A couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture in Het Nieuw Instituut in Rotterdam by Simona Levi, one of the people behind Xnet. Her intervention was a bit chaotic, something quite distinctive of artists (she is a theatre director) but at the same time it was a clear, inspiring and entertaining lecture. Her sense of humour and passion somehow disguised her broken English.
Xnet is an activist group founded in Spain in 2008 which gained its relevance after the Indignados movement, also known as the 15M (March, 15th 2011). This group is very active in what they call online democracy (participation mechanisms and citizen control of power and institutions) and Technopolitics, a new term, understood as the practice of networking and taking action for empowerment, justice and social transformation.
During her lecture, Simona explained to an audience of about 40 people, mainly Dutch citizens and some foreigners like myself, how they managed to take about 60 bankers and politicians to court. The most famous being Rodrigo Rato, former economy minister in Spain, and also head of the IMF from 2004 until 2007.
Xnet uncovered a web of corruption at the time that he was the head of Bankia, one of the most important banks in Spain. He and his buddies were accused of having paid for personal expenses with credit cards put at their disposal by the bank, without ever justifying them or declaring them to tax authorities. Altogether, they allegedly spent 12 million euros between 2003 and 2012.
They also mislead small investors with an abusive financial product “Preferentes” which resulted in a big loss for the buyers after the bank declared fake account statements. Many citizens lost their life’ savings.
We must add here that Bankia was one of the banks rescued with public funds (mostly from Europe) after the banking “crisis”.
Xnet created a movement called 15MpaRato (This is a pun in Spanish, meaning something like the Indignados will keep fighting against the Rato’s of this world). They built open source where anonymous citizens could upload relevant information about what was happening in Bankia. It was a sort of WikiLeaks aimed to accumulate evidence against these people. They came across lots of emails (around 8000) with internal conversations of Rato, the board of directors and some politicians. These emails, apparently received from a former employee of Bankia, disclosed their questionable procedures. Simona Levi took around 3 months to read all the emails and, since the newspapers called upon didn’t want to read them all, made a summary which she then sent to some notorious journalists. Yet the papers didn’t want to disclose the information and were reluctant to take the case to court.
When Xnet realised that the mass media would not bring the case to justice they opened a crowdfunding site inviting people to donate money in order to bring Rato and his partners in crime to court. They received enough money from angry Spanish citizens, tired of witnessing the impunity with which so many supremoes’ stole private and public funds.
They managed to gather enough evidence for the judges to open a case against them. The process is still ongoing and even if it will be difficult to see these people behind bars for any significant time or to recover the stolen money, it is all worthwhile, if only to see them sitting there on the dock and having to nervously give some explanations.
At the same time Xnet and 15MpaRato started a plan to recover the stolen funds inviting people who had lost money with the Preferentes to bring their cases to court and with the help of a group of lawyers and journalists created #DemandaBankia. So far these cases have been very successful and many victims have already recovered their money.
Once the lecture was finished, there was some time for questions. A couple of people asked Simona for further advice on how to start the same kind of movement in other countries, because even if Spain is a special case, as she said, where citizens are more active than in other countries, this kind of civil activism should be achievable everywhere else.
There are several theories on the reasons why Spain is a special case regarding citizen’s activism; one being the long years of fascist dictatorship and the resulting subversive movements formed then, or a more recent one being the terrorists attacks in Madrid in March 2003 where Al Qaida killed 200 people. After the bombing the government in power, together with some members of the mass media, insisted that the perpetrators were ETA, the nationalist terrorist group from Basque country, even when all evidence pointed to Al Qaida and they had even by then claimed the massacre. The government were afraid of the public reaction since they were the ones deciding to go to the Iraq war with Bush and Blair, even when most of the citizens had said they didn’t want to participate. The attack happened only a couple of days before the general elections, up to then the conservative party in power was the party most voted for in all the polls but after the attack the citizens were angry, because they hadn’t been heard when they said they didn’t want to go to war but mostly because the government was openly lying. Thousands of people gathered in front of the conservative party’ HQ in Madrid to demonstrate. All these people gathered there at the same time thanks to the SMS that everyone was receiving and forwarding – at the time WhatsApp didn’t exist – saying “they are lying, it was Al Qaida, let’s gather at 20h at the HQ”. The demonstrations were reported through all national and international media and had such an impact on people’s minds that the elections’ results were turned upside down, the conservative party lost and by a big margin. It was that day when the Spanish citizens realised that activism and people’s participation could change the course of things
Simona insisted on more than one occasion that Xnet and 15MpaRato are not linked to any political party (specially not to Podemos, the left wing party which, she claimed, had tried on many occasions to nominate themselves as the guardians of the Indignados movement, which isn’t true in her view, since the Indignados movement are tens of groups which formed after the 15M, with a non-political structure). One very valid question from one of the attendees was if she believed in Anarchism. She said emphatically that she didn’t, I believe in Democracy – she said – with its participation forms, Parliament, etc… But it is a reality that this system by itself isn’t really working because of its nature, the moment you give a group of people the power to make all the decisions and manage everybody’s budget, there is always the risk of corrupt behaviours. We need a net of activist groups where people can watch what our representatives do with our money, with our votes. We have to be there to say “Hey, I’m watching, behave” to ensure Democracy is a reality and not only a word. For that we have a lot of tools at our disposal, all connected by the Internet where we can achieve great things together.
Time was up, so we all went home with more hope in our hearts than we had before the start of the lecture.
Photos: Elena de Francisco CC BY-SA 4.0