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Spain Explores the Modern World, a Miracle of Rediscovered History

May 29, 1988|Carlos Fuentes | Carlos Fuentes received the Cervantes Award in Literature from King Juan Carlos of Spain last month.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Spain, its greatest modern philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, once remarked, has had an absolute genius for art and absolutely no talent for economics. His bittersweet complaint was justified. No other modern nation received so much or squandered it so fast. Having taken possession of the treasure houses of Mexico and Peru between 1521 and 1535, Spain prohibited the export of bullion to the rest of Europe, then betrayed its own prohibition in order to pay for its interminable dynastic wars. By 1629, 75% of the gold and silver of the Americas was in four European cities: London, Rouen, Antwerp and Amsterdam.

Spain, the richest nation in Europe, ended by financing capitalist expansion outside Spain. The expulsion of the Jews in 1492 deprived the Spanish Empire of a modern capitalist administration; imperial overreach met its limits when the Spanish Armada was defeated by England four centuries ago; and Louis XIV of France could summarize the economic position of Spain by saying: "Let us sell merchandise to the Spanish and obtain from them gold and silver." A mere intermediary of its own American treasure, Spain became, in the words of the 17th Century essayist Baltasar Gracian, "The Indies of Europe." In Spanish America, therefore, we were colonies of a colony.

Political ineptitude went along with economic failure; as the Spanish Empire lost its American colonies and somehow dragged itself to a sorry conclusion in the war of 1898 against the United States, intellectual bravura and artistic genius were not enough to compensate for economic insouciance, ideological polarization, political anachronism and, finally, bloody civil strife. Journalist Mariano Jose de Larra wrote, "Here lies one half of Spain--the other half killed it."

The Franco dictatorship isolated Spain. Francisco Franco's Axis partners lost the war; a worldwide embargo against the solitary fascist regime followed, autarchy became a virtue, but "the face of Spain," as Gerald Brenan titled his memorable 1951 travel book, was the face of hunger. An Albania of the West, Spain lived under authoritarian rule, feudal anachronism and the uprooting of peasants who moved to shacks in northern commercial centers. When the country finally opened up in the 1960s, the so-called "Spanish miracle" was only a by-product of European expansion: Spain exported workers instead of Aztec bullion and imported tourists instead of British cloth.

Yet Franco, unlike his brethren in Berlin, was unable to kidnap the totality of the culture or to dominate the society in the way the Nazis did. A combination of the left (poets, novelists, film-makers, artists) and the right (the Catholic church was not about to trade its spiritual birthright for a pagan Valhalla) permitted margins in which the society could see and judge itself. Paradoxically, people could profit from the long Franco hibernation to take stock of past mistakes, rediscover democratic traditions (as old as the free townships of the Middle Ages) and redefine Spain's position in the world, without the burden of empire.

This has been the real Spanish miracle-- the miracle of a capacity for self-reflection, for historical clarity.

When Franco died in 1975, the country was ready to overcome inherited problems in order to face contemporary situations. The Spanish constitution of 1978 is now the second most durable in a history that has had 11 such charters since 1812. Democracy was clearly preferred to authoritarianism, but the fresh memory of bloodshed and anarchy, of blind confrontation and economic hardship, moved everyone to seek consensus and proceed with caution.

How best to consolidate the society itself has been the political priority. The present consensus has the right accepting a liberal constitution and the left accepting modern capitalism. Human rights, public freedoms and legal procedures are going to be accepted and respected by everybody--or else. The specter of one million civil war dead has not grown faint with time. Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez reminds everyone of the freshness and brittleness of Spanish democracy: Gonzalez, born under Franco, was able to vote for the first time when he was 35 years old. But he voted for himself--and won.

The political agreement is at the root of an economic success marked by modernization and internationalization. The Pyrenees have fallen and the Spanish economy, having entered Europe and joined the world, must compete. It is doing so at every level and with astonishing results. After reforms in the areas of industrial reconversion, openness to foreign competition and tax modernization, Spain's economic growth is now double the European rate, her inflation rate has dropped from 14% to 5% in five years and 2 million taxpayers have been added to the national revenue.

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