On Saturday, Popular Party Secretary-General María Dolores de Cospedal, number two of the governing party in Spain, said that she knew she was going to get criticized, “but this is pure Nazism.” On Sunday, rather than resigning, she repeated it. For more precision, she added that going to someone’s house to “harass” him “is a totalitarian attitude comparable to what occurred in the thirties in a European country.” A reference to Nazis marking the homes of Jews.
But these “Nazis” are folks who are standing up to the banks and draconian mortgage laws that the government is hell-bent on protecting. And they have a special word for their action: escrache. It had become popular in Argentina in 1995 after President Carlos Menem pardoned collaborators of the Junta. Activists with banners would gather in front of the home or office of a pardoned perpetrator. They’d chant and play music to let neighbors know. While Junta members were beyond the law, they could still be publicly humiliated.
In Spain, escraches were sparked by the implosion of the housing bubble and the coincident rise in unemployment: people fell behind on their mortgages and got evicted from their homes. But unlike in the US, Spanish homeowners borrow under a draconian law where the bank, after the eviction, saddles ex-homeowners with the debt for life.
The law allows the bank to credit the mortgage with only 50% – since 2011 with 60% – of the value of the home, writes Yaiza Hernández in her exposé on escraches. After fees and sky-high default interest, the debt that the ex-homeowner owes is often as high as the original mortgage amount. The law was designed to protect the same banks that ate up subsidies, falsified their books, engaged in dubious transactions, collapsed, and were bailed out with tens of billions of euros.
In 2008, the anger against the banks gave rise to the movement Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH). It soon established a network throughout Spain. When eviction notices were issued, activists would show up to impede the eviction through their physical presence. In 2010, PAH was one of the groups behind a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) to change the mortgage law so that banks would have to cancel the debt after foreclosing on the home – a non-recourse mortgage. They collected 1.5 million signatures, enough to present it to parliament. And in February, 90% of the population agreed that foreclosure should cancel the mortgage.
But the PP government, in its truly democratic manner – it’s already embroiled in A Vast Political Espionage Scandal To Top Off The Sordid Corruption Scandal – didn’t allow the motion to proceed to parliament, despite the outcry it caused. Frustrations rose to the boiling point. Hence escraches.
The PAH started targeting PP Members of Parliament who were blocking the ILP. Activists would gather in front of their homes or offices, chant, and hold up their slogan, written on a pair of round signs: “yes we can,” on the green one, “but they don’t want to,” on the red one (photo). An escrache, according to the guidelines (PDF), is an “informative action” without verbal or physical aggression.
On March 14, the government got slapped in the face by the European Court of Justice which ruled against Spain’s mortgage laws. The government said it would incorporate the ruling into a new law. While evictions continued, Parliament was watering down the reform bill, and the police tried to criminalize the movement and arrest participants. On April 5, at the escrache in front of the house of Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the police picked out 30 people. The three ringleaders were fined €1,500 each, 15 others were fined €200 to €250.
When discussing escraches, the PP throws around the words “violence” and “harassment.” Government delegate Cristina Cifuentes called PAH spokesperson Ada Colau and her colleagues “terrorists.” Without consequences. But police efforts to keep activists 300 meters away from the politician’s house was dealt a setback on Tuesday when a court ruled that it was “overreach” – though it allowed some “proportionate” limitations.
But it has a partisan hue. PP MP Celso Delgado, when he found out his house would be targeted, rushed home and ended up discussing the issue of evictions with the activists – not that it changed his or their minds. Non-recourse mortgages “cannot be” he told the press later. “They asked me to break with party discipline,” and vote for the reform initiative. “I said no.” Then he added that it was “noteworthy that in 2011, with the Socialists in power, there were more evictions than in 2012, with the PP in government. And curiously nobody went to protest outside people’s homes then.”
So far, escraches have only targeted PP politicians. Madrid Mayor Ana Botella, member of the PP, hammered it home: in 2011, under Socialist President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, there were 77,000 evictions in Spain but she has not heard of any cases of the type of “harassment” that PP politicians have to suffer, she said.
Escraches may be disturbing. Politicians may feel uncomfortable when the weak try to get their point across. And the PAH may protect the left. Yet the reform of the mortgage law is one of the most popular issues and cuts across party lines. Hell-bent on protecting the banks, the PP, steeped in an absurd level of corruption, lashes out viciously and demonizes the activists – with dark overtones. So Cospedal, after equating escraches with “pure Nazism,” issued an ominous warning: “If one day we have something serious to regret, we must look to those responsible for causing the violence.”