“What the people ask for, what they want, and what they feel.” Catalonia: A road to independence?

On the 11th of September 2012 (Diada Nacional de Catalunya or Catalonia National Day) thousands upon thousands of people – some estimates put the figure as high as 600,000, others at over a million – marched through the streets of Barcelona carrying the Estelada, the flag of the Catalan independence movement. It was an unprecedented show of support for the movement, and what made it especially notable was that Artur Mas, then-regional President of Catalonia, became the primary political spokesperson for Independence where before he had been rather more tepid on the matter. In front of the large crowd, he declared: “Outside Catalonia, they must pay attention to what is going to happen today. To what the people ask for, what they want, and what they feel.” Soon after, there would be open talk of consulting the Catalan people on the possibility of holding a referendum to determine whether or not Catalonia should separate from Spain and become a separate nation. To a journalist during the Diada, Mas affirmed: “The road to independence is open.”


September 2017 will mark the five-year anniversary of that remarkable day. A lot has happened since then, but perhaps not what many had imagined: Artur Mas’ group, the Political federation CiU composed of two different Parties, lost its absolute majority in the Catalan parliament and, after undergoing a crisis in 2015, split back into two separate groups. ERC, a far left-wing Republican Party, came into considerable prominence by gaining seats in the Catalan parliament. A consultation on a referendum was held and the vote came overwhelmingly in favour of the referendum. Now, its organizers are embroiled in a lengthy legal battle where the legality of that consultation is being called into question. Those involved have defended themselves in a myriad of fashions: Some affirm that they had no idea it was illegal, others that it is covered by their rights of free speech, or that it is a nation’s sovereign right which, as they state emphatically, Catalonia has.

“Outside Catalonia, they must pay attention to what is going to happen today. To what the people ask for, what they want, and what they feel.”

Mas is no longer the Catalan President, having been asked to leave by the very coalition he once led. The young Carles Puigdemont, designated by Mas as his successor, now stands as the public face of the Catalan government and its calls for an independence referendum. A referendum which, as the Spanish government has insisted since the beginning, would be unconstitutional and illegal, and any result null and void. Initial claims that Catalonia would be prosperous if it separated from Spain have been undermined both by businesses in Catalonia as well as by international sources (see the section on the Forbes article for more details). For its part, the EU has continued to state the same message: If Catalonia becomes an independent nation, it must go through the same process as every other country to apply for membership. While there continues to be support for independence, there is a vigorous pro-Spain opposition movement formed by the Catalan branches of the PP and PSOE, and surveys conducted have indicated growing numbers of Catalans who are just getting fed up with the whole situation.

The PP, meanwhile, has held to a constant yet much-criticized position: It has refused to even debate the possibility of independence. Meetings between Catalan and PP leaders have thus far been limited and the discussions therein even more so. No serious attempt has been made to approach the matter in long negotiations or with diplomacy. Rather, President Rajoy and his cabinet have insisted on the importance of adhering to the law, and on the impracticality of an independent Catalonia. If nothing else, at least, the position has been consistent.

This year, Puigdemont has made clear his mission to hold the independence referendum in September, which is the same month of the Diada which in 2012 brought so many people to the streets. The government has held to its stance: Any referendum would be unconstitutional, and its result illegal and non-binding. Both the independence movement and the government are locked in a legal and rhetorical battle which, over the years, has certainly become louder while lacking any significant evolution.


In 2012, one of the most commonly-used arguments by Catalan Independence leaders was that Catalonia would indisputably be economically better off as an independent nation: The region is – and historically has usually been – one of the wealthiest in Spain, making up 20% of the country’s GNP, while Barcelona in particular is a hub that attracts tourists, businessmen and financiers. Supporters at street-level would sometimes go farther: Independence would not only improve the quality of the Catalan people’s lives, it would impact negatively the rest of Spain by taking away one of its richest regions.

Yet in 2015, Forbes published an article titled ‘Catalonia and the Costs of Independence’. In its very first paragraph, the article painted a bleak picture of independence: “A potential breakup of Spain is not in the U.S interest, not in Spain’s interest and ultimately, not in Catalonia’s interest.” And it went further. Mas’ effort, stated the article “Should be viewed with considerable scepticism.” An independent Catalonia would have to assume a significant part of Spain’s debts while dealing with a mass exodus of Spanish and multinational companies.  The article went on to state that Catalan leaders, Mas included, were not being honest in presenting these costs to their voters.

The article certainly did not help Mas’ reputation at the time, particularly as he was being heavily criticized of using Catalan independence at a time when the region is the most heavily indebted in Spain and has required large bailouts, a circumstance used by many as an accusation that Mas was wielding the question of independence not as a genuinely-held ideology, but as a cynical negotiation tactic.


If the Catalan situation has a European comparison, the first that comes to mind is the Scottish independence movement. The SNP was able to hold a referendum in 2014, and in April of this year the Scottish Parliament passed a motion to petition the government in Westminster to hold a second referendum, citing that the significant change in the situation within the UK – specifically Brexit, which a majority of Scots voted against.

There is, however, a significant difference between the Catalan independence movement and the Scottish one: Through consistent internal policies, the SNP has been able to present a largely united front to the public. Catalonia, however, has seen internal divisions in its own structure which have been seized upon by the media: Artus Mas’ own CiU was general a Centre-Right organization tending to conservatism, which saw itself creating a coalition with far-left Republicans, whose ideals for an independent Catalonia were not always the same as those of Mas and his colleagues. Not only that, Mas also had to deal with finding himself drawn into the controversial case of his mentor: Jordi Pujol, the former president of Catalonia and once one of the region’s most significant political figures, now caught in a large and notorious corruption scandal of such a scale that several legal prosecutors have dubbed the Pujol family a “Criminal organization”. Pujol’s close relationship to Mas, along with the scandal of the charges brought against him, has appeared to cause visible internal divisions in the independence movement in a way that the Scottish independence movement has, for the moment, been careful to avoid.

Then there is the final matter of the EU. Whether one is inside or outside of Catalonia, the fact remains that all of Spain is strongly pro-European Union. The leaders of Independence movement have done their best to assure their voters that an independent Catalonia will have a secure place in Europe. The EU, for its part, has simply stated that Catalonia – along with Scotland – would have to go through the entire legal process to apply to the EU if they should become an independent entity. Given the possible economic implications of independence as claimed by Forbes – coupled with the limited success Catalan leaders have had in attracting international support – this may not be an appealing prospect for the Catalan government or the Catalan people.


Right now, the Catalan government is locked in a continuous legal battle with the PP government, the Constitutional Court of Spain, and other legal entities, in its drive to create a legal framework to hold its Independence Referendum in September of this year. The back-and-forth disputes continue to yield little to no result other than threats, promises, recriminations, affirmations, legal pablum and populist rhetoric. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the Catalan government will, indeed, hold its referendum as it has repeatedly stated it will, and it is equally likely that such an action will be classified by the government as illegal and not worth considering. From there, two things may happen: The result comes out in favour of Catalan independence, in which case the PP government will hold to its rhetoric that the referendum was conducted illegally and that its result is invalid, while the pro-independence movement will hail it as a landmark and will continue to push for separation from Spain. This will, to all practical effects, do nothing save prolong the already too-long legal battle and verbal war between the pro-Independence and pro-Spanish sides, with likely little of substance being accomplished for a long time.

