Fear, Loathing, and Collective Amnesia in Crisis-Ridden Spain

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By Don Quijones, a freelance writer and translator based in Barcelona, Spain. His blog, Raging Bull-Shit, is a modest attempt to challenge some of the wishful thinking and scrub away the lathers of soft soap peddled by our political and business leaders and their loyal mainstream media.

If Spain and Catalonia were playing a real rather than a figurative game of Russian Roulette, the revolver would by now be loaded with at least two or three bullets. On Tuesday night, an extra one was slipped into a chamber when the Principe de Asturias prize-winning economist Juan Valerde announced that Madrid may have to “bomb Barcelona” in order to put a halt to the region’s rising separatist aspirations.

Speaking in an interview with Tele Madrid, Valerde, once a member of the extreme right-wing movement Falange and a former contributor to the Francoist newspaper Arriba, warned that what the Catalan government ultimately seeks is similar fiscal conditions to those which the Basque Country and Navarra have enjoyed for decades — conditions that, if granted, would cause unbearable pain to a “slowly recovering” Spanish economy.

To avoid such a showdown, Madrid must get “tougher and more serious” in its negotiations with the north-eastern province, said Valerde.

The Real Scandal

For those unfamiliar with life in Spain, such extreme rhetoric is often par for the course in the mainstream press, especially on the issue of Catalonian nationalism.

Indeed, the most alarming aspect of the interview was not so much the blitheness with which Valerde discussed the prospect of a military attack against Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city (at least for now!), but rather the abject failure of the news presenter to challenge or hold him to account.

Just imagine what would happen if a noted English economist had advocated the bombing of, say, Edinburgh or Glasgow, in order to keep the unruly Scots in check. And all the while, the BBC interviewer had merely smiled and beamed into the camera.

There would be an instant uproar! Said economist would be disgraced immediately and would likely lose his job as well as be stripped of all his honours. The BBC, meanwhile, would suffer a serious blow to its (already tarnished) reputation. As for the journalist, she would probably never work in the news-”making” business again.

In Spain, by contrast, no pasa nada (at least outside of Catalonia): no official complaints, no official apologies and no dismissals.

Clearly, Spain isn’t the U.K and Catalonia isn’t Scotland, no matter what the leader of the Catalan government, Artur Mas, might think. Spain, for instance, has traditionally been a country of political extremes, and to a great extent still remains so — people tend to be either VERY liberal or VERY conservative, and there is very little in the way of middle ground between them.

What’s more, Spain is arguably even more polarised — not just geographically, but also politically and socially — than its Northern neighbour. And the main reason for that, I believe, is the long, dark shadow that the Franco era continues to cast over Spanish politics and society.

The Ghost of Franco

Franco’s dictatorship ended only 38 years ago — a mere blink of the eye in the great scheme of things — and Spain’s “transition” into a full-fledged constitutional democracy remains very much half-finished. Its institutions of democracy and civil society are still precariously young and extremely fragile.

Perhaps most importantly, Spain, as a living, breathing whole, is yet to come to terms with its recent past. The reason for this is simple: In the wake of Franco’s death in 1975, rather than confronting and reconciling themselves to the injustices and horrors perpetrated in his name, most Spanish people, including many on the left, simply swept all memory of them under the rug of collective amnesia.

Instead of confronting the fear and loathing that had built up during 36 years of brutal dictatorship, not to mention three years of bloody civil war, the Spanish people, egged on by the political and business establishment, chose to simply forget.

Yes, street names were changed, statues were brought down, unions were legalised and new political parties were born. But ultimately these changes, many of them cosmetic, masked a far deeper, darker reality — namely the preservation of many of the same power structures that had supported the Franco regime.

While some authority may have been devolved to the people and the new institutions and parties intended to represent them, a large part of it remained in the hands of the people and institutions that had dominated power during the later stages of the dictatorship

As an essential part of this process, one of the very first acts of the first democratic government elected after Franco’s death was to pass the Law 46/1977, of amnesty, which exempted of responsibility anyone who committed any offence for political reasons prior to this date.

Franco’s Natural Successors

In many ways, Rajoy’s scandal-hit Partido Popular represents a slightly mellowed, outwardly (but certainly not inwardly) democratic descendent of Franco’s regime. Indeed, the party’s original incarnation was founded by a man called Manuel Fraga Iribarne, who had previously served as a former Minister of the Interior and Minister of Tourism in Francisco Franco‘s dictatorship, and who, even long after Franco’s death, openly admitted admiration for the late dictator’s regime. Besides members of the fascist old guard like Fraga, the party also counts among its ranks the children of men who served the Franco regime.

Since taking power in Nov. 2011, Rajoy’s government has resurrected many of the long-forgotten social pillars of Francoism, including a water-tight alliance with the Catholic Church; the return of religion to the classrooms; the extreme centralisation of education; and the proposed banning of abortion. It has also betrayed the same sense of hubris, impunity and entitlement that once characterised the Franco regime.

