Enrique Santiago: ‘We must rebuild the commons, which should never have been privatised.’

Enrique Santiago, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), and Deputy Spokesperson for Unidas Podemos in the Spanish Parliament on current measures to combat the economic crisis.

The health and economic crisis generated by the global pandemic of Covid-19 arrived when the progressive government of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos coalition had been in office only for 70 days. ‘Fortunately for the working class of this country we were in government when all this happened, because, if we were not there, most of the measures that have been adopted would not have been approved and the situation of 2008 would have been repeated’, says Enrique Santiago in this interview with  the newspaper Mundo Obrero.

The goal is "to leave no one behind". For this, a social shield has been put forward; 3.5 million people have saved their jobs thanks to the ERTEs (temporary suspensions of companies’ activities leaving working contracts intact) which have been extended until 30 June, and in the next few weeks a basic income will be put in place. The Commission for Social and Economic Reconstruction, established by the Spanish Parliament and composed of representatives of all parliamentary parties, aiming at determining a way out of this crisis. Enrique Santiago, elected Vice President of this Commission, defends this as the closest thing to a constitutional process. To achieve it, he says, people need to accompany the process with political, social, and union mobilisation.

See also: transform! europe‘s web interview with Enrique Santiago

Q: The PCE manifesto of 1 May says: ‘This crisis is not being managed like others, nor are we going to allow that to happen.’ What does this mean now that the Communist Party is in government?

ENRIQUE SANTIAGO: It means we have tools to launch concrete measures to make it possible to leave no one behind and that the priority is not, as in 2008, to rescue financial capital but rather to rescue people, especially the most vulnerable.

The manifesto also says: ‘we have to channel the working class and its political and trade union organizations’. What is the role for us communists to play in this situation?

We are working fundamentally to increase support for the government. We know that the current balance of forces does not allow us (the alternative left and the communists) to fully carry out the policies we would like. Unidas Podemos has 10 per cent of the MPs in parliament and for this reason, it is essential to be able to reverse this balance of forces through popular support and social and popular mobilisation to strengthen the merely institutional component. Our role in this crisis is to channel all this support, by putting forward proposals and organising social groups and movements to support the government. In this way, we can manage to reverse the balance of forces, improve it to the benefit of popular interests, and be able to carry out much more advanced policies.

You have just been elected Vice President of the Commission for Social and Economic Reconstruction in parliament. Different possible outcomes of the crisis are at play here. What are we going to try to get out of this commission?

It will be the closest thing to promoting a new pact or constituent process. It is about laying a series of bases, as consensual as possible, on which to further build our institutions to guarantee rights in Spain, and to prevent us from finding ourselves in a situation like in the past.
What has become clear is that the capitalist system, in addition to being extremely unfair, is facing severe obstacles and is incapable of guaranteeing a decent life for people, especially in the current phase of neoliberal policies, loss of the public administration’s capacity of intervention, and deregulation of rights. People’s vulnerability has become more evident, and this must be reversed along with rebuilding the commons, which should never have been privatised. Protection systems must be guaranteed for everyone: health systems, care systems, and the guarantee of social rights.
In addition, we must guarantee the government’s decision-making capacity and its power to direct the economy. It has become clear that Spain has absolutely lost its economic and productive sovereignty. Finding ourselves in an emergency and being unable to produce such basic things as protective equipment or ventilators shows that industrial relocation has not been limited to one or two companies but has completely inverted the production system and destroyed the industrial capacity of our country.
The commission’s plans involve a new tax system, a new income policy, hopefully that guarantees sufficient income to distribute. And of course, rethinking our political relationship with the countries around us, which must be one of solidarity and not simply the creation of markets where large economic groups articulate the relationship between peoples based on their own interests.

This crisis has exposed this country’s economic and labour fragility: precariousness, short-term work, and the underground economy. Less than a year ago, 21 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line. Today all these people have even less. Facing this abyss, the government has deployed a social shield. Is it possible to leave no one behind?

Our objective entering the government was precisely that the most vulnerable sectors, the working class, have political clout in the institutions taking care of them and guarantying their rights, correcting inequalities. In other words, our reason for being in government is to improve the living conditions of these sectors. And fortunately for the working class of this country, we were in government when all this happened; otherwise 2008 would have been repeated: people would have been evicted, they would be homeless, without work and without receiving any type of aid or support, and many would face electricity shutoffs and cuts to basic supplies. That is the first thing we must guarantee, that this time this will not happen.
In Spain, nobody will be evicted in the next six months and we will probably manage to extend that period for a longer time until there is a complete social and economic recovery. Now, we have achieved a moratorium on mortgage payments and some deferrals and renegotiations in the case of rents. We have managed to ban cuts in basic supplies. In addition to the social shield including all these guarantees, at the beginning of May, 5.3 million people who have lost their jobs or had them suspended will have constant and secure money in their pockets. If one day the balance of forces does not allow us to guarantee this, it will obviously not make any sense to stay in government, because Unidas Podemos is not in government to occupy institutional positions but to guarantee the rights of our people.