The second possibility is that the referendum will come out in favour of remaining in Spain, in which case Puigdemont’s government, the pro-independence parties, and the pro-independence movement as a whole will face a similarly uncertain reality as the Scottish National Party after the 2014 referendum results: not giving up their rhetoric or statements, but now dependent on the relationship with the rest of Spain changing noticeably, in a way that is not to the liking of the Catalan people. In the meantime, the PP government could perhaps conveniently reverse a key part of its stance and claim that, while the referendum was illegal, its result is in fact valid, and hold to that.

As the situation currently stands, if one puts aside the flags and grandiose speeches or the promises and threats, one finds that the issue of Catalonia’s independence can be summed up in a simple visual metaphor: A wheel, not turning but rather spinning in a mudhole. Neither retreating nor advancing, but sinking deeper into the quagmire as it flings muck onto anyone close to it, even those only tangentially so.

And it shows no sign of stopping its spinning.




Image: ‘Estelada blava’ ‘La estelada azul, una variación de la bandera independentista de Cataluña’ by Wikipedia user Huhsunqu, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, free content.

From palaces to parades: How Spain treats its Islamic past

In the gardens of the Royal Alcázar of Seville stands a simple, unadorned column with a short, poignant inscription written in Spanish: ‘The city of Seville to its poet-king Almutamid ibn Abbad, on the 9th century of his sad exile, 7 September 1091, Rachab 384’. Centuries after the city was re-taken by the Christians during the Reconquista, the Alcázar has become a popular tourist attraction officially owned by the city Seville itself. Several districts were remodelled over the centuries, but the bulk of the Moorish-built premises have not only remained unchanged, they have also been renovated and proudly marketed as one of Seville’s many wonders. Some rightly consider the Alcázar along with other monuments built by Muslims such as the Tower of Gold and La Giralda as the pride of Seville.

Alcázar of Seville from the webpage Real Alcázar
Alcázar of Seville from the webpage Real Alcázar

What is interesting is to look at Spain in the context of pressing political events, namely, the US President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban on seven Middle-Eastern countries, the rise of France’s right-wing Front National party, and the looming threat of international Jihadist Terrorism.

For over seven and half centuries, Spain had been defined by an armed struggle that was both territorial and ideological in nature and the memory of this conflict continued to shape it centuries after it ended. Over time, Spain has become a country that diligently preserves and restores the centuries-old Islamic architecture and markets it with pride as a tourist landmark. And palace gardens of the land once known as al-Andalus now hide memorials of its powerful Muslim rulers. This means that many aspects of Spain’s historical memory have intricate ties to both its Christian and Muslim past.

Hostility and heritage

Territory of Al-Andalus at its greatest territorial span, Aprende Lengua de Signos, 2013
Territory of Al-Andalus at its greatest territorial span, Aprende Lengua de Signos, 2013

For centuries, the northern kingdoms of Christian Spain were inextricably bound to the conflict with their southern, Muslim-dominated lands, called al-Andalus. The Christians saw this as a struggle to reclaim a land lost to Islamic invaders – a struggle commonly called the Reconquista. For centuries after it was won, the country continued to identify itself by this struggle, and its effects can still be seen today: not just in palaces, paintings and statues, but in smaller details of everyday life too.

Legendary figures from the period of the Reconquista are remembered for how they fought against their Muslim opponents: Don Pelayo, who forged the shattered remnants of the Spanish Visigoths into the Kingdom of Asturias and who began the long war of resistance against the Emirs of Cordoba, or Jaime I ‘the Great’ of Aragon who conquered the island of Majorca and turned his kingdom into a regional power. Or El Cid, the one who, a legend tells, resisted in the city of Valencia against the fanatical Almoravids and whose corpse supposedly frightened away scores of fresh enemy troops – such was the awe and terror he inspired in them.

Certainly, traditional views of Spanish history have tended to divide the struggle between the Christian and Islamic kingdoms as a clear case of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’. For a very long time, the defeated Visigoth kingdom was seen as the ‘True’ kingdom of Spain, and the kingdoms that came after were styled as heirs to the lands once belonging to these legitimate rulers. Conversely, the Muslim kingdoms were seen as the enemy, the invaders, and the phrase “Sufrimos la invasión…” (“We suffered the invasion…”) has been used when talking about the Umayyad conquest of Spain in the early 8th century CE. The apostle Santiago (Saint James), the patron saint of Spain, was given the sobriquet Matamoros or ‘Moor-killer’, a sobriquet which became a Spanish surname still in use today. The word Moro – literally ‘Moor’, the historical term for what was the primarily North African-descended Muslim population of Spain – is still used as a racial slur for people of North African or Middle Eastern origin. The Islamic Shahada “There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet” is commonly translated as “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s prophet”: a translation some scholars argues is a subtle way of making the rest of society view Muslim communities and cultures as the ‘Other’.

Yet even during the Franco dictatorship, Spain has not only invested more resources into preserving the relics elements of its Islamic past, but it has also renovated and restored them. Seville is one such example; along with the Alcázar, the city has also marketed the Tower of Gold and the tower of La Giralda – the latter once a minaret and now the bell-tower of what is currently the Cathedral of Seville – as part of the city’s landmarks and tourist attractions. Both were built by the Berber Almohad dynasty of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, and La Giralda in particular is, along with the Alcázar, a lucrative tourist attraction.

Monumento a Averroes, Córdoba, Medicina fuera de la medicina, 2014
Monumento a Averroes, Córdoba, Medicina fuera de la medicina, 2014

Certainly, one could make the case that Spain’s interest in its Islamic past is purely economic: a pragmatic move to exploit a source of revenue to its fullest. And still, one finds details that do not appear essential and yet they were included anyway: memorials, made with the apparent intention of honouring the important figures of what was once al-Andalus. If one visits La Giralda there is a striking detail that catches the eye: two ceramic plaques on the wall of its ground floor. One is written in Castillian Spanish and explains the tower’s origins and history. It provides details on the Almohad Caliph who ordered its construction as well as speaks about changes made to the tower over its history. The plaque ends with the message ‘This inscription was made in the year 1984, as an exaltation of the eighth centenary commemoration of the construction of this great and marvelous minaret’. The plaque next to it repeats the same message, but is written entirely in Arabic.

These memorials do not stop with plaques and columns: Abd al-Rahman I, the first independent Emir of Córdoba, has a statue in Almuñécar in the province of Granada. The philosopher and medical pioneer Ibn Rushd has a statue situated close to the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba – itself another example of Spain’s preservation and renovation of the remnants of al-Andalus. Currently, Ibn Rushd is more commonly known by the name Averroes, is considered a key figure of Spanish history whose name has been given to two separate medical centres in Madrid alone.

Statue of Al-Mansur at Calatañazo, Wikipedia
Statue of Al-Mansur at Calatañazo, Wikipedia

Al-Mansur, the General and de facto military dictator during the Caliphate of Cordoba, conducted over fifty successful military campaigns against the Christian kingdoms of the north over twenty-five years, most famously razing the city of Santiago de Compostela – one of Spain’s most famous cities – to the ground in 997. Supposedly he forced the survivors to drag the bells of their destroyed church all the way back to Cordoba. One would not expect that such a figure, responsible for such destruction, would have a single statue dedicated to him. He has two: one in the city of Calatañazor, site of his likely-fictitious defeat at the hands of a coalition of Christian kings, and another in the city of Algeciras, where he was born. Both were built recently.

