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Joan Clos
former Mayor of Barcelona
By Gregory Qushair

23 March 2004: Barcelona has become an international model of urban planning and tourism, yet in the past few years many residents have complained of insecurity, poor services, dubious mega-projects and leadership more concerned with those visiting the city than with those living in it. At the center of this controversy is Mayor Joan Clos.

In the autumn of 2006, John Clos resigned as mayor to join the Spanish government.

Profile of Barcelona's current mayor Jordi Hereu

| The Forum | Drug rehabilitation | Civic behavior | Railway construction | Immigration | Resident opinions | Conclusion |

Now in his ninth year running the city, the Mayor, a member of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), is ubiquitous in the media: all silver hair, silver glasses and silver smile, whether shaking hands at construction sites or addressing the UN General Assembly. Why has Joan Clos spawned so much uproar? How much is he to thank for Barcelona’s prosperity and to blame for its shortcomings? What does he think of his city, and vice versa?

Forum for whom?
Many equate the name Joan Clos with the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures, a socioeconomic-themed world’s fair that lasted nearly five months and featured appearances by high profile speakers such as Mikhail Gorbachev. The controversial project was the dream child of Clos, who years earlier had envisioned a global meeting point where citizens of the world would address key issues such as global warming, economic development and religious tolerance against a backdrop of cultural workshops and performances. The project implied a total investment of over €350 million, including construction of a flashy multi-purpose conference site adjacent to the sleepy beach neighborhood of Poble Nou in the north.

Clos received a lot of flack for the Forum. It started before the Forum had even opened, and exponentially grew upon early reports of disappointing attendance rates. Anti-capitalist youth groups vowed that the project was a typical example of real estate speculation and special-interest construction deals.  Others used the Forum as proof of Clos’s purported focus on tourist money and his blind eye to pressing civic problems. The most cynical simply laughed at the event’s ideological rhetoric: the conference was neither global nor just, simply an exercise in profit making as reflected in the prices of entry tickets and on-site snacks and beverages. Clos responded by saying that everything has a price, and that he was put off by what he saw as a new movement of people demanding everything for free and rejecting anything when asked to pay.

Even as the Forum ultimately attracted record numbers of visitors in its final months, to the point that the entry gates had to be closed on several days, it was derided as a failure and a massive loss of public funds.  Yet when the final tally came in at 3 million visitors and near-zero debt, Clos could feel somewhat vindicated.

Addressing the Forum Administration at its final meeting in December 2004 he cited a final estimated deficit of 0.1 per cent, referring to “...some four hundred thousand euros to which I can say there is actually no deficit. Allow me to explain: city schools have received half a million euros worth of material used in the Forum, whose value cancels out the figure of four hundred thousand. We can thus say that the Forum has broken even, which is great news.”

In an interview with the newspaper El Pais (26 Sep 2004) Clos admitted that, in hindsight, he would have made the Forum shorter, but stated “No other city has dared to do what we’ve done in Barcelona...The Forum was a novel and successful proposal. It was definitely not a failure despite the fact that many tried to make it so for political motives.”

The Forum had indeed brought Barcelona even more international exposure and tourist appeal although accusations of bad accounting still tarnish its reputation. Whether or not the Forum had “moved the world”, as Clos had initially hoped, is another question.

The needle and the damage done
It wasn’t long before Clos entered into other polemic storms: first, over the gradual introduction of fees for previously free public parking spaces in the city center, then over the opening of a city-run drug rehabilitation center and clean-injection site (narcosala) in the Vall d’Hebron neighborhood, site of one the city’s largest public hospitals. Opponents feared that the few areas selected by Clos’s government to house narcosalas would draw satellite problems to their neighborhoods, such as drug dealing, loitering, and littering from contaminated syringes. They argue that if drug rehabilitation is truly a public health issue, then just as each neighborhood has its own public health clinic (CAP), it should also have its own rehab center and injection site.

