Zapatero Steps Up

“Aim well, miliciano, for you defend the Republic.” On a barren hill in Asturias, Spain, near the border with León, José Fernández, a Loyalist soldier, etched this phrase into wet cement in September 1936, adding, “The Trench of Captain Lozano.” Written to commemorate a friend who'd been shot weeks before by Nationalist troops for refusing to desert the army of Spain's democratically elected government, Fernández's words remain visible in the rough stone 70 years later. They are a potent tribute to Lozano, a soldier who gave his life for the republic's ideals. But in today's Spain, there is a memorial even more powerful: the man named José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who, in addition to being prime minister, is Lozano's grandson.

Zapatero's heritage is not insignificant. The man whom some Americans consider this generation's Neville Chamberlain is, for the people who elected him, more activist than appeaser. In his first year in office, Zapatero has pulled Spain's troops out of Iraq, dismantled the obstacles to the European constitution that his predecessor, José María Aznar, erected, and led a crackdown on Islamist terrorism that has yielded hundreds of arrests. But even more striking are the social changes that his government has initiated within a remarkably brief period of time: gay marriage and adoption are now legal, domestic violence laws are tougher, and long-standing subsidies to the Catholic Church are being eradicated in an attempt to create a genuinely secular state. Some read these changes as little more than leftist interventionism, but others see them as the first serious attempt to honor the promise of civil rights in Spain's 1978 constitution and a long overdue effort to eradicate the lingering effects of the regime that killed Zapatero's grandfather, along with hundreds of thousands of other Spaniards.

This April marks the anniversary of Zapatero's first year in office, and to say that the year has been a remarkable one would be an understatement. For a man once known as Bambi (both for his doe-like eyes and gentle -- some would say bland -- personality), it has been a year of striking accomplishments. But more extraordinary is the depth of change that has occurred in Spain itself, a once firmly Catholic and staunchly traditional country. Consider the plight of women. Under Francisco Franco -- and remember, his rule lasted until his death in 1975 -- they had no independent legal status. They could neither work outside the home nor open a bank account without permission from their husbands or fathers. Divorce and contraception were illegal, and domestic violence was not a crime. Once the dictator died, the harsher elements of his gender policies slowly disappeared: Equality before the law was guaranteed in the 1978 constitution; divorce became legal in 1981; abortions for women who had been raped or whose pregnancies endangered their health were permitted after 1985; and, in time, increasing numbers of women entered universities and the workplace. Still, Spain lagged behind other Western countries on many important gender issues. The 1981 divorce law, for example, paternalistically required that a couple be separated for a full year before they could begin marriage dissolution proceedings. In 2003, twice as many Spanish women as men were unemployed. And in 2004, Amnesty International criticized the failure of the Aznar government to stem domestic violence.

Then came Zapatero. As a candidate for prime minister, he promised that he would appoint equal numbers of men and women to his cabinet -- no small guarantee in this historically machista country, and a vow that Marta Ortíz, president of the Spanish chapter of the European Women's Lobby, says she had heard before. Ortíz, who has worked in the women's rights movement since Franco's death, says, “Experience had taught me that campaign promises are made to be broken. But as soon as he took office, Zapatero did what he said he would do.” Indeed, eight of the 16 ministers sworn in before King Juan Carlos in April 2004 were women. And then, as María Teresa Fernández de la Vega recounts, “He went even further than he had promised; he named me the first female vice president.” With these appointments, Spain became one of just two countries in Europe to achieve gender parity at the highest level of government.

Zapatero followed those selections with another advance for women's rights. The first piece of legislation his government proposed was the Comprehensive Law against Gender Violence -- necessary, according to Fernández de la Vega, for eradicating “one of the core impediments to gender equality.” The bill -- which requires harsher punishments for perpetrators, augments the number of police and judicial officers assigned to domestic-violence cases, and substantially increases financial and social aid for victims -- provoked criticism from conservative parties, which maintained that the legislation unconstitutionally favored female victims of domestic violence. But in a country where in the past five years nearly 350 women have died at the hands of their domestic partners, those complaints had little influence; the law went into effect on February 7. And a new law that allows for no-fault divorce and eliminates the separation period during which many incidents of domestic violence typically occur goes into effect later this year.

