Maria-Luisa Guevara is a nom de guerre of a Romanian activist for housing rights, workers’ rights of non-European workers and progressive issues in general. She is part of the Socialist Action Group (GAS), a Marxist-oriented grassroots organisation in Romania. She also does field work for the Common Front for Housing Rights, one of the grassroots organisations on housing in Romania. Maria-Luisa Guevara talks to Vladimir Mitev in the context of a project to get to know the different faces of Romania in the 2024 super-election year and how they see the evolution of Romanian society.  

Read also the first part of the interview:

My impressions of the Romanian left are that it may not be a big bubble, but there seems to be a kind of effervescence, in the sense that there are more grassroots movements, smaller or larger communities and online and offline. There are cultural centres, say, like Art Hub (closed early in 2024 – editor’s note) or Filaret 16 in Bucharest, Acasă in Cluj-Napoca or Iedera in Timișoara. Apparently, there are not many people. For example, the housing movement in Timisoara has only a few members. But in fact it seems to me that in Romania there seems to be space for the left. That’s my impression, having my Bulgarian experiences. My impression is that people can really manage, can grow in this trend. How do you see the state of the Romanian left today and in recent years? How is it evolving?

Yes, you’re absolutely right, because there is a real effervescence in the Romanian left, even if it is small. There are a lot of young people. In other words, in Romania we can say that we have two lefts. In a way, we have the old generation, so to speak, who are over 50-years old, some of whom are part of the Romanian Socialist Party or sympathise or have certain nostalgia for the Ceaușescu or Communist regime, but who are quite socially conservative, and, on the other hand, we have the progressive left, so to speak, which is made up of young people. Most of the older members are up to 45 years old. There are a lot of young people, that is, who are under 30 and who are extremely active. They obviously have energy, they have time, they’re doing well on social media and they’re really organising all sorts of events, community groups. As you said, these places where people can meet and even though there is no financial support from the state for these spaces, still young leftists find funding, they find ways to organise and that gives enormous hope. 

And because yes, Romania does not have a very long left-wing tradition, even if we had a communist regime, we don’t have the long tradition of the French, the Spanish, the Italians or the Greeks. There are a lot of young people who have heard of the left recently, maybe in the last 10 years so to speak, and who some yes, have studied abroad and have heard there some are socializing towards the left thanks to the internet. There’s really an effervescence, an energy. 

I would say that the problem is this generation divide. There is a gulf between the two generations, because there are very big and very important points of disagreement. And the second problem would be the fact that yes, the left is very active in Romania, at grassroots and cultural level, but not at political level, in the sense of creating a political party or movements that are really strong politically. I don’t really see how anything concrete can emerge very soon, but in time they will certainly emerge. But right now, not right now. There is no political power in sight from the left. 

There was the Demos party episode, which demoralised a lot of people on the left, because, unfortunately, it failed. The reasons for the failure are many and I don’t want to go into details, because I wasn’t there to understand them. But wven with a failed political project, with time, the more we organise ourselves and the more events and projects we do, I am hopeful that something will come out in terms of active politics, political power. But for now, yes, it’s a cultural effervescence for now.

In fact, this left is called the intellectual left, in one of its definitions. It seems that the Romanian leftists are even mainstream in some areas. For example, there is the so-called social or political theatre. Last year I went to a performance of social theatre, played at the Masca Theatre. There I saw a person I never communicated with, but he was in a very influential position, in one of the best or maybe the best university in Romania. I approached this person. I said, “Aren’t you this gentleman?.” This person told me that he also knew me. And, therefore, I found myself with an invitation to meet this person when I go to Cluj. 

I was astonished by this episode, because if I go to the theatre, to Sofia or to Ruse, for sure I won’t meet a left-wing university head who invites me to meet him or her. So it seems to me that, first of all, it is a very good quality, which I appreciate in Romanians in general, not just in leftists – the open attitude and a somewhat, I think, sincere curiosity. Then comes this committed attitude to what you do, which is seen in the Romanian left, but also in activists of different ideology. I see also that a lot of people also have Balkan humour, bluntness and are accessible for discussion. 

But here I want to stop with the laudatory speech and ask a question. In my opinion, it seems to me that it is not necessarily a problem that the Romanian left cannot produce an influential party to fight with in the political struggle in Romania. In Bulgaria we recently had a candidate that many people recognize as the leader of the Bulgarian left for a long time. She almost won the mayoral election in Sofia, she had only 5,000 ballots difference from the mayor who won, but I find this very problematic, the “weaponization” of the left. Behind her, there were some conservatives, nationalists, Russian economic interests, who interpret the left in a very narrow way: anti-West, anti-American Democrats, anti-European Commission, anti-Soros. 