This is not a new phenomenon, but one with a certain historical precedence: The Song of El Cid, one of the oldest works of Spanish literature (dating from at least the 13th century), has the titular legendary hero refer to his Moorish ally Abengalbón as his ‘natural friend’, and this character is consistently described and depicted as noble and good throughout the whole tale. The last Muslim ruler of Granada and al-Andalus, Muhammad XII (colloquially known in Spain as Boabdil) was depicted in two nineteenth-century oil paintings by the Spanish painter Pradilla. In the first, he is seen surrendering the keys of the city to the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and in the second, he is portrayed as looking back wistfully at the city he once ruled while he departs to permanent exile. An entire Spanish architectural style (called Mudejar) was created as a result of imitating the style of the Moorish palaces of Granada, Seville, and Medina Azahara. Even the official Spanish term for the shade of green used in the current flag of Andalucía is ‘Umayyad Green’ after the Umayyad dynasty which ruled in Cordoba from the 8th to the 11th centuries.

There comes a point when one feels that such actions seem to go beyond exploiting mere economic interests, but how far beyond is difficult to say.

Festivals and films

Spanish popular culture has seen its own variety of looking at its Muslim past. The most visually-striking one are the Moros y Cristianos festivals, in which local towns and cities put on lavish costumed parades where people dress in extravagant style of Christian or Moorish clothing. With much ceremony and theatricality, they symbolically perform the ‘capture’ and ‘retaking’ of the city itself through mock battles. This tradition is very much beloved throughout whole Southern Spain.

Moros y Cristianos parade, Valencia, Wikipedia, 2005
Moros y Cristianos parade, Valencia, Wikipedia, 2005

In cinema, one of the most interesting examples was the 2003 animated film titled El Cid: La Leyenda (El Cid: The Legend), which follows exploits and adventures of the legendary Spanish hero. Although aimed primarily at younger audience, the film attempted to create a complex picture of the time and its people: There are heroes and villains among both the Christians and the Muslims, with the villains at the court of Castille being power-hungry and treacherous nobles, while Yusuf, the Almoravid king, is a brutal invader who terrorises the Moorish people under his rule. During his travels El Cid is helped by a number of allies, among them Al-Mutamin, the Moorish prince of Zaragoza. Not only is he, and his followers, depicted as loyal, noble and brave, but it is they who make up the bulk of El Cid’s army, crying out “Allah is great!” before charging into the film’s final battle to aid him.

It is interesting to note that these same Moorish allies, hailing from the city of Zaragoza, speak neutral Castillian-Spanish accents while Yusuf, the film’s main antagonist and the only individual explicitly stated to be from North Africa, has a ‘stereotypical Arab accent’. Such an apparently simple choice can be read in many ways, possibly even as an attempt to illustrate common ground between the Andalusian Moors and the Castillian Christians.

“Refugees welcome”

While some European nations have seen a rise in nationalist sentiment and xenophobia, Spain (along with Portugal) has remained relatively unaffected, with newer right-wing parties so far unable to enjoy the success and popularity of the new left-wing progressive party Podemos. This has led to what some have called a more ‘open’ attitude toward the Refugee Crisis affecting Europe. Since September 2015, a great banner has been hanging from the Madrid City Hall reading ‘Refugees Welcome’. Last Saturday 18thFebruary saw thousands of people marching in Barcelona demanding (“Queremos acoger” – “We want to take in [refugees].”) that the government stays true to its word and takes in the refugees it promised it would. So far it has taken a number far below its pledge from 2015.

Could it be that Spain’s open acceptance of its Muslim past has contributed to this more open attitude? Perhaps stating such a conclusion may be reading too much into things. No nation is untouched by xenophobia, and Spain is certainly no exception. The Reconquista is popularly seen as a matter of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ and Spanish popular culture still tends to stereotype Muslim-majority countries, even if this is hardly something unique to Spain. And yet, Spain has diligently preserved this part of its historical heritage and even paid homage to a number of Muslim rulers, generals and philosophers. One therefore cannot avoid feeling there is something deeper at play and this adds a fascinating layer to Spain and the manner in which it its history.

The end of an empire – 1898: The Last Garrison of the Philippines


In 1898, Spain and America entered a three-month war that ended with the Spanish Empire’s defeat and relinquishing of all of its remaining Pacific and American holdings – namely Cuba and the Philippines – after its defeat. For the Philippines, the war arguably marked the beginning of the path to becoming the nation it is now, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies. For Spain, it was the end of its time as a colonial power and the start of a long and troubled entrance into the twentieth century. In all the upheaval and world-changing events, one particular incident stands out: A small Spanish garrison of fifty men in the Philippine town of Baler entrenched themselves in the local church at the start of the war. They held out against a prolonged siege, and refused to surrender even after the war had long ended and the Philippine-American war had begun – in 1899.

The film

Released in Spanish theatres in early December, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas chooses to largely avoid lecturing the audience on all the historical background knowledge of the Spanish-American War. Instead it focuses exclusively on the aforementioned event: the fifty men besieged in the Church of Baler by Filipino rebel troops and the physical and emotional exhaustion they underwent as the siege dragged on. Their commanding officers refused to surrender even as evidence that the war has long since ended continued to pile up. Why a group of men would continue to resist for so long – whether due to bravery and adherence to duty, miscommunication and distrust, or sheer bull-headed stubbornness – is a matter that director Salvador Calvio and producer Enrique Cerezo choose to look at in a fascinating and minimalist fashion.

A talented and well-chosen cast fronts the film’s story, but the heavy lifting is done by its two leads. First, Álvaro Cervantes as Carlos – a young, fresh-faced soldier recently enrolled in the army – and then Luis Tosar as Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, who leads the garrison in their resistance after the death of their captain and in his refusal to surrender becomes increasingly more determined – to an almost suicidal extent. Javier Gutiérrez and Karra Elejalde play two significant supporting roles as, respectively, the grizzled and cruel Sergeant Jimeno and the world-weary and wise missionary Fray Carmelo. All of them are fine actors, who play off each other well and whose conflicts and interactions feel convincing and believable.

A fine cast put aside, there is a lot to like, even admire, about this film. The camerawork is excellent, often perfectly reflecting the character’s emotions: The jungle surrounding the town of Baler is almost ethereally beautiful, yet also ominous and vaguely threatening. The inside of the church, at first seemingly old and worn, becomes safe and protective when the siege begins, then turns dark and claustrophobic as it drags on. Night scenes are full of deep shadows, hiding figures that flit between pools of darkness, or emerge half-visible under moonlight or the glow cast by flames. The passage of time is felt as a crushing, relentless slog: malnutrition and disease soon become as deadly an enemy as the Filipino rebels, adding an underlying layer of dread to many scenes. The pale-blue uniforms of the Spanish garrison are tattered and mud-green by the end of the film. By the time the garrison decides to surrender the audience will feel as exhausted by the war as they do.

However, while the film’s slow pace does help to convey the crushing grind of the siege, it also makes it seem longer than it actually is and makes the story drag in places, particularly in the last third. The ravages of the siege are not reflected on our actors’ faces: they do not become gaunter from the lack of food or even grow extra facial hair, undermining somewhat the aforementioned feel of the passage of time. This is especially striking in the case of one character’s opium addiction, which leaves him looking no worse for wear. The dialogue, while well-delivered, is at points repetitive and goes over previously-discussed points more often than needed.

The film also gives the impression that the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines – and even in Cuba – is a disaster of the Spanish Empire. In truth, these provinces were all that remained of an empire, which had long been reduced to a weakened, vestigial remnant of what it had been once, plagued by economic and political troubles. There are also some other claims regarding the siege of Baler that are possibly a matter for historical debate.

