Angel Vadillo: The hungry mayor on a mission

For 74 days, he has been starving himself in protest at austerity policies that he says have ruined his town's future. But how long can he last? Alasdair Fotheringham met him

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The Independent Online

Every weekday morning Angel Vadillo, mayor of the Spanish town of Alburquerque, holds meetings, replies to emails, and fields telephone calls. Indeed, it would be business as usual, were it not that Mr Vadillo is currently on day 74 of a hunger strike outside the huge office blocks that house the ministry of industry in Madrid.

For over two months, Mr Vadillo has been conducting a one-man fight against austerity measures that have, he says, ruined the prospects for Spain's renewable energy industry. Visibly emaciated, his only daily sustenance is eight litres of water with honey as he sits or lies in a hired van in a car park 10 metres from the ministry's gates.

"They could let me die, but if they allowed a mayor of a town to die, for a democracy that's a serious problem," Mr Vadillo – a gaunt giant of a man who has lost 23kg and 5cm of muscle mass since his strike started – tells The Independent as he shakily rolls a cigarette. "The longer my struggle goes on, the more I suffer, the more attention people are going to pay me."

His decision to stage the strike came after the Industry Minister, Jose Manuel Soria, announced all subsidies for new renewable energy projects would be cut in January as part of austerity measures to help curb Spain's debt crisis. Mr Vadillo says the consequences for Alburquerque, whose economic future was heavily dependent on five new solar power plants, are disastrous.

With the power plant plans on hold, the mayor estimates some 850 workers in Alburquerque, a town of 5,000 near the Portuguese frontier in Extremadura, will now join Spain's millions of unemployed. Not only that – the €36m of taxes that filled Alburquerque's coffers thanks to advance payments by the new plants have been wiped out, forcing him to close the town's old people's home as well as a centre for the disabled.

His fury at what he views as unnecessary job losses (the cuts are estimated to cost around 10,000 jobs across Spain) and the government's failure to exploit a natural resource that Spain has in abundance – solar power – provoked first his lone 400km protest march from Alburquerque to Madrid, and now his hunger strike.

"We're in recession and we could generate employment with these sorts of projects all over Spain," Mr Vadillo says. "It can't be that Germany is the No 1 in solar power in Europe when we've got this amazing sunshine."

Spain had been regarded as a leader in the renewable energies field, but has now slipped far down the global rankings. "We have the technology and it seems incredible that Spain does exactly the opposite that we need to as a country. Rather than cuts, investing in an area like this creates employment," he says.

Mr Vadillo says he will end the strike when the ministry, which plans to save around €190m as a result of the ban on the subsidies, initiates negotiations involving all parties affected by the cuts. "When I started the hunger strike the minister received me for an hour but, rather than a conversation, it was practically a monologue on my part, and he limited himself to saying goodbye to me. It was like he hadn't heard me."

A letter then sent to Mr Vadillo from the minister rejected his proposals, claiming that they "could not guarantee the profitability of the specific business plans as you [Vadillo] suggest". It asked him to end his protest as "it was not the right course of action".

However, interest in Mr Vadillo's case has grown elsewhere. Civil servants from the ministry leave their desks to join him in a half-hour protest each morning and he has an estimated four million supporters online. After what he calls an initially sluggish response, Spain's ecological movements are also coming on board too.

As the mayor continues to refuse to back down, Mr Vadillo has become a symbol of a grassroots backlash against round after round of government cuts across Spain

"They [the government] are obsessed with cuts and more cuts, but where is the logic in cutting back in a sector where it can create employment?" Mr Vadillo asks. "They're exploiting the recession to promote a particular kind of political ideology, defending the interests of the big electrical companies. Renewable energy means the democratisation of electrical production – it lets in small companies and common people, and they can't stand the thought of that happening."

As befits a protest sparked by austerity measures, the interior of his white van is sparse in the extreme. A bare mattress lies on the floor, a photo of Charlie Chaplin is stuck to the wall – "He inspires me, along with Gandhi" says Mr Vadillo – and several bottles of water and cans of honey are grouped at one end. Along with a mobile phone and computer – both powered by solar energy – that is pretty much it.

"I know above all about hunger strikes involving people who died, in Cuba and Northern Ireland in the 1980s. They lasted from 60 days to 100 days," Mr Vadillo says.

"The public health service comes by once a week and I send in my medical reports to a judge, and if one of my vital organs breaks down, I know he'll probably send me to hospital. But as soon as they let me out, I'll stop eating again."

"The hunger strike was a last resort. But I've found that nothing is in its right place and what little that I can do, I will try to do it."

Spanish squeeze: The crisis in numbers

24.6 Percentage of people unemployed – the highest in the EU. More than half of young people are out of work.

25 Percentage drop in house prices in Spain since 2008.

£27bn Value of cuts to public spending made this year alone.