When Activists Take Over City Hall: The Case of Barcelona, Spain
Ada Colau, who had been a long-time housing activist, won the Mayoral election of Barcelona in 2015 and a tough battle against long-entrenched forces, but is managing to gradually transform the city. Paul Jay talks to her about her experience
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Paul Jay. We are in Burlington, Vermont at the Sanders Institute Gathering.
Ada Colau was elected in 2015 as Barcelona’s first woman mayor. Under her leadership Barcelona has increased social spending to historic levels, spearheading initiatives to prevent gentrification by increasing public and social housing, created a municipal energy company, and mainstreamed perspective of gender across all city policy. And she now joins me in the studio. Thanks for joining us.
ADA COLAU: Pleasure.
PAUL JAY: So before we get into the policy issues, there must have been a day when you wondered, “be careful what you wish for,” because running, campaigning, it ain’t the same thing as having to do the nitty gritty actual governing. How has that been?
ADA COLAU: The truth is that it was difficult to imagine that I would become the Mayor of Barcelona, because I am a humble working-class woman, a pro-housing and anti-eviction activist, which happened to me, along with many more people.
I decided [to run for office] amid a deep national political crisis that featured many high-level corruption cases. [At the time] there was a political class that did not represent the majority of the population.
So we decided to take action, and organized a grassroots citizen campaign in the streets, the neighborhoods, and communities. We did not have the money, media influence or political might, but we were a lot of really motivated people who knew that it was possible to change things around for the better with the support of the people. So we ran a campaign centered on the streets, and by having direct communication [with the voters] we ended up winning the elections. It was incredible. Initially it seemed unreal, but then I understood that I had been an activist, but I was no longer an activist, I had to assume the role of a Mayor. And when you are the Mayor you have to represent everyone, you have the responsibility of your office. Therefore [even though] I had the same objectives that I did as an activist, I became a city Mayor.
And it has happened so fast, I got into the institutional world without ever forgetting where I came from and why I am here. As a matter of fact, in my office I have a paper with this phrase: “Never forget who are we, where we come from, and why are we here.” With our origins very clean in our minds, we assumed the Office of Barcelona Mayor.
PAUL JAY: You are advancing a very progressive agenda. Maybe we can talk about some of the reforms. But you are also talking about structural change, the development of a publicly owned energy company. And that is something, that’s sort of a dagger into the heart of the system, really. Because the system can adapt to certain reforms. But when it comes to ownership, that is more threatening to the status quo. So talk about how the reforms have progressed, and then talk about the decision to create a public energy company. Is that the beginning of something in terms of strengthening the public sector?
ADA COLAU: For us, energy resources are very important. Energy generation is a subject that will become increasingly important. And it is also a basic [human] need. Everyone needs [water], just like they need water and shelter. It is a primal common good necessity.
The problem is that in the last couple decades due to the neoliberal policies, these resources have been privatized by the central government. What used to be public, now it has been privatized. And that has generated a disastrous [result]. I mean disastrous because a few companies have generated an oligopoly, which concentrates control over energy resources and allows for speculation of a common good and high prices. This in turn has caused enormous troubles to countless families that simply can’t pay. [These families] end up suffering energy cuts because of missed payments. This is serious because it generates a public health problem and coexisting conflicts, therefore fundamental rights are being violated. They do this to generate an out of control profit rate, out of unjustified greed.
So to face the speculation with the common good, it is necessary a strong public leadership that can manage such assets, to make sure it reaches all of the population. Luckily we have social movements which long ago have been denouncing the oligopolies’ speculating with our electric energy. That is why we weren’t alone, we had the social movements which had originated the proposal of creating a public operator.
So out of Barcelona we have created the first public, municipal energy operator of Spain. We sell the energy, but we also make it so that all of the city’s lights from parks and streets are 100% powered from green, renewable sources.
From January on we will be able to give electric, water to families [in need], first we brought water to the city and now we will share it with the families. Obviously this has not sat well with the boards of the energy companies controlling the oligopoly. But unlike other political parties, we are free. [In these parties] we have seen a process of “revolving doors,” a process on which political officials all the way up to Secretaries of State, Ministers, ended up working for those very same companies that they privatized. Which presents an evident conflict of interests.
