May 24, 2004
Aboard a train in southern Spain - I'm crossing Andalucia on a 1920's train in the jolly company of old boys (and girls) from Switzerland's exclusive Le Rosey School - the deadly rival of my old school, Geneva's Ecolint. We've buried the hatchet, though they keep calling me a spy.
Before I succumb to more food, drink, and fiesta, and before I go mad from seeing more olive trees, some thoughts on this fascinating country:
During Spain's ferocious 1936 civil war, Republican-leftist forces were heavily besieging Nationalists defending Toledo's Alcazar fortress.
The son of the garrison commander, Col. Moscardo, was captured by the besiegers, who put him on the phone to his father in the Alcazar.
`Papa, they say they will shoot me unless you surrender the Alcazar. What should I do?'
Col. Moscardo famously replied, `My boy, stand at attention, cry `Arriba Espana, and die like a man!' The son was shot; the Alcazar held until relieved by Franco's forces.
This was old Spain: fierce, proud, unyielding. Moscardo's tragic reply captured the fire and steel of the Spanish soul.
Napoleon's claim Europe ends at the Pyrenees Mountains is no longer true. Long isolated, Spain is today an essential part of the European Union and, under the new government of PM Luis Zapatero, one of its most dynamic members.
Zapatero's Socialists won a stunning election victory last March, only three days after the Madrid train bombing. The real reason for the defeat of Jose Aznar's conservative government was its dispatch of troops to Iraq. Over 90% of Spaniards bitterly opposed Aznar's alliance with Washington.
Aznar, a conservative from Spain's old Francoist far right, was detested by younger Spaniards desiring a more pro-European foreign policy and social liberalization at home.
The 43-year old Zapatero promptly ordered Spanish troops home from Iraq and realigned Spain's policies with Europe.
As a result, the Bush and Blair governments heaped abuse on Spain, accusing it of `encouraging terrorism.' The ousted Aznar was grandly received in Washington, where he echoed US charges against Spain, to the outrage of most Spaniards.
The Bush Administration's ham-handed threats and crude invective against Spain have further deepened revulsion here and across Europe against US behavior in Iraq, its unilateralism, and George W. Bush who is rapidly becoming the world's most disliked man.
Ironically, Bush's belligerent policies are fostering a left wing renaissance around the world. Until Bush came along, the left lacked a core issue to mobilize supporters. Fuzzy anti-globalism simply didn't enflame the masses.
But the Bush Administration's bullying, Soviet-style behavior and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, created a banner around which the left could rally. Zapatero's victory in Spain was a direct result of this trend. So were recent elections in Turkey, and South Korea. Italy, even Poland, may be next.
Spain's leftward move also reflects changing social dynamics of this complex, often unstable, emotionally charged nation. The civil war's horrors and hatred are fading, yet its scars still trouble Spain. Regionalism remains a serious problem, notably bombings and murders by Basque separatists. Now comes a wave of terrorism from North Africa's dangerous Salafist underground.
But the poverty I saw here in the early 1960's, the class warfare, religious intolerance, and ultra-conservative society that sparked the civil war are largely gone.
Zapatero's government plans to ease abortion laws, reduce religious teaching in schools, and enable a woman to inherit the crown of Spain.
Spain has become one of the continent's most socially avant garde societies, with liberalized drug laws, gay marriage, an end to censorship, and hedonism that have made this once dour, repressive nation into Europe's party central. Little wonder the Bush Administration's puritanical holy rollers regard Spain as a Saturnalia of leftist evil and lewdness.
Zapatero's current honeymoon will end soon when he must face truculent Basque and Catalan separatists, unreasonable union demands, and US trade retaliation. Socialist regimes usually end up damaging their nation's economies and alienating core supporters among union members and state employees when forced to cut government spending.
But for now, Spaniards are in a bright mood and enjoying growing prosperity and national pride. For this writer, Spain remains one of the world's more enjoyable and interesting nations.