Saturday, January 9, 2010

'The Spaniards: A Portrait of the New Spain'

This review originally appeared in The Washington Times on Thursday, September 17, 1987.

BOOK REVIEW / Richard Sincere
Spain after Franco
The Spaniards: A Portrait of the New Spain
By John Hooper
Penguin, $6.95 paper, 287 pages

Earlier this year, sporadic demonstrations and riots by students occurred in the Spanish university towns of Salamanca, Madrid and Seville. It was unclear to observers exactly what the students wanted. They seemed to riot for riots’ sake.

Some light is shed on the situation in “The Spaniards: A Portrait of the New Spain,” journalist John Hooper’s comprehensive examination of the Spain that has emerged in the 12 years since the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

One problem Spanish students face is the inability of the country’s job market to absorb university graduates. Paradoxically, the students are demanding the removal of all barriers to university admission and more state grants to those in higher education. If the government yields to these demands, the students may soon regret it. As Mr. Hooper reports, there are some 500,000 undergraduates in the universities and another 190,000 in the junior colleges or polytechnics, “which is more, frankly, than a country of her level of economic development requires, especially in a recession. Ever since the mid-’70s graduate unemployment has been a serious problem.”

Mr. Hooper does not limit his book to contemporary policy problems such as education. Although he says in the introduction that “this is not a book about politics or economics:’ it is in fact both. “The Spaniards” successfully takes the measure of the country since Franco’s death in 1975. Its chapters on the church, the family, the sexual revolution, the welfare state, housing and the media each vividly portray not only events since 1975, but the social forces that preceded them.

There is a misconception about Spain often encountered in North America and Europe (as Mr. Hooper notes, the Spanish, like the British, often refer to Europe as though it is somewhere else). This misconception is that for the four decades of dictatorship, Spain was a boiling pot with a lid clamped down, and that Franco’s death took the lid off, precipitating near-revolutionary change. This is only half true.

The social forces shaping Spain under the constitutional monarchy of King Juan Carlos have their roots in the rapid economic development that started in 1961 and began slowing down in 1973, a period known as the anos de desarrollo. As in so many countries where political development is hampered and channels of political expression are blocked, the energies of the Spanish people were directed toward industry.

The result of the anos de desarrollo was not only a nearly unbelievable rise in the standard of living — per capita income quadrupled — but a sea-change in Spain’s demographics. Whole regions of Andalusia, Murcia and the central meseta emptied as shanty towns multiplied in suburbs around Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao and San Sebastian. This in turn caused subtle but discernible shifts in family living and in language patterns.

In prosperous Catalonia, for instance, non-Catalan workers began speaking Catalan instead of Castilian (Spanish) in the work place. The demographic shift also put pressure on the housing market and pushed up the demand for consumer goods.

The development of Spain’s new constitutional government is also a reflection of the time that came before it. Adolfo Suarez, the first prime minister chosen by the newly installed Juan Carlos, had been a junior member of the government under the late dictatorship; the current, Socialist prime minister, Felipe Gonzales, was once a member of the Young Falangists. The decision to grant autonomy to provinces and regions came about because of nationalist sentiments (and even terrorist movements) in the Basque region, Galicia and Catalonia that had been felt for decades.

It is in his descriptions of the various regions of Spain that Mr. Hooper is at his best. He provides capsule histories rich in detail that show how disparate countries came together to form a unified Spain, how successive governments in Madrid held the Iberian Peninsula together, and how in the last years of Franco, nationalism (‘regionalism” is too weak a word) had grown so much that it became an unignorable force.

The case of Catalonia is telling. I can attest to the depth of feeling there, having visited Barcelona province several months ago.

Although the new constitution gives the Catalan language full recognition along with Castilian after years of suppression under Franco, it is not uncommon to see bilingual commercial signs with the Spanish half smeared with red paint and a Catalan nationalist slogan, such as “Visca Catala” (“Long live Catalan!”), sprayed alongside it.

There is a movement afoot to have Catalan declared one of the official languages of the European Community — perhaps a not-unreasonable request, as more people speak Catalan than Danish or Irish. As if to make their point, Catalan-language enthusiasts sponsored a consumer fair on the Ramblas, Barcelona’s main thoroughfare, in which all products were labeled solely in Catalan.

As Spain enters the mainstream of the Western political community -- it is now a member of both NATO and the EC -- it must come to grips with its new identity. The society that is emerging, Mr. Hooper says, is “distinctly idiosyncratic.”

Spain is “a federal monarchy with a tax-paying king whose father was alive when [Juan Carlos] ascended the throne; a welfare state in which three-quarters of the jobless do not qualify for unemployment pay; a former police state where the majority of detectives belong to a trade union founded by erstwhile members of the secret police; a democracy in which the circulation of a neo-fascist newspaper has risen sixfold; and a country dedicated to the cult of the Virgin Mary where there are a half a dozen whores for every nun.”

The past decade has been tumultuous, producing a Spanish state that is democratic; autonomous regions that are linguistically and culturally diverse; and multiple political parties competing for real power. Thus has Spain become a laboratory for the hypothesis that authoritarian states, which allow some freedom and competition, more easily become democracies than do totalitarian societies, which lack institutions that compete against the state.

There is still some fear that Francoist elements within the armed forces may attempt a coup. Such an attempt did take place in 1981. But younger officers are coming from more diverse sectors of society than their predecessors, and thus have more democratic views.

Those of us who spent the mid-1970s glued to the iconoclastic comedy “Saturday Night Live” saw Chevy Chase report, week after week, that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still seriously dead.” To American high-school students in 1975 the line was morbidly funny; in 1987, Spanish high school students can freely take to the streets as one of the fruits of Franco’s demise.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based foreign policy consultant.

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