These, however, are nit-picks. The film is thoroughly recommendable as a historical war film. It does not take the approach of adrenaline-filled action, but rather opts for a slow-burning pace and a surprisingly complex and nuanced take on this particular chapter of Spain’s colonial past.

Dark complexities of a colonial past

A country’s colonial past is always going to be a complicated subject to discuss, particularly for a European colonial power such as Spain in today’s political climate when the rise of populist nationalism may lead to unjustified excuses of the past. It is immensely refreshing that 1898 opts to look at a chapter of colonialist history not through the wider lens of history, but through smaller and more personal viewpoints of the characters living its story. In its characters, the audience comes to see some of the best qualities of the Spanish colonialists, but also the worst.

The characters of Carlos and Fray Carmelo – the young soldier and the old missionary – are easily the most sympathetic. Carlos is kind and youthful, in danger of being broken down to a shell of his former self as his duty to his country hurts more than it rewards him. Fray Carmelo, who admits he has been away from Spain for years, is wise and world-weary, and his wry humour does not entirely conceal a melancholy that suggests he knows, and has accepted, that both his days and those of the Spanish Empire’s are numbered, and coming to their end. In contrast, Sergeant Jimeno is easily the most hateful member of the garrison: Tough, scarred and with a haunting gaze, his undeniable qualities as a soldier disappear  every time his cruelty shines through: he abuses prisoners, kills animals, intimidates his own men, and even suggests leaving a Filipino child tied up and helpless in a crocodile-filled swamp. He takes traditionally positive qualities – bravery under fire and discipline even in extreme circumstances – and twists them into a reflection of his own inner darkness.

Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher,
Location of the Philippines. Copyright: Daniel Feher,

Yet the most interesting and complex character is Lieutenant Cerezo, and his journey from stern yet seemingly reasonable and caring commander to a frighteningly stubborn antagonist whose monomaniacal determination to keep fighting slowly starts to resemble less an adherence to duty and more an elaborate suicide attempt. He consciously chooses to ignore the mounting evidence that the war has ended – newspapers, communications, even a visit from the Spanish high command – and instead dismisses them as all as insidious ploys by the enemy to trick the garrison into surrendering. He says that he has lost his wife and children, and has nothing waiting for him in Spain, yet in having himself nothing to lose, he seems determined to refuse to admit that his nation has long lost the war.

In Cerezo, film shows the most complex portrait of a colonialist – one could even argue that he stands as a metaphor for the Spanish occupation of the Philippines as a whole: a man whose stated adherence to his duty and service to his country ends up causing far more harm than good. Despite his redeeming qualities, the damage he has caused by the end is such that no-one can find it in themselves to forget what he has done or forgive him for it – not even himself.

The film is also utterly fearless in choosing to portray the ugliness of war, and strips the struggle of any sense of glory its portrayal might have brought. Both the Filipinos and the Spanish conduct brutal night raids in which neither side is above slaughtering unarmed and unprepared soldiers, with the Spanish even killing a few civilians fleeing in terror. The effects of malnutrition on the human body are horrific to see, and there is a palpable sense of despair and weariness at several points in the film, helped by the fact that its action scenes are very much spaced apart, with a lot of quietness between them wherein the grim atmosphere just sinks in and permeates everything.

Looking back at a legacy

In  its portrayal of the Filipino rebels, the film does something unexpected: What begins as a hostile enemy force is, by the end, shown to be a people fighting for their homeland, no less fiercely or less determined than the Spanish garrison fighting for theirs. Their commanders are often portrayed as reasonable, repeatedly offering the garrison chances to surrender and even giving them a gift of fresh fruit and food at a critical point as a gesture of goodwill. More intriguingly, they seem to be keenly aware of how Spain’s presence has shaped their burgeoning nation. At the start of the film, the Spanish soldiers are given a blunt speech by their commander: “We’ve been here for four hundred years. We’ve built their [the Filipino’s] cities, given them their religion, but they don’t give a shit about that. They want us out and they want us dead, and that’s that.” Yet, when the garrison’s surrender at the end of the film is being negotiated, the Filipino commander makes surprising terms – to not only grant the Spaniards safe passage as far as his territory allows, but also provide them with an Honour Guard as they leave. Shocked, the Spanish officer in charge of the surrender can only ask why. The answer comes after a brief pause: “It’s been four centuries.”

Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).
Contemporary Westerners know the Philippines mostly as a beautiful holiday destination. But the country has a complex colonial past. Photo copyright Allan Donque (2010).

Just as the film did  not exempt the Spanish from indulging in the ugliness of war, it cannot be ignored that the country’s decision to sell the Philippines to the United States – including several islands that officially did not belong to Spain – contributed to many of the post-colonial problems still being felt in that country in the  present day. Yet modern, post-Francoist Spain generally regards and studies its imperial past in a surprisingly blunt way, not shying away from the atrocities and ugliness committed in the nations it had once ruled, even as it laid the building blocks for the countries they would become. There is not, overall, a great amount of sentimentalism for this colonial past, and 1898 is a reflection of that: It looks at the effects of a war, and the end of an empire, not through a grand sweeping vision but from the perspectives and the emotions of those affected and damaged by it. By the film’s conclusion, the end of the siege of Baler – and the end of the Spanish Empire – is seen not with melancholy, but with a feeling of inevitability.

Perhaps, given the political climate in Europe and the sentiments we saw grow to such alarming extents last year, it is the best and only way to look at such a complicated past legacy.

Delicate politics of Spain: Rajoy’s minority government has to brace for storm

On Sunday 30th October, Mariano Rajoy was officially reinstated as Prime Minister of Spain. This happened after more than three-hundred days of political deadlock during which no party was able to form a coalition government. The threat of a third general election loomed ever larger on the horizon.

This state of play ended with a massive internal crisis within the leading opposition party, the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party). Its chief bureaucrat, Secretary-General Pedro Sánchez, was removed from his post. The party leadership subsequently voted  to unblock the opposition Partido Popular’s (PP) efforts to reinstate Rajoy as Prime Minister and form a new government. The road to reach this point has been long and complicated. While there is no longer a threat of the political deadlock of the past months continuing, future is still uncertain for all the major parties and, perhaps, for Spain as a whole.

PSOE: Divided, we fall

The crisis arose after the deadlock following the second general election, Pedro Sánchez made clear that he would not support Mariano Rajoy’s bid to be reinstated as Prime Minister and make this the official party line. And yet, despite his insistence, pressure mounted and continued mount as time wore on. But Sánchez faced increasing pressure as the party was unable to come to an agreement with either Unidos Podemos (United We Can) or Ciudadanos (Citizens). These are the two most important ‘new’ parties on the Spanish political scene. Hence, a growing number of members of the party leadership, including ex-president Felipe González, advocated a tacit support to a minority government led by PP.

Breakdown of the Spain's 2016 general elections results show the deep fragmentation of the country's political scene. © BBC
Breakdown of the Spain’s 2016 general elections results show the deep fragmentation of the country’s political scene. © BBC

Sánchez remained resolute in his opposition and said he would never support a PP government headed by Rajoy. But as internal divisions in the PSOE became more and more visible, on 29th September seventeen members of the party’s executive committee resigned their from posts in protest against Sánchez. On 2nd October, just three days later, Sánchez’s resignation followed with the space open for the party’s withdrawing of its blocking of a Rajoy government.  The PSOE’s Catalan branch, PSC (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, or Catalan Socialist Party) broke ranks and voted ‘No’ to the PP government in open defiance of the party leadership. PSOE thus stands internally fractured and its militant supporters are saying they feel betrayed by the party’s decision to allow the PP to govern.

