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Spain's Robin Hood Mayor Fights For 'Communist Utopia'

Mar 8, 2014
Originally published on March 8, 2014 9:31 am

On a sweltering August day in 2012, the mayor of a tiny Spanish town, fed up with the country's economic conditions, did something drastic. It was the height of the economic crisis and most Spanish politicians were away on summer vacation.

With dozens of supporters, Mayor Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo of Marinaleda marched into the local supermarket in a neighboring town.

"Aren't you all hungry? Let's go shopping!" he yelled as they piled food into metal carts. They walked out without paying, distributing everything to the poor.

Marinaleda, with a population of 2,700, sits in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía where unemployment tops 35 percent.

Several more times that summer Sanchez Gordillo led mass burglaries of area supermarkets, becoming a household name across Spain: the Robin Hood of Andalucía. Sporting a Che Guevara-style beard and a Palestinian scarf, the image of this 62-year-old mayor appears on t-shirts worn by Spanish hipsters.

When I arrived at his office on a recent trip, I found a more diminutive, softer-spoken man than the rabble-rouser I'd seen on TV, yet he was intimidatingly serious.

"My philosophy is that power, even the tiny little bit my town hall has, should give voice to those who don't have one," Sanchez Gordillo says. "It should transform reality to be more fair, more humane, more equitable and spread peace."

Sanchez Gordillo is aiming to do just that in his hometown, Marinaleda, a self-styled communist utopia.

Ali and Chris Burke, Britons who retired to the town four years ago, were impressed by the public services on offer when they first arrived.

"The swimming pool is three euros per year!" Chris says. His wife chimes in, "There are no McDonalds or multinational [companies]."

They recall learning about Domingos Rojos, or Red Sundays, when they first arrived.

"They'd come around and say, 'It's a Domingo Rojo!' and they would expect you go to out and sweep the street or mop outside your neighbor's or something," Ali says.

As part of the town's slate of municipal offerings, the Burkes get access to free Spanish classes and free Internet, in addition to the town's Olympic-sized swimming pool. The town also provides heavily subsidized childcare and plots of land for each family.

There's a waiting list for housing in Marinaleda, unlike in the rest of Spain, where the housing bust left behind half-built, empty houses. The town chips in a plot of land, building materials and an architect for people who want to build their own home. In exchange, residents pay the town 15 euros a month, about $20, as a sort of mortgage.

Such programs strike a chord in Spain's southern Andalucía region, where landed gentry still control huge swaths of the countryside and landless laborers cram into villages.

One of Marinaleda's neighbors is a woman Spaniards call La Duquesa, or the Duchess of Alba. La Duquesa, whose real name is Doña María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, has so many noble titles that technically she is not required to kneel before the pope.

Spaniards joke that you can walk from coast to coast, 600 miles across Spain, without ever leaving La Duquesa's property.

This irks Sanchez Gordillo.

He and his supporters have occupied swaths of her family's land, protesting the agricultural subsidies she receives from Madrid and Brussels, as well as the area's general wealth inequality.

"Marinaleda and its anti-capitalist philosophy is shining like a beacon in Spain right now," says Dan Hancox, a British journalist who wrote a book about Marinaleda, called The Village Against the World.

"That's partly why Sanchez Gordillo has become more controversial than ever," Hancox says. "Spain's elites, in which corruption is sadly all too rife, are slightly scared of the fact that the left is saying, 'Well look, their situation seems to work.'"

Marinaleda's unemployment hovers around five percent, compared to more than 35 percent in the rest of Andalucía. That's possible in part because the town has a huge farm and factories that are run as collectives. Workers there earn about $65 a day — twice Spain's minimum wage — canning olives and artichokes.

"These are crops that require more hands, less machines so they create jobs," says Annie Miranda, who has worked at Marinaleda's artichoke canning factory for 13 years. "If there's any problem, we hold a general assembly and discuss it with the whole town. This factory is for the people of the village."

Critics say that the small town's experiment only works on a very small scale and only with vast subsidies from the left-leaning regional government in Seville. Some call Marinaleda a cult of personality that can't survive without its charismatic mayor.

Residents may soon find out because the law has caught up with Sanchez Gordillo.

One of the supermarkets he robbed has agreed to pay for the food itself and donate more to the poor. But another big supermarket chain took him to court. Sanchez Gordillo admits what he did — and now faces jail time.

