WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Beatriz Talegón is proof that not all politicians are the same. This rising star of socialism could well be on her way to becoming the next president of Spain or a female Che Guevara (she is still deciding).
By Laura Secorun Palet
February 2013. A young woman takes the stand at the International Socialist Council in Portugal. Everybody is expecting an uplifting speech when she says, “I am ashamed and you should be too.” The room goes silent. “Somebody tell me, how are we supposed to lead a revolution while we sleep in five-star hotels and get driven around in luxury cars?” The attendees exchange perplexed looks. The speaker goes on to list all the shortcomings of the organization, criticizes the lack of transparency and accuses the senior members of systematically ignoring the voices of the youth. Her words are met with uncomfortable applause, but by the following day, the video of her speech has become a YouTube sensation.
I know that I am more ‘leftist’ than many inside my party and this is why some tried to kick me out.
Eight months later, Beatriz Talegón is again at the International Socialist Council — this time in Turkey and that’s not the only change. Now everybody knows who she is. The story of the young woman who stood up to her own party has turned her into a hero in her home country, Spain, and popular the world over. Her message struck a particularly resonant chord with Spanish youth, something of a miracle in a country where the level of political distrust is 80 percent.
Some rushed to call her “the hope of the left” and “the new face of socialism.” But to Talegón, what really matters is spurring others to action: “Many people got affiliated to the party as a result of my speech, but what made me even happier is that I got letters from people who had affiliated themselves to different parties!”
That is Talegón’s main message to her generation. Do you want to feel represented? Represent yourself. Do you know what others should do? Try doing it yourself. “Young people tell me, ’I don’t get involved in politics because it sucks.’ Well, I say politics suck because you don’t get involved.”
Popularity being a double-edged sword, her bold discourse also sparked criticism across the political spectrum. “What hurt the most was the reaction of some people inside my own party,” she says.
The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has been the longest serving party in Spain since the democratic transition but now finds itself in the opposition. Its popularity took a dive because of a perceived mishandling of the economic crisis and, since 2011, Spain is being governed by the strongly neoliberal Popular Party (PP). The socialists have been trying to lift their approval rates by steering their discourse even more to the center without success (the latest numbers suggest only 27 percent of Spaniards would vote for them).
“I know that I am more ‘leftist’ than many inside my party and this is why some tried to kick me out. They bullied me, made up stories … It was vicious.” At one point she considered walking away from it all, but a trip to Myanmar changed her mind. “I met a group of young socialists that had spent four years in prison. I realized they were risking their lives every day for something I already had. So I decided to do my part and get to work.”
And work she did. Sitting outside the conference hall, smoking a cigarette, Talegón admits, “I haven’t taken a weekend off since the speech. Literally.” She had a relationship break down because of her hectic schedule, explaining, “Your people, family, friends, partner … they love you but they often feel ignored. If they are not into politics, it is very hard to justify to them why I do what I do.”
“I am ashamed and you should be too.” The room goes silent. The attendees exchange perplexed looks.
She flies in from Uruguay one day and heads to Vienna the next. “It can be very frustrating; sometimes I cry but then … well, I’ve had some amazing experiences too.” She is referring to the historic meeting she organized bringing Israeli youths to meet Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in Ramallah and other projects in Morocco, Western Sahara and Uganda. “That’s why I’m still here.”
Talegón is definitely a different breed of politician and some of it might have to do with her upbringing. The 30-year-old was raised in a small village near Guadalajara in the center of Spain, where she started working at a very young age, flipping burgers at McDonald’s, teaching music to children and even drafting memos in a bank. She didn’t get involved in politics until 2004, when the terrorist attack in Madrid left 191 dead and over 2,000 injured. “It really affected me. I was furious at the way the government was handling things and I felt I had to do something about it.” She began slowly, helping with legal documents in her spare time, and worked her way up to her current post: secretary general of the International Union of Socialist Youth.
Young people tell me, ’I don’t get involved in politics because it sucks.’ Well, I say politics suck because you don’t get involved.
But her habits have not changed. She still prefers friends’ homes to hotel beds, drives her bicycle anywhere she can and is happy to share what she earns and how she spends it with anyone who asks. Talegón’s attitude is gutsy and unapologetic, she smokes cigarette after cigarette and laughs loudly and swears often. She addresses people as “comrades” and has no problem saying that a situation is “quite f*cked up” or calling the media’s characterizations of her as “plain bullsh*t.”
One could mistake her passion for blind idealism, but Talegón is a practical woman and, as a lawyer, she knows how to make a compelling argument. This combination of optimism and strategy might be what has allowed her to blaze a trail from being the council woman of a small village to representing socialism at the European Parliament and most recently, the world.
As the end of her mandate as general secretary of the IUSY approaches, many wonder if she will leverage her heightened profile to seek political office in Spain or become a star of socialism worldwide. When asked if she plans to run in her party’s primary in 2014, she smiles. “Nothing is sure but I say why not? If people really want me to, I might. That’s what I love about democracy; the more the merrier, right?”