If not having a functioning government in 2019 wasn’t enough drama for the Spanish population, then the introduction of Covid-19 would make up for it.
Spanish society has revolved around political crisis since the turn of the 20th century. Being a late bloomer when it comes to industrialisation and the growing of a middle class, Spain has made up for lost time. It has been marked with public dramas that engross the entire country. Two dictatorships, the falls of kings and a civil war are only the start, health pandemics, economic downturns and strikes are also included.
For anyone who wants to gain a deep understanding of Spanish modern history, and practice their Spanish at the same time, I recommend watching Cuentame como paso whilst in quarantine. Or for a more accurate version of events try reading Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett or The New Spaniards by John Hooper.
There is a level of uncertainty of what might happen after this public health crisis. However, not all hope is lost. Spain has dealt with public crises before, sometimes well, and at other times not so well. Here are a few.
Healthcare is Political
Following the Prime Minister’s speech on the 14th March announcing the nationwide lockdown, there was a rapturous applause on the balconies thanking all the healthcare workers for their hard work in caring for the country. In what has become a daily routine, Spain’s answer to the song ‘I Will Survive’, Resistiré by Dúo Dinámico, has become the soundtrack to the nightly applause.
None are more grateful than the residents of the Communidad de Madrid as it remains a hotspot for the virus. With over 7,000 deaths related to Covid-19 and over 85,000 confirmed cases, it is clear the public services are needed to protect the more vulnerable in society.
However, this isn’t the first time that the citizens of the communidad have needed to show solidarity with their public services.
In October 2012 the Communidad de Madrid administration, governed by Partido Popular (PP), proposed a plan to privatise six public hospitals and 10% of the health service in the region. Healthcare workers were concerned that this was a step towards the privatisation of the whole health care system.
These plans were proposed to save money and were a part of the PP’s nationwide austerity package. The austerity package was a political decision made by the European Union, it was imposed on Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
In December 2012 these proposals brought the ‘White Tide’, named after the healthcare workers uniforms and doctor’s white coats, a series of protests and strikes against the privatisation plans. Over 80,000 people took part in some of the marches that went from Madrid’s hospitals all the way to Puerta del Sol in the centre. They continued throughout December into early 2013.
White sheets were hung from balconies all around Madrid with messages of support for the health care workers. Eventually, the communidad was taken to court and forced to shelve the privatization plans.
These strikes would also influence the four-colour-wave in 2014 that brought public sector workers out to protest against the PP’s plans to cut public funds. The workers wore coloured t-shirts to show where they worked. Orange for Social Services, Green for Education, White for health and Red for Research.
These protests along with many others gave inspiration to the anti-austerity party Podemos which is now part of the coalition government with the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party).
According to information from Progressive Spain, 3,000 hospital beds were cut between 2012 and 2018 in the capital. Madrid is now suffering due to those cuts with hospitals converting meeting rooms and offices into bed spaces to care for Covid-19 infected patients.
The government have also seized hotels using them as hospitals. The last time this happened was during the Civil war. Hotels in Madrid, including the Ritz and The Palace Hotel, were turned into military hospitals to care for the wounded. So far during this pandemic this hasn’t happened.
In recent years, politicians from most parties have been at each other’s throats. Yet now, at times, they seem to be working together underneath all of the overheated rhetoric. During the parliament session to extend the State of Alarm and approve the financial budget, the right-wing parties were criticizing the government heavily. However, in the same debate Patrido Popular and Vox both voted with the current left-wing administration to approve the measures.
In times like this even politicians from opposing parties can get along on a personal level and have some things in common politically, they mainly disagree about how to go about it (along with a few other things I’m sure!). In fact, Pablo Casado, Partido Popular Leader, and Pablo Iglesias, Unidas Podemos Leader, were sharing photos of their new-born children following the televised debate at last year’s election. They both have children of a similar age that were born prematurely, and even shared the same neonatologist.
This isn’t the first time that politicians from across the political spectrum have come together for the greater good. Following the fall of Spain’s first dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1930. King Alfonso the Thirteenth, was on borrowed time as he had supported this dictatorship. Many expected him to call the former middle-class politicians to form a cabinet of ministers and call elections.
Alfonso didn’t and instead, in Spanish tradition, appointed his friends.
The middle classes had swelled during the period of industrialisation. This happened under the rule of Primo De Rivera. Now Spain had caught up with the rest of Europe, popular consensus was that the country wanted democracy like Europe, with or without a monarchy.
Leading politicians from centre-right and liberal parties turned republican overnight. They came together with the many parties on the left, including the PSOE, and independentists parties to form the Pact of San Sebastián.
