The revolt of the 1% against the coronavirus ‘oppression’ in Spain

Residents of the upscale Madrid district of Salamanca have been demonstrating against the government for allegedly curtailing their freedoms

A protest against the government on Thursday in the Salamanca district of Madrid.
A protest against the government on Thursday in the Salamanca district of Madrid.©Jaime Villanueva (EL PAÍS)

Residents of Madrid’s upscale Salamanca neighborhood have been making headlines since Sunday with a series of street protests against the government over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Demonstrators have been using the words “dictatorial” and “oppression” to describe their situation under the ongoing lockdown. Madrid, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, is still in the early stages of a national deescalation plan that is expected to end in late June, if there are no new spikes in transmission.

The protests reflect a view, held by some in Spain, that the state of alarm introduced in mid-March to combat the coronavirus pandemic is really an excuse for the central government to grab extra powers. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), heads a minority government and he has been facing growing difficulty to secure enough congressional support for back-to-back extensions to the state of alarm.

We are in a dictatorial system, and I know what I’m talking about
Magdalena, lawyer and protester

The sentiment mirrors similar feelings elsewhere in Europe, where protesters from across the political spectrum are beginning to demonstrate against prolonged confinement measures (see box below). A recent report by Spain’s Civil Guard underscores the risk of social unrest in Spain if confinement measures are prolonged.

On Wednesday, around 100 locals banged on pots and pans on Núñez de Balboa street, without respecting social distancing rules. There were couples, families and people with dogs. Some marched with face masks that had tiny Spanish flags embroidered on them; others waved enormous flags instead. The demonstrators called for the government to resign.

“I pay my taxes and we have a government that is doing nothing,” said María Jesús, 56, who was out with her husband Rafael, 60, and their son Pelayo, 16. “That is why I am walking and protesting. You see these gloves? I paid for them myself. And this face mask? I’ve paid for it, too.”

“We’ve even had to pay for our own [coronavirus] test,” added her husband. “It cost me €80”

Wealthiest 1%

The Salamanca district is named after a 19th-century marquis who was instrumental in the area’s development. It is home to more than 150,000 people, including the wealthiest 1% in all of Spain and the wealthiest 3% in the Madrid region. Household income here is an average €50,376, compared with €33,000 in the region and €28,417 in Spain.

Asun (“I won’t tell you my surname, and you never ask a woman about her age”) is a civil servant who has been protesting every day since Monday. “You’d think we were criminals with so many police around. There is no freedom. You should publish that [Pablo] Echenique and several other podemitas live around here,eh?” she said, alluding to leading members of the leftist Unidas Podemos group, which is the junior partner in Spain’s coalition government.

“We are in a dictatorial system, and I know what I’m talking about,” said Magdalena, a local resident who works as a lawyer. “They are applying a decree that bans our freedom.”

The demonstrations began on Sunday night. Several residents say that a collective protest sprung up after several dozen youths gathered under the balcony of an apartment that was blaring out loud music. Minutes later, a police van showed up and handed out fines to 12 members of the public for violating the lockdown rules. Several residents criticized the police presence, crying out “Freedom!”

By Thursday, however, the street protests had all but disappeared, with just a few scattered people marching and chatting with reporters. One of them was Laura Domínguez, 39, whose dog Barri wore a Spanish flag as a cape. “I am here because I am sick and tired,” said Domínguez, wearing a face mask and holding a cigarette. “They’re creating a country of idlers. And now they want to take everything away from me.”

Barri the dog wearing a Spanish flag.
Barri the dog wearing a Spanish flag.Manuel Viejo González

On Núñez de Balboa street, nearly 50% of residents voted for the conservative Popular Party (PP) at the last general election, held in November 2019, followed by the far-right Vox with 23%, the center-right Ciudadanos with 6.7%, and the Socialist Party (PSOE) with 5.4%. The leftist Más País and Unidas Podemos attracted less than 1% of the vote.

The regional premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the PP, has been encouraging these street demonstrations. “Just wait until people really go out on the street – the events of Núñez de Balboa are going to seem like a joke then,” she recently said. Meanwhile, Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez Almeida, also of the PP, said this week that “as long as [safety] conditions are maintained, everyone is free to voice their opinion.”

Vox leader Santiago Abascal has been pushing for anti-government demonstrations and challenging authorities to ban them, arguing that this would prove that fundamental freedoms are being violated. At a recent session of Congress to extend the state of alarm, Abascal said that his party would apply for permission to hold demonstrations against the government on the streets of Spain’s main cities, but that in order to respect social-distancing measures, the protests would be held inside vehicles rather than on foot.

United against a common enemy

Ana Carbajosa, Berlin

They are united against a common enemy. They are a motley, angry multitude of people who share the feeling of being the victims of the global elites. These elites, in their view, are using the new virus as an excuse to get rich and curtail the freedoms “of the people.”

Thousands of individuals have been demonstrating in German cities against the “corona-dictatorship.” They form an ideological amalgam that cuts across left-right divisions. They represent a small minority, but they are making enough noise that it is already cause for concern within the walls of the Bundestag.

It could pave the way for a new kind of populist movement that shuns traditional parties. Meanwhile, the far right sees this popular unrest as a unique political opportunity that it plans to make the most of.

English version by Susana Urra.

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