Grassroots organizations have staged protests every Wednesday since June 2005, calling for Clos’s resignation and often blocking traffic on the Ronda de Dalt, a major thoroughfare. The protests, drawing up to 2,000 participants, have in turn triggered controversies over freedom of expression and police intervention. During the final months of 2005, a small but vocal group maintained regular protests in front of the narcosala site adjacent to the hospital, gathering signatures, distributing flyers to passersby and huddling around hand made placards with messages to the tune of “Clos, this is Barcelona not the Bronx!”

Last November, Clos offered his support for relocating the narcosalas from outside to inside the hospitals as a compromise: “...the further inside the hospitals the rehabs centers are the better, perhaps this will lead to a solution....obviously there is no perfect solution and none with which everyone will agree one hundred percent.” (El Pais, 25 Nov 2005)

“Our aim is to work for the good of citizens, in this case, taking care of drug addicts. That’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue doing it while trying to minimize the effects on (local) residents.” (El Pais, 25 Nov 2005)

The Vall d’Hebron narcosala was moved inside the hospital in early 2006, though some opponents are still furious.
Paint on the wall, pee on the ground
Throughout 2005, Clos and his city council promised a new and stricter Civic Behavior Code to clean up Barcelona, especially the dense tourist areas of the city center. He addressed the issue in an article he wrote for the local newspaper Avui:

“Civic behavior is currently a subject of great concern for city residents because we feel that public space, which is the primary space of the city, has recently been degraded.” (Avui, 30 July 2005)

Clos alluded to Spain’s fascist past as the source of the public’s rejection of government imposed behavioral codes, but went on to emphasize the importance of legally enforced civic behavior within the context of a democracy:

“In a society dealing with phenomena such as youth gangs, where international mafias are growing and the system is breaking down, it’s clear that we need a legitimate, transparent and democratic authority to exercise control of public space in the name of the majority for use by the majority—a majority that has to participate in setting the norms that govern public conduct.” (Avui, 30 July 2005)

The hotly disputed set of laws would toughen fines for and increase police enforcement of prostitution, graffiti, littering and public urination. Although most residents agreed that certain areas were in dire need of help, the complaints immediately came in from all sides: groups representing the rights of prostitutes, poor solicitors and the homeless criticized the criminalization of people on the street. Others said that the new code would not be strict enough. Some of Clos’s most vehement opposition came from within his own tripartisan coalition, to which he sharply rebuked “Everyone needs to contribute constructively instead of evading the issues, which is not apropos for a member of government.”

Prostitution is among the thorniest issues in the city. Clos feels that the new portions of the new Code have been misinterpreted as attacking the prostitutes themselves; he has emphasized that the real target is the criminals who exploit prostitutes, especially “international mafias”.

“We are a leftist government, and our primary objective is to help those who are most vulnerable.” (El Pais, 14 Dec 2005).

However, he has expressed that he is against creating specific zones where prostitution is legal, fearing that it would “...dedicate portions of the city to this activity...thereby complicating other types of activities in the surrounding area.” (El Pais, 11 April 2006). He has since called for an open discussion on the future of prostitution in Barcelona, suggesting the possibility of universal legalization without taking a firm stance.

The new Code was approved just before Christmas 2005 and entered into vigor on 1 February of this year. Within a month, police were meting out an average of over 60 fines per day, half of which were for graffiti. Widespread support for the Civic Code has helped rebolster Clos’s popularity: media polls from March 2006 show that over 75% of residents considered the Code positive and over 64% believed that it was necessary, giving Clos the largest share of votes out of potential mayoral candidates. Moreover, City Hall has recuperated support with overall approval at roughly 42%. (20 Minutos, Barcelona Edition, 30 March 2006)

Despite criticism, Clos has remained committed to a firm but not heavy hand when it comes to enforcing the new Civic Code, emphasizing the responsibility of individuals and merchants, especially those who sell beer late at night, instead of extra policing.

Carmel and its consequences
A subway construction accident in the neighborhood of Carmel in January 2005 caused a large cave-in of the surrounding area. Consequently, 1,200 people had to be evacuated and many of them ultimately relocated. The aftermath was a hailstorm of accusations of corrupt building contracts and shoddy engineering aimed at Catalan state government officials and private contractors.

