Spain and its Achilles’ Heels: the Strong Foundations of a Country’s Weaknesses

This blog post is an excerpt from Dr. Koldo Casla’s new book, which is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

On 1 October 2017, roughly two million people took part in a referendum organised by the Catalan government, a referendum that had been declared illegal by the judiciary. The regional government had promised that, if the majority of votes were positive, they would declare independence unilaterally within two days. “Yes” did win overwhelmingly, but the Catalan authorities did not declare independence. Instead, they issued an ambiguous statement acknowledging the referendum’s result and reaffirming their determination to become an independent State.

After a few days of confusion and tension, the Spanish government invoked a constitutional procedure never used before to replace the Catalan authorities with men and women chosen from Madrid. Regional elections were held in an uneasy calm weeks later, as a result of which the balance of power between pro- and anti-independence forces barely changed. Powers were returned to a new Catalan executive supported by the same parties of the previous one, under a new president who expressed his admiration for his predecessor, now exiled in Belgium, as well as his commitment to follow through with the independentist process. Two years later, Spain’s supreme court sentenced nine pro-independence politicians to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition and other crimes, including misuse of public funds.

Four days before the referendum, the US-based magazine Foreign Policy picked this headline for one of its online dispatches: “Spain is flirting with another civil war”. The author made clear on Twitter that he was not happy with the title, which suggests it was an editorial choice. Fast forward two years.

It is October 2019, and Andrew Hussey publishes an article in the New Statesman to explain the relatively sudden rise of the far-right party Vox as a by-product of the country’s agitated and contested relationship with the legacy of Islamic Al-Andalus, which ended more than five centuries ago. Hussey told me he did not decide the title, which means someone else thought this was going to be punchy: “The new Spanish civil wars”. One month later, Vox would win 52 seats in the lower house and 15% of the votes in the general election; 3.6 million people bestowed their trust on them.

These two examples are indicative of a widespread view in international news desks: That Spain’s 21st-century politics can be interpreted or explained in one way or another by reference to the Civil War (1936-39) and Francoism (1939-75). If the analysis or the discussion is long enough, whatever the topic, sooner or later someone will draw the connection. Such connection is not without merit. The war accentuated socio-economic and political divisions, cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, and led to a lengthy dictatorship where democracy and rights were suspended. Many of the economic and political institutions of the 21st century are the result of the lessons rightly or wrongly learned from that experience. But the Civil War and Francoism are not the master independent variables beneath everything else in politics. The past, or rather the way the past is dealt with in the present, is indeed one of the strong foundations of Spain’s weaknesses. But it is not the only one.

In the last ten years, new political players have upended the traditional two-party system, the far-right is back in business after four decades of quiet, ETA’s terror is history, one of the wealthiest regions has not been lost, but it was a near thing, and society survived the painful austerity policies of one economic crisis to find themselves in the middle of another one, this one stemming from a pandemic. The 2010s were awkward in many ways. And yet, in spite of everything, Spain still has one of the highest life expectancies, is a world leader in organ donations, harbours a long list of UNESCO heritage sites, has a very high rate of trilingual citizens due to its linguistic diversity, is a safe country with low levels of criminality, and in general is a fun and enjoyable place to be.

Cervantes, Lorca, Picasso, Almodóvar… Spanish culture has wonderful ambassadors, and as is usually the case, most of the best-known ones are men. But interest in Spain far exceeds gastronomy, arts and literature. Spanish history and politics are followed by an international community of journalists, academics and keen observers. Yet, despite the archives and the shelves full of books, it is still shocking to read how easily commentaries can fall back on clichés about violence or the purportedly homogenous desire in certain territories to separate from the rest of the country. Those desires do exist. But nothing is homogenous in Spain.

This book is a story of Spanish politics beyond Franco and Catalonia. As could not have been otherwise, the book also talks about Franco and about Catalonia, but it puts them in a wider context, tracking the historical roots of the political tensions that make Spain the captivating yet troubled country that it is today.

Why was Franco exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen in late 2019? How is it that he was there in the first place? Why did Catalonia erupt all of a sudden in October 2017? Why don’t you hear so much about the Basque Country anymore? How did Podemos gather momentum so quickly in 2014-15, and why did half of that support vanish five years later? Isn’t it counterintuitive that a Catholic-majority country may also have the most LGBT-friendly society in the world, and was one of the first to legalise equal marriage in 2005, or euthanasia in 2021?

Understanding the most significant events in recent Spanish politics requires spelling out the unspoken but enduring foundations of the country’s deepest fears and weaknesses, its Achilles’ heels. In Greek mythology, an Achilles’ heel is a vulnerability that can lead to downfall despite the apparent general strength of the full body. For a country, I use this term to refer to the underlying factors that, while by no means unique, are characteristic of that particular society, delimit what is possible and shape the political debate. They are the primary political frailties without which a country’s politics cannot be properly comprehended.

A copy of Dr. Casla’s book Spain and Its Achilles’ Heels can be purchased on the publisher’s website here.

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