We [as a political party] have nobody in that Administration Council [of Barcelona’s Public Utility], and we don’t want anybody [from our party] there. We are people and we are here to govern for the people. And that makes us free.
And so we have had an enormous amount of pressure, and those companies have tried to stop us both in our water and energy utility companies with a lot of lawyers, running PR campaigns on mainstream media against us, investing millions of Euros. But they can’t do anything because we are free, we don’t depend on banks, we don’t depend on any corporation’s executive boards, so we can rule for the people. And this is a non negotiable subject, that will be positive, for the majority.
PAUL JAY: You say it’s “green.” How do you generate the energy?
ADA COLAU: We don’t generate the energy, not yet. Although we are just getting some financing to install solar panels in the houses, so we are promoting and helping the families to be self sustainable, but that will take time.
So we act like a private operator, we go out to the market and buy it, and we try to buy only green energy and redistribute it. So right now we are only redistributing green energy we buy, but looking forward we want to produce it as well.
PAUL JAY: Are you planning to develop other public enterprises?
ADA COLAU: Yes. Right now there is another important debate about water, another common good that was privatized, as well. Not only that, but the privatization happened in a very corrupted way, with no public “call for bids,” or any kind of transparency whatsoever. [A process which] right now, some social movements have taken to court. We are watching and hoping that it will be resolved by the judiciary. We are working so when it is resolved we can move into a public administration of the water. Which will also break new ground.
In general we are betting on strengthening public services. For example, [before us] there was no public housing in Barcelona. And the few public projects constructed were treated as a commodity. In consequence public money was financing an asset, which then was traded and will eventually be privatized, as well.
So we have changed that and we are making much more public housing, and from now on we are making public projects for rent, because we understand that what is financed with public money can’t be privatized.
PAUL JAY: So all the measures you are taking is a real threat to the elites of Barcelona. And if this catches fire in Spain, it is a threat in Spain, but it is even a European threat in the sense that if it works in Barcelona, this is a real different vision for a different kind of future. What are you up against? I know you have elections coming in May. What does the battle looks like?
So you have about what? A third of the city council is from your party. You are the mayor, but you don’t control the city council. You don’t control the media, so paint a picture of how this campaign looks.
ADA COLAU: These years of government have not been easy at all. We were new to it, and had to learn a lot really fast, we have had all of the opposition against us, trying real hard to wear us down. We are governing as a minority, we have 11 of 41 councilmembers.
We also have had big economic interest against us, adding to that we don’t have any control of the media. Therefore our power comes from the fact that we speak with our actions, to the social majority, the people. So the next political campaign, it is going to be about [big economic interest going against us]. I always say that we are not against the economy, we are actually defending the economy. A sustainable, democratic and feminist economy, an economy that works to defend life, dignity and to secure the rights or the people.
So we work extensively with the productive economy, because at the beginning when we just took office, they used to tell us “you are going to cause chaos and the economy is going to stop, because you are anti-economy.” And it is just the opposite, Barcelona’s economic numbers are going up, unemployment is down, we are fighting extreme poverty. One thing we are doing is that the city government is the main contractor in the city. So we have changed the ordinances to make it so any city contractor has to follow social criteria and apply workers’ protection, sustainable, and gender responsible policies.
And we have also promoted and supported small and medium-sized business, because the common idea of economics overstates the importance of big corporations, when in reality in the real economy it is the small and medium business, the ones who are employing the larger portion of the population.
So we work with the actual economic engines, and in reality we only have very few enemies in the large corporations. They want to have a predatorial, speculative, and undemocratic economy. And that is the real battleground, that will be our next elections’ battleground. As a matter of fact, it tells a lot that one of the opposition’s main right-wing political party had to find a candidate from France, a former French government minister, to try to defeat me. In fact the rest of political parties running for Mayor are looking for celebrities to be their candidates and try to get us out of [Barcelona City Mayor] Office.
Never before in a local election we had such tension and such determination by those involved, like in the one we have now. We will face that with honesty, joy, and the conviction that we are being coherent by governing for the majority, with the majority. And because we know we don’t represent or are pressured by any vested interest. And that will be our strategy to win the upcoming elections in Barcelona.