Thousands of angry Spaniards came to Madrid on Tuesday to oppose yet another wave of crushing tax hikes and budget cuts. Police used rubber bullets and baton charges to push protesters back from parliament, which activists had pledged to surround to demonstrate against harsh spending cuts.
And how is the Spanish government responding to this popular outcry from the people? By using tougher police tactics and trying to change the law to silence protest.
Too high a price to pay
Four years after the global recession and financial meltdown helped pop Spain's real estate bubble and plunged the country into deep recession, joblessness in Spain is up to nearly 25% – Europe's highest.
Successive waves of government spending cuts have slashed wages and reduced pensions, devastated care for the elderly and the disabled and excluded illegal immigrants from public health services. New tax hikes, coming just as many are losing their jobs, are squeezing households and businesses alike. The fact that all this pain isn't even working to fix the economy just adds to peoples' frustration.
Later this week, prime minister Mariano Rajoy plans to unveil even more cuts meant to reduce the government's deficit (although the lavish salaries and benefits of elected officials seem to be immune to the budget knife).
This harsh austerity is demanded by European officials as the price for a €100bn bailout option for the country's shaky banks, which lost heavily when the housing boom went bust.
But Spanish citizens are not taking this lying down. A year and a half ago, tens of thousands of Spaniards, many of them young people, took to the streets to challenge these policies. Faced with soaring unemployment and a stagnating economy, the indignadosoccupied town plazas across the country, demanding a system that worked for everybody, not just the powerful. That inspired similar demonstrations across Europe, and set the stage for the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US.
As the situation in Spain has deteriorated, these large protests have grown, bringing students, doctors, firefighters, union workers, pensioners and more out into the street to demand an end to futile austerity policies.
New threat to democracy
Now it seems the Spanish authorities are getting fed up with all this democracy in action. And so they've decided to do something about it.
For a start, activists say police are using tougher tactics. Protest organisers are being pre-emptively rounded up and questioned. Buses of demonstrators approaching planned protest sites have been stopped and boarded by police. And yesterday, police indiscriminately beat protesters with batons to clear the blockade of the Congress building.
But there's a bigger threat to free speech in the works. As part of an overhaul of the country's criminal laws, Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz has proposed tough changes that could be used to stifle dissent. A draft revealed several months ago included measures to criminalise citizens who organise actions that "seriously disturb the public peace". Another would criminalise "mass active or passive resistance".
Activists say the draft changes are dangerously vague and don't clearly define which actions are illegal, leaving the door wide open for abuse of the law. They're also concerned that another provision that criminalises actions that "seriously disturb" public events and meetings could result in charges against anyone who uses social media to rally support for a protest.
The government hasn't yet released its latest version of the new security laws, and the final proposals will have to pass the Spanish Congress later this year. But the time for loud, vocal and unified resistance to this dangerous threat is now.
Over the last century, Spaniards have fought long and hard for the right to oppose their government in peaceful and democratic ways. It would be a tragedy if any of these freedoms are compromised today.
Read more: The Guardian gives a good sense of what's at stake.
Sources: Huffington Post, Euronews, Global Post, News Daily, CNBC, CNN, Daily Beast, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, Blottr, Russia Today, Telegraph