However, when it comes to honouring the Francoist tradition, few can hold a candle to Rajoy’s predecessor José María Aznar, whose father was a Francoist official and propagandist journalist during the dictatorship. During Aznar’s presidency (1996-2004) Gabriel Jackson, a noted American historian, journalist and leading authority on the Spanish civil war, described his style of governance as “Francoism dressed up as civil democracy.”

It was a charge that was all but confirmed in 2003, when Aznar’s administration decided to award one of its most generous public grants to the Francisco Franco Foundation, a non-profit entity run by Franco’s daughter, Carmen Franco y Polo, and whose stated mission is to raise awareness about the Generalisimo as well as “support” historical research on Francoist Spain — something many historians have disputed, claiming that the institution often blocks their access to important documents.

There is perhaps no better indictment of the true ideological colours and moral bankruptcy of the Partido Popular than the fact that it donates scarce public funds — including, no doubt, money paid, through taxes, by victims of Franco’s regime — to a foundation dedicated to a man whose regime was responsible for the forced disappearance of over 100,000 victims and the trafficking of tens of thousands of stolen children — a practice that did not end until the early 1990s.

The perpetrators of these crimes have remained immune to prosecution for 36 long years. Many will have no doubt passed away in the intervening years. Others, however, are still very much alive and well, and many of them will have no doubt prospered through their former connections with the Franco dictatorship. All the while, the relatives of their victims continue to be plagued by doubts about what ultimately befell their loved ones.

But that may all be about to change, thanks to action from the unlikeliest of quarters. On September 19th, Argentina’s justice department shocked the Spanish government by issuing arrest warrants, via Interpol, for four mid-level officials suspected of torturing Spaniards during the later stages of the Franco regime.

In the sweetest of ironies, Spain, the country that, in 1999, set the precedent for extraditing — or at least trying to extradite — overseas former heads of state for their roles in crimes against humanity, now suddenly finds itself the subject of an international war-crimes investigation.

As El Pais reports, the United Nations has announced that it will “send a commission to Madrid next week to examine whether the Spanish government is complying with international obligations to investigate the disappearances of people that occurred during the Civil War (1936-39) and subsequent Franco regime.”

In a statement, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said it will look at the measures taken by Spain and “analyze in particular issues related to truth, justice, reparation and memory for victims of enforced disappearances.”

Inauspicious Signs

What could all this portend for Spain’s already strained relationship with Catalonia? Or, for that matter, its own social and political cohesion?

Suffice to say, the signs are not reassuring. In many ways, Spain is like a deeply disturbed individual haunted by a massive childhood trauma. But instead of facing the source of the trauma head-on, Spain has buried it in the deepest, darkest recesses of its subconsciousness, where it continues to fester to this day.

For decades, as the economy grew, jobs were available, credit was easily accessible and public services kept improving, it hardly seemed to matter — at least not to most people. As long as the future held the promise of progress, the past could be left where it belonged, that is, in the past. But now that the largely EU-funded honeymoon is well and truly over and Spain has begun to retrace its long-term trajectory of economic decline, the old divisions are resurfacing.

In the wake of a long line of royal scandals, republicanism is on the rise once again and, as a recent BBC investigation documents, so too is the monster of right-wing extremism.

For the moment, however, most of the nation’s attention is focused on the stand-off between Madrid and Catalonia — and quite rightly too, given the very serious threat it represents not only to Spain’s territorial integrity, but also to its economic health.

Following the massive turnout for its national day, the Diada, on September 11, Catalonia seems more determined than ever to cut the chords with Madrid. And as long as people of the ideological ilk and diplomatic skills of Juan Valerde are given airtime by Spain’s mainstream media, this trend is only likely to entrench further in the coming months.

Perhaps if Madrid had a more conciliatory, more pragmatic, less ideological and less scandal-tainted government that was not in hock to its eyeballs with the Troika, then important inroads might actually be made in the negotiations. But instead what we have are senior ministers comparing Catalonia’s (to date) non-violent separatist movement with the Basque terrorist group ETA, and “prestigious” economists calling for the bombing of a densely populated urban centre, which just so happens to be one of Europe’s biggest tourist attractions.

While it is almost inconceivable that the Spanish government would order a military attack against its bolshy north-eastern province — as much as it might like to, its hands remain firmly tied by its membership of the EU — tensions between Spain and Catalonia are almost certain to deepen. So long as the bitter cycle of action and reaction, poisoned rhetoric and recrimination continues, the prospect of reconciliation between the two sides of the conflict recedes further and further into the distance.

Even the European Commission’s recent threats of expulsion from the EU — and with it, the euro — may not be enough to take the winds out of the sails of the Catalonian independence movement.

What that might ultimately mean for Catalonia, Spain or Europe as a whole is anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: unless concerted efforts are made by all three parties to defuse this slow-ticking time bomb, things could soon be as hot as a mad dog and Englishman in the Andalusian midday sun. By Don Quijones.

 

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