So it seems to me that in the Bulgarian left, with time, perhaps better-looking people are coming to the forefront, younger people, but nothing is changing or things are changing very slowly in the end. And the left remains a weapon against the West, especially against Western Europe, but it is blind to the understanding of the fact that there is also a left in Western Europe. There is also a left in Ukraine, under war conditions. There is a left in Poland. So in our region there is a somewhat static understanding of what the left means, and this understanding is a continuation of the Cold War. And that’s why I still appreciate the Romanian left, where I think there is more diversity and people don’t necessarily define themselves geopolitically and anti-anything, but try to build something of their own. 

In this context, how does the Romanian left relate to what we call Russia? I know Russia is a very broad definition. I know that if we start defining it, it can get a bit difficult. But to what extent does this shadow of Russia exist on the Romanian left, a shadow that probably also exists to a large extent on the Western left, which also defines itself as an anti-American or anti-Israeli position? To what extent does this independent Romanian left, not only in the political sense, mean that people are independent in themselves, including from all hegemonic forces in the world?

Very good question. I don’t know if I could speak for the whole left. But from what I’ve noticed in the last two years, since I’ve been much more active, active not only on Facebook, is that it doesn’t seem to me that Russia has any presence or that it has any influence on the Romanian left in general. 

Now, after the war broke out in Ukraine, obviously there are leftists who have a certain anti-Russian stance and there are also leftists who have been accused of being ‘tankies’ by other leftists. And I would say that it’s only through the lens of the war in Ukraine that there is Russia in our conversations. Otherwise, the legacy of the USSR, to talk about communist Russia, so to speak, I think is quite nuanced. Many of us try to have a fairly balanced view, that is, to understand what was good in the USSR, what was done well and what was not ok. But overall, at least to me personally, it doesn’t seem to me that the specter of Russia is enormous on us, and it doesn’t seem to me to be enormous among older generation leftists. Nor in the ranks of the young.

That’s probably because Romania, historically speaking, moved away from the USSR in the 60s and 70s. Compared to Bulgaria – perhaps Bulgaria had more trade and cultural exchanges with Russia. And maybe that’s why the spectre of Russia is much greater in Bulgaria than in Romania.

I wanted to ask you in this context can we make a kind of description, maybe relatively brief, but I don’t know if it is not also something detailed of the leftist infrastructure in Romania. What kind of organizations, communities, grassroots media can you list? I know you probably can’t list them all, and maybe someone would even complain that it’s not respected if it’s not mentioned. But it’s not my aim to create discontent. If we can talk so broadly about this progressive left or alternative left, intellectual left space, what kind of infrastructure does it have?

I have to think about it a bit, because, as you said, it’s hard to name them all. I would also say that the two big centres of the left are obviously Bucharest and Cluj, because they are also big economic, social and university centres. But, for example, at university level, the University of Sibiu has some extraordinary projects and people. What they do on left-wing publications in any academic field seems super to me. Every day you discover new, interesting publications, from literature to sociology, to politics, to economics, which are really outstanding. In the academic environment in Bucharest and Cluj, there are also professors and academic actors who are very, very good. From what I understand from comrades, sometimes the problem is the academic administration, the university administration, which is not left-wing and, obviously, it is harder to work on left-wing subjects in the academic environment. I would also mention Craiova where we also have left-wing comrades in academia, and obviously there are many others in other cities.  

There are also all these cultural centres you mentioned, Art Hub (which unfortunately closed temporarily) and Filaret 16 in Bucharest, Acasă in Cluj. There are already other small meeting centres for artists and political activists. And then you have various associations or NGOs – Politeia on the workers’ information side, the Common Front for the Right to Housing, which I’ve already mentioned, all the feminist organisations, from Pe Stop to Thank You for Flowers!, Feminism Romania, E-Romnja, which is at the intersection of feminism and ethnic discrimination. I mean, I couldn’t list them all. And on the political side, the Demos party was a very big project that is now much smaller. Then you have GAS – Socialist Action Group, BTM – Marxist Youth Bloc, then you have quite a few anarchist organizations in Cluj. Filaret 16, which is not only a centre, but also a group of young people who are very involved and very active. It’s a broad palette, a leftist infrastructure and platform. Then also the online left, let’s say with the Progressive Left group on Facebook. There are leftists who have children or have jobs and can’t get involved other than online. And there are all kinds of opportunities to get more or less actively involved in the left. 

Sounds like a big leftist subculture. More interestingly, I’ve known about political theater for maybe at least 6 years, if not more. And it seems to me that there are people who have grown up in political theatre around these shows with political theatre projects that I haven’t mentioned. 

