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The International Writers Magazine: Spain - a little history lesson

Reforms at Last in Spain
James Skinner
‘If I could only keep my head whilst all about me are losing theirs and blaming it on me’. So goes Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’?  Well I’m distorting the opening phrase to focus on my essay on Spanish woes as the rest of the world seems to be going to pot.

civil war

Strange events are taking place in the Middle East that for once has nothing to do with Al Qaeda although this organisation’s international ‘cells’ will be burning midnight oil to take advantage of the situation. Nevertheless, I will take heed of my tutor Rudyard and revert to my usual monthly report on Albeniz’s Iberia.

Forget about the financial crisis for a moment. Apart from Spain’s own economic problems which I shall elaborate later, the country is in a political upheaval. I’ve brushed over it before but its time to bring together the present state of affairs and why they are taking place. In order to do so a brief on the contemporary history is essential. Let’s revert back to the II Republic and the ‘democratic’ governments that tried to run Spain between 1931 and 1936 that failed disastrously and resulted in the break out of the brutal Civil War that killed millions of innocent lives.

April 1931. The Republicans won the elections and immediately kicked out King Alfonso XIII thus ending Spain’s monarchist government and replacing it with a democratic one. Three months later a parliament was formed and a new constitution drawn up. Between 1931 and 1932 sweeping reforms were introduced including new agricultural laws, civil rights for women as well as the design and implementation of statutes for certain autonomous regions such as Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia. Divorce was approved in line with the separation of Church and State, i.e. the legal powers afforded to the dominating Catholic Church were abolished. The new government consisted of Republicans and Socialists whilst the opposition was in complete disarray and although the beginning of a left wing era took off, the far left splinter group CNT (National Confederation of Workers) did not agree with the new regime and preferred to push for a Stalinist system backed by the minority Communist Party. An internal left wing rumpus had started.

Trouble soon flared between well-to-do landowners that would not succumb to the new laws and the acquired power of the workers resulting in strikes and scuffles. 11th January, 1933 the inevitable bloodshed took place in a location called ‘Casas Viejas’ near Cadiz when a platoon of civil guards killed a group of anarchist farmers. Some historians say that this was the beginning of the end of democracy as the government’s weakness resulted in a call for a new round of elections in November. The right wing opposition had now reorganized with three different political groups and was ready to compete. The result was a coalition formed between the right wing CEDA (Spanish Confederation of Autonomous right wingers) party and the Republicans. The new government revoked a great deal of the brief reformist laws and the country was soon on the road to a perfect split between right and left.

In the meantime, Hitler was making his mark in Germany and Stalin was doing his own thing in the Soviet Union thus adding fuel to the Spanish turmoil brewing throughout the country.

In October 1934, a dangerous miners strike took place in Asturias than soon turned into a revolt orchestrated by the UGT (trade union). The government ordered a clampdown and for the first time we see General Francisco Franco lead the army to quell what had now turned into a revolution. More than a thousand persons died in the confrontation that included some prominent members of the Socialist Party. The damage to the short lived republican democracy had been done and between 1935 and 1936 all hell broke loose. Corruption was rife, anarchy was the order of the day and many extremists began the burning of churches, murdering priests and raping nuns.

February 1936. Another round of new elections took place. This time a left wing coalition with a hodgepodge set up of several parties took over, began to re-establish all the previous liberties including the statutes for the autonomous regions. They also tried to reprimand the military for the uprising of 1934 but it was too late. By July a right wing army officer, Lieutenant Castillo was murdered and the following day José Calvo Sotelo, a prominent member of the Security Forces was assassinated. On the 17th General Franco who was now down in Morocco led his army back to the mainland to overthrow the government. The following day, the 18th was the official beginning of the Spanish Civil War that ended on the 1st of April 1939. Franco was named Head of State and so began the Spanish Dictatorship that lasted until his death on the 20th of November 1975.

For nearly forty years the Generalissimo ruled with an iron fist. He destroyed the trade unions, abolished all political representation except for his Falangist Party, introduced censorship, restored Catholicism as the only legal religion and despite many historical contradictions generally set about rebuilding a torn and twisted country back to a certain degree of law and order and above all, prosperity. As Andrew Roberts of the Sunday Times once remarked, ‘Franco was a monster, but at least he was a Western one!’ However, he set alight one of the main fires blazing in today’s modern Spain. He broke the back of the autonomous regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country that had managed to open the gates to a possible independent rule. In other words he destroyed the statutes that had originally been agreed back in the 1930’s.