Women have not been the only social group to benefit from Socialist Party activism. Under Franco, homosexuality was considered a crime and a mental disease, and those accused of practicing it were prosecuted and either imprisoned or institutionalized. When the regime ended, both the movida -- that famous, late-1970s cultural movement embodied in many of Pedro Almodóvar's films -- and a growing social tolerance gradually eroded public hostility toward homosexuality. But it took Zapatero to translate that tolerance into government action. Last October, Spain became only the third European country to legalize gay marriage, and only the second to allow gay married couples to adopt children (Holland was the first nation to permit marriage between persons of the same sex, in 2000; Belgium followed in 2003). The Spanish version of the law is sweeping: It grants gays and lesbians all the rights affiliated with marriage, including rights of inheritance, pensions, and nationality.

The opposition Popular Party, which has declared support for legal changes that would permit gay marriages but opposes allowing gay couples to adopt children, characterizes the Socialists' initiative as a precipitate and self-serving political gesture that exceeds good judgment. But Pedro Zerolo, a member of the Socialist Party's executive body and a prominent gay-rights activist, contends that the new law signals a wider acknowledgement. “Spain is finally accepting its own diversity and liberating itself from singular notions of what it should be,” he says. Zapatero says the initiative is intended to finally put into practice the civil rights that the 1978 charter had promised.

The same commitment to delivering in practice what the law promises in theory characterizes Zapatero's recent attempts to remake the relationship between church and state in Spain. Just days after the Socialists won the election, several of the autonomous regions announced a moratorium on one of the previous government's most controversial measures: a law that required religious education in public schools. This widespread gesture was clearly a sign of things to come. Within months, the Zapatero administration had announced plans for a “road map” to divest the Catholic Church of the disproportionate economic and social privileges it has enjoyed for centuries.

In a country whose constitution guarantees freedom of religious expression and forbids state sponsorship of any particular faith, such a change might seem unremarkable. But Spain's constitutional history is unusual, fraught with political risks and peculiar compromises. The Catholic Church has played a central role in Spain throughout its history. It was especially powerful during the Franco regime, at once legitimizing the dictatorship (indeed, the Nationalists rose up against the Republican government in the 1930s in part because of that government's attempts to reduce the Catholic Church's wealth and power) and propagating a “National Catholicism” that would enforce the dictator's social and political codes, sometimes quite literally, as in the case of the political prisons run by priests and nuns. So great was the Church's influence under Franco, in fact, that three years after the dictator's regime had ended, the authors of the Spanish constitution -- moderates all -- wrote into the charter not a wall between church and state but a mere handshake.

In October of last year, the Zapatero government made clear that it intended to go further in fulfilling the promise of the constitution by establishing Spain as a genuinely secular state. A draft of the statute, which reiterates the importance of treating all religions equally under the law, calls for removing religious symbols from public spaces such as classrooms, eradicates religious instruction from the regular public-school curriculum, and, most controversially, eliminates the preferential funding that the Catholic Church has long received from the state -- roughly 3.5 billion euros last year in direct aid to support the church's ecclesiastical, educational, social, and cultural endeavors. These measures, along with efforts in support of women's rights and gay marriage, have met with fierce opposition from Church leaders. Before he fell ill, the pope went out of his way to reprimand the Spanish government. But as Victorino Mayoral, a Socialist deputy in the Spanish parliament, explains, the new legislation is intended to resolve the fundamental paradox that has long made Spain both a secular society and a Catholic state. “In a democratic society,” he says, “the kinds of political advantages [that the Church enjoys] are unacceptable, because they impede the development of all other kinds of liberties.”

On the broader international stage as well, Zapatero has explicitly rejected the old ways of doing things. It would be stretching the truth to claim that his sudden withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq was a rejection of the Francoist embrace of militarism (Spain currently has the highest number of foreign troops in Afghanistan). But in fulfilling his campaign promise to the Spanish people -- a full 90 percent of whom opposed the war in Iraq -- he demonstrated that, unlike his predecessor, he does see himself operating above public opinion.

