to occupy the institutional powers in order to change things. It’s quite important to be in the Parliament. It’s quite important to win the elections.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you describe the socialists and the PP sort of like the Republicans and Democrats in the United States?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: They’re the two main parties.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How have they responded to the rise of Podemos?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Using the same language. It’s something quite ironic that the center-left and the center-right party use the main—the same words in order to attack us. And I’m sure that the voters of the socialist party don’t like that, and many of our voters came from the socialist party. But unfortunately, in my country, they showed that they support the same economic policy, and that was a disaster in my country. They both develop austerity policies that bring our country to a terrible situation now.
AMY GOODMAN: What is that situation? Can you describe unemployment and other issues?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yes, yes. My country have three big problems: inequality, unemployment and debt. And the socialist party and the popular party in my country understood that the best way to improve the situation was austerity. After five years, or even more, even six years, the situation is worse than before. So, we think that in democracy, if something doesn’t work, you can change. And we are saying, we want to organize another way to improve the situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you take Podemos’s name from President Obama’s whole "Yes, we can" sort of mantra leading into his election?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Of course not. The expression, "Yes, we can," came from the Latinos in the '70s fighting for their rights. And it was a good example for us. Obama was quite clever using that, but it's not a creation of Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: My colleague Juan GonzÃ¡lez, co-host on Democracy Now!, just wrote a column in the New York Daily News about these U.S. firms that are buying housing in Spain, raising rent and evicting tenants. He particularly looked at Blackstone Group, Goldman Sachs, Apollo Management, Cerberus, which have quietly been buying up tens of thousands of residential properties in Madrid and Barcelona at low prices. Now, protesters have gathered outside Blackstone Group in the last weeks in the United States to protest what not only these companies are doing here, but what they’re doing in your country.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yeah, in our country, and the government is doing nothing. That’s the reason because we need to win the elections. It’s completely unacceptable that these people are getting houses, and many Spanish families are without a house, in a very difficult situation. I think we need a government ready to protect the people against these kind of people.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the system in Spain that people here would find unusual, that you owe mortgage payments even after you’ve been evicted from your house?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Exactly, exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain this phenomenon, these rules in Spain that have actually led to suicides.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. When you don’t have enough money in order to pay to the bank, you have to give your house. And after that, you have to pay for the interest, and you have to pay for your debt. And even you don’t have a house, and you have to give a very big part of your salary, if you have a salary, because you have a work, to the bank. This is completely absurd. There are many families in Spain in a desperate situation because they don’t have a house and they have to pay to the banks. And the banks are the—have some responsibility with the crisis, not the families. So, it’s a completely unacceptable situation.
AMY GOODMAN: What should happen?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Because the government—the government organized a legislation for the banks, a legislation very good for the banks and very bad for the families.
AMY GOODMAN: If you were prime minister, what would be the three major first steps you would take?
PABLO IGLESIAS: The first things is to finish with the evictions of the families. And this is quite easy. Using the European law, we could stop that in the first week. I think it’s very important to organize a restructuration of the debt. It’s impossible to assume for a government the level of the debt now. And a fiscal reform. In my country are just the middle and small companies that pay taxes, and the workers; and the rich, the rich companies and the top companies, have very little fiscal pressure. So it should be very important to make a fiscal reform.
AMY GOODMAN: Pablo Iglesias, you would not only be dealing with domestic policy, but foreign policy. I mean, when Prime Minister Aznar was in office, he supported President Bush—
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —in invading Iraq. But Prime Minister Zapatero, who came next, he pulled the troops out.
PABLO IGLESIAS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you stand on issues in the Middle East, on what should happen with the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, and other conflict areas?
PABLO IGLESIAS: I think we need a new leadership that defend the peace. And I think that use military in order to confront terrorism sometime was not useful. And I think that the policy of the United States regarding Middle East sometimes bring more problems than solutions. I think that in Europe we need a European system of defense. I don’t like the military sovereignty of Europe depending of the NATO. And I think that we have to protect—to protect the peace.
AMY GOODMAN: The situation of Ukraine now?
PABLO IGLESIAS: I think that Europeans need a good relationship with Russia. I don’t like the political system in Russia; I’m not a supporter of Vladimir Putin. But I think Europeans, we don’t need a prebellic situation with Russia. I think some European powers were supporting a coup d’Ã©tat in Ukraine, and that is not a good move. And now Europeans are in danger.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the Western Sahara? It’s not as well known in the United States, but it’s certainly a major issue in Spain.
PABLO IGLESIAS: I think we have a responsibility with Sahara, and we should support autodermination of Western Sahara, and I think they have the right to have their own country.
AMY GOODMAN: Israel-Palestine?
PABLO IGLESIAS: It’s a completely—a complete disaster. Israel is violating the international law all the time. And I think that the international community should have some pressure to Israel in order to respect the international law and go back to the borders of the—before the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Podemos has been compared to Syriza. You’ve described some of the ways you’re similar. How are you different?
PABLO IGLESIAS: We are different because we just have one year of history, and Syriza is a very well-organized political party. And we have different history and a different political context. I think the economic situation in Greece is different in respect to Spain, and the economic situation, too. But we think they are the possibility of change in Greece, and we admire them so much, and we are friends, and we will collaborate with them.
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have any words of advice for President Obama, now in his second term? He can’t run again. Whether he will be a lame-duck president or a legacy president remains to be seen.
PABLO IGLESIAS: I don’t know. I don’t know what could I say to President Obama. There is something that I like. We both love The Wire, the HBO series. And I like Omar, too. And I read that Obama like this character, this character Omar. And I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Why do you like The Wire?
PABLO IGLESIAS: I think it’s probably the best TV series in order to explain how the power works, how the power works in politics, in media, in the organization of the work. I think it’s a masterpiece. I used to teach political geography in my faculty, and all the time I was saying to my students, "You have to see this TV series, because it’s great in order to understand how the power works."
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have anything like that in Spain?
PABLO IGLESIAS: Not in that level. I think that The Wire is the best series.
AMY GOODMAN: Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos party in Spain, which is leading in at least one poll for the national elections in Spain. He is speaking today in New York at the CUNY Grad Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, at 1:00 p.m. We’ll also be posting an interview with Iglesias in Spanish on our website later this week at democracynow.org.