A three-week vacation in southern Spain and Portugal is a bittersweet experience. Both countries are clean, picturesque, and full of nice people who were helpful, and patient with my Spanish and Portuguese. The roads are good and public transit a rebuke to every American city. Lots of old city centers have been preserved and remain lively and populated, and the architecture, monuments, and museums, are well-presented and worth a lot of attention. Hotels are cheap, food reasonable, service is excellent, and it’s easy to find live fado in dozens of Lisbon restaurants…wait a minute, why is that? It’s because unemployment is 26% in Spain and 15% in Portugal; much worse for people under 25.
These countries are really hurting. The streets are not full of beggars and homeless people, but José and Rosita are living with their parents instead of getting married and having kids; the fertility rate in Spain is about 1.3. In Andalusia, hillsides almost too steep to stand on are being terraced for avocado trees and almonds. We drove through endless stretches of low-grade pasture dotted with cork oak trees. This is not a high-grade, efficient agricultural sector (granted that a lot of both countries is sub-prime ag land, and dry). I can’t think of anything I own other than a bottle of olive oil or wine that was made in either place. Tourism is nice for the rest of us, but the jobs it generates are mostly making beds and serving food.
These are people whose ancestors used to command international empires, and Spain had a couple of centuries as a heavyweight European power. How did they wind up so badly, when other European countries with past golden ages like the Netherlands and the UK are so much better off now? The history that all those churches, palaces, and museums lay out seems to me to have a lot to do with it. Spain, particularly, is only a few decades out of a half a millenium of unrelenting, insistent, across-the-board failed governance, not only incompetent but aggressively wrong-headed.
Iberia seems to have been overrun by everyone except the Sioux: north Africans, Celts, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, you name it. Sounds like a solid resource of diversity, and during a good part of Arab control of Al-Andalus the peninsula was a fairly easy-going and prosperous society (not always or everywhere) of Jews, Moslems, and Christians that brought forth artists, scientists, and philosophers of world importance. But the Arab empire was too big to endure with medieval technology and communications, Al-Andalus fragmented into feuding satrapies, and by 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had conquered the last one and started Spain on its relentless decline.
What they, and Spanish rulers after them (the countries were united from 1580 to 1640) got wrong was a perfect storm of deliberate ignorance. Other nations have got one or another of these issues wrong at one time or another, but the Spanish are in a class by themselves in this area for consistence across policies and over time. The basso continuo foundation in my view was the idea that the most important thing in the world was to make everyone a Catholic of the most unquestioning, doctrinaire, mystical and obsessive type. A good society was one where no-one disagreed with a single authoritative revealed truth, and this began with expelling Jews and Moslems who took with them a good part of Spain’s intellectual and commercial capacity, and diversity. It continued, of course, with an inquisition obsessed with constantly ‘purifying’ whoever was left in bonfires, especially converts who maybe hadn’t converted quite enough (especially if they had some property to appropriate). What was left among the élite was people who were good at navigation, fighting, and praying. Henry Kamen’s The Disinherited is a history of Spain focused on this unending compulsion to extrude exactly the people who could have done the country the most good and who therefore went off to do it for other places, and it is well worth a read.
Of course 1492 is also remembered as the beginning of the Spanish empire, which was managed on the principles of enslaving, looting, killing, and preaching to the survivors, plus the very wrong idea that wealth was gold and silver. (The Portuguese had got around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia by 1498, where they mostly did business as traders, though their behavior along the African coast, south India, and Brazil wasn’t much more civilized than the Spaniards’ colonial pious savagery.)
Another thing Spanish leadership got wronger than almost anyone was the idea that respect and status is for people who have riches without having to work, (whether from inheritance,an extractive mining industry, or a plantation economy), the hidalgo mentality that seems to still afflict so much of Latin America.
Closer to home, Henry VIII, Calvin, and Martin Luther were catnip for one Spanish monarch after another who seem to have done nothing for the Spaniards except load up the Prado with a lot of top-class Dutch paintings, and give them churches and art in aesthetic styles that can only be described as manic excess. (I love the south German and Italian churches of the Baroque period, and they are indeed very richly decorated and elaborated, as are the surfaces of the Moorish Iberian palaces, but Spanish religious art and architecture of the golden age is on the whole simply indigestible, an obsessive combination of mawkish sentimentality and horror vacui.)
What they wasted their New World wealth on was doomed and pointless occupations and adventures like the Armada, aggravating the miseries of the Thirty Years’ War, and making the Low Countries and a lot of Italy miserable. After three hundred years of learning nothing from their colonies and occupied territories, when Napoleon finished making mischief, they had nothing. Only Catalonia picked up on the possibilities brought by the 19th century. The big colonies fought their way to independence, and when the US pushed at what remained in 1898, it was all over. Portugal managed to ruin its own economy and politics clinging to colonies much later, in the 1960s and 70s.
It goes on and on, fratricidal uncompromising politics with ignorant ideological parties clashing by night, and then stupefying oppressive clergy-ridden dictatorships under Franco (who did everything he could to assure that the country got nothing from Catalonian modernity) and Salazar right up to 1975, another lost century in both countries. Today’s sermon preaches that it’s better for everyone for people to do their own thinking and make a virtue of dissent and diversity than to be forbidden to think, and better to cultivate your own garden than steal from someone else’s. Iberia is still paying dues from the 2000’s boom and bust, and from austerity policies that are crushing so much of Europe under ideology dressed up in an economic suit. But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, if only because both countries have at least slipped the leash of their theocracies.