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THE SPANISH LANGUAGE and its spread: Language and Politics

The posting on King Juan Carlos' speech at the Cervantes Prise ceremony elicited a lot of responses. Most expressed anger at the claim that Spanish was never imposed. What I have not received to date are any historical references to Spanish linguistic legislation similar to the ones received with reference to the prohibition of Arabic. There must be lots of it.

The abundant response to the King´s speech in the Spanish, especially Catalan, media amazed me. Some newspapres ran polls about it, showing how fast news travels today and how sensitive the language issue is in Spain. It was assumed that the speech was written by the Ministry of Culture and that the King read it without understanding it. This proof of his "stupidity" damaged his reputation as the most popular public figure in Spain, although most Castilian speakers probably believed him. Prime Minister José María Aznar, voted the most popular political figure, did himself no good by saying the critics were over sensitive.

Behind this argument lurks the question of the breakup os Spain The example of the Irish Republic, which has prospered thanks to European Union subsidies, was widely quoted not only in Spain but in Corsica and in the Faeroe Islands, to which Denmark has promised independence in twelve years' time. Some Faeroe Islanders want it now. The example of Ireland seemed especially appropriate in Galicia, conscious of its Celtic heritage.

However, the most critical area of Spain is the Basque provinces. The May 13 election of a new Bazque government may well decide if the area remains part of Spain. The Spanish government rightly condemns the ETA terrorists, as do the Basque bishops and the Pope. Spanish government pronouncements imply but never say openly that Basque independence is not up for discussion. The most Madrid will permit is the present statute. I personally find the leaders of the Basque Nationalist Party unattractive, but if it won an overwhelming victory it might force the Spanish government to agree to a plebiscite, something it has hitherto rejected. The position of the Spanish Socialist Party is essentially the same as that of the Partido Popular. Basque Nationalists therefore denounce both parties as two peas in a pod. Basque lesaders of both the Partido Popular and the Socialist Party have shown great courage in the face of death threats from ETA, some of which have been carried out. The highly respected Jaime Major Oreja gave up the post of Spanish Minister of the Interior to run for the Basque premiership. He will attract many Basques and the Spanish immigrants in Basque territory. It is unlikely that the Nationaists will achieve independence (which might lead to civil war), but if they did, the impact would shake Spain and the Basque provinces of France. If the anti-nationalists win an ample victory, the nationalists will lose their grip on power. If the delegates of an independent Basque country in the European Parliament insisted on spaking Basque, the linguistic chaos of the EU would worsen.

There is a weak independence movement in the Canary Islands, but in Catalonia there is a strong nationalist feeling, expressed in some of the messages we receive. One cause of resentment is the influx of Spanish-speaking people who refuse to learn Catalan. Strangely, some strong nationalists are children of these immigrants. If Catalonia seceded and made Catalan its exclusive or predominant language (something Madrid has been fighting), Barcelona would endanger its position as a leading publishing center of books in Spanish and as a center for the study of Spanish. It is probable that the Catalans will show their traditional good sense. It is significant that the Basque government supported ther hydrological plan for the Ebro basin, to which the Aragonese objected loudly.

What about "Latin" America? The show of unity at the Quebec summit was as usual largely theater. Governments realized the benefits of voting with the United States, Behind the scenes there were angry debates. The Quebec nationalists were angry that the conference, organized by the Canadian government, was held in Quebec without the Quebec's government having any part in it. It seemed like a deliberate snub, but technically it was quite correct.

Language has been an acute issue in Puerto Rico, where the mentality is similar to that of Quebec. The riots over the Vieques bombing range following the defeat of the Rosello government made Americans wonder if the Puerto Ricans are really American. This doubt would be justified in view of the declarations of the Puerto Rican non-voting representative in the US Congress. He said that his nationality was Puerto Rican, even though his citizenship was American. He spoke about the Puerto Rican diaspora, as though Puerto Ricans in the US were just like Puerto Ricans in any other country.

A vehement exchange of views among Stanford Mexican students was an example of the sharply divided opinion in Mexico over the Quebec summit and FTAA. As for language, criticism of the speech of King Juan Carlos came on top of a long history of Mexican objections to the role of the Spanish Royal Academy of the Language. President Fox is not a typical Mexican, and his viewpoint is not representative of that of most Mexicans. He has a proper obsession with raising Mexico out of its poverty with the help of the US. Any method of raising money is good. He has come out in favor of Mexican casinos. even though a major concern of Mexican authorities is the gambling which is prevalent in many of the numerous night clubs of Mexico City. He might argue that the plan would bring gambling under control. The displeasure of the Catholc Church, which opposes gambling, was voiced by the Archbishop of Querétaro, making one wonder how strong are his ties with the Catholic Church, If the Church thinks like the Vatican, it probably views the FTAA is an instrument of US economic imperialism.

Mexico is pushing its economic ties with the European Union, which were absent from the Quebec public debate. The question is even more acute in Mercosur, which Brazil leads much as the US leads NAFTA. Although Cardoso spoke Spanish at Quebec, Brazilians were unhappy about the implications of FTAA, which would lead to the dissolution of Mercosur. Brazil has long been suspicious of US imperialism and economic power. This came out recently at a Stanford talk by Brazilian author Marcio Souza. In a discussion about Percy Farquhar, a US entrepreneur in Brazil and a decent man, he referred to him as an s.o.b.

Brazil has long been obsessed with the primacy of French culture. The grateful French are leading the European attempt to counter the Quebec summit, and Spain quietly supports this fight against US hemispheric hegemony. French President Prime Minister Lionel Jospin visited Brazil, where he spoke almost exclusively about globalization, of which FTAA is viewed as a rival. There was talk of creating a common currency for Mercosur, similar to the Euro. The economic allies of the US were showing their other face. Argentine Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, who dollarized the Argentina economy, is now talking of a mixture of dollars and euros.

President Ricardo Lagos of Chile is a moderate Socialist, unlike Salvador Allende, who was a Marxist. The Chilean left is sharply opposed to him. He spoke of the ecomomic benefits of ties with the US, which he recently toured. He waz strongly supportive of the US at the Quebec summit, but then he went to Paris, where he was warmly received by President Jacques Chirac.

The US creation of FTAA looked like a deliberate attempt to give US business in Latin America a great advantage over the Europen Union, which naturally resents this grand design, as do most Latin Americans. The obvious solution is a free-trade zone embracing Europe and the Americas. This receives little open support in Europe or the US at present, but it an idea whose time has come.

Ronald Hilton - 4/28/01