14 January 2012

¡Viva la Pepa!

2012 marks the bicentenary of the first Spanish Constitution, which Spain treasures in much the same way as England does its Magna Carta.  It was drawn up, signed and published in the city of Cádiz, which is marking the occasion with a year of festivities and cultural events, a new road bridge from the mainland, and hopefully lots and lots of tourists, as it is also the 2012 Capital Iberoamericana de Cultura.  

So what is la Constitución, or "La Pepa" as commonly referred to, all about?

It is known as "La Pepa" because it was published on St Joseph's Day, 19 March 1812. Pepa is the feminine form (la constitución is a feminine noun) of Pepe, a nickname for José.

Early in the 19th century the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, was keen to spread his Napoleonic Code across the rest of Europe. The code, based on the Enlightenment principles of the French Revolution, replaced old feudal laws with a clearly written legal system, forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs go to the most qualified.

Spain had been ruled for centuries by monarchs with absolute power, and Napoleon's proposals were welcomed by liberals and republicans.  When French troops first invaded Spain they were greeted warmly by the population. But when Napoleon forced the abdication of the Spanish kings in 1808 and installed his brother José on the throne, there was a backlash from supporters of the monarchy, starting what the British call the Peninsular Wars and the Spanish call the Guerra de Independencia.    Britain, which was keen to quash any Napoleonic leanings in its own territories, joined forces with them to fight against the French.

Monument to La Pepa in Plaza de España, Cádiz
But Napoleon´s Grand Army marched steadily southward and Spain's legislative body, known as the Cortes, was gradually forced to retreat into the city of Cádiz, the only bit of Spain not occupied by the French.  Thus it became known as the Cádiz Cortes - effectively a government in exile.  It included delegates from Spain, her colonies in the Americas (including California, Texas and other Spanish territories now part of the USA), and the Philippines.

Cádiz - well placed to withstand a siege
They remained walled up in Cádiz, under attack by the French, during a a siege which lasted over two years. During that time they drew up a Constitution for Spain, based on the enlightened liberalism of the French and American constitutions: freedom of speech and of the press, the right to education, equality before the law and universal male suffrage, with national sovereignty residing in the people rather than the monarch.  The monarch's power was to be strictly limited by parliamentary control, and a new administration was set up based on districts and provinces.

But the Constitution was not as liberal and democratic as its iconic status suggests.  "Equality for all" excluded women, as well as blacks and indigenous populations in the colonies.  Catholicism was declared the only permitted religion of the country, and the clergy were awarded many privileges.  This was considered necessary to gain the support of the Church in the struggle against the French.

However the Constitution expressly prohibited the use of torture.  This didn't go down well with the Spanish Inquisition, which was abolished a year later.


The 1812 Constitution never really got off the ground, as most of the country remained in French hands, and the concept of  national sovereignty was hard for most Spaniards to get their heads round.  In 1814 the returning King Fernando VII promptly scrapped it, along with all the legislation passed during his absence, reconstituted the Inquisition and dissolved the Cortes, returning the country to an absolute monarchy.  This foreshadowed the long conflict between liberals and traditionalists that marked Spanish history in the 19th and early 20th centuries. ¡Viva la Pepa!’ without mentioning the Constitution by name, came to be a cry for the return to a liberal regime, and it reappeared briefly  in 1820-23 during the Trienio Liberal.  In 1837 a new Constitution was published by  the Progressive party, incorporating many of La Pepa's statutes, but this was ditched when the "Moderates" returned to power in 1845 during the reign of Isabel II and disenfranchised 99% of the population.

Other Constitutions have come and gone, notably that of the Second Republic (1931), which established universal suffrage and major socio-economic reforms, only to be swept away under the Franco dictatorship.  The current one, which came into effect in 1978 following Spain's return to democracy, was painfully stitched together by a panel of seven men chosen to represent the wide and deeply divided political spectrum which still remained in the country.   Successive governments have promised - and failed - to reform it.

Meanwhile, Cádiz is waiting for you.  Come and join the party!

Cádiz street guide to La Pepa

Galeón La Pepa
This splendid replica of a Spanish galleon will be moored at various ports around Spain during the year.  On board is a small museum and visitor centre for all things Pepa-related.



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