Is Spain different?

Is Spain different? Is the Spanish democracy really so different to Canada, Germany, France or United Kingdom? The current events in Catalonia have brought back the narrative that Spain is different to the rest of Western democracies. But the reality is that, during the past 40 years, Spain has become a vibrant and growing democracy.

Foto: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Many years ago, there was a slogan: “Spain is different”. Franco’s regime created that slogan as a way to attract tourists. But also as a political statement from a dictatorial regime: because Spain was different, it didn’t need to follow the democratic path. For years, many, in Spain and abroad, believed this.

That idea, that Spain is different, not a real democracy in the European context, has come back with the recent events in Catalonia. Family and friends in Canada have asked me over the past few weeks about Catalonia’s right to independence, Spain’s rights, police brutality, and the health of Spanish democracy.

Canadian newspapers have dedicated articles and opinion pieces to these same topics, and have drawn the inevitable comparisons with Quebec and Scotland. Underlying many of these conversations is the implicit or direct narrative that Spain, somehow, is a country with a weak democracy or questionable democratic values. In other words, Spain is not a first-class democracy, at the level of Germany, France, or the United Kingdom. And definitely not Canada.

Underpinning this accusation are two recurrent themes: Franco’s dictatorship and repression, and the actions of the police during the October 1st Catalonian referendum.

However, for the last 40 years, Spain has not been different. In fact, Spain has been a model world citizen, or at least, with the same imperfections as other Western countries.

Let me start by stating the obvious: Franco’s dictatorship punished everybody in Spain. People in Andalusia, Extremadura, Valencia, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia… Everybody suffered the absence of democracy. And the Spanish Civil War was just that, a civil war. People in all those regions both supported and opposed Franco’s armies.

In some regions, Franco’s repression included the persecution of local languages and cultural identities. In others, the repression meant relegating their economies to playing a supporting role for the industrial centres of the country and its wealthiest families. For all of Spaniards, Franco’s regime meant 40 years of dictatorship, with the support and active help of Western countries.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain returned to democracy. It wasn’t easy and many mistakes were made. But the Spanish Transition from dictatorship to democracy became a model and great hope for many countries all over the world. Indeed, what Spain’s democracy has accomplished in less than 40 years is nothing short of remarkable, economically, politically, and socially.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain returned to democracy. It wasn’t easy and many mistakes were made. But the Spanish Transition from dictatorship to democracy became a model and great hope for many countries all over the world. Indeed, what Spain’s democracy has accomplished in less than 40 years is nothing short of remarkable, economically, politically, and socially.

The country drafted a democratic Constitution, inspired by the German Basic Law, that returned levels of self-determination to the country’s different regions -self-determination that even a historic democracy like France does not permit its regions.

Through these years, Spain overcame a coup d’Etat in 1981 and other serious threats from the extreme right.

Spain also negotiated with the terrorist group ETA in the Basque Country, to end the conflict there. Today, ETA has declared a cease-fire and it is in the process of disarming. Something similar to the one achieved in the United Kingdom and the IRA.

Spain, a traditionally Catholic country, legalized same-sex marriage before Canada -exactly 17 days earlier. Same-sex marriage only became legal in Germany in October of this year, 12 years after Spain.

The Spanish judiciary has charged the King’s brother-in-law and his own sister with corruption. It has also charged members of the ruling parties with corruption, at the federal and regional level.

In contrast, members of royal families in other European countries, with longer democratic traditions, have been guilty of similar or worse accusations but never charged.

Spain may be a younger democracy than other Western countries, but not a lesser democracy worthy of suspicion by its peers.

Commentators in Canada have used the police actions October 1st to undermine the value and achievements of Spain as a democracy. Or at least to question it.

I would remind them of the actions of the Canadian Police during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, when hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were kettle caged and suffered Police brutality. And years after those tragic events only two officers have been charged. I doubt the same commentators use these events, or similar Police excesses all over Canada, to argue against the depth of Canadian democratic values.

Comparisons between the referendum in Catalonia and those held by Quebec and Scotland draw an equally flawed conclusion. The reality is that in all three cases, central governments followed their countries’ laws.

The United Kingdom, with no written constitution, has no laws blocking a separatist referendum. This is true of Canada. In fact, in 1998, after two separatist votes in Quebec, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that the country is divisible. But if Quebec decided today to hold the same referendum, and in the same way as in 1995, it would be illegal. In 2000, Ottawa passed the Clarity Law that imposes many restrictions on separatist votes and their results.

The Spanish Constitution prohibits a referendum on independence. But it is not an isolated case. The German and French Constitutions, also prohibit votes on independence but many Canadians would not question the democratic legitimacy of those two countries.

Spain has made many mistakes over the last 40 years. The actions of Spain’s government, police, political parties, financial elites, can, and indeed must be, subject to criticism and accountability. And the corruption and inequality, especially after the financial crisis of 2008-2009, are a threat to democratic values. But the same threats and challenges are present in most of the Western countries and few, if any, in Canada use them to question the democratic values of the United Kingdom, France, Italy or Germany.

Ignoring or underestimating the achievements of Spain during the past 40 years is a disservice to all of those who fought Franco during the Civil War and throughout his dictatorship, as well as to the men and women who sacrificed so much to transform Spain into the vibrant and growing democracy that is today.

No, Spain -and the Spanish democracy- are not so different.

Julio César Rivas
@🖂 Contactar
Over the last 30 years, Julio Cesar Rivas has worked as a foreign correspondent, photographer, and videographer in South America, Central America, North America and Europe, covering the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, the coup d’Etat against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti or Fidel Castro’s death in Cuba. Julio Cesar has also covered several presidential elections in United States. Currently, Julio Cesar works as Agencia EFE’s correspondent in Canada and lives in Toronto with his wife and two children. His articles in Lattin Magazine reflect his own point of view.