By Don Quijones, Spain & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
On Tuesday, March 10, 19 Spanish citizens were rounded up in dawn raids by the Madrid police. They are accused of committing a crime against the Spanish state. That crime? Trying to prevent, through passive, non-violent resistance, the forced eviction of a local resident. If found guilty, the suspects could face crippling fines.
Welcome to Rajoy’s Spain, where helping out your neighbor in his or her hour of need is now an administrative crime.
A Not-So-Silent Tragedy
In most countries that have experienced foreclosure epidemics, the eviction of neighbors and local residents is usually a quiet, if not silent, tragedy. Often people don’t realize that their neighbors have gone until hours, days or even weeks have passed. Some may never even notice.
In Spain, however, things are different. In recent years foreclosures have become a very explosive public affair, sometimes drawing the participation and attention of scores or even hundreds of people. When a local resident is threatened with eviction word quickly gets out and groups of neighbors and social activists begin forming and offering their support. By the time police officers arrive there is an almost impenetrable wall of protestors between them and the front door of the property to be foreclosed. [To get an idea of what this looks like, enter “desauhicios” + “españa” in Youtube’s search engine; I can’t add the links here because providing links to images of police officers going about their business is now a chargeable offense in Spain].
This rather unusual social phenomenon has arisen as a direct result of the network effects and organization dynamics offered by the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), an advocacy group formed in 2008 with two main goals: to give legal advice to homeowners and to push for reform of a deeply imbalanced legal superstructure that is rigged against struggling home owners and in favor of the banks.
The Hordes of the Unforgiven
In Spain, debt is neither forgiven nor forgotten. Even when a bank, often with the heavy-handed assistance of the forces of law and order, has repossessed someone’s home, that person could still be left on the hook for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of euros of debt.
Here’s how it works:
Banks in Spain, as in most countries, have the right to auction houses in foreclosure. But if no buyers appear, the bank can take ownership of the house for 60% of its original or current face value (whichever the bank prefers). The banks then have 15 years to go after the homeowner. Indeed, most Spanish foreclosure victims end up personally liable for not only much of the outstanding loan, but also thousands of euros in penalty interest charges and tens of thousands of euros in court fees. In the end they could end up owing more than the original mortgage.
Put simply, in Spain debt is for life and bankruptcy is never an option, as Ada Colau, a human rights lawyer who works for PAH, told the New York Times:
Effectively, you can never get rid of this debt. Other countries in the European Union also have personal debt mortgages, but you can go to the courts and get relief. Not in Spain.
A Phantom Recovery
Now, seven years after PAH’s creation, Spain continues to witness thousands of evictions per month. For the Spanish public, the sight of local residents being forced out of their homes by truckloads of riot police officers is a vivid reminder that the country’s so-called economic recovery may not be as deep-rooted or as far-reaching as government claims may suggest.
For Mariano Rajoy’s deeply divisive, scandal-tainted government, this could be a problem. After all, this is a make-or-break election year and Spain’s ghost-like economic recovery is just about the only selling point Rajoy has left. Yet most Spanish people aren’t buying it, especially with unemployment still well above 20% and foreclosures are once again on the rise.
In 2014 there were 68,091 forced evictions — a 1.3% increase on 2013. Indeed, the only major difference between then and now is that many of those being turfed out of their homes today are tenants (36,044) and not home-owners (28,877), and in many cases their landlords are not Spanish banks but Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms (read: Round Two of the Global Financial Sector’s Takeover of Spain).
To raise public awareness about the scale and scope of the problem, PAH has released an interactive map of all the evictions in which it has intervened in Spain’s capital, Madrid, over the last four years. During that time there were a total of 25,000 evictions while the total number of actions coordinated by the organization was 781, corresponding to a total of 325 foreclosed properties. In other words, it represents a small albeit important drop in the ocean.
“Hands Up! This is An Eviction”
Of the 781 actions the PAH undertook in Madrid, 277 (35% of the total) managed to “paralyze the eviction,” meaning that the police were unable to enter the property that day. Another 247 (32% of the total) resulted in a suspension of the foreclosure case. However, while the PAH’s actions were able to put a hold on many of the planned foreclosures, the effect was only temporary: in the end all 1,447 occupants of all 325 dwellings were evicted.
As the PAH’s interactive map shows, 667 of them were minors, of which 251 were under three years old. Indeed, infants continue to be among the worst affected victims of foreclosures despite the fact that evicting a family with babies or toddlers is expressly forbidden by Spanish law.
Now with its full attention on upcoming municipal elections, the Rajoy regime has finally passed a so-called “Law of Second Chance,” which will supposedly make it easier for debtors to have their debt cancelled. This is all part of the new people-friendly image Spain’s governing People’s Party is desperately trying to cultivate in the run-up to this autumn’s general elections. However, according to Javier López, a Spanish Member of the European Parliament who supports a Europe-wide debt-forgiveness initiative, the new law is just a “smokescreen”:
So far in this legislature the Rajoy government has already made four modifications to legislation on insolvency and private debt restructuring. All of them have been so riddled with conditions and small print that their impact has been extremely extremely negligible.
Even the European Commission has warned that the new legislation is extremely opaque, especially with regard to insolvencies “resulting from unfair mortgages.” What’s more, the new law will not be applied retroactively, meaning it will not provide any solace to the hundreds of thousands of families who have already lost their home and continue to languish under an ever-growing tower of debt.
A Nation of Squatters
In the meantime the PAH continues to fight for a universal debt jubilee as well as support those on the sharp end of Spain’s foreclosure system. In the last couple of years it has organized dozens of so-called reoccupations of entire abandoned buildings to accommodate Spain’s burgeoning ranks of homeless families.
The government’s response has been to tighten the legal noose around the organization’s neck, with many of these reoccupations resulting themselves in evictions. Now that the so-called Citizen Security Law (AKA Gag Law) has been passed by both houses of congress, the government has a whole gamut of new extraordinary powers with which to punish protestors, including PAH-affiliated activists.
As I warned in December, thanks to the new legislation, virtually all forms of political protest, including all non-violent forms, have been criminalized. But not with penal charges – most criminal cases brought against non-violent political demonstrators are promptly thrown out of court – but administrative ones. In other words: no judge, no jury.
The new “crimes” will include any attempt to prevent the forced eviction of a local resident or occupy the branch office of the bank involved, both of which can now be punishable with fines of between €1,000 and €30,000. Given that many of the activists who work alongside PAH are themselves victims of foreclosure, with thousands of euros of unpayable debt hanging over their own heads, the threat of even further financial duress has one clear aim: intimidation.
It is an affront to the basic tenets of democracy, the last refuge of a government that clothes itself in the vestments of democracy while doing everything it can to resurrect the ghosts of Spain’s Francoist past. As long as Rajoy’s regime remains in power, even the simple expression of solidarity with a fellow citizen will be a crime. By Don Quijones, Raging Bull-Shit.
In the same vein, when a judge finally tries to prosecute executives of a collapsed and bailed-out bank – and their use of “Chewing Gum” accounting – all heck breaks loose. Read… Spanish Judge Pursues Bankers, Government Pursues Judge