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THE AMERICAS AND IBERIA: The language problem



Catalans and Basques have bitter memories of the Franco regime. From Barcelona, Miquel Strubell expresses resentment at the statement that the republicans were responsible for the Civil War. He says:

"There is no documentary doubt at all that senior right wing Spanish army officers contacted Hitler as soon as he came to power, with a view to preparing what was to be the 1936 coup. Destabilization of the young second Spanish Republic came quite clearly both from the extreme right and from the extreme left. We must bear in mind that in the highly ideological 1930s, social unrest was rife in much of Europe, that the Russian revolution was still very recent, and that the Fascists had taken power in two of the largest European countries. There is no reason to suppose that, had the Republic won the war that it hadn't started, it would have had the full support of the allies, at least after 1945 when they could start thinking ahead, to fully restore democracy. The war obviously attracted some abominable thugs on both sides. But to speculate on what would have happened had the war been won by the legitimate government, instead of the rebels, seems to me to be a pointless exercise..."

This resentment extends to Franco's policy of imposing Castilian. The Spaniards are rightly proud of their beautiful language, with Cervantes as the great model. Every year the Miguel de Cervantes Prize is awarded to an outstanding writer in that language in a ceremony in the old university of his home town, Alcalá de Henares The first recipient was my old tutor and friend, Jorge Guillén. This year it was awarded to a journalist Francisco Umbral. King Juan Carlos read a speech prepared for him which included the sentence: "Spanish has never been imposed, it is a language for bringing people together". Catalan nationalists listening to the speech must have wondered if he knew what he was saying.

The fact remains that Spanish has an extraordinary power of penetration, as is evident when we hear Andean peasants speaking beautiful Spanish. Communications are strengthening the dominance of Spanish, much as that may displease Catalan and Basque nationalists. When I first visited Portugal, Portuguese who knew Spanish did not want to speak it. Now leading Portuguese statesmen speak Spanish freely. In the old days, Brazilians resented the wide use of Spanish, and a law was passed requiring Brazilian diplomats to speak Portuguese. At the Quebec summit, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso broke that law by speaking in Spanish. A recent law makes Spanish a required subject in Brazilian schools, a wise step for Brazil as the major power in Mercosur and the only one which does not speak Spanish. With help from the Inter-American Development Bank, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela have just started a joint program to develop educational software, with Spanish presumably the dominant language. Countries like Argentina and Brazil are interested in joining it.

The Quebec summit highlighted the language problem. Unmentioned in public declarations was Brazil's resentment that the Bush plan implies that Mercosur will be dissolved into the proposed pan-American system.Incidentally, there was little or no mention at Quebec of the Organization of American States, although Bush made a speech at its Washington headquarters just before the Quebec meeting. It may get new life. Playing on rivalries in the Mercosur area, it was announced that the next summit will be held in Buenos Aires, adding no doubt to Brazil's suppressed resentment.

The Quebec summit made patent the predominance of Spanish. The vast majority of the 34 nations represented at Quebec are Spanish-speaking, paradoxically a reward for their disunity. Their population far exceeds that of the United States. Bush tried out his Spanish at Quebec. It is evident that, after English, Spanish is the second most important international language in the world.

Ronald Hilton - 4/24/01


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