Friday, May 25, 2007

Update on El Cid

Just a quick update on the post I did about El Cid. A recent article from ABC, a major Spanish newspaper, states that the Tizona of the National Army Museum (Museo del Ejército) that supposedly belonged to El Cid has been declared a misnomer. It turns out that it is from the same era, so it does have historical value, but it's not El Cid's. Which means that El Cid's real sword is still drifting out there somewhere, or is perhaps lost forever. We may never know.

And a whole tourist industry must revamp its line of letter openers to "used to be known as the Tizona of El Cid."

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Basque Identity

In English, it's the Basque Country. In Castillian Spanish, el País Vasco. In Basque? Euskadi.

The Basque Country is something different to everyone. This oddball province of Spain, graced with a completely unique language and as well as a distinctive culture, struggles to identify with the rest of Spain. A sometimes violent separatist movement headed by ETA, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom), a terrorist organization whose bombings and assassinations have led to the death of over 900 people since its founding in 1959, is the fruit of this failure to subgroup of the province has been calling for freedom from Spain and the formation of a new Basque nation, fully independent from its brethren. The question is: why? Why did the Basque country turn out to be so different from the rest of Spain? The answer lies in the language.

Thousands of years ago, before Roman rule of the Iberian peninsula, there existed a tribe called the Vascones in the modern-day regions of Aragón and Navarra, as described by the Greek historian Strabo. Part of the original Paleolithic peoples of the peninsula, it is this tribe that gave us the first iteration of the modern Basque language, a language that is basically a remnant of the pre-Roman languages developed and spoken there.

Basque-speaking peoples persisted under myriad conquests and governments, somehow always managing to keep their language and their identity alive. It is through this common bond of language that their culture began to develop: Basque speakers historically would stick together in their own communities, and within their own niche they made their own culture instead of simply going with the one that arose and evolved through the events that shaped Spain into what we know it as through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and today, a Spain shaped by a hybridizing blend of Roman-European and Arabic traditions.

Today, the Basque language is restricted to a small area detailed in the map. Even in the Basque country, only about 25% of the population can still speak it, with only 10% being able to read and write it - some basis for such a virulent separatist movement.

The interesting thing about the Basque language is that it is the one language of its language group - no other language in the world is anything like it. Basque is the last remnant of the traditional, pre-Roman language of Spain, one of the only pre-Indo-European language families still spoken in Europe. As such, it needs to be preserved. But this fact also leads to another important conclusion.

The thing is, the Basque country isn't a group apart from Spain: the Basque country is Spain, in its oldest, purest form. The Basque tradition reaches back millennia to the very roots of a people. While Spain evolved and took on many different traditions throughout its history, the Basque people quietly preserved our ancestral selves. There is nothing wrong with the hybridized Spain, of course. All these influences are what made and continue to make Spain so unique and relevant in European history. Instead of trying to estrange itself from the people that are its descendants, Euskadi should be proud to be a part of the nation that its ancestors fostered, close brothers with instead of stepchildren of the Spanish land. Because the Basque aren't outcasts; if anything, they're every Spaniard's core self.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Plus Ultra" - Historical and Philosophical Perspectives

Sorry for the long hiatus - I've been incredibly busy lately. I worry that I'm beginning to show signs of noob-bloggeritis, i.e. starting a blog and then letting it go by the wayside. I'll work harder from now on to keep those posts coming. For now, I'll set my goal at one a week (and hope I start getting some more readers).

I felt I'd like to take some time this week to talk about Plus Ultra. Besides being the name of this blog (its main and most important application), it is the national motto of Spain, and as such merits discussion.

Author Earl Rosenthal has traced the origins of this phrase back to the ancient myth of the Pillars of Hercules, which mark each side of the Strait of Gibraltar (which Spain forms one half of) and were supposedly the boundaries of the world. Upon them was inscribed Nec Plus Ultra, Latin for "nothing further beyond." These pillars, and the worlds Plus Ultra, are now symbolically intertwined on Spain's coat-of-arms, which one can see on the Spanish flag.

It was the Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V who adopted Plus Ultra as his personal motto in the sixteenth century, as a reminder not to be afraid to take risks and go "further beyond." The saying gained traction and was given as encouragement to soldiers, sailors, and the conquistadores to break the boundaries of the known world and go above and beyond their call of duty, and eventually becoming the motto of the entire Habsburg line of Spanish kings.

More interesting than the history, however, is the philosophical side of the Plus Ultra coin. Why does it fit as the Spanish motto? How does it hold its meaning today?

The arguments one could give for Plus Ultra as motto have a strong basis in history; traditionally, it has been the Spanish who have been at the cutting edge and have gone beyond what one might consider prudent or likely for them to do. Just look at the conquest of the New World; the flat earth fear is a myth, but it still took a lot of guts and courage to sail off without knowing where you're going or how far it will be to get there. The Portuguese explorers that discovered sea routes to Asia had it easy; all they had to do was follow the African coastline and keep it in sight. The Spanish were sailing straight into an ocean that was uncharted and altogether unknown.