Just weeks after Zapatero took office, the European Union became the arena for another of his minor revolutions. By agreeing to a voting system that gave slightly less power to the “second-tier” states like Spain and Poland, he single-handedly dissolved the barriers to the European constitution that his predecessor, Aznar, had raised. On February 20, Spain was the first country to hold a referendum on the constitution, which passed overwhelmingly with 77 percent approving. A week earlier, the prime minister published an editorial in El País in which he noted that the dictatorship had kept Spain out of the initial efforts to develop the European Community. Urging a vote in favor of the constitution, Zapatero wrote, “I am convinced that the Spanish people -- as on so many other occasions in our recent history -- will prove the maturity of its democracy.”

* * *

It is this maturing of Spanish democracy, more than anything else, that helps make sense of Zapatero's decisions and actions. Zapatero rose to prominence as memories of Franco began to recede. Born to a middle-class family in 1960, he became politicized the year after Franco's death, and rose through the ranks of the Socialist Party during the 1990s. Óscar Campillo, one of Zapatero's biographers and the editor of the newspaper El Mundo de Castilla y León, has known the prime minister for a long time, and he is not surprised by the recent turns of events. “Zapatero belongs to the first generation that didn't really experience Franquismo; he only knew it as a child,” says Campillo. “So he's not mortgaged by the past. He can simply fulfill the principles he has always held.”

Polls show that a significant number of Spanish citizens share Zapatero's beliefs. In March 2004, before he took office, nearly 83 percent of Spaniards said they believed the government should do more to combat domestic violence. Later surveys showed that 66 percent support gay marriage and that 61 percent hope the European constitution will be approved.

Whether Zapatero owes his election victory to the March 11, 2004, Madrid bombings is a question kept alive by his opponents, including many in the U.S. government. Traces of bitterness filled the American press following the Spanish elections: Spaniards were accused of “appeasing” terrorists; Zapatero was compared to Chamberlain; the Spanish vote, warned Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times, taught al-Qaeda that it had the power to “disrupt” a national election. That bitterness remains in the still frosty relationship between Spain and the United States. But Zapatero himself has calmly maintained that he has no doubts about his victory. It was not the bombings themselves, the prime minister says, that swayed voters, but rather the secretive and duplicitous way in which the Aznar government handled the tragedy.

This, then, is the Socialists' explanation for their victory: The Spanish turned out their incumbent government because it continued, long after finding contradictory evidence, to insist that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for the bombings; to insist -- as it had many times before -- that it was simply, and exclusively, right. What Spain's voters rejected, according to this argument, was their government's inability to acknowledge error, its unwillingness to engage in dialogue.

Certainly throughout their eight years in power, Aznar and the Popular Party exploited the divisions within Spanish society, cranking up again and again the old “two Spains” trope. Much in the way that red and blue states have come to signify opposed, apparently irreconcilable cultural attitudes within the United States, so, too, has the notion of two Spains characterized the chasm that supposedly divides a secular, Eurocentric, and pluralistic Spain on the one hand from a conservative, Catholic, nationalistic homeland on the other. Since the 19th century, observers have employed this two-sided model to make sense of everything, from Spain's failure to develop a middle class to its outbreak of civil war in the 1930s to its long dictatorship. In the years since, as the country has embraced democracy and become more culturally diverse, the trope has provided fewer and fewer easy answers. Yet Aznar and his Popular Party clung to it ferociously, using this polarized vision to isolate regional nationalist movements, to promote Catholic education in public schools, and to sink attempts to forge a European constitution. In a telling, embittered move that came early in Zapatero's administration, the Popular Party -- although it had won a majority in the house -- refused to allocate, as convention dictated, some of its seats on the governing congressional boards to the minority parties, and was thus forced to relinquish the presidency of the senate. “The Spanish people have told us they want us in the opposition,” said Popular Party spokesman Eduardo Zaplana at the time, “and so we will be the opposition.”

There is a feeling in Spain these days that perhaps the time for such reductive thinking has passed. The prominent Spanish historian Paul Preston recalls watching Aznar's last state of the nation address to the parliament. “I was astounded,” he says, “at the vehemence and the nastiness of Aznar. The viciousness reminded me of the debates in the Cortes in the summer of 1936, and I kept asking, why does he have to do this? He's a successful politician, they're in power with a majority, and they're winning all the polls. And then later, in talking to people, I got the sense that what Spaniards call ‘crispación' [hostility] was being wound up unnecessarily by the Popular Party, and that they gave the Socialist Party a mandate against that.”