A fractured Spanish Congress

Amid the dissension and fracturing of the PSOE, the Spain’s legislative branch, the Congress of Deputies, is facing a unique scenario not yet encountered in the country’s democratic history (post-1976): a minority government with three major opposition parties rallied against it.

At this moment, the Congress is split between the ruling PP, PSOE, Unidos Podemos and Ciudadanos. For policies and proposals to go through Congress, a majority of deputies (176 out of 350) must vote in favour. For the previous Rajoy government this was not a problem. His landslide victory of 2011 gave him an absolute majority in Congress. But now the PP no longer enjoys this advantage. Both Ciudadanos and PSOE that they will not make the enactment of new policies and proposals easy. So while Rajoy was again able to become Prime Minister, keeping this post may be a task that may prove difficult.

Rajoy and his party will have to find a way of negotiating and working with the various parties opposing them. While the divisions within the Spanish left are notable, they still have a common enemy in the PP. And challenges are significant: maintaining the economic recovery, answering growing calls for Catalan independence, and general political uncertainty in the EU after Brexit and Trump’s unexpected ascendency to the White House. No wonder that Mariano Rajoy’s tone is measured and conciliatory and he focuses on gaining trust and supporting cooperation with the Congress. He could well have little other choice.

Business as usual, or an already doomed enterprise?

Spain’s economic recovery would, at the first glance, seem to be the simplest obstacle to overcome. As the PP frequently points out, the country’s unemployment levels have been steadily shrinking and the economic growth has been relatively steady over the last two years. Compared to the country’s situation in 2011, when the full impact of the Housing Crisis was still being felt, there has been a noticeable improvement. But as other commentators have pointed out, the stability is fragile. Spain’s economy remains relatively weak, with many young workers and professionals still choosing to look for better paid work in other European countries such as Germany. While unemployment decreased, the new jobs are not secure contracts. There is an increase in part-time contracts, a situation that makes many unhappy. All in all, it therefore remains to be seen if the  improvements are a sign of continued growth, or if this is just a case of temporary good fortune.

Meanwhile, the question of Catalan independence is looming ever-larger on the political landscape. The reinvigorated pro-independence administration in Barcelona is calling for a referendum in September 2017 and calls on Rajoy to negotiate on its terms. It is unclear what course the PP and Prime Minister will choose to take. The Spanish government was severely criticized by pro-independence factions and the opposition parties for its inflexibility and a refusal to discuss Catalan matters. Rajoy has made clear that he wishes to reach an agreement with the Catalan Parliament, but what form that agreement will take (if any) is anyone’s guess.

Finally, it is Rajoy and his successors will have to deal with the impact of a post-Brexit EU on Spain. With a few notable exceptions, the result of Britain’s EU referendum was taken negatively by Spanish citizens and politicians alike. It is being said it will bring more negative consequences than positive ones, and there is a particular worry for the possible financial and economic repercussions. That being said, some have expressed a hope or even a desire that the void left by Britain could lead to a greater importance for Spain on the European stage. But this is a wish that not been answered by any active effort from the Spanish Government apart from efforts to attract potential investors and companies from the UK.

Donald Trump's ascendancy to the White House adds an additional measure of uncertainty to already uncertain European politics. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House adds an additional measure of uncertainty to already uncertain European politics. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Rajoy’s remaining in power for another four years itself remains without a firm guarantee. There is a high possibility that the difficulties in trying to run a minority government may well result in early elections once again throwing Spain into muddied waters of political uncertainty.

Last but not least, there is the result of the US presidential election. To say that Donald Trump was not the preferred candidate in Spain would be to make an understatement. On previous occasions, Trump expressed support for Brexit, but he might also shift the US foreign policy towards a more isolationist, protectionist course. Furthermore, the US President-elect made controversial statements about immigration from Central and South America, regions where Spain is a major business and financial player. These developments considered, the post-Brexit Europe may not be the only big change in politics facing Rajoy.

Indeed, the future in Spain is uncertain. For now, all that can be done is to wait and see the outcome.

Gridlock on No-cars Day

Thursday the 22nd was No-Cars Day in Madrid, Spain. On this day people are encouraged to leave their cars at home and make use of Madrid’s public transport system to get to work, when they aren’t walking or riding bicycles to do so. The unofficial ecological holiday is meant to promote an environmentally-friendly lifestyle as well as a healthy one.

In theory.

The reality was that last Thursday – the very same day that people were meant to leave their cars safely parked at home – saw both the city of Madrid and its surrounding areas affected by some of the worst gridlock of this quarter. One major highway, the M40, had two accidents in two different locations happening within fifteen minutes of one another, slowing down traffic to a crawl. Similar accidents happened on the M30, one of the major highways leading to the city, while another – the A6 – was forced to open its Bus-only lane to all standard vehicles in order to get relieve pressure and get traffic flowing again. The M50, one of the major highways surrounding Madrid, also reported jams. At rush hour, between the hours of 7.30am and 9.30am there was a 59% increase in traffic jams around and leading into Madrid. At 11 am, it was at 89%. Commuters flooded social media with indignant messages about the situation, and traffic flow was not normalized until 2 pm.

If the purpose of No-Cars Day is to promote a car-free lifestyle, last Thursday would seem to stand as a testament to its failure to do so.


Madrid’s Department of Transport stated that it could not be blamed for the situation given that all the elements which contributed to last Thursday’s gridlock were external ones, and thus beyond the control of any single individual or organization. It is worth noting that the Madrid Underground Metro Line 1 has been under remodelling / reconstruction since the 3rd of July of this year, a factor that the Department of Transport has pointed out as a contributor to the traffic situation, and that the use of cars in and around Madrid has neither been higher nor lower than other years.

Added to all this was a cycling tour in the city of Madrid itself – meant as a celebration of No-Cars Day – which required cutting off or diverting traffic on several inner-city roads, something that only contributed to the already-worsening situation.

In short, it appears that all the factors that contributed to the spectacle were all simply a perverse case of Murphy’s Law, but applied to the road: Almost anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong.


Despite this bad luck, there remains an inescapable fact: Automobile sales in Spain have increased. In total, 13.98% more cars were sold in September 2016 compared to September 2015. Comparing total car sales from 2015 to 2016, there it’s estimated that there has been an overall increase of about 12.63%.

These statistics all point to the same conclusion: More people are buying and using cars in Spain than before. For some, this may be a surprise, given that Spain has been suffering from an economic recession and increased unemployment levels for several years, and while the country’s economic situation has shown some signs of stabilization, it has yet to decisively improve. Yet the rising numbers of sold automobiles, and of cars on the road, would seem to point to not only an increase in disposable income among the population in general but also to an apparent general need for more automobiles.

And despite any assumptions that more cars might lead to more accidents, once again statistics seem to dispute this: The first half of 2016 saw 30% less accidents on the road compared to 2015. While there is no apparent major change in the amount of traffic jams, in general Madrid drivers appear to be driving safely, at least thus far.


Ideally, the purpose of No-Cars day is to promote a healthier and more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, to encourage people to use alternate methods of transport to get to their place of work or leisure, and to help relieve the traffic congestion that always plagues major cities. But the events of September 22nd seem to have brought to light a fundamental difficulty with implementing such measures, particularly when one takes into account all the external factors that, through no-one’s fault or control, can turn a day intended to empty the roads into one of the worst traffic jams seen thus far this year. Added to this is the inescapable fact that car sales are increasing in Spain, and while there may be less accidents on the road there are definitely more cars on it.