More than discovering the New World, however, it is the audacity of the conquistadores that is most astounding. Putting aside the moral debate over their bloody conquests, let us look at the courage that it took them to achieve what they did. Look at Francisco Pizarro, for example: deep in the South American continent with a hundred-odd men, with no means of resupply or communication with other Spaniards, going into a total unknown. Sure, steel weapons and horses and his European diseases were stacked in his favor; but when he came upon the Incan emperor, with his 80.000 man army, instead of cutting and running Pizarro decided to attack. He seized the emperor as his hostage and fought off the thousands of Incans in a bloodbath at Cajamarca, and eventually conquered the entire Incan Empire. Again putting the moral question aside, this was a brilliant and courageous act on his part. No one would expect a hundred Spaniards to conquer the dozens of thousands of Incas, and yet they did. They went further beyond any other conquest before them, more so than even Hernán Cortés did.

But how does this continue to apply to modern Spain? We are not, after all, engaged in any more sweeping wars of conquest nowadays (or wars at all, really). Plus Ultra has gone underground. Instead of being at the forefront of national actions, one can now see it reflected more in the people. The peaceful, determined, and phenomenally successful transition to a stable democracy that followed the end of dictator Francisco Franco's reign displayed this. Spain's economy displays this. At a time when many European economies are stagnant or even in decline, Spain's economy is showing a steady growth rate of 3% annually. Since the utter ruin of post-Civil War Spain is rising a renewed, invigorated economic force that is starting to stand on its own two feet. Despite fears that a housing "bubble" is forming, Spain's economy will likely continue to exhibit growth due to developments in other sectors, perhaps merely tempered somewhat by a cooling down of the real estate market. The Spanish people are consistently seeking ways to do more with their lives, and the economic growth reflects this. Like the myriad and iconic construction cranes that dot the Spanish landscape, Spaniards are standing up and building a better future out of what could have been a bleak outlook. Spanish vision, tenacity, and perseverance have overcome many obstacles in the past and will hopefully continue to do so in the future. That is Plus Ultra.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mercenary, Sellout, and National Hero: El Cid Campeador

I feel it's about time for a break from the depressing issues of terrorism and modern Spanish politics for a look into the past. And what better place to start than El Cid, the quintessential Spanish hero?

But who was Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar? It is hard to separate the myths and legends from the man of flesh and blood. Few details are known about his early life. He is thought to have been born c. 1040 AD in the small town of Vivar, reportedly the son of minor bureaucrat and cavalryman Diego Laínez. Details are murky, but by the time he resurfaces he is a soldier leading troops in battle, already having earned the title "El Cid" ("the sir" in Arabic). "Campeador" ("champion") was also added to his title some time after, although exactly when or how it happened to appear is not certain.

A romantic image is typically associated with El Cid: that of an unswervingly loyal knight, bravely doing battle again and again to counter the enemies of his Christian king Sancho II (and later Alfonso IV). The truth is more complicated. Though he likely served Sancho faithfully, upon Alfonso's rise to the throne he became a soldier of fortune, working for both Christian and Muslim interests. Whoever paid him the most acquired his services and those of his men, and thus generally victory. According to some accounts, he didn't even need an employer to pay him in order to do battle, wielding his own troops as he saw fit.

Though he tried to offer his services to King Alfonso IV at one point, he was turned down and banished from Christian lands. Working in his own interests, he laid siege to the coastal city of Valencia and established it as his own little secular chunk of Spain, ruling there from 1094 till his death of natural causes in 1099. Originally buried in a monastery in Castilla, his remains were later transferred to Burgos, where they were entombed along with his wife in a place of honor in the middle of the cathedral.

El Cid has become a part of the culture. Though few Spaniards could tell you his story offhand, souvenirs like replicas of El Cid's sword, which he named La Tizona, are commonplace. La Tizona itself is the centerpiece of Spain's Museo del Ejercito, or Museum of the Army. Burgos' main attraction is as the final resting place and town associated with El Cid, with its most recognizable monument being a statue of El Cid on his horse Babieca in one of the city squares.

But why does El Cid have such a powerful allure to Spaniards? Why do we call a man who fought against Christian Spain as much as for it a hero? The answer most likely lies somewhere in our values. El Cid was a free agent, a man who did what he pleased and what he felt was right. And, if you look closely, you can see this reflected in Spaniards today. Who is more free than a Spaniard? Who else runs with bulls or takes lunch breaks from two to four or hangs out until three every night? Perhaps in the burnished armor of El Cid we merely see reflected ourselves, and in this fact lies his appeal.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Puzzle of 11-M: Why Spain?

11 March, 2004: Thirteen blasts rock the Spanish world. In four coordinated attacks, terrorists blow backpacks containing explosives inside of Madrid's commuter trains, during the start of the early-morning rush hour. By day's end, 191 people are dead, and 2.050 injured.

Early in the aftermath, Prime Minister José María Aznar pins responsibility for the bombings on Basque separatist group ETA, a move that ultimately costs his party the next presidential election and draws fire as demonstrative of the ineptness of Aznar's administration.

