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Interview. The mayor of Barcelona speaks to il manifesto about the last election, the promise of left-wing populism and her plans for urban social justice.

Ada Colau: ‘Now we must work for social transformation’

When you enter the luxurious palace housing the City Hall of Barcelona, the Casa de la Ciutat, in the center of the city, exactly where the ancient Roman thoroughfares of this city once crossed, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the richness of the decorations, some of which go back to the 14th century. To reach the Spartan office where the mayor works, you have to walk through, among the many others, the majestic Salone del Cento, where Ada Colau, still incredulous, took possession of the city on June 13, 2015. Over a year has passed, but the mayor has kept her friendliness. “Speak informally to me,” she says immediately.

Let’s start with the tough questions. Where are the million people who supported you in December?

There are many explanations, and there’s some truth in all of them. Many people, especially the most vulnerable and the ones most hit by the crisis, who feel the institutions as being too far away, were tired. The too-many electoral events in a year, the delusion for the failure to form a government. Surely we haven’t been good enough in managing these six months, without personalizing the errors, which are collective. But certainly also there’s the PSOE, which still hasn’t comprehended the fact that it’s no longer hegemonically on the left and is divided internally. One could also argue that we were arrogant, but since [the election] they haven’t wanted to talk.

And what’s happening now?

There has been a cycle of change, and we can’t just ignore it. We’ve failed in our objective to surpass the PP. But things have been happening that seemed impossible two years ago, and left-wing and populist forces have imposed themselves with a positive result. Now we must work for social transformation. Great changes are never just election-related; there’s a need to work within and outside of the institutions to consolidate this change, which is necessary, more than ever, here in Europe. There’s an outburst of racism, fear, of extreme right-wing forces. We must be maximally exemplary. We’re here not just to end the two-party era but also to show that we can do politics another way, without corruption, giving the stage to the citizens, to their social rights. In the town halls of change we must show not only that we know how to govern, but also that we can do it better. The lives of the most vulnerable people and the uncertain European future are at stake.

Why in Barcelona and in other cities did you reach an agreement with the socialists, but in Madrid you didn’t?

The PSOE has different faces, and must decide whether to remain anchored in the past, or to join the forces of change. We won here, but we’re a minority [11 councilors out of 40]. In order to do what we want to do, we must negotiate. This is the mandate given to us by the citizens. And you negotiate with who’s here, with who has been chosen by the citizens, not with whomever you want. This year, we’ve approved balance sheet variations, fiscal ordinances and urban plans. And we have done it with left-wing forces, working with who is better tuned in with our programs, for the objectives and not for the political slogans, showing that the forces of change are more capable of gathering consensuses.

When you arrived, were you too optimistic?

Many were skeptical and never thought we would make it to governing a big and complex city like Barcelona. But here we are, a year later, governing well, with dialog. Not everything can be done as fast as you’d like. But, hell, look how much we’ve been able to do! We’ve approved a budget, fiscal ordinances and a €150 million intervention plan for neighborhoods aimed at restoring dignity to 15 neighborhoods which were subject to increased inequality. We are radically changing the City Hall’s contracting policy, which still represents 5 percent of the IGW. We have introduced social clauses, on conciliating work-related issues, binding clauses blocking companies from keeping goods in tax havens. In all the mobile phone contracts we require the materials to be traceable. We have set a limit to direct contracting: Only one company can obtain more than €200,000, a policy that favors small- and medium-sized businesses. We’ve increased the Local Council Property Tax by just 2 percent. We have challenged the austerity imposed by Mr. Montoro, the Finance Minister, decreeing education and health as “essential services,” and this allowed us to contract 2,000 new professionals. We have adopted an ethical code, we publish our agendas, we have capped councilors and salaries. The opposition tried to stop us from lowering our salaries, but we did it anyway, putting aside part of it as social funds which Barcelona will decide how to spend as a community.

Not everything was a bed of roses. One controversial issue for everyone is street vendors.

But the most difficult thing, for me, is the machine’s slowness. We have obtained 550 apartments from the banks — during the entire past legislature, there were only 19 — and it seems as if we’ve accomplished the most difficult thing. But then they must be in legal compliance, they must be rehabilitated, the expense must be approved, and months pass. Talking about the street vendors, it’s a complex problem, and certainly it doesn’t affect only Barcelona. Until now, the police were the only answer. But this doesn’t solve the issue, which is about more than just an occupation of public space, where the police have authority. It involves illegal international networks exploiting the most defenseless people: the migrants without documents, who have no alternatives. We have introduced a complexity in the answer, which won’t yield immediate results. Besides the city police, we’ve initiated courses for people without identification [40 locations so far, among about 1,000], and we are asking the other administrations to do their part: for example, to fight international trafficking. … The 40 places are a start for those who find themselves in a situation of legal vulnerability because of an unjust law. We are also for closing the CIE. We have eased the residency procedures, a step which also opens the doors to health and to education. This is a comprehensive approach.

Any plans for the future?

The fight for rights and against the inequality will continue to be an axis of action on more fronts. Today [July 4] we have submitted a plan to improve health facilities in the poorer neighborhoods. We have designed 2,000 public housing units. We’re re-orientating the city’s tourism policy; we have found a situation out of control, with an increase in the number of apartments listed by the Realtors association for tourism. We are preparing an ordered development plan, in which they will be able to grow on the outskirts and not in the center, to avoid displacing people. And then the environmental policies: not just streetcars for the Diagonal [a large axis road], which has been a war horse of ours and which we will build, but we will triple the bicycle lanes, assuring safety for both bike riders and pedestrians. And, then, increasing the green areas and the rehabilitation of buildings to improve energy efficiency.

One of your objectives was to “feminize” politics. Have you succeeded in it?

To feminize politics doesn’t just mean having more women in politics. It’s changing priorities and values, making a more cooperative politics, online, promoting joint leaderships, allowing us to see that there are other valid people, not just one single leader. We are light years away from reconciliation. To be a mayor, as a woman, is a privilege, an honor. I’m learning a lot, and I like it a lot. But it cannot be reconciled with a normal life as a mother, as a citizen and as a person working to succeed even in environments beside work. And the same can be said for my team. Also the public attention becomes incompatible with how I prefer to do politics, because I don’t have any more the time to go down the street or to walk through the neighborhoods. But this won’t change overnight.

As mayor, you’ve received public insults [that she looks like a “fishmonger” or that she should “wash the floors”) and even a sexual molestation attempt. Has this surprised you?

No, because we live in a country where there’s still a lot of male chauvinism. Many people can’t stand a woman from lower classes having a function like this. They treat you as an outsider. But I always say that things were worse when I wasn’t famous. This is why I feel responsible to make these episodes public, to make people understand that, if these things happen even to a mayor, you can imagine what happens to the anonymous workers trying to make it to the end of the month. Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror, because this is our day-to-day life. There’s still a lot to do to eradicate male chauvinism in our country.

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