Is No-Cars day, whether as an environmental act or even as a concept, possible or practical under such circumstances? Its purpose is to encourage people to use something other than a car – whether it be public transport, bicycles, or their own two feet – to get to where they need to be, yet data and events seem to show that what people want is to drive, and the Gridlock that plagued the Madrid roads on September 22nd could be seen as some as but an example of reality harshly imposing itself on a vain hope for change.

Yet others maintain that No-Cars day in Spain is not a false hope, and that the event has had more success in past years, without the problematic circumstances surrounding this year’s event, and that what happened last month was inescapable case of bad luck and unfortunate factors coinciding at the wrong time.

The fact is that right now, things are uncertain. There are still plans to hold No-Cars Day next year, and at the moment the sale of automobiles in Spain does not seem to be slowing down. It remains to be seen whether next year’s event will be a successful celebration of clean, healthy living, or another example of gridlock, frustration, and roads becoming ever-more clogged with cars that, in theory, were supposed to stay parked at home.



/Javier Alcover

Blancanieves: Dwarfs, poisoned apples, bullfighting and flamenco

Over the centuries since it was first told, there have been many different retellings of Snow White, the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, yet none of those retellings has ever looked quite like this one. Released in Spain in 2012 and directed by Pablo Berger, Blancanieves is a black-and-white silent film, set in a fictional 1920’s Spain. Here Snow White is a bullfighter, as well as her father and the seven dwarfs, and the wicked queen is an opportunistic murderess. Flamenco music and dancing plays an important part both in the soundtrack and in several scenes. The film was Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film which meant that along with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the year had two separate black-and-white silent film entries in the Academy Awards.


Most of us, whether through familiarity with the original fairy tale or its variations, are familiar with the story of the Snow White: A beautiful child named Snow White, a wicked queen with a magic mirror who becomes envious when the said mirror tells her that the young girl is more beautiful than her, the huntsman who is ordered to kill Snow White by the queen and the seven dwarves who take her in and care for her. The poisoned apple, the magical sleep, the glass coffin, and the final kiss of the prince; all of these are, to greater or lesser extents, familiar elements.

It cannot be overstated, then, what a fresh and at times thoroughly different experience Blancanieves is. The film takes place in a fictional 1920’s Spain, specifically in and around the city of Seville. In this version of the fairy tale, Snow White’s father is not a king but a bullfighter – the most famous and well-respected one in the country – named Antonio Villalta. Snow White is, for most of the film, called by her given name, Carmencita. She seems to have inherited both of her parent’s passions and skills: from her father bullfighting and from her mother Flamenco dancing. The wicked queen begins the film as a nurse named Encarna and, rather than a sorceress with a magic mirror, is an opportunistic and vicious schemer who is plainly narcissistic. Her poisoned apple plot is set into motion when she sees Carmencita’s face on the cover of a magazine instead of her own. Snow White becomes renowned across the land not for her beauty, but for her skill at bullfighting. The seven dwarves are actual little people who put on a travelling show called ‘The little dwarf bullfighters’ and who face bull calves in tiny arenas in what, to a modern audience, looks like a mocking parody of traditional Spanish bullfighting.

As can be guessed, the film is not a direct adaptation of the fairy tale. In fact, one segment of the film in which Encarna forces young Carmencita to slave away in the mansion as a humble servant is much more similar to Cinderella. This actually turns out more in favour of the film as it gives the narrative its own unique quality and avoids becoming confused or derivative. Which is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of clichéd storytelling: notably an important character suffers from amnesia, and then becomes cured of it, in a way that comes across more as narratively convenient than believable.

However, that same narrative convenience makes the film stand strong as its own creation, and it helps that it has a fine cast to put in their weight, with expressive faces and gestures that are perfect for the silent film medium.

To those wondering if they should see the film without knowing how it ends: Yes. It is a version of Snow White quite unlike any other, and will leave an impact long after it’s finished.

Of course, no piece of art is made in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to talk in detail about this film without mentioning the artistic, musical, and even religious influences from Spanish culture present in this film work. The following sections will analyse these influences in detail and will thoroughly spoil both important plot points and the ending. Please be aware that now there will be SPOILERS for the film when discussing the cultural and artistic influences present in its scenes.


Blancanieves draws heavily from traditional Spanish bullfighting and Flamenco. After all, in the film’s third act Snow White has become famous throughout Spain not for her beauty but for her skill as a Matador while travelling with the dwarf troupe. At the same time, Flamenco dancing plays just as important part, as the soundtrack includes many Flamenco dances and Carmencita plainly has inherited her skill at it from her mother, just as she has inherited her skill at bullfighting from her father.

It almost goes without saying that bullfighting is highly controversial, both in Spain and outside, but it is interesting to note that the film does not seem to offer either a defence or a condemnation of the practice. No bull is ever harmed on-screen. The act of bullfighting itself, of dancing and dodging around the animal with the Matador cape, is at the end notably framed as a Flamenco dance: The fast-paced music and the dizzying rhythms of the dance are used with the same rapid editing and spinning shots previously used for Flamenco dance scenes. This makes the final bullfight feel more like a dance than a confrontation in a way that is arguably meant to celebrate the skill and artistry involved in both practices.


It is a simple fact that for most of its history Spain was a fiercely traditional Catholic nation. It is something that can be felt in much of the country’s art, music, literature, and of course in its film industry. As can be expected, this influence is much stronger the further back in time one goes and Blancanieves, in deliberately emulating Spanish cinema from the 20’s, opts for an interesting use of religious symbolism at the end.

The final act of the film has Carmencita face a black, massive and muscled bull aptly named Satanás (the Spanish name for the Devil or the Satan). It charges at Carmencita right at the moment when she has frozen, overwhelmed by a torrent of memories surging back to her as her amnesia – developed earlier in the film when she escaped from Encarna –  subsides. Yet the bull stops a hair’s breadth away from her and stands absolutely still. This allows Carmencita to recover in time to face it at the moment it resumes its attack, and successfully dance around the animal until the time comes to finish it off, at which point the audience crowd pardons the animal by waving white handkerchiefs. The bull is spared, and Carmencita allows Satanás to return to the bull pens.

Then the climax comes. Encarna tricks Carmencita into biting a poisoned apple, and the dwarves chase the villainess into the bullpens as our heroine collapses. Unable to escape, Encarna eludes the dwarfs and hides in an empty pen, until the door opens slowly to reveal Satanás’ ominous horned shadow filling the room. Encarna’s first and only pitiable moment comes when the cornered woman collapses into a trembling, despairing heap as the pen grows darker with the bull’s shadow.

The symbolism is plain if one examines the scene: Satanás is unable to trample and gore Carmencita, the most morally pure and innocent character of the film, even at the moment when she is most vulnerable. At no point during their duel does Carmencita have Satanás stabbed or weakened by other bullfighters, as would normally be done during a traditional bullfight, and at the end Satanás is allowed to live by a dizzying display of visually-apt snow-white handkerchiefs waved by the crowd. Even when holding a sword, Carmencita never sullies her hands with blood, and the white handkerchiefs come to symbolize both forgiveness and life. Encarna, on the other hand, has been a vile murderess throughout the whole film and a classic villainess who has indulged in the deadly sins of Greed, Vanity, Envy, Wrath, Pride and Lust. Where Carmencita is associated with white – both in her being called Snow White and in the handkerchiefs which spare the bull – Encarna is associated with black, and her final scene has her in a dark room, wearing a black mourning dress, shrinking to nothing as a dark, horned shadow falls over her. That final shot of Encarna is meant not so much as a death scene, but rather as the character being dragged to Hell for her sins.


