- Interview by
- Martín Mosquera
Since Podemos’s breakthrough in the 2014 European elections, Pablo Iglesias has been a central figure on the international left, with an impact spreading far beyond Spain. After several internal crises, ruptures, and general elections, today Podemos is part of his country’s ruling coalition, led by Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party.
After the regional elections in Madrid in 2021, Iglesias left all positions in both the government and his party, and returned to political communication with La Base, a podcast for Público newspaper. But this did not end his influence on Spanish politics. In July, he returned to the center of the news with the emergence of audio featuring exchanges between journalist Antonio García Ferreras and former police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo. The recordings proved the fabrication of fake news to damage Podemos’s image on the eve of the 2016 elections.
Iglesias spoke to Jacobin’s Martín Mosquera about Spain’s government, the inflation crisis, and the progress of the Left elsewhere in Europe.
In July, leaked audio of a conversation between the former police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo and La Sexta journalist Antonio García Ferreras went viral. It showed how fake news was created about alleged payments you received from Venezuela. This shows a clear media strategy to damage Podemos. How do you assess this episode?
So that everyone can understand: there was a meeting in a restaurant attended by one of the most important journalists in Spain, Antonio García Ferreras, director of La Sexta — supposedly a “progressive” TV station. He presents the most important political talk show in Spain and is one of the country’s highest paid journalists (they say he charges around €2 million a year). He was in a restaurant with two high-ranking police officers, one of them José Manuel Villarejo, who is currently in jail. Villarejo is the secret agent par excellence of the Spanish secret services, whom the Spanish state made rich thanks to covert operations of such dubious legality that this guy ended up in jail.
There at the time were also José Luis Olivera, who at that time was the head of the anti-terrorist units, and Mauricio Casals, president of La Razón, a right-wing newspaper which, however, is owned by the same group as La Sexta, the Planeta Group — well known in Latin America — which is also the main shareholder of Atresmedia, a firm which has radio, press, and television outlets, including a channel for left-wing people such as La Sexta and one for right-wing people such as Antena 3.
In that conversation, Ferreras acknowledges that he received information that he knew to be false, “information” based on an invoice altered by Photoshop that said that I had an account in the Grenadine Islands in which [Venezuelan president] Nicolás Maduro had paid me about two hundred thousand dollars. In that conversation he says: “This is something very crude, it is obvious that it is not true, but I’ll go with it.” This was a month before the general elections in which all the polls said that we were the biggest force of the Left and that we could possibly lead a left-wing government in Spain. He recognizes that he knows that this information given to him by Eduardo Inda, director of a fake news tabloid, is false. But he says that, nevertheless, he is going to run with it and that he is going to let me speak, so that I can present my version. He acknowledges that he is going to give a knowingly false piece of information.
The second element of that conversation is even more impressive: the guy recognizes that precisely because La Sexta is a left-wing channel that it can really hurt Podemos. He specifically says: “If we give Podemos a slap in the face, it hurts like hell, because the viewers of La Sexta are progressive and because we have tried to sell the fact that we are prestigious journalists, that we are not like the right-wing media but that we do more serious journalism and with more rigor. That is why, if we hit them, it hurts them more.” In the conversation, the head of the anti-terrorism unit even comments: “Well, if that account is fake, we will make a real account.”
What does this conversation tell us? That in Spain there is a series of sectors of the authorities involving ministers of the [conservative] Popular Party, top commanders of the police, and even parts of the judiciary, but also, and above all, some of the richest, most famous, and most influential journalists in Spain, who acted illegitimately and illegally to try to prevent a political force from reaching government. We did ultimately make it. But it is clear that human, personal, and political damage was done to us, in a context in which there are sectors of media power that not only attack us for having ideas different from those defended by media owners, but that go so far as to use illegal mechanisms and give false information, knowing that it is false.
In Latin America it has been very common for big media outlets to act, often in combination with the judiciary, against progressive leaders or social movements. How do you assess these media’s role as political actors hostile to the Left?
The fact that five Latin American heads of state and the French opposition leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon reacted to Ferrerasgate reveals that there is a growing awareness in left-wing formations that the Left’s main enemies are not only right-wing parties who compete in elections. For there is also a series of powers that act against justice and the law through new coup mechanisms, more sophisticated than the traditional military coups d’état, often involving sectors of the judiciary and, fundamentally, broad sectors of the media.
I remember that, when I was still deputy prime minister, I was at Luis Arce’s inauguration in Bolivia, after the Movimento al Socialismo’s [election] victory following the coup d’état there. I promoted, together with the president of Argentina and Arce himself, a manifesto which was also signed by [former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez] Zapatero, Alexis Tsipras, and other American and European leaders, which indicated the ultraright as the main enemy of democracy. And the key to this ultraright is not so much its political dimension but its judicial and media dimension.