Although Clos was not directly imputed, he was criticized for siding with the Catalan Government’s response to the disaster, which many viewed as lackluster. For him the greatest consequence has been heightened awareness and inflexibility of residents whose neighborhoods are slated for other metro and train projects included in his long term plans—namely the new metro line 9, and the AVE (high speed train) that will link Barcelona to Paris and to Madrid. AVE por el Litoral, a group of residents whose homes lie above the planned trajectory of the AVE, staged continuous protests throughout 2005 and early 2006. They have demanded that the AVE circumvent residential zones in the city center by running along the city coastline instead. Clos has insisted that those from AVE por el Litoral, as well as the Vall d’Hebron anti-narcosala protesters, are being propped up by opposition right wing parties.

Bringing the AVE to the center of Barcelona is an anchor point of Clos’s grand vision of the city. Along with the new 22@ business district and the Forum complex, the Sagrera transit hub that will link the AVE to subway lines should shift the city’s traditional commercial and transportation center from Plaça Catalunya further north.

Immigration, primarily from Morocco, Ecuador, Latin America and South Asia, has radically transformed the face of Barcelona in the past decade. In an interview with the news daily ADN on 11 April 2006, Clos spoke on immigration, immigrant rights and urban demographics.

“They (immigrants) are now 15 per cent of the population...The legalization process was an important step because the labor black market had been growing, but now we also have to further their political rights...Right now it takes about ten years for a person who wants to establish legal residency and be able to vote. They should be able to vote in municipal, regional and national elections in half that amount of time—five years of proven residence. Once the (Catalan) Statute and peace in the Basque country have been established, that’s an issue that our democracy should resolve.”
When asked about the threat of Barcelona becoming segregated into ethnic ghettos, he responded:
“Yes, there are some (ghettos). You can’t stop that in any radical way. We try and make the most mixed society possible, avoiding that any one thing or activity is exclusive to any single area...The Raval is the most cosmopolitan area of Barcelona. Of course there are high concentrations of Pakistanis or Indians in some areas, but compared to other countries they (the clusters) are manageable.” 

Resident opinions
I spoke with various city residents to get their take on Clos, their responses were anything but neutral.

“I’ve never liked that man as a politician or as person. Maragall was much better: sure he had his faults but he was down to Earth.” said Maria Dolores, a grocery store manager who lives on Gran Via, not far from the Forum site. She referred to the Forum as a “big swindle”, and described the never ending construction in the surrounding area: “our street’s been torn up for months”. She complained that Clos’s government “doesn’t clean up my neighborhood; they don’t hose down the streets or pick up the dog excrements like they do in other areas...they only clean up the neighborhoods where they live.” For Maria Dolores, Clos’s term has been characterized by heavy expenditure and last minute patch-ups.

Elisenda, a biologist who lives in the very heart of the Gothic Quarter in the city center, was no more enthusiastic about Clos and his council.

“They’ve converted Barcelona into an amusement park. They’ve sold the city to tourism and forgotten about the needs of the citizens. In my neighborhood that’s very clear: they don’t take care of cleaning and maintaining the streets. It seems like only tourists live there; all the buildings have been sold to make day and week-stay apartments, and all the stores have been converted into souvenir shops.”

During Clos’s time in office, Barcelona has undergone radical transformation: absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants, consistently shattering tourism records, serving as the political center for greater autonomy for Catalonia from the Spanish government, and undergoing massive urban redevelopment. Clos’s popularity has wavered but suffered its greatest toll in 2004-2005.

The mayor’s website lists his three primary objectives as: improving the quality of life of city residents, achieving respectful cohabitation between tourists and residents, and honing the potential of Barcelona as the Catalan capital to address the world’s problems. His fiercest critics insist that he turns a blind eye to the daily needs of city residents while pushing on with dreamy, bloated-budget projects that only favor special interest groups and tourists.

In late April 2006, Clos announced some changes to his city council, announcing that his education and immigration directors would be replaced by younger politicians. It may take more than a few new faces on his team for Clos to win reelection in 2007; he must convince many embittered and cynical city residents that he truly has their bests interests in mind.

World Mayor 2023