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Spain’s miners resort to ‘guerrilla war’ over austerity

Outrage mounts over a government spending billions to rescue banks, while coal towns go broke from premature subsidy cuts.

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A Spanish miner holds a burning tire next to a barricade near Santiago mine. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

LANGREO, ASTURIAS, Spain — For more than 40 days, 14 men in the north of Spain have spent their days and nights in dark shafts, 3,000 feet underground. They are not trapped. Instead, these miners have voluntarily locked themselves in the depth of the mines to protest against the massive government cuts to the sector.

“He tells me he is doing this for our son,” said the wife of miner Dario Martinez, Elisabeth, who is caring for their nine-month old boy in the nearby small town of Langreo in the Asturias.

Dario Martinez, 30, has been living for more than a month inside Candin shaft in a claustrophobic 270 square foot chamber. The temperature is about 77 F degrees but the humidity ranges between 80 and 100 percent and there is plenty of dust in the air. They have no toilets or showers, sleep on planks and eat what their colleagues from the surface send them four times a day via a service elevator.

“They are determined to stay down there until there is a solution from the government, but I worry that he will get sick,” said Elisabeth.

Like the Martinez family, more than 10,000 others in the coal mining regions of Spain worry they might soon be unable to feed their children. The entire sector has been on general strike since May 28, following an April announcement by the conservative government of President Mariano Rajoy that it would cut subsidies slated to be received this year by 63 percent — the sharpest cut in the budget to any program.

Without public aid, the mining industry and the villages that depend on it are doomed to disappear, and quickly.

Coal mining in Spain is a loss-making sector that has been publicly subsidized for more than a century. It has been traditionally regarded as a strategic industry because it is the only local resource in a country with an energy dependency of 81.7 percent (30 points above the EU average).

With economic modernization and changes to Spanish industry that took place in the late 1980s, the mining sector became less important. The number of miners in Spain shrunk by 90 percent over the past 20 years. Even so, the sector is essential for the survival of certain towns like Langreo, which is almost fully dependent on coal mining.

In 2010, then-President Jose Luis Zapatero signed a plan to cut the subsidies by 10 percent in 2012 but the current government decided to increase that six-fold resulting in a total reduction of more than 200 million euros.

More from GlobalPost: Spain: Protesting coal miners clash with police

The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Commerce justifies the reduction in the context of the EU demands to reduce the public deficit by six percent by the end of the year. Spain has been in recession since the end of 2008, and has one of the most troubled economies in Europe, with a 24.3 percent unemployment rate. It recently requested a bank bailout worth 62 billion euros.

Regardless, the miners say a deal is a deal.

“All we are demanding is for the government to respect what was agreed on, approved by the EU, and signed by all the parties affected,” said Manuel Robles, Union General de Trabajadores representative of the Candin shaft. He says miners would accept some cuts but not something “so radical.” 

A guerrilla war

Although miners believed that their colleagues underground would be their trump card to pressure the government, it is their “armed” actions that have been receiving the most publicity.

Black columns of smoke stain the blue skies of bucolic Asturias. Almost daily, burning tires block roads, highways and railways for hours while dozens of policemen fight with miners in the forest.

“We are not attacking, we are just defending our jobs and the future of our children,” said Robles, 35, who is the third generation of miners in his family.
On Wednesday, 200 men fought for hours against riot police squads on the roads and hills of this mountainous region. Two miners who did not want to be identified out of concerns for their personal safety told GlobalPost that they are using guerrilla war strategies. They hide in the forest and use small home-made mortars to shoot rudimentary but effective ammunition,