Spain has a long artistic history of representing grotesque or unusual imagery. Look no further than Goya’s black-and-white drawings, Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes and images, or Luis Buñuel’s film An Andalusian Dog (1929). A more mundane example can be found in Diego Velázquez’s portraits of little people dressed in court regalia, looking out at an unseen audience with intense gazes.

Blancanieves, in adapting the fairy tale, displays its own particular brand of unusual imagery. Consider the seven dwarves, who battle bull calves in miniature arenas to the applause and laughter of the audience. What to a modern audience is a dreadful and even despicable spectacle is treated by the onlookers, and even by the film itself, as a fun show.

Consider the funeral held for Carmencita’s father. As an esteemed bullfighter, his corpse is dressed up in his matador outfit and sat in the middle of a wide and plush couch. The guests troop in and have their picture taken sitting next to him, including former colleagues of his or a group of wailing old women in mourning veils. The effect is both unnerving and surreal, and entirely intentional.

Then there is the final segment of the film, which is discussed in the next section. Suffice it to say that the presentation of this imagery, bizarre and at times incomprehensible to a modern audience, is not only effective but also correctly employed the film. It creates not only a feeling of a different time and place, but lends the narrative an almost otherworldly quality and makes the whole experience feel oddly more dreamlike, and fantastical.


Traditional Spanish literature has tended towards tragedy. Some of the most famous Spanish novels – such as Don Quixote, the most internationally famous piece – have had sombre endings or tragic events befalling its characters. In imitating classic Spanish films, Blancanieves is no different.

In the original fairy tale, Snow White is put into a magical sleep by a poisoned apple and sleeps inside a glass coffin until she is awaken by the kiss of a prince. However, in the film there is a surprising revelation made late during the second act: After being taken in by the dwarves, the amnesiac Carmencita is playfully nicknamed ‘Blancanieves’ – Snow White – by her rescuers, “Like in the fairy tale.” they say.

This twist extends to the ending. Carmencita is tricked into biting a poisoned apple, and the ending of the film shows our heroine encased in a glass coffin, being exhibited at a circus freak show and tended to by Rafita, one of the dwarfs and her main love interest. For a price, spectators are allowed to come and kiss the unconscious young woman. Strangers, old men and even women all try their luck at ‘reviving’ her, with the implication that this happens every night.

The final shots seemingly show that Carmencita can never wake up. As the camera slowly zooms in on her face, we see a single tear bead from the corner of her eye and roll down her still cheek.

With this final shot, the film holds true to the Spanish tradition of tragedy, wherein the characters which least deserve it often suffer the most, even beyond the end of their story.

This (and the other elements mentioned) makes Blancanieves a viewing experience that is both familiar, but also unfamiliar, to those who know of the fairy tale and are always open to new interpretations of it, even if they don’t always end happily.


/Javier Alcover

Don Quixote: The tragedy of madness

In April of this year, Spain commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of The Ingenious Don Quixote of La Mancha. Cervantes is arguably one of history’s most famous Spanish-language authors – and certainly Spain’s most well-known author – and his novel has become one of the most celebrated pieces of Spanish literature. To many, it is not only a seminal work but also one of the first examples of a modern literary narrative. Now, four hundred years after the death of its author, the book’s influence on Spanish popular culture and on the world is still being felt. From popular sayings, through film adaptations and language appropriations – the term ‘Quixotic’ originated from this novel – to even references in recent video games. With that in mind, it is worth re-visiting the main character of this tale and examining the madness that defines his character, as well as the underlying and inescapable tragedy surrounding the deranged knight and his adventures.


Written and published in 1605, Don Quixote tells the story of Alonso Quixano, a gentleman landowner – hidalgo in Spanish – from the region of La Mancha. Obsessed with tales of knightly quests and chivalric romances, Quixano reads so many books and tales on the subject that he ends up going mad and believing himself to be living one of those same tales. Determined to prove himself a knight errant, he dons a suit of armour, takes up a lance, and rides his steed to travel the land and right wrongs wherever he fights them as Don Quixote de la Mancha, later on acquiring a squire named Sancho Panza. As all knights must have a maiden fair in whose name they fight, he declares to be battling in the name of Dulcinea del Toboso, whom he believes to be superhumanly beautiful despite knowing next to nothing about her.

The problem is that Quixano is elderly and wiry, and his horse is worn-out. His armour is rusted and his shield his old. His adventures often result in his getting hurt more often than not. His lady love, Dulcinea, is in fact Aldonza Lorenzo, a girl from a homely farmgirl who occasionally prostitutes herself. The people Quixote encounters view him as either a laughingstock to be played practical jokes on, or a dangerous madman. His family go to increasingly desperate lengths to bring him home and restore his sanity, including at one point literally dragging him home in a cage.

In his own story, Don Quixote is a figure of ridicule. A madman who believes he’s in a fairy tale world, fighting for a noble lady as he jousts against giants and rights the many evils of the world, all while in reality he attacks innocent travellers, charges at windmills, never pays for staying nights and the inns he encounters, and wears a barber’s bowl on his head as though it were a great helmet.

And yet, as one reads through El Quixote, one cannot help but ask a question: What is it about his madness that makes him so laughable? That he lives in a fantasy land where evil is punished, and the world has a rhyme and reason to it? Quixano’s tragedy is indeed his madness, for it makes him believe that the world in which he inhabits is, at its core, fair and just and one in which he is able to make a difference. He sets out to do good, with arguably the noblest intentions of any character in the novel, and is instead rewarded with deception and harsh punishment.


One remembers a specific instance of from the novel, wherein our main character comes across a youth tied to a tree and being beaten by his master. Quixote’s reaction is to reprimand the master and demand that he free the youth, and swear to never again raise his hand against him. The master does so, and yet as soon as Quixote leaves the youth is beaten again, harder than before.

Quixote’s reaction to seeing what he believes is a danger to others is to face it, in order to defeat it. Whenever he encounters travellers, he endeavours to treat with them honesty. He gains the aid of Sancho Panza as his squire by promising him lands and titles, and it seems he truly has every intention of keeping his promise. At his core, what the character attempts to do is to live the life of a knight errant: He travels the land to its farthest reaches, fights duels in the name of honour, and proclaims his love for his ‘maiden’ Dulcinea for all who can hear. The clearest case of his attempts to emulate a knight errant is his tilting against windmills – he honestly believes that they are terrible giants, and that by battling and defeating the he will help make the lands a safer place

But the reality that Cervantes places Alonso Quixano in is often a harsh one, and he is amongst the first to suffer the consequences of both his madness and his idealism. He is deceived on more than one occasion, such as by the master beating the youth, or when he is convinced by a group of convicted criminals that they are being unjustly led to the gallows. He frees them, and for his efforts he is rewarded with a severe beating that leaves him and Sancho Panza lying on the side of the road, nursing their injuries.

More poignantly, early in his adventures Quixote believes that he is officially knighted by a lord in his castle. In reality, it is a sham ceremony, improvised by a tavern-keeper whose tavern has already been the stage for a fight between several customers and Quixote – who had also ruined the horse’s water trough – and who carries out the ‘knighting’ only to be rid himself of the madman.