After his death and as mentioned in my earlier essays, Spain moved through a transition period and onto full blown general elections in the 1980’s with a brand new constitution that once again launched the country into a new era of democracy. The Socialists won, and under President Felipe Gonzalez opened the gates to all the achievements that had now been granted in the Western world and that ironically were legal during the II Republic such as divorce, religious freedom or approval of the Communist Party to give a few examples. Thanks to Gonzalez’s clever management, Spain joined NATO, entered the European Union and the floodgates were opened with a massive flow of structural funds that allowed the country to grow and progress beyond any of its expectations. There was heartburn and trade union strife at first such as heavy unemployment but the country was finally accepted into the realm of the industrialised, wealthy and above all democratic club of nations. They had made the grade. They were in power until 1996 when a conservative government under Jose María Aznar took over.

However, eight years later and thanks to the Iraq invasion and the Al Qaeda attack in Madrid in 2004 the Socialists soon returned to power under the leadership of Jose Rodriguez Zapatero. But this time round a new breed of left wing politicians began to appear with a certain degree of nostalgic optimism and like the flight of the Phoenix, set about to retrieve the remaining ashes of the 30’s and slowly pave the way for what could be the setting up and introduction of a new republic; the III. Within two years, Zapatero’s government introduced an incredible law known as the Historical Memory law that was going to wipe out all evidence of the past Franco dictatorship; anything that smelt of Francoism was blown to bits. This was coupled to a further boost of religious freedom that meant, reading between the lines a complete frontal attack on the Catholic Church destroying any vestige left over by the clergy. Equal rights for women was boosted with sexual freedom, quick divorce and a clamp down on male chauvinism that in the eyes of many meant a destruction of the family unit. In the meantime the autonomous regions were having a field day. More and more institutions such as health and education were being handed over to the regions. This meant an increase in public expenditure as more local politicians joined the payroll bandwagon of taxpayers’ money from Barcelona to Bilbao.

Without continuing to expand on the above suffice to say that as things stand today Spain is as divided politically as it was in the mid 1930’s. The difference is obvious. Spain is not as poor and is still an economic power and Europe is a far cry from the sombre of WWII and its aftermath. Nevertheless the present economic crisis has upset the apple cart and brought the whole Spanish Socialist program that had been set in motion six years ago down to its knees. In other words, they can’t afford it!

For Sale So where does Spain stand in 2011?

Well, ZP has had to retract and has finally set in motion a set of measures that should help kick-start a recovery. The government has approved a new state pension scheme in line with the rest of the world. The EU is applauding yet asking for more. Fingers are still pointing at the high unemployment rate, especially the younger generation that is skirting the 45% mark. The Savings Banks have been given an ultimatum to sort out their problems by September or else they’ll be nationalised.

That doesn’t mean that the financial system is anywhere near a solution. Nevertheless the cat is out of the bag and the public for the first time are beginning to see through the government’s original hoopla and that Spain still has a severe banking problem. And as for the autonomous regions, they’ve all been told to tightening their belts or else. We should begin to see a sifting of ‘extras’ as thousands of political ‘bloodsuckers’ are given the pink slip. The country awaits the response from seventeen different political forums to act accordingly. This is still a major ‘if’.

So, in a nutshell ZP’s spell of idealistic socialism has been broken and he has come down to earth at last. Like governments back in the 30’s ZP managed to divide the country and is now paying for it. Whether he continues to govern is another matter. He’s tired and the country notices his fatigue. His Nº 2, Perez Rubalcaba the present Minister for the Interior is in the running as his successor but he has ‘dirt’ on his hands because he tried to strike a deal with ETA the Basque terrorist groups a few years back. The case is known as the ‘Pheasant’. A lot of dirty washing is yet to be brought to light. It’s a real shame because if he does take over we could see a great deal of reshuffling within the party and some of the old Gonzalez philosophy and astuteness brought back to cleanse the country of its socialist political filth.

It’s not over yet folks, but at least the government has finally recognised that the country is in trouble. We are yet to feel the overall reaction from the people as the tapas bars are still full and Spaniards continue to spend their last pennies before the real crunch of a nation on its knees hits the floor.
© James Skinner. February, 2011

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