No more machismo?
In just two years, Spain has had the kind of cultural revolution the world rarely sees. And made it look easy
MADRID -- If you are searching for the soul of Spain, you need look no further than Emilio Menéndez. His 52 years have told the story of modern Spain: Born in a Castilian village to peasant farmers, he moved with his family to Madrid as a teenager in the 1960s. There, he served in the army of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, and then made a living as a craftsman under the stern watch of the dictator and the church.
In his comportment and personal style, you couldn't meet a more Iberian figure -- he looks, and acts, like a Cervantes character.
A few months ago, Mr. Menéndez became even more quintessentially Spanish: He married his boyfriend of 35 years, Carlos Baturín, in a lively ceremony with friends and family.
Last year, Spain became the third country, after Canada and the Netherlands, to allow same-sex marriage. To the surprise of many outsiders, this has been met with almost no controversy in Spain. Two-thirds of the population say they approve of gay marriage, and the rest don't seem concerned enough to raise much of a fuss.
"In the last year, we haven't heard a bad word," says Mr. Baturín, 60, a psychiatrist, who married Mr. Menéndez, a department-store window dresser, in a small village where the officials applauded them. "When we took the vows, we gave each other a big hug. The photographer actually had to ask us to kiss. We realized that we had never kissed in public before -- we grew up thinking it could land us in jail.
"Now, not only are people not bothered, but they expect it. Nobody's said a bad word to us -- even very conservative, old people seem to embrace what we are doing."
In a shockingly short period of time, Western Europe's most conservative and Roman Catholic country has come to embrace a great many things. When Socialist Party President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero came to power two years ago, amid the chaos of the March 11 al-Qaeda train bombings and public furor over the Iraq war, people expected his government to be weak and unpopular. In the 26 months since then, his party has overseen a cultural revolution on a scale nearly unprecedented in the modern West.
Gay marriage is just the beginning. Spaniards now also have full divorce rights, with no restrictions. Abortion and the morning-after pill are now legal and government-funded, and universally available. Gay couples have full rights to adopt children.
The church has lost all its power over schools, with religious education relegated to a distant option. Europe's toughest law against wife abuse was passed last year. More than 700,000 illegal African immigrants have been granted citizenship rights under Europe's most generous refugee and immigrant laws.
This year, the government introduced a law requiring all corporations to have at least 40 per cent women on their boards -- a reflection of Mr. Zapatero's own approach of making half his cabinet ministers women.
And, perhaps most strikingly, as of last month the country that gave us the word machismo now has a universal marriage contract that requires the husband to promise to take on 50 per cent of the housework and child-care duties.
In Norway or Sweden, these sorts of policies entailed long years of debate and controversy (and in some cases haven't been implemented). On the Mediterranean coast, they were unthinkable, even by reformist governments. Yet all evidence shows that the vast majority of Spaniards consider these new policies a realistic reflection of their values.
Hidden under the legacy of religion and conservatism, it turns out, were 40 million brown-eyed social democrats. It makes me wonder how many other repressive, religious countries are waiting to be similarly unveiled and liberated.
The most interesting thing about this transformation, I think, is that it is not being carried out by some revolutionary socialist party that is nationalizing the industries and shutting down the borders, declaring the sort of war on commerce and trade that has poisoned the left in many other countries. Despite its name, the Socialist Party has proved to be one of the most business-friendly regimes in Europe.
This week, Mr. Zapatero cut income taxes by 6 per cent. He has increased the number of long-term jobs by making it easier for companies to fire people (cutting the number of days' pay a full-time worker receives on termination to 30 from 45, which has inspired companies to end their addiction to temps and give people lifelong jobs), and done several other things to liberalize the labour markets -- the very stuff that induces riots and paralysis in France.
This has led many to rethink Mr. Zapatero, who in the months after his election was known as Bambi or the Zen President for his jejune, vanishing approach. "Other people wear the trousers," he told reporters shortly after his election. "I prefer to say that I bring sensitivity."
Elected in what many considered a fluke, he didn't seem ready to govern, and people didn't expect him to last long or accomplish much. We were wrong. This week, he is posed to begin negotiating a peace settlement with the Basque terrorist group ETA. If he succeeds, he could be president for a long, long time -- and the social reforms will keep on coming.
