by Saskia Mier and Fiona Flores Watson
"Communist Utopia" is the popular name given to Marinaleda, a small town in the La Campiña area of south-eastern Seville province. The town has been governed by communist mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo for nearly 40 years.
The history of Marinaleda
During the Civil War and Dictatorship, the population was extremely poor and had little food, surviving on olives and acorns from the fertile terrain of surrounding estates owned by absentee aristocrats.
After the death of fascist dictator General Franco in 1975, Marinaleda began its struggle towards its own definition of freedom. In the late 1970s, as Spain began its slow transition from fascism to liberal democracy, the town had over 60 per cent unemployment and its inhabitants were still starving, with no land to cultivate for themselves.
New era of political freedom
The marinaleños formed their own trade union (the Sindicato de Obreros del Campo, or Farmworkers' Union) in 1977, and political party (the Colectivo de Unidad de los Trabajadores, or Workers' Unity Collective) in 1979, which won 9 out of 11 seats. Among its first action was to rename the streets after left-wing heroes, replacing the names of right-wing soldiers.
Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo was first elected mayor in 1979, and in the summer of 1980, the village launched a 13-day "a hunger strike against hunger" that brought them national and even global attention. Ever since that summer, the fame of Sánchez Gordillo has steadily increased, along with that of his town, while his controversial tactics have won him as many detractors as admirers.
Now with organised structures, in the 1980s the townspeople began occupying land around the village with the slogan "Land for those who work on it", with the peak of this activity reached in 1985. The land, including the 1200-hectares El Humoso in Ecija, was owned but unused by the Duke of Infantado. The marinaleños were also arrested and evicted by the police on numerous occasions, as well as blocking roads, breaking into and shutting down Malaga and Seville airports, and marching on Madrid; however these clashes with the authorities failed to dampen their spirits.
After 12 years of persistent struggle, and with the imminent approach of Seville's Expo, that the movement secured the expropriation of El Humoso for their farming cooperative. The new Marinaleda co-operative selected crops that would need the maximum amount of human labour - peppers, artichokes, beans, broccoli and olives - with the aim of creating as much work as possible. Later, their first processing factory was built in order to process, can, and jar what they produced. Sánchez Gordillo's plan was to create plenty of jobs so that all his townspeople would have enough to eat and support their families.
The Robin Hood mayor
Fast-forward two decades, and in August 2012, as Andalucia was suffering badly in the world economic crisis, Sánchez Gordillo and his party were on the offensive again. They occupied military land, seized an aristocrat's palace, and went on a three-week march across the south of Spain, in which Sanchez Gordillo called on his fellow mayors not to repay their debts.
In addition, Sanchez Gordillo led a series of expropriations from supermarkets, along with fellow members of the left-communist trade union SOC-SAT. In a spectacular publicity coup that made news around the world, they filled shopping trolleys with bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalucians in dire economic straits.
According to the world's media, Sanchez Gordillo was "the Robin Hood mayor", "the Don Quixote of the Spanish crisis", or "Spain's William Wallace". As the fearless champion of his people Sánchez Gordillo has been to jail seven times, and survived two assassination attempts by rightwing extremists.
How the Communist Utopia works
The Marinaleda co-operative, which has about 2,600 workers, does not distribute profits; any surplus is reinvested to create more jobs. All those who work in the co-operative earn the same salary, which is more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Private enterprise is permitted in the village; perhaps more importantly; it is still an accepted part of life.
The town's relationship with the state is complicated. Marinaleda is still subject to Spanish electoral law, and Sánchez Gordillo is re-elected with a huge majority each time; however they have abolished their police force. By law, due to the number of inhabitants, there should be four to seven police officers stationed here, but the marinaleños do not want police, as they rely on their voluntary work, fighting together. In this way, the municipality is saving 350,000 euro a year not having local police.
While the unemployment rate in the rest of Andalusia is 29 percent, it barely touches five per cent in Marinaleda. Life in the village is much cheaper than in the rest of the region, with mortgages being paid off for 15 euro a month. The same price gets them membership of the sports centre, or a kindergarten place for their child. The local government provides three free school meals a day. As a result, even the small numbers of unemployed inhabitants are able to make ends meet with the 400 euro jobseeker's allowance provided by the Andalusian government.
What are Gordillo's achievements?
Though his controversial methods are frequently debated in the Spanish media, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo has been able to offer his village three things that much of Spain is desperately lacking: employment, affordable housing, and a greater say in government. It could be one way to help small provinces or towns become self-sufficient in an economic landscape that continues to be bleak
Marinaleda's alternative community has been several decades in the making, but other anti-capitalist alternatives are sprouting up through the cracks of the 2008 Spanish crisis. A new Marinaleda-style farming co-operative in Somonte estate near Palma del Rio (Cordoba), only an hour's drive from the town, has a collective farm established on occupied government land here in 2012. Many inhabitants from Marinaleda moved to Somonte to spread Sánchez Gordillo's message to new terrain.
Somonte also receives support from hundreds of people visiting at weekends or for short stays from Madrid, Seville and overseas. These visitors bring their labour and other resources to help with the land, as well as to build infrastructures or paint murals, donate second-hand farming equipment, furniture and kitchenware.
How the Somonte land was appropriated
The 400 hectares of Somonte are said to be some of the most fertile land in Spain - for decades the government grew corn there using European subsidies, but the crop was left to rot, thereby creating no work and no produce.
In March 2012, the wasted land was about to be auctioned off privately by the government when the Andalusian Workers' Union (SAT) occupied the land, and was subsequently evicted by 200 riot police. Undaunted, the trade unionists returned the next day, and in the end the auction never took place. Somonte is now growing slowly but steadily, created by the kind of Marinaleda domino effect of which the crisis may yet bring more. Rare cereals have been planted, with the aim of going organic within a few years.
One hour documentary video about Somonte with Spanish subtitles.