The cruel irony that if Quixano were, indeed, the protagonist of a knightly tale then he could very well be a great hero. Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov once famously observed that Don Quixote has a surprisingly long career as a knight errant, and is in fact quite dangerous in a fight. His attempts to emulate knightly virtues – honesty, piety, and defence of the weak – are sincere and well-meaning. If the world he lived in was actually the world of the knightly tales he obsesses over, he would be celebrated and honoured.

But that is not the world he lives in, and the tale ends perhaps the only way it could: Quixano recovers his sanity, and abandons the identity of Don Quixote, albeit not without reluctance, only to die shortly after.


At the end of the novel, when Quixano recovers his sanity and finally leaves behind the adventuring of Don Quixote, one cannot help but feel a sense of defeat. In following the character and his follies, there is a sense of genuine adventure behind his actions, even excitement. Don Quixote is a madman, yet he seems tireless in his quest to do good in the world and his way of seeing things even becomes endearing to the reader, despite the obvious damage he causes. So when reality is finally allowed to triumph, there is no real sense of relief, and the novel ultimately ends with Quixano falling ill and dying after returning home.

The feeling is that the final victory of the real world over Quixote’s fantasy robs it of a man whose ultimate aim was to do good. After all, what kind of world does Quixano truly live in? One in which he is lied to, tricked, ridiculed, humiliated, caged, his personal possessions destroyed and he himself attacked on multiple occasions. Is it any wonder that his return to sanity is so reluctant on his part, and so melancholic in its final result?

Cervantes intended Don Quixote to serve as a deconstruction of knightly tales by making his protagonist exceedingly vulnerable, and placing him into the harshness of the real world. So perhaps there is a further lesson to be taken from the novel and questions to be posed to ourselves, especially now as day by day we see more people retreating into conformist denial, cheap populist rhetoric, simple demagoguery, or even elaborate fantasy escapism, all while the world keeps turning and stark reality refuses to abandon us.


– Javier Alcover



Image: “Don Quijote y Sancho” by Pablo Picasso (1955), Fundación Picasso, free content.

Deadlock: The results of the Spanish general elections


On the 26th of June, the Spanish government celebrated a second general election after more than six months of political deadlock. The result was yet another stalemate, but this time the conservative PP (Partido Popular, or Popular Party) grew in the number of votes and seats gained in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, while every other major political force – PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party), Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the newly-formed left-wing populist party Unidos Podemos (United We Can) – lost both votes and seats. The incumbent President Mariano Rajoy, leader of the PP, was quick to proclaim victory and thank his voters for their support, despite still being a long way from recovering his party’s absolute majority, lost in the December 2015 elections.
Now, the country is faced with three possible outcomes to these elections, all of which would be the first of their kind in the history of modern Spanish democracy: A minority government, a coalition government or, once again, new elections six months from now.


In order to grasp how this situation has come about, it is necessary to understand that the Spanish system of government is predicated on the condition that any political party that wins in the general elections can form a government only when it has an absolute majority of seats in the Congress of Deputies of Spain – this being defined as holding 176 seats out of 350. The system is meant to ensure that, in theory, any party which does not attain absolute majority must form a coalition government with other groups through agreements and compromises. The December 2015 elections resulted in no one party – even the PP, which collected the most number of votes and held the largest number of seats in Congress – being able to achieve that absolute majority, and so all four major political groups entered into negotiations with one another, ostensibly to discuss the creation of a coalition government and come to an agreement on how to do so.
But the hope that a compromise would be reached eventually faded as the months passed and the negotiations dragged on, often filled with recriminations and mutual accusations of an unwillingness to co-operate. It soon became increasingly clear that a solution to the political quagmire the country had stumbled into would not be materializing any time soon.
And so, after six long months of largely fruitless talks, new elections were held this past June. The PP grew in votes and in seats, while the other political groups lost both, but once again no one party achieved the numbers needed to obtain that elusive absolute majority in Congress. Once again, the four main political parties have entered negotiations with one another, but now the question is: What will happen if no agreement is reached?
If no agreement is reached, then the Spanish democratic system will be faced with a situation for which it has no contingency plan, as its constitution only contemplates the possibility of a single repetition of the country’s general elections, and PP currently remains as a caretaker government until further notice.


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the elections was the apparent loss of momentum suffered by the far-left populist movement Podemos, which disappointed and frustrated – but above all surprised – both its leadership and its supporters, who had expected the party would become the second political force in Spain and instead saw how they wound up losing votes.
The results of the December 2015 elections were a remarkable success for the group, as they went from a party with no congressional representatives to suddenly holding 69 seats. The subsequent merging between Podemos and the far-left party Izquierda Unida (United Left) – forming the group Unidos Podemos – was expected to enjoy greater success in these elections. There was talk of a Sorpasso, a situation in which the group would overtake the PSOE in seats and votes and, effectively, become the second political force in the country.

At this point it is important to note that, on the Spanish political scene, there is no major figurehead for the far-right. France has Jeanne-Marine Le Pen, Austria has Norbert Hofer, Greece has the Golden Dawn, but Spain has only loose groups – among them reduced remnants of the Fascist Falange party – with no real unity, and no leader who can boast a significant presence either in the political landscape or in the media. Instead, it is far-left movements such as Podemos which have become increasingly relevant on the Spanish political scene, something that soon gave rise to comparisons to Greece’s SYRIZA party.
Both SYRIZA and Podemos enjoyed a remarkable growth in their early days, thanks to support among those voters most affected by the economic crisis, and their anti-austerity rhetoric is often very similar. Indeed, Pablo Iglesias – the General Secretary of Podemos – has often expressed support for Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA and now the Prime Minister of Greece. There was serious talk that the next Spanish government would be a coalition, headed by Unidos Podemos – similar to the coalition government of Greece, formed by the left-wing SYRIZA and the right-wing ANEL.
But the results of the elections have apparently put a brake on those hopes of success held by the party and its supporters, instead added only two more seats to their previous result – going from 69 to 71 – despite pre-election polls predicting much better results. A number of reasons can be put forward for this apparent setback; notably there has been a growing disenchantment among many of Podemos’ supporters, who feel that the group’s growing focus on politics has distanced them from their original anti-austerity rhetoric. This, along with visible disagreements among the party leadership and a higher number of abstentions in this year’s elections than last year’s, all seem to have contributed to the wind being let out of the group’s sails.
Whatever the reason, the current reality is that Spain’s populistic far-left, before so buoyed by an unexpected popularity and success, is now in serious danger of losing its momentum as it becomes a major player on the country’s political scene.


For six months now the PP have remained in power as a caretaker government rather than an official one, and no-one seems to want to contemplate what could happen if this situation is not resolved. Another repetition of the general elections has been discussed, and while it is a possibility, it is also becoming apparent that both politicians and ordinary citizens are getting tired of the stalemate and just want to reach a solution, any solution. A coalition government would, for many, be ideal, but two weeks on and no immediate agreement between any of the major political players appears forthcoming.

Another, possibly more likely, outcome is that the PP will simply form a minority government. If this were to happen, not only would it be the first of its kind in the history of modern, post-Francoist Spanish democracy, it would also no doubt please the millions of citizens who voted for them. But it would also deeply anger the millions of others who did not, and leave a divided Congress full of groups largely unwilling to give the PP any of the free rein it has had thus far to enact its policies, and determined to mount a fiercer opposition than has been faced by Mariano Rajoy.
There is a lot of talk now about what to do and what the immediate political future could be, but a common Spanish saying seems to sum up the current situation best:
Del dicho al hecho hay un trecho.
There’s a long road between what is said to what is done.

Javier Alcover

Image: “Adrian faces his first bull” by Keith Williamson, flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0