But perhaps the clearest evidence of Spain's democratic maturity can be seen in the disintegration of the so-called pact of silence, the implicit agreement, deemed necessary at the time for a peaceful transition to democracy, that there would be no recriminations against -- indeed, no discussion of -- the Franco regime's crimes. In the past few years, that silence has crumbled, giving way to a multipronged movement that seeks to recover the nation's memory of both the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. From museum exhibitions that document the realities of Franco's concentration camps, to volunteer organizations that exhume the mass graves of those executed during the wars, to the myriad books and documentaries that expose the atrocities of Spain's recent past, this recuperation of collective memory -- and the willingness to confront the painful facts it brings to light and endure the awkward controversies it engenders -- has demonstrated Spanish democracy's stability.

Both before and during his presidency, Zapatero has played a leading role in the process of dismantling the pact of silence. As a deputy from León, he spearheaded parliamentary efforts in 1999 to restore pensions to veterans who fought in the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. At the Socialist Party Congress last summer, he called upon the mayors of Socialist-led cities to rid their public spaces of the names that still celebrate the regime -- the Avenidas del Generalísimo and Plazas de José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Most significantly, he recently appointed a commission to explore how best to pay homage and make reparations to the victims of Franco's repression. The commission's findings are expected in March.

* * *

In these many public actions, Zapatero pays homage to Captain Lozano. But there are other, more private ways in which he reflects the influence of the grandfather he never knew. In his biography of the prime minister, Campillo recounts the moment when Zapatero's father read him the hastily written will that Lozano, realizing he would be executed, penned from his cell. After dividing his property and books among his family, Lozano wrote of his impending death. He requested a civil rather than religious funeral, but he also confessed his belief in God. And he wrote that he forgave his executioners, asking his wife and children to forgive them as well. Then he finished: “When the moment is right, may my name be vindicated, and may it be known that I was not a traitor to my country; that my credo consisted always in an infinite desire for peace.”

From that will, according to his biographer, Zapatero learned the lesson most important in his life. “From it he gets his famous attitude,” Campillo says, “the aspect of his personality that his enemies love to mock. From his grandfather he gets his tolerance, his eagerness to pursue dialogue” rather than drawing hard lines. That emphasis on dialogue was one of the themes of his campaign, and it has proven to be the defining feature of his administration thus far. Says Marta Ortíz: “During the previous eight years, there was no civil dialogue. The government never consulted with organizations like ours -- not only women's groups but social groups in general. Now, we've recuperated dialogue. We feel like we form part of a new state.”

The greatest challenge to that dialogue came at the end of last year when the regional Basque Parliament unexpectedly approved the Ibarretxe Plan, which would allow the Basque territories to decide for themselves in a referendum whether they wished to remain a part of Spain. This turn of events momentarily threw the Spanish government into a state of crisis. Politicians from many of the national parties called the plan a threat to the integrity of Spain, and editorials in all the major newspapers speculated on whether the Basque country could survive as an independent state. In the midst of this mood of national anxiety, Zapatero condemned the Ibarretxe Plan as unconstitutional and forged a pact with the opposition Popular Party to block it. But in a historic gesture, he also engaged voluntarily in debate with the Basque president and author of the plan, Juan José Ibarretxe, on the floor of the Congress of Deputies. And whereas his predecessor, Aznar, had refused to meet with Ibarretxe at all, Zapatero not only invited the Basque president to Moncloa, the presidential palace in Madrid, for discussions, but also, in the wake of the Ibarretxe Plan's defeat, offered to negotiate a new statute of autonomous rights for the Basque country.

The convivencia -- literally, “living together” -- to which Zapatero makes frequent reference, then, is more than an empty rhetorical tool. “He is determined,” says Campillo, “that we never return to the era when some Spaniards imposed their will on others.” He is determined to lay to rest the two-Spains model, that us-versus-them vision of society that supported 40 years of civil war and dictatorship. He is determined, we might say, to venerate -- and to carry on -- his grandfather's legacy. tap

Geoff Pingree and Lisa Abend report from Spain for The Christian Science Monitor. Their work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.

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