That is to say, the ultraright is not only a phenomenon in the field of political parties but also in the judiciary, in the security forces and units, in sectors of the army and also in the media. These latter have taken up Fox News’s idea about so-called “alternative facts” which is basically the normalization of the lie, because there are no alternative facts but the facts are the facts. But they resort to the normalization of lies as a media-ideological-political weapon to achieve their goals. Of course, that implies defying all the rules of the game of democracy and allows us to speak of golpismo [a coup against democracy].
Turning to Spain’s political and economic situation, I would like to know your opinion on inflation, an economic phenomenon that had seemed to have disappeared in Spain since the 1980s. What do you think are its causes? Does it have to do with a conjunctural phenomenon linked to the war in Ukraine or are there more elements? And what should be done to address it?
Economists say that the fundamental key to inflation is the pandemic. The pandemic, it is said, leads to less availability of certain key products and commodities on the international markets. In that context, China is producing less and is left with many more raw materials. And the war in Ukraine has also contributed to this, accelerating a process that had been going on for some time. Inflation is an international phenomenon, but the question is: What can you do with the administrative instruments of a state to curb inflation?
To rein it in a little, what you can do is decide where inflation will make an impact. You have a big economic shock but you can decide to direct it toward high incomes, multinationals, and banks or else toward the popular sectors. Normally, the recipes applied to deal with inflation favor the big economic powers, which exert influence through their media arms to make workers and society pay. So, they put out their media spokesmen to explain that “people have to tighten their belts,” “that the air conditioning cannot be turned on,” “that the heating cannot be turned on,” etc. In other words, everyone has to accept their living conditions will become more precarious. But what a progressive government can — or should — do is direct inflation toward the most privileged sectors of society, which have a much greater capacity to resist the inflationary shock.
During the recent “state of the nation” debate, Pedro Sánchez announced a package of measures that were characterized as a “turn to the Left” by his government. What do you think of these measures?
In a way it has been a victory for Podemos, in the sense that the prime minister has recognized that a good part of the things Podemos was saying were sensible. It seems to party colleagues that we could go further, that more measures could be taken. . . . But let’s say that the measures that have been announced are in line with what Podemos had been proposing within the government. In any case, we have to be extremely cautious. We could say something while we’re waiting to see the effects of this announcement, but we also have to be very vigilant in regards to its implementation, to ensure that it is actually carried out. But I think it is proof that in a situation like this, only social protection measures can work.
We’ve already had several years of the Partido Socialista (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos (UP) government headed by Pedro Sánchez. What is your assessment of this experience? Considering also some differences between Podemos and PSOE during this time, including the recent Melilla massacre and your positions regarding the war in Ukraine…
There is a key element: the government is also a political battlefield and it has to be taken as such. I don’t think that a coalition government can be defined on the basis of the two formations representing the same thing. Podemos and the other formations of the Left that are in the government represent very different interests from those represented by the PSOE, and we reached government with a very difficult correlation of forces, since we did not arrive with the seventy-one MPs that we had once had, but with thirty-five.
But precisely because Podemos continued pushing to be in the government, even when it was remarkably isolated — there were other political forces on the Left that would have preferred not to resist that pressure, and not to reach an agreement for government — a series of historic measures were achieved, for example in terms of equality and feminist policies. In these areas, Spain has become an international point of reference.
Much progress has also been made on labor issues (today in Spain there is a minimum wage of €1,000 a month something that was inconceivable a few years ago) and in terms of social rights. I believe that the overall balance of measures taken by this government thanks to the presence of Unidas Podemos is unprecedented. And at the same time it is essential to assume that the PSOE represents something else and there are issues where the positions are diametrically opposed. There are those who say that you cannot govern with those with whom you have many political, ideological, and strategic differences. I believe that in the current situation and correlation of forces, much more things can be achieved in government, assuming that there is also a conflict within it.
A reorganization process seems to be underway on the Spanish left, around the figure of Yolanda Díaz and the Sumar platform she is promoting. What do you think are the challenges the Left faces in this context? What is Podemos’s role in this reorganization? Especially taking into account that Podemos has had some differences with Yolanda Díaz in recent times.
I can only give my opinion as an ordinary militant, as a podcaster, since it should be the parties that take positions. But in this I agree with my party. I believe that Yolanda Díaz has built her own platform, with all legitimacy, which has a series of political characteristics very different from Podemos’s own.
Podemos is a party and Sumar is something that may or may not become a party (although, from experience, in general, platforms end up becoming parties sooner or later). And I think that Podemos is right to argue that, being different things, they have to understand each other and run together in the elections, respecting their different styles and their differences in diagnosis.