In fact, the key elements of this dramatic social policy (and many other things in his government) were not carried out by Mr. Zapatero himself, but by his Vice-President, who is currently the most popular politician in Spain. María Teresa Fernández de la Vega was known as a formidable feminist in opposition, and in government she has become a popular, if unlikely, Spanish figurehead.
When we met in her office in Madrid's presidential palace this week, she told me that she no longer considers herself an activist, but rather a mere public servant. But the project she described was anything but servile: "This is an historic opportunity, a unique opportunity, and most especially for women. Because women have been fighting to occupy positions of responsibility for a very long time. And now it's their turn."
It is characteristic that she said this, in her forceful lawyer's Spanish, while showing off her elegant designer threads for the photographer. Last month, she and her fellow female ministers caused a stir by posing for Vogue magazine -- a typical challenge to stereotype.
Spain's stereotypes may be shattering fast, but will it last? Only in the 1980s did the country break from almost five decades of dictatorship and religious authoritarianism. Franco's rule was overthrown, with the help of the king, but it did have quite a lot of popular support. Spain's last government, of conservative Popular Party leader José María Aznar, was happy to maintain the democratic reforms of the "first transformation" and modernize the economy during its eight years in power, but there was no hint of a cultural revolution waiting in the wings.
But in the view of Ms. Fernandez de la Vega, what we are seeing is a natural continuation of the transition that was begun, with Franco's overthrow in 1978, toward the "natural" Spain -- which is a country, she feels, that has more in common with the blonde democracies of northern Europe than with its matador stereotypes.
"This is a society which, in the last century, we went through a civil war, we had 40 years of a dictatorship," she said. "We reached Europe late, although now we're the first in Europe. Spanish society overall is very pluralistic. . . . As a society, it wants to progress. It wants to advance. Since the end of the dictatorship and the transition, we've managed to advance in a very short period of time -- in 30 years we've built a solid, modern democracy.
"What we are doing today is the outcome of those 30 years. Now we're living through this second stage of transformation, and I'm quite happy to say that we have become the most modern of governments. But even the conservative government has played a role in this growth, helping turn today's Spain into a nation that's growing into the eighth power in the world."
This is an interesting moment for governments such as hers, or those of Britain and Brazil. Ten years ago, it surprised people that progressive governments of the left could do free-market economics better than the right (even though Scandinavians had done it for decades). Now the drift is changing: Conservative parties are learning to adopt the social policies of the left, as exemplified by Britain's David Cameron. For Ms. Fernandez de la Vega, this is part of the plan.
"The policies of this government are policies that enjoy the support of the majority of our population -- even some of the measures being taken by this government that are now criticized by the right. When the right comes to government at some point in the future, they will not change them. They will go on with them, as has always happened in this country.
"In the nineties, for example, the right was against divorce, abortion and many other reforms. But today, that same right does not question divorce or voluntary interruption of pregnancies. And in the future, the same will happen again -- I can assure you that in a few years' time, that same right will even say that they were the ones behind our reforms."
This is a serious issue in many countries, since there is always the risk that they will fall back into the dynamics that poisoned the world after the Second World War -- a nauseating pendulum-swing between conservative austerity and far-left economic stagnation. South America, with the exceptions of Brazil and Argentina, has fallen back into this rhythm. It threatens many African states.
And many Spanish commentators have issued warnings: The social policies of the "first transformation," after 1978, were carried out mostly through a consensus of left and right-wing parties. This "second transformation" is unilateral, very much against the will of Mr. Aznar (who has descended into the margins, promoting a conspiracy theory that holds that the left planned the March 11 attacks to win the election).
Are the dramatic reforms polarizing Spain, creating a "second Spain" that is angrily waiting in the wings, like "blue-state" America under George W. Bush? After all, the Zapatero movement was elected in a blaze of angry anti-Americanism. It has turned against the U.S. and, to some extent, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Mr. Zapatero has pointedly embraced such economically authoritarian leaders as Argentina's Hugo Chavez, even selling arms to the Chavez regime. Isn't this a return to the "two Spains" of the past?
"Not really," says Charles Powell, the moderately conservative Anglo-Spanish director of the Institute for Studies in Democracy