How the Far Right Tried to Exploit Spain’s Anti-austerity 15M Protests

They also copied tactics from Greenpeace and Oxfam, and falsely claimed leftwing support for their plans.

by Diana Cariboni

26 August 2021

15M Spain anti-austerity protest
(dolce_luna/Flickr)

Spain’s anti-austerity 15M protestors, also known as the Indignados, famously inspired Occupy demonstrations from New York to London. But – according to documents recently released by WikiLeaks – the far right also tried to exploit the moment and public anger in order to build their own movements. 

One of the documents, from 2012, says that Spain faced “the most delicate, dangerous, distressing moment for at least three generations”, and recommended that ultra-conservatives launch a long-term and “strongly political” campaign that “actively incorporates the national crisis into our agenda”, against abortion and LGBT rights. 

Other documents appear to show how these campaigners sought to build an alliance with progressive leaders who were in the public eye during the mass protests – and also sought to copy tactics of progressive groups, including Oxfam and Greenpeace.

These files – among 17,000 internal documents from Spain-based, ultra-conservative groups that were released this month by WikiLeaks under the title ‘The Intolerance Network’ – offer an unprecedented window into these groups’ operations and strategies. They also shine a light on what was happening immediately prior to a far right boom in Spain. 

In 2013, two years after anti-austerity protestors had occupied squares across Spain and inspired the world, the ultra-conservatives that sought to seize this moment founded a new online petition platform, CitizenGo, modelled on progressive versions like Avaaz and Change.org. Spain’s far right Vox party was also founded in the same year. 

Ahead of the 2019 European parliament elections, an openDemocracy undercover investigation revealed how CitizenGo was effectively working as an unregulated US-style ‘Super PAC’ to push voters to Vox and other far right parties across Europe. 

In the Spanish elections, also held in 2019, Vox entered parliament for the first time, as the third-biggest party.

Seizing the moment.

In the wake of protests that erupted across Spain on 15 May 2011, campaigners from the Madrid-based, ultra-conservative group HazteOir strategised about how to take advantage of the national crisis, according to the WikiLeaks files.

One internal HazteOir file describes how the group was struggling to grow, and says it should seize the moment and find ways to incorporate the “values crisis” it had focused on – opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, for example – with the national economic and political crises that had brought many people on to the streets. 

The group’s campaigns should become more political, it said, “even at the risk of thinking we are planting the seed of a new party”. As proof that this strategy can work, it cited US ultra-conservative culture warrior Morton Blackwell, who “raised millions” for campaigns that are “more like a party’s electoral proposal than the protest of a civic association”.

This file links to another document, dated 22 May 2011, which appears to be notes from talks between progressive leaders and HazteOir, on “key points that unite those of us that, from the Left and the Right, want to regenerate Spanish democracy”. It doesn’t mention “family values” issues, focusing instead on topics such as political representation and electoral reform. 

That document names Ignacio Escolar (founder of the leftwing news outlet Público, and now director of eldiario.es) and Francisco Polo (member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and then head of the Spanish branch of Change.org), as among those who “agreed” with this proposal for unity. But both men told openDemocracy this is “false”. 

Escolar and Polo both denied any involvement with HazteOir or its leader, Ignacio Arsuaga – who went on to found CitizenGo and became a close ally of the far-Right Vox party. They both recalled a chance meeting with Arsuaga in a bar in Madrid – unaware that this encounter would be captured in notes that ended up, a decade later, in the WikiLeaks release.

Each recounted, separately, how Arsuaga approached them, introduced himself, and suggested that prominent leftwing and rightwing digital activists align on minimal proposals that could serve as a consensus in support of 15M’s demands.

“I listened to him, as I used to listen to so many people those days. By no means did I make a proposal myself […] and defining that conversation as ‘an agreed proposal’ is exaggerated […] nothing of the chat crystallised into any joint effort,” Polo said.

Escolar agreed: “The unexpected and improvised encounter came to nothing. I never saw Arsuaga again and had no further contact with him.”

Copying progressive tactics.

“People’s attention is not on abortion,” HazteOir noted in the files released by WikiLeaks, but on the “worsening of the economic situation”; and “hammering too much on the same subject […] creates boredom and discouragement.” New strategies were needed – and the files show how they studied leading progressive groups to copy their tactics. 

The documents show, for example, that HazteOir tracked how its membership numbers and donations compared with those of groups such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International. It also analysed the language, style and even details such as the colour schemes the groups used in their online communications, newsletters and other materials. 

One file – a draft script for a video to welcome new HazteOir members – almost exactly mirrors a Greenpeace video (which is explicitly linked to in the draft). Other files suggest: “Street actions to attract media attention […] (Greenpeace model)”. 

Another HazteOir draft (inviting new members and donations) is based on one from the anti-poverty NGO Oxfam Intermón (the original live links are still included).

Amnesty, Avaaz, Change.org, Greenpeace and Oxfam told openDemocracy that they were all unaware of – and surprised by – the level of interest in their activities and strategies from these ultra-conservative campaigners. 

Javier Raboso, the coordinator of Greenpeace Spain’s campaign on peace, democracy and human rights, said his organisation is “concerned” about such organisations using its engagement tools “to foster intolerance and hate speech”.

“The philosophy of civil disobedience, and the strategies based on non-violent direct action that are the very essence of Greenpeace, belong to the history of social movements pursuing the advancement of rights and freedoms,” Raboso said.

Using them instead “to promote intolerance, polarisation and hatred towards minorities implies a deplorable perversion of the spirit they were born of,” he argued. 

HazteOir and CitizenGo did not reply to our request for comments.

Diana Cariboni is openDemocracy Latin America editor for its special investigative project Tracking the Backlash. She was previously co-editor-in-chief of the IPS news agency and led its Latin America desk for more than ten years. She wrote the book ‘Guantánamo Entre Nosotros’ (2017) and won Uruguay’s national press award in 2018.

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