26 October 2012

Alcalá online

It is often observed, not without affection, that Alcalá is thirty years behind the times.  People still say hello to strangers, prefer corner shops to supermarkets, and have conversations in the middle of the street as if traffic were some newfangled nuisance they haven't got used to yet. Yet when it comes to online social networking,  the Alcalainos are right up there.

"¡Eres mi amiga en Febu!" exclaimed a middle-aged lady one day in the street, grabbing me by the arm.  I had no idea who she was.  "You are my friend on ..."  Febu???  It was a few seconds before the penny dropped.  Round here they don't pronounce the letter S and they ignore those pesky final consonants.  Try again ...

I started using Facebook when we moved here in 2008, to keep in touch with friends and family in other parts of the world, but soon started to receive friend requests from unfamiliar Spanish names. They came from all age groups and all walks of life, from the road-sweeper to the school headmaster.  At first I wondered whether it was OK to accept requests from complete strangers, but decided that in this context it didn't really matter.    Being a blonde foreigner with an unpronounceable name, everyone knows me, and it's a great compliment that they want to get to know me better.  I have been introduced to so many dark-haired, brown-eyed Marias and Manolos, however, that I still find it hard to remember who I am supposed to know.  (Not that they all look the same, you understand - I'm just not good with faces.)  So  I accept them all, not wishing to offend anyone, and always smile warmly at anyone in the street who appears to know me, just in case.

Chatting in Spanish on Febu is much easier than having face-to-face conversations with people who don't use consonants.  I know now who else supports FC Barcelona (we are a minority round here and have to stick together!)  I learn about people's political views, enjoy their music clips, laugh at their cartoons and try out their recipes, all without leaving the house.  They, in turn, like to see my photos, videos and paintings of the town, and occasionally try out their English on me.

Then of course there's the "guiri" page, used by Alcalá's dwindling number of expats to organise our social life, dispose of unwanted items and and put out pleas for urgently required cooking ingredients not found in the local shops ...

My absolute favourite Facebook page is Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules en Imagenes - a history of the town and its people, created by locals and exiles posting their own photos of days gone by.  Some of the images - and the comments - are very poignant.  Others reinforce the fact that even in the hardest times, the people here found ways to enjoy themselves.

Display of horsemanship in what is now the municipal carpark, from
the Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules en Imagenes Facebook page

It isn't only individuals here who use Facebook.  The political parties use it for their slanging matches (the subsequent comments are often more eloquent and enlightening than the original post).  The Ayuntamiento uses it to tell us of forthcoming events up to a week in advance, a great improvement on the same-day emails we used to get.  Bars and restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon to promote their menus, and for the last couple of years we have used it to publicise the annual classical music festival.   The local newspaper, Trafalgar Información, publishes articles daily on Facebook so you don't have to wait two weeks for the printed edition.  I've even had a friend request from a local crane hire company (I did actually decline that one!)

Find out what's going on by subscribing to ALCALÁ AL DIA

14 October 2012

Is Spain falling apart?

"In Spain, separatist fever rises in time of crisis", proclaimed the Washington Post yesterday.  "Independence for Catalonia? Over my dead body… and those of many soldiers!" retorted Francisco Alamán, a serving colonel in the Spanish army.  "Is Spain on the verge of another civil war?" pondered Paul Mason, Economics Editor of BBC Newsnight, referring to the growing desire for independence in Catalonia and the Basque Country as well as huge wave of anti-austerity protests sweeping the country.

A million and a half Catalans clamouring for independence
Under the Franco regime, regional identity was brutally repressed and languages other than Castellano (Spanish) were banned in order to achieve a unified Spain. When the country returned to democracy after his death, the 1978 Constitution defined Spain as a single indivisible unit made up of seventeen "autonomous communities", but with varying levels of autonomy.  For example, Catalonia and Pais Vasco have their own police forces and others, such as Valencia and Andalusia, obtained the right to run their own health and education systems.  

This "asymmetric decentralisation" was an attempt at pacifying the various demands of the regions and the national political groups, known as "café para todos" (coffee for all), but it remains an awkward, costly and over-bureaucratic compromise.  Some regions were given decentralised powers they didn't really want, while others were deprived of powers they felt they had a right to.

The last PSOE government made some attempts to negotiate new deals with the major players in Catalonia and the Basque Country, and claims the disarmament of the Basque Separatist group ETA as one of its achievements.   But the current regime is far less sympathetic to greater regional autonomy, and this, together with increasing anger and frustration among the population brought on by the austerity measures, has once again brought the independence issue to the forefront of Spanish politics.

So is this country really falling apart?  Let's take a closer look.

Last month a million and a half Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona, demanding independence for Spain's most prosperous region.  Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan) has always regarded itself as a separate nation, with its own distinct culture and language, and as Spain's economic situation goes from bad to worse many Catalans are fed up with what they see as bailing out the country's poorer regions.

The Spanish government has refused to entertain their proposal for fiscal independence, so the ruling CiU (Convergence and Union party, led by Artur Mas)  has called a snap election - effectively a referendum for independence, since regional referendums are not allowed under the Constitution - to be held on 25 November.  The PSC (Socialist Party of Catalonia) have declared themselves against independence.

The Basque Country
Meanwhile over in Pais Vasco, or Euskadi as it is known in the Basque language, a regional election will take place a week today, on 21 October.   The Basque independence movement has its roots in a xenophobic ideology based on the purity of the Basque race, promoted in the late 19th century by Sabino Arana, founder of the the right-wing Basque Nationalist Party, the PNV.  Autonomy was granted in 1936 during the Second Republic, but promptly removed by Franco's nationalist forces.

