Communist enclave in Spain offers a reply to struggling capitalists

By Victoria Burnett
International Herald Tribune / April 26, 2009
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MARINALEDA, Spain - Since they occupied the estate of a local aristocrat 20 years ago, the inhabitants of this Andalusian village and its fiery mayor, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, have been synonymous with the struggle of Spain's rural poor.

As the country grapples with soaring unemployment and a real estate bust, this Communist enclave, surrounded by sloping olive groves, is attracting fresh interest. Drawn by Marinaleda's housing program and bustling farming cooperative, people from neighboring villages - and from as far afield as Madrid and Barcelona - have come here in search of jobs and homes, villagers and local officials say.

Sanchez, who this month celebrated three decades as mayor of the town of 2,700, says the crisis in global capitalism vindicates his radical Socialist vision.

"They all thought that the market was God, who made everything work with his invisible hand," Mr. Sanchez, 53, said last week, seated in his office below a portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"Before, it was a mortal sin to talk about the government having a role in the economy. Now, we see we have to put the economy at the service of man."

While the rest of Spain gorged on cheap credit to buy overpriced homes, the people of Marinaleda were building their own houses, mortgage-free, under the town hall's scheme, Mr. Sanchez said.

When a villager loses his job, the cooperative hires him, he said, so nobody in the village wants for work - a bold claim in a region with 21 percent unemployment.

Vanessa Romero, who moved from Barcelona to Marinaleda in January with her family, said she was drawn by the promise of work and the municipal facilities.

In November, she lost her job at a sugar factory, and her husband was struggling to find construction work; now they each make about $1,450 a month working for the cooperative.

"If a town like this, with half the resources of other towns, or less, can provide work for people, why can't other places do the same?" said Vanessa Romero, whose parents were born in the village.

Critics say that Sanchez's claims are exaggerated and that he has succeeded in doling out misery rather than creating wealth. By promoting low-productivity farm jobs, he has kept voters dependent on him for work and handouts, they say.

"This village has stagnated," said Hipolito Aires, a Socialist councilor who works at the local gas station.

He said the political atmosphere in Marinaleda was stifling and the mayor ostracized his opponents, a sentiment echoed by several villagers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions.

"Sanchez Gordillo criticized the local lords, but now he acts like them," Mr. Aires said. "The biggest landowner in Marinaleda today is the mayor."