It’s very interesting this subculture, because it seems to me that people are, like, forming a church, but it’s not church, it’s actually a kind of theatre in the community. And people grow up in this community. They don’t have to completely submit to the outside world. They can find a world of their own and grow up there, become mature or adults, as they say. That’s my impression. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s what I think I saw. It’s as if the people who were younger then I see now, when I go to the political theatre. I saw this show I mentioned. I saw a former secretary of state in the Ministry of Culture, I saw an influential man from Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, like I said, so it seems to me very impressive, in a nutshell, but it’s also some left-wing media space and I don’t know if you want to comment on this space, what kind of relief does it have?

It depends on how we understand media space and what we take into account. Well, you have left-wing publications like CriticAtac, which is one of the platforms where left-wing authors write. There’s Dezarticulat, Trepanatsii which also have their niche. There’s you from Cross-Border Talks, there’s Platon Florin, who launched Contracurent, Baricada… I think there are more on YouTube (Silviu Faiăr for example) and on Facebook. There is no official left-wing newspaper with a large circulation. In Romania, however, there are newspapers that still publish articles with more social or leftist content. 

Look at Libertatea! When it had Tolontan as editor-in-chief and the whole editorial team around him, there were a lot of journalists publishing social surveys and they seemed to me to be quite committed to the left. But as you may have seen, he was kicked out together with Iulia Roșu and I think someone else, because there were some problems with the group that bought them from Switzerland. Now it remains to be seen what the editorial staff of Libertatea will publish and whether they will have the same freedom to publish more to the left. Then you have VICE Romania, which closed down and where, although it was not left-wing, they could publish certain social surveys, certain more left-wing topics or at least on the social progressivism side, i.e. everything that means for the LGBTQ community issues that young people ask themselves nowadays. The fact is that some people were clearly writing about exploitation in the workplace, i.e. it was still a platform where certain ideas could be expressed, but it closed down. So these are some big problems we’re going to have from now on, where are we going to find more left-wing articles publicly? 

I‌ also look at Scena9, which is a project supported by BRD. I mean, there’s some money from a bank that sometimes goes to cultural subjects, if not obviously left-wing, at least a bit left-wing. Then there are Mindcraft Stories, where there are interesting ideas, I mean there are, there are publications and publishes, I’ve forgotten some of them. There are podcasts as well. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about them. I mean they’re outlets, so to speak in English, for left-wing ideas, but we still don’t have a left-wing publication. 

Look at France as an example, because I know it better. They have Mediapart, which is an independent newspaper supported only by subscriptions and has more left-wing ideas, although they are not the most radical. Then, a few years ago, two online media projects were also born, one called Le Media itself and the other called Blast, which have very critical positions against Macron’s neoliberal policies, which invite left-wing personalities to express themselves and where they also have a very large online audience. Le Media also seems to me to have opened a TV channel, but they, for example, have the problem that the various cable TV companies don’t give them the channel to broadcast on. And the French are also putting the brakes on the media side of left-wing ideas. In Romania we are still at the beginning, as far as I can see, and I told you that with the fact that Vice closed down and the fact that important journalists were fired from Libertatea, it might be harder, at least in the next year, to see more left-wing publications, but na, I don’t know, maybe there will be more projects like Casa Jurnalistului, something similar that will appear and be more left-wing. 

Hrom what I know, you are a member of GAS – Socialist Action Group. Can you tell us about this group? What activity does it develop? There are also Marxist reading circles, and that can still be a topic…

We have Marxist reading circles, feminist reading circles, which sometimes take place online, sometimes physically. We have in Bucharest, Cluj and Brasov already some circles. And we come from different corners of the left, so to speak. We are quite diverse. What we are planning to do is, in addition to these reading circles, to have political actions and, first of all, we are in solidarity with most of the trade union movements and protests on the workers’ side. But also look at the protests with Palestine in recent months. 

And yes, I’d say we’re still at the beginning, so it will be a little while before we have a full portfolio of projects. But it’s also hard to start active projects because, as I said, the left bubble is relatively small in Romania and the working class is not yet politicised and that’s what the left in general should work on. The Romanian left should not just remain at the stage of the intellectual left or the cultural left, but should start to open up to the working class. More specifically, about book clubs. I have not been active in these clubs, so my colleagues might be able to give more details. The point is that in Romania, the left is still in its infancy and it is then essential to read the fundamental texts of the left. And that’s what the reading circles started from. There is a great deal of interest, especially from students and young people who are thirsty for knowledge, for learning something other than the capitalism that is shoved down our throats at school, on television, in society and as projects that have effectively started from scratch and with zero money. They are among the most successful reading circle projects. There are others in Romania and Bucharest. The comrades of the BTM, the Marxist Youth Bloc, also have a reading club. That is to say, it’s also about self-education on leftist theory. I say leftist because, yes, this is where several currents come in, which is a necessary stage in the formation of a stronger left in Romania.