"They want to make an example of me," he says. "When there's injustice in the world, you have to rebel and take the consequences. What's important is that in Marinaleda, we have shown that there's another way to do things."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In a small town in southern Spain, the mayor has been living a kind of Robin Hood fantasy for 35 years. He built a collective farm in his town. He squats illegal on land that belongs to Spanish nobles or the military, and he steals food from supermarkets and hands it out to the poor. Lauren Frayer traveled to the Andalucía area of Spain to meet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It was a sweltering August 2012. Most Spanish politicians were away on summer vacation, which looked a bit decadent at the height of Spain's economic crisis. It was then that Mayor Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo of Marinaleda, population 2,700, grabbed this whole country's attention.

JUAN MANUEL SANCHEZ GORDILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: With dozens of supporters, Sanchez Gordillo marched into a local supermarket.

GORDILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: Aren't you all hungry? Let's go shopping, he yelled as they piled food into carts and walked out without paying, distributing everything to the region's poor. The jobless rate in Andalucía tops 35 percent. Sanchez Gordillo has been arrested and fined many times in his 35 years as mayor, mostly for seizing private property. But his Robin Hood heists have made him a household name. He fits the part, sporting a Che Guevara beard and a Palestinian scarf. Spanish hipsters wear T-shirts with his picture. When I arrived at his office I found a smaller, more soft-spoken man than the rabble-rouser I'd seen on TV, but almost intimidatingly serious.

GORDILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: My philosophy is that power - even the tiny little bit my town hall has - should give voice to those who don't have one, he says. It should transform reality to be more fair, more humane, more equitable. Sanchez Gordillo is trying to do that in his town, Marinaleda, a self-styled communist utopia.

CHRIS BURKE: The swimming pool is three euros per year. And there's a nice bar there and they sell ice creams and they do a paella on Sundays, and...

ALI BURKE: There are no McDonalds or multinationals.

FRAYER: Chris Burke and his wife Ali moved to Marinaleda from the U.K. four years ago.

BURKE: When we first arrived here, we had Domingos rojos - Red Sundays.

BURKE: The van would come around and say it's a Domingo rojo. So, they would expect you go to out and sweep the streets or mop outside your neighbor's or something.

FRAYER: That saves the town money on street cleaning. There are also no local police. Instead, the town pays for free Internet, heavily subsidized childcare, and plots of land for every family. Ali Burke takes me on tour.

BURKE: These are the casitas, the self-built houses.

FRAYER: Unlike the rest of Spain, littered with half-built houses from the construction bust, there's a waiting list for homes in Marinaleda. The town chips in building materials and an architect for residents who want to build their own house. Then they pay 15 euros month - about 20 bucks - as a sort of mortgage, back to the town. Such programs strike a chord in Spain's southern Andalucía region, where landed gentry still control huge swaths of the countryside, and landless laborers cram into villages. Marinaleda's fame has grown as Spain's economy tanked, says Dan Hancox, a British journalist who wrote a book about the town.

DAN HANCOX: Marinaleda and its anti-capitalist philosophy is shining like a beacon in Spain right now. And that's partly why Sanchez Gordillo has become more controversial than ever because Spain's elites, in which corruption is sadly all too rife, are slightly scared of the fact that the left is saying, well look, their situation seems to work.

FRAYER: Despite high unemployment across Andalucía, in Marinaleda it's around 5 percent. That's possible in part because of a huge farm and factories that are run as collectives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES RUNNING)

FRAYER: Here workers can olives and artichokes for about $65 dollars a day - twice Spain's minimum wage.

ANNIE MIRANDA: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: These are crops that require more hands, less machines, so they create jobs, says Annie Miranda, who's worked here 13 years. We have more solidarity than other towns. If there's any problem, we hold a general assembly and discuss it with the whole town. This factory is for the people of the village. Critics say Marinaleda's communist experiment only works on this very small scale and only with vast subsidies from the left-leaning regional government in Seville. Some call Marinaleda a cult of personality that can't survive without its charismatic mayor. We may soon find out. The law has caught up with Sanchez Gordillo. One of the supermarkets he robbed agreed afterward to donate the food. But another big supermarket chain took him to court for playing Robin Hood. He now faces jail time.

GORDILLO: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: They want to make an example of me. It turns out my rebellion was a crime, he says. But sometimes when there's injustice in the world you have to rebel and take the consequences. What's important, he says, is that in Marinaleda, we have shown that there's another way to do things. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.