The current president, Patxi López of the PSE-EE (Basque Socialist Party) is the first Lehendakari (leader) not affiliated to the PNV, and only came to power thanks to a coalition with the right-wing PP, who are also opposed to separatism.  López is unlikely to retain the leadership, as next week's election will for the first time include the leftist-separatist coalition Bildu, which means "Gather".  Bildu was born in 2011 from the ashes of the banned Batasuna party, the political wing of the armed campaign group ETA, who declared a ceasefire a year ago.  Bildu was initially banned too, like its short-lived predecessor Sortu, but the ban was lifted shortly before last year's municipal elections and Bildu picked up 26% of the vote.

"You are in the BASQUE COUNTRY - this is neither Spain nor France!"
Elections also take place next Sunday in a third autonomous community in northern Spain with aspirations to nationalism. The right-wing Partido Popular (PP) are likely to retain power. Galicia is traditionally a PP stronghold (Spain's current president Mariano Rajoy is a Galego), although from 2005 to 2009 it was ruled by a coalition between the Socialist Party of Galicia and the BNG (Galician Nationalist Bloc).

Unlike in the Basque Country and Catalonia, the PP in Galicia embraces the notion of galicianism - the defence of Galicia and its culture by the means of the establishment and strengthening of its own institutions. None of these parties want outright independence from Spain, but REGA, the Galician Resistance Movement have carried out a number of terrorist attacks in the name of nationalism over the last few years.

Down here in the south there is nothing comparable to the separatist movements of the north.    Nevertheless, there is a strong sense of andalucismo in terms of recognising the Andalusian people as a "nation", rooted in the peasant anarchism of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Later, these anarchist cores became protagonists in conflicts between local people and Madrid.  With the declaration of the First Spanish Republic in 1873, various nationalist currents began to emerge and in 1883 an assembly gathered at Antequera drafted a constitution styling Andalucía as an autonomous republic inside a federal state. The leader of this movement was Blas Infante, known as the father of Andalusian nationalism, and it led eventually to the region gaining its autonomous status following the end of Franco's dictatorship.

Today there are a few minority groups who believe Andalucía would benefit from cutting the ties with Madrid, but they have little popular support and no political presence.  The PA (Andalusian Party),  has a few municipal councillors, mainly in the provinces of Cádiz and Sevilla, but its focus is on achieving a fully autonomous status for Andalusia within a federalist Spain.   Few people believe that economically, Andalucía could survive, let alone thrive, as an independent state.

Proud to be Andalusian - and fed up with being looked down on

Aragón was once an independent kingdom, which merged with Castile to form what eventually became Spain.  It has its own language, spoken by fewer than 30,000 people in the valleys of the Pyrenees. While there is some pro-independence support, most of Aragon's population does not seek an independent state but wants to be fully recognized as a distinct and important region in Spain.

Like Aragón, Asturias was formerly a Kingdom and has its own language, which is spoken as a second language by almost half a million people and is optional in schools.  It has no strong motivation for independence, and the nationalist party Andecha Astur polled less than 1% of the vote at the last election.

Canary Islands
The CC (Coalición Canaria), which has governed the islands since 1993, aims for greater autonomy but not independence.   Although it defines Las Canarias as a nation, the CC is more of a lobby group to favour Canarian interests within Spain than a nationalist movement.

Valencian (a variant of Catalan) is spoken in most of the region, but the nationalist sentiment is not widespread and most of the population consider themselves as much Spanish as Valencian.  The BNV party (Valencian Nationalist Bloc) aims to "achieve full national sovereignty for the Valencian people, and make it legally declared by a Valencian sovereign Constitution allowing the possibility of association with the countries which share the same language, history and culture" [i.e. Catalan-speaking regions].  It has some representation at local level but has never achieved the magic 5% of the vote necessary to gain representation in the regional parliament.  Other groups such as Esquerra Valenciana and the Valencian Union have as yet no political representation.

None of the other autonomous communities have nationalist movements in the sense of wishing to define themselves as non-Spanish, though there are numerous regionalist groups campaigning for changes to the current territorial boundaries within the country.

The future
Clearly, Spain cannot continue with the current mishmash of semi-decentralised power relationships, which nobody is happy with. But what is the way forward?  The Young Federalists of Europe offer an interesting perspective:
The end of the “café para todos” means that Spain has to find a new way to structure itself and find new procedures to negotiate the future organisation of the country. Broadly speaking there are two options: going back to a Unitarian centralist state or advancing towards a federation.
The first option is defended by some members of the Partido Popular, the Spanish conservative party, and more especially by its former Prime Minister Mr. Aznar. However, this idea has little chances of succeeding, unless it is imposed by force - an unlikely scenario in the current European framework ...
The second option is to advance towards a Spanish federation. There are many challenges with this option, the first being that this option has a lot less proponents than the pro-centralisation one. In fact, the federalist cause does not have any prominent figure supporting it in Spain ...  
The federalisation of the parts is not something that can be agreed overnight by the two ruling parties; it requires a “federalisation process” based on trust in which the Spanish citizens should participate in the creation of this common space in which democracy and rule of law would organise the relationships between regions and peoples. Neither autonomy nor loyalty can be imposed by decree. 
Federalism and the future of Spain (The New Federalist, May 2011)

There is a third option of course, a  as hinted at  by EU President José Manuel Barroso in his recent State of the Union speech.  Could we envisage Catalonia, the Basque Country and even Scotland as mini-states in a "United States of Europe"? Hold that thought ...