The pact declared that the politicians would bring about democracy in Spain. The King unable to get support for his handpicked government called regional elections to test the waters. However, within hours of the result he was leaving for France as crowds gathered outside his palace. This was the founding of the Second Spanish Republic, which lasted until the outbreak of the civil war.
Politicians can get along, like most of us can, but will they keep it up or will they fall into fighting each other to try and score political points. Whenever they do start arguing it is going to get ugly.
For King and Country
With the quarantine in place for Covid-19, the army has been brought in to disinfect public areas. Whilst this is a welcome sight to many, in the past it would have caused concern for many Spaniards. The army is a divisive entity in Spain due to its checkered history. It supported the formation of the Second Republic but was also used by Franco to overthrow the government and establish his dictatorship.
Following Franco’s death and Spain’s transition to democracy, many were concerned about the return of a totalitarian state. Their fears would come true on 23rd February 1981 when Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero led 200 Civil Guards into the Spanish Congress whilst they were investing the new Prime Minister. They held all the politicians hostage for 18 hours.
Tanks took to the streets in Valencia, whilst the parliament building was on lock down in Madrid. Spain eagerly waited to see the national drama unfolding in front of their eyes. Eventually King Juan Carlos, the current King’s father, appeared on TV to denounce the coup, many say this was a turning point. The coup was unsuccessful, and the men were arrested.
The characters from these dramas still circulate around Spain today, albeit in an aged form with different roles. The antagonist, Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, was at the exhumation of Franco when he was removed from the Valley of the Fallen in late 2019. Tejero’s son, Ramon, over saw the ceremonial part of the reburial.
After serving 15 years in military prison, Antonio Tejero now spends his time between Madrid and Malaga, attending far right political party meetings and painting.
Juan Carlos, the former king, has turned from hero to villain in recent weeks.
Juan Carlos has become the centre of the public’s attention following the revelation that Saudi king Abdallah gave him 88 million euros via a Swiss bank account. When public servants are going without protective equipment to fight the global pandemic, many have asked the ex-king to donate the money to the health system to help with the fight.
Spain’s current King, Felipe, gave a televised speech a week into the quarantine, in response Spaniards took to their balconies banging pots and pans in protest against the monarch. Filipe released a statement to say that he never knew about the money and would not be accepting any inheritance from his father.
Podemos asked for an investigation which was refused by the Spanish Parliament, however an enquiry is on going in Switzerland.
I wonder if the Juan Carlos will get away with it again?
(By again I mean getting caught shooting elephants at the tax payers expense)
It’s not the Spanish Flu
In recent weeks there have been comparisons of Covid -19 with the Spanish flu (1918). The Spanish flu was an epidemic that broke out during the First World War. It was said to have infected a quarter of the world’s population at the time and remains one of the deadliest outbreaks in known human history.
You may think from the name it originated in Spain, however it was more than likely North America (they cannot be sure). Most countries at the time had state censorship due to the war and the epidemic was not being reported on. Spain however was neutral at the time and had no form of censorship. The press started to cover the disastrous effects it had on the country and it adopted the name the Spanish Flu.
King Alfonso the thirteenth became gravely ill with the flu but survived (only to be chased out to France thirteen years later).
This is proof that media manipulation can rewrite history, albeit our perception of it.
Let’s see how the media treat this pandemic, it will have lasting effects on how we remember it and how future generations will judge us. So, far it doesn’t seem like it is going to be that kind.
Learning from Past Mistakes.
The last crisis that Spain faced was the financial crisis of 2008. The PSOE were in power at the time and refused to acknowledge the crisis until it was too late.
Despite it being a global crisis, they were to late to respond and they were heavily criticised for this. Many say that they caused the crisis. Which is not strictly true. Whilst they were not part of the large American corporations that did set off shock waves through out the world, they were guilty of not responding quick enough.
Their failure to act was paid for at the ballot box. The PSOE lost the election to Partido Popular in 2011. This brought forth the instalment of Spain’s last Prime Minister, Marinano Rajoy.
Also, from the financial crisis was the birth of Podemos, the anti-austerity party that conceived following the protests to public cuts. The same party now governs with the PSOE and are dealing with Covid-19.
As we can see from history, events unfold and are an accumulation of issues, individuals’ decisions, questionable management and inherited problems. This will help us form our opinion and interpretation of events after they have happened. Hindsight is a great tool but it has to be informed properly.
So, even when the army leave the streets, the hotels discharge their last patients, and the politicians start arguing again, we have to ask.
Will history repeat itself?