It is often said that no one responsible for the financial crash of 2008 ever went to prison. In Spain, however, a group of ordinary citizens are in the process of dragging one of Spain’s most eminent bankers through the criminal courts for fraud, money laundering, and embezzlement.
At the heart of this campaign is Simona Levi, a slight, dark-haired, softly spoken woman, born in Turin to left-wing intellectuals, and related to Primo Levi. She is a dancer and actress by training, a student of Turin’s School of Dance and of Jacques Lecoq’s theater school in Paris. She has lived in Barcelona since 1990. A theater director and a performance artist, she is also a prominent activist in a variety of movements for social justice.
Levi’s opponent is Rodrigo Rato, a former president of Bankia, one of the biggest banks in Spain, and a banker of global repute, once holding the top job at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington. As respected and powerful in Spain as JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon was on Wall Street, Rato presided over a massive fraudulent sale of the bank’s shares.
Rodrigo Rato is now facing jail, a success for Simona Levi and an unlikely group of people of which she is leader. It demonstrates that bankers can be brought to justice when ordinary people unite and force prosecutors to do their jobs.
The 2008 economic crisis hit Spain hard. The government brought in tough austerity measures, and inequality and unemployment rose sharply—at its peak, more than one-quarter of the working population was out of work. Despair was widespread and people were angry—as in other Southern European countries, conditions triggered popular protest.
Simona Levi reacted by setting up an organization with a group of activists. It became known as Xnet, “a peaceful guerrilla movement,” as she puts it. Their manifesto, Democracy, period, calls for greater institutional transparency; “wikilegislation,” giving citizens the right to participate in drawing up laws and proposals; and what Xnet calls a “permanent vote” that would ensure referendums are held regularly on important issues. Xnet and others also created a political party, Partido X or X Party. Like many others they wanted to break the hold of the People’s Party and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, which had taken turns running the country since the death of the fascist dictator Franco in 1975 and whose misrule had led to the crisis.
Austerity in Spain didn’t work. Incomes continued to fall and youth unemployment reached a staggering 46 percent in the autumn of 2011. Popular protest movements grew. On May 15, 2011 the main squares in cities and towns throughout Spain were occupied for weeks; the movement that would later be called the Indignados, also known as 15M for the day it began, demanded radical political change, and out of the mass occupations, collectives of activists and citizens organized themselves into neighborhood and workplace assemblies. Simona Levi and Xnet were part of this movement.