Because the terrorists responsible weren't ETA. The terrorists responsible were Islamic, inspired by (though not necessarily all members of) al-Qaeda and similar fundamentalist cells. But why would Islamic fundamentalists attack Spain?

Most people you ask would say the attacks were due to Spain's involvement in the Second Gulf War, then blossoming as a full-blown insurgency. At the time, about 1.300 Spanish members of the Plus Ultra Brigade, an international conglomerate of 2.500 troops from Spain, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, had their boots on the ground in Iraq. But the role of the Spanish Army wasn't military, but humanitarian, spending most of its time disseminating aid to the surrounding population. With the exception of a few isolated skirmishes, the Brigade's guns remained silent, bound by severely restricting Rules of Engagement. So why, then, would al-Qaeda choose to strike at a country of no particular military importance in the war? What did they hope to achieve?

My theory is that the attack on Spain was symbolic, more psychological than tactical. Spain's involvement in the war was already limited and the Spanish population at best lukewarm in its support. It would not take much to prompt a withdrawal, which could then be seen as a victory. When Spain retracted its troops in the aftermath of the 11-M bombings, one must realize the important boon this must have been for al-Qaeda and the insurgency's recruiting: they had brought a nation to its knees and forced it to surrender before them. If they could do that to Spain, then they could do it to other countries, and maybe even the US. It was a proof of concept that the fight they were carrying out could be won: a morale booster and political statement.

Even now, the US is engaged in its own struggle about whether to withdraw from Iraq. In a sense, the jihadists are achieving the same end all over again. The tenacity of the insurgency and infighting in Iraq is creating political divisions and friction within the US government, friction that mirrors that within the Spanish government in 2004. When the next presidential election rolls around in 2008 and a new President is put in office, will the US find it time to give up on the fight as well?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

ETArras no - Why Zapatero should give up negotiations with ETA for good

Early in the morning on the 30th of December, 2006, a dream died. As smoke billowed from the blast crater left behind by a car bomb at Madrid's Barajas International Airport, Prime Minister Zapatero's hope for a permanent end to the fighting between the separatist group ETA and the government went up with it. Or should have.

But the fact is, Zapatero seems to retain his dream for peace with the violent Basque separatists. Though peace talks with ETA were cut off in the aftermath of the car bombing, the first violent incident since a ceasefire was called on the 22nd of March earlier that year, police response was uncharacteristically sluggish. Zapatero distinctly expressed a desire to maintain a chance of negotiations with ETA by ordering the talks put "on hold" instead of fully cut off. The truth of the matter is that there should never have been any negotiations with ETA, and there should certainly be no doubt that resuming them is out of the question.

Though frequent protests demonstrate that Spaniards, Basques and non-Basques alike, desire peace and an end to the protracted war of attrition between ETA and the government. But negotiating with terrorists doesn't bring peace. The moment you begin to negotiate with terrorists and acknowledge their demands is the moment that their cause is affirmed. If they see that their methods bring results, then what is to stop them from demanding everything and anything they want on the threat of continued violence? If governments give in to terrorists, then every dissatisfied member of society will begin to set up their own terrorist group to get what they want. Negotiations don't bring peace: they just sow more terrorism, and the 30th of December was merely a reminder of this fact.

So what should be the government's response? As in any case involving terrorism, a lack of mercy for all who would take others' lives in pursuit of their mindless goal. Members of ETA should continue to be rounded up and arrested without exception, put behind bars where they can't work on gathering funds or wiring car bombs and put to trial to decide a just punishment for their offenses. Let the courts decide what their fate may be; it will certainly be fairer than ETA's way of doing business, which is merely to kill, almost blindly.

If there is anyone that the government should show love to, it is the Basque people, most of whom do not advocate separatism and should not be lumped under the category of etarras but instead given the benefit of the doubt. But never again should the government bow down to the separatists, because it is overwhelmingly clear what results "negotiation" brings.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Who, What, Where, When, Why - The Principles of Journalism (and Blogging?)

I suppose that before I start to seriously delve into whatever I plan to blog about (nominally Spain), an introduction is in order. My name is Kenneth, a Spaniard currently hanging out in the US of A (not necessarily by choice). Though due to familial circumstances I hold citizenship in both nations, I must admit that I have always felt a much closer bond to Spain, an ardent patriotism and love for country that I simply don't get with the US. But maybe that's something to shelve for later.

'Plus Ultra' is the national motto of Spain. It is a Latin phrase meaning 'Further Beyond', which I like to think reflects a long-standing need and desire to go beyond the limits that have beset Spain since its formation. A look at Spain's history shows a nation that has somehow always managed to break free of shackles trying to hold it back, be they the Moorish occupation or political disunity, to find bigger and better things.

I'd like to make this motto pertain to my humble blog. As a broad mission statement, I aim to look at Spain's past and present and go further beyond just a superficial knowledge of events or happenings; I aim to consider the underlying significances and nuances of my subjects, with an eye on analysis of the issues and watersheds that have formed and continue to form a people, and to somehow come to understand this diverse and historied land.

The opportunities are endless. I guess that means I don't have an excuse not to pursue them.