The unemployment rate in Spain currently is at 14.8% (April 2020). This rate is well above the average unemployment rate of the Eurozone (7.3%), but remained relatively stable in the last months.


Unemployment rate in Spain, June 2019-April 2020
Source: Eurostat

One of the first measures was to protect jobs with ERTEs (Temporary Employment Regulatory Records)and the most vulnerable workers with the basic income.

The Ministry of Labour is doing an exceptional job. Through it the government has promoted a series of measures to leave no one behind. Between 28 April and 5 May, in Spain 5,300,000 people have benefitted from payments issued by the Ministry of Labour: from unemployment benefits, which have been guaranteed not to run out during this crisis, to the more than 3 million workers in ERTEs that prevented them becoming unemployed. Benefits that did not previously exist have also been implemented – for domestic workers and for the self-employed due to reduction or cessation of activity.

Are we going to have resources to maintain the social shield?

Probably not with the current tax system. And all the less if there are regions, such as Madrid, where taxes are systematically lowered for the large economic groups that already enjoy great benefits but demand the Spanish government give them even more.
At the fiscal level, there is an issue to keep in mind. Our tax system is not confiscatory; companies only pay taxes if they have benefits, and, in contrast to workers, they only pay taxes on their benefits. What does not make sense is that the current tax system, in addition to making companies pay only if they have benefits, lowers the tax rate on those benefits to ridiculous levels.
The banking sector in Spain is paying 5.5 per cent tax on their benefits while any worker pays 15 or 20 per cent. This must stop. What are we asking for? Companies that have had tax benefits in 2018 and 2019 must use these benefits to distribute wealth because we are in an emergency in which everyone must tighten their belts.
Therefore, one of the essential tasks of the Reconstruction Commission will be to reorganise the tax system. We cannot have a system that collects from the poor and offers tax forbearance to the rich, but a sensible system, and I am not talking about a socialist system but just a democratic or even liberal system, that is, taxation must be progressive. We must put an end to the absolute orgy of tax forgiveness that neoliberal policies have carried out in our country in recent years.

What about the visceral confrontation of the opposition parties?

The right-wing has been unable to show the slightest generosity in reaching agreements, building consensus, and putting the general interest of the Spanish people before their particular interests. They have tried to turn a worldwide catastrophe into an argument for bringing down the government. They cannot bear that for the first time in eighty years there is an alternative and transformative left-wing force in government.
For them, doing politics is nothing more than exercise one’s own economic interest.  Their interest in the state’s existence simply has to do with the possibility of constantly looting it. When this crisis is over and the results are analysed, it will be clear that the sectors with the highest mortality rate are those that have been outsourced and privatised sectors, and where the most cuts in the public budget occurred, as happened in nursing homes in the Madrid region.

Is there a danger that the parliamentary majority that supports the government may break down?

Fortunately, we do not expect this because the majority that, first of all, made possible the motion that made the conservative government fall and, later, the agreement to put the new government in place, is a responsible majority. Beyond specific disagreements on issues mainly related to the territorial management of the emergency, there is a common interest in preventing the institutions of this country from falling into the hands of that predatory right that has dedicated itself to looting public services. Now preventing the right from ruling is a matter of human security, of guaranteeing the right to life. I think our majority is not in danger. You have to facilitate it, provide for a great deal of dialogue, and jointly analyse the most favourable options at all times. The speed with which new situations had to be tackled means that the immediate measures have been constantly prioritised, and perhaps there has not been time to think and dialogue calmly. 

The PCE calls for a mobilisation to support this coalition government. The right wing and the economic powers are extremely irritated by this government. Why is this popular mobilisation important?

It is essential to protect this government and its actions. We believe it is impossible for a popular reconstruction project to go forward unless it is with the permanent support of our people. They cannot limit themselves to going to the ballot box every four years. The mobilisation at which we aim must include all trade unions, all social groups, individuals and all those involved in any social conflict, those who face the daily contradictions of the capitalist system. We are all part of the same project. With this mobilisation, we want to empower our people, from the popular classes to sectors organised around social and political conflicts, and incorporate them as the engines of social change that our country needs. Unidas Podemos is the tool to show their presence in the institutions.

Can you tell us about the campaign to develop UP’s political space?

In the PCE, Izquierda Unida, and Unidas Podemos, we see the need to incorporate into government policy all social sectors organised around conflicts, through Unidas Podemos’ work. Just as we have campaigned to strengthen the process of building popular unity since the 2019 elections, we believe that, more than ever, the politically conscious sectors of our people have to actively participate in the defence of a government that, for the first time in many years, puts the interests of the majority before the interests of the few. The success of the campaign consists in creating mobilisation and permanent support that will increase our influence in the government and in the institutions. There are too many institutions that have a life of their own and are far removed from democratic and citizen control, for example the judiciary and other bodies of the state administration that have shown that, in certain cases, they have the capacity to interfere, delaying the measures agreed on by the democratically elected government. We can only counteract this with an organised people.

Originally published at the website of Mundo Obreiro (full version)