I just want to end this part with the Romanian left, with something I learned myself. First of all, I was in Cluj in November, I was present at a film screening at the anarchist centre Acasă, and later I found out that there were 400 people at the Palestine solidarity protest in Cluj in January, if I’m not mistaken. With my Bulgarian perspective, that number is very impressive. You say that the bubble of the Romanian left is small, but 400 people seems to me a very, very big number, including even for Sofia. That’s very big for any kind of protest. 

Can you tell us a little bit more about this Palestinian support movement? It seems that Romania is part of a European or Western trend of solidarity with a people subjected to incredible violence. Bulgaria still has its own left-wing people, but in general, the spirit in society seems very different to me. In fact, and my sense of Bulgaria is that more things, if anything, cross state lines. It seems to me we have fewer people who express sincerely and authentically their political position. We seem to be expressing positions for which we are sure we have the support of some power in society or internationally. In this context you can tell me or present what happens in these protests, what they lead to, what they change. And I still found out that there seems to be some kind of pressure on Palestinians in Romania in relation to these protests…

Yes, there were 400 people in Cluj, and in Bucharest, some of the protests that gathered about 1500 people. Which, yes, is enormous for an issue that, as you said, can be seen as something quite Western, as a Western issue. 

But the way the pro-Palestinian protests started in Bucharest, at least in Romania, they started together with the Palestinian community, which is quite important in Romania. This is a Palestinian community that has existed in Romania for 40-50 years, maybe even longer, taking into account that the communist/Ceausescu regime had links with Palestine. Many came here to study and stayed, then made families here, some came later. In any case, the Palestinian community in Bucharest and in Romania is important. It has quite a large number of members and then there is the Palestine-Romania Solidarity Association, which was started by a Romanian and which works closely with the Palestinian community and which has built a bridge, so to speak, between the community and us, the leftists. The Palestinian question is one of the grassroots left, they would say, because yes, this is a victim people, a victim of 70-80 years of oppression and political violence. The fact that so many people came to the protests is also impressive to me.  It warms your heart when you see people coming for an issue that maybe the average Romanian would say “what do I care about”. 

I mentioned that it was written about the pressure from the police on the Palestinian community not to protest. Maybe it’s a sensitive subject, but I would ask you to say something about it.

I think it should be said and people should know that there is a lot of pressure from the police and the SRI secret services. I myself was intimidated by the gendarmerie and the SRI at one of the protests. My comrades were even more victimised, in the sense that the police took their personal data and went to their homes the next day, often to the address on their ID card, which is their parents’ address. And people actually woke up to find that the police had come to ask about their son or daughter and why they were at the protest. We’re talking about Romanian activists. 

As for the Palestinian community, these marches and demonstrations are authorised under draconian conditions. Because of this pressure, the Palestinian community is often forced to disassociate itself from leftist messages and the leftist comrades who join them, because they say “we don’t want to have problems with the police”, and the police usually target us, the leftists, but especially the young Palestinians… They target them much more easily in order to legitimise them, to intimidate them. And this pressure has increased a lot since October, because in the marches and the protests before October, the police had nothing to do with us. I mean, they were there and they were just watching to make sure everything was OK. 

For example, it seems to me that in August there was a demonstration at University Square in Bucharest and it was very hot and an older member of the Palestinian community got sick and the police came and helped him. They called the ambulance, so they were very cooperative with us. Initially they were not interested at all in what we were chanting, what was written on the placards. And suddenly, with the month of October and the increase in protests, the gendarmerie started to check what was written on the placards, to say that you are not allowed with certain slogans. And especially there was the problem with a chant deemed anti-Semitic by the UK Home Secretary, who is known to be a very conservative person and who I think was even kicked out by her own government for how extremist she was. And the Romanian authorities took for granted what she said, that that chant “from river to the sea…” that it was anti-Semitic, and they took it for granted and it stayed that way. In itself, the chant is not antisemitic. And there’s this risk that lately in international jurisprudence you try to equate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and automatically you get punched in the mouth. So yes, the authorities are very, very turned against us. And yes, it’s going to be harder and harder to be able to do these protests, to be able to have the platforms, to express ourselves, and there will be further intimidation, I’m sure.

(to be continued)

The text was first published by Bridge of Friendship.

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