CATALAN AND BASQUE

By William Markiewicz

Spain is a young European democracy with one of the oldest separatisms, Catalan and Basque. Spain reminds me of Canada with its big empty territories dividing important population groups from each other, thus emphasizing existing separatisms and encouraging the development of new ones. Anybody can be a separatist -- in Newfoundland, in Alberta, as well as in Quebec, Andalucia or Galicia. The old separatisms are of course much more interesting than the new ones because they are based on authentic historical and cultural differences and are not scented only with the smell of oil and money. Here I propose a view of some basic Catalan and Basque particularities which surely will continue shaping their future.

What strikes the visitor to Catalonia is the culture and sense of management. Barcelona is an imposing capitol boiling with work, a real anthill. Architecture, streets, shop windows speak of rich centuries old traditions. Perhaps nowhere else can one feel old Europe so uninterrupted and harmonious as it is one of the few privileged places -- climatically, geographically -- with almost 2,000 years of peace from Roman times to the Spanish Civil War.

In the countryside, each drop of water and each parcel of land is well exploited. Language and literature flourish despite a long period of interdictions. The Catalans resisted franquist rule intelligently, with silent conspiracy and the authorities could do nothing about it. For instance, collective dances were carried out in front of the Barcelona cathedral and some other churches after Sunday Mass. Prosperous bankers and businessmen united hand in hand with workers and beggars, in a huge Sardana circle (a Catalan dance). The overall effect is powerful to the viewer, as I saw for myself. And how could the authorities forbid people to dance? Many years ago during the Christmas Season I was at Barcelona's Santa Maria del Mar Basilica. This historic structure was partially destroyed during the Civil War and the government did not help to rebuild it. The political tendency was to delay as long as possible the recovery of the "rebellious" and too advanced Catalonia. The Basilica was full despite some risk of collapse. Rain poured on our heads while the priest and choir celebrated the Mass. The crowd was pale-faced and rather shabby; it was a working neighourhood before the tourist boom that brought prosperity to Spain. Suddenly the carol "Fum, fum, fum" (Smoke, smoke, smoke) burst from all throats and the temple seemed to tremble to its foundations. A Christmas Carol which sounded like a war cry.

Catalans always knew how to overcome troubled times. When it was officially forbidden to sell certain Catalan products, the Catalans offered the prohibited item as a bonus with some other purchase. Culture, business flair, diligence, are typical to Catalans and perhaps what is most characteristic is their sense of solidarity. I don't know another society where cooperation superceded competition to such a degree. When an employee, for instance, wanted to quit his job and start his own business, he didn't hide it from his boss, on the contrary, he asked for assistance. Usually he got it because the boss knew he would keep a friend. Generally some agreement was made. For instance: "When you are on your own, specialize in such and such a branch and I will be your customer." Or: "Take my son into your business and make a man of him." For this reason there is no division among Catalans between 'gentlemen' and 'commoners' and this may be related to the fact that Catalans never developed the typical Spanish knighthood pride. They are brave fighters when necessary but prefer negotiations to war. They are so different from the rest of the Iberians that I wonder sometimes why an independent country rose on the Atlantic coast -- Portugal -- and not on the Mediterranean coast -- Catalonia.

What is the Catalan attitude toward separatism? Catalans are self-centered and rather indifferent to foreign policy, lacking traditions in it. Catalans may not cross swords for total independence but of course, Catalonia will always be 'special' in Spain, requiring careful handling.

Basque country and Catalonia are the two most prosperous regions in Spain, and here the similarity ends. Basques are proud, aggressive, tough mountaineers. They have mineral wealth, good climate and plentiful water. Basconia is a country of mines, foundries and -- banks. Basques don't have the business tradition of the Catalans. Their urban culture isn't as developed, their historical traditions remain peasant. Their nationalism is more violent than the Catalan and corresponds to their old historical traditions. They are first mentioned by the Romans who suffered Basque attacks on their caravans crossing the Pyrenees. The Roman chronicler wrote: "Their looks alone arouse fear, and when you hear their language, terror reaches its peak." The Basques came to Europe thousands of years ago, seemingly from the Far East. Some Basque words resemble Japanese. They once had their own independent state which was divided centuries ago between Spain and France. They possess then, certain independent traditions. But even among them, extreme separatists are in the minority.

So Spain has a chance to keep its parts together even if it certainly wont remain the traditional Spain of the past. What the new Spain is depends on the Spaniards themselves. As this is a nation with a rich political tradition, chances are that they may be able "to change everything in order to keep everything."

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