In recent months, we have seen many differences, for example on sending arms to Ukraine or other issues. But fundamentally, programmatically, I believe that there are broad agreements. I also believe that Podemos has been very generous in proposing that, although Yolanda Díaz is not the leader of Podemos but of another space that is being built, she can be the best candidate for everyone, for a space in which Podemos stands together with Sumar and the forces that are integrated into it.
I think that is the most positive and reasonable thing: to add together [sumar] the diverse forces that exist, for Sumar to be built around Yolanda Díaz or a series of other actors — the Communist Party, Izquierda Unida, and other sectors that may come from the trade union world or from other places — to form a new party, a platform or whatever you want to call it, in the style that Yolanda decides, and that at the same time Podemos will contribute to an electoral coalition which puts Yolanda forward as the joint candidate.
I am interested in your opinion on the comparison between Podemos’s experience in Spain and Mélenchon’s in France, and their respective strategies, because there are differences. Mélenchon’s policy has been more independent of the Socialists, and programmatically, France Insoumise maintained a slightly “harder” discourse, more anti-liberal and more strongly reformist. What do you think?
I think that comparisons in politics are always very interesting, but I also find it very difficult to separate it from the particular conjunctures. Jean-Luc, who is my friend and a reference point that I admire very much, is a socialist, he actually comes from being a minister in a Socialist Party government, and from that political tradition. And we have always got along very well. But these two formations went through different political moments.
I believe that the key to understanding France Insoumise’s relationship with the Socialist Party in recent months has to do with the fact that it had already overtaken it. So, the terms in which a political relationship was established between a larger actor and a smaller one changed completely. This isn’t a problem of attitudes but of the actual correlation of forces.
And, at the same time, I believe that we can see that what France Insoumise comrades said in their speeches last November or December was not quite the same as when they were trying to rally very broad forces to be able to push the possibility of Mélenchon becoming prime minister. France Insoumise’s discourse is not the same when it is running for the presidential elections without the support of the Socialist Party, the Greens, the Communist Party, and the organizations from the Trotskyist tradition, as when there was a much broader confluence in the parliamentary elections.
It gives me enormous joy — and I believe that at this moment Mélenchon is the leader of the European left. He also maintained a very coherent position on the war. In fact, I believe that it was Mélenchon and Ione Belarra [secretary-general of Podemos] who maintained the positions with which I identify myself more within the European left, which was traversed by an enormous debate over this war.
But I would never take the conjuncture out of the analysis. What do I mean by that? The discourse you can present when you are running for the presidential election can be very harsh toward the Socialist Party, but if Mélenchon actually had become prime minister [after June’s parliamentary elections], he would have had to occupy the position with a president who is none other than Emmanuel Macron and surely with a cabinet with ministers from different parties. I believe that the ideal position to do that is Mélenchon’s, with his political formation being the majority in the bloc, but it all depends on the conjunctures and the balance of forces in each country.
I would have wanted Podemos to have headed a government in Spain as a majority force. But given how the powers that be have acted here in recent times, I doubt very much that the PSOE would ever have accepted that [subordinate] position. And I suspect that they would have mounted a coup against us, by the modern means by which coups d’état are carried out, with a combination of media, judicial, and state sectors to bring us down.
I believe that in France there are a series of characteristics of its own state and the fact that it is not a state with the plurinational characteristics that the Spanish state may have, poses different realities. But I have already said that for me Mélenchon and France Insoumise are the most interesting points of reference in Europe.
One last question about the war in Ukraine: What is your characterization of the conflict? Because there is an ongoing debate on the European left about the nature of the war, whether to support sending weapons or not, and so on. Second, what do you think are the consequences of the war on Europe?
I believe that European countries have made a mistake in subordinating their political and military positions to NATO. Not so long ago Macron went so far as to say that NATO was a zombie, a walking corpse. The fundamental consequence of the Ukrainian war is an unprecedented political and military strengthening of NATO and a weakening of Europe vis-à-vis the United States.
The decision to condemn [Vladimir] Putin’s invasion — an illegal, illegitimate, and from every point of view reprehensible invasion — I believe must be compatible with the understanding that NATO’s attitude of eastward expansion did not favor the interests of Europeans. They should certainly have maintained autonomy in their own relationship with Russia and also with respect to the United States, betting more decisively on a type of military sovereignty not subordinated to NATO’s interests.
By this point, Europe is in a dead end and the economic consequences and social violence that the dynamics of the conflict will bring may bring down a good part of the European governments. In this sense, what we are seeing in Italy could be one of the first dominoes and open the door for sectors of the far right to gain even more political power in Europe.
The war in Ukraine is threatening what was left of the welfare state and civil liberties in Europe. I believe that the defense of pacifism is not only an ethical position — which is often criminalized as if it were naive or childish — but also a politically pragmatic position for all those of us who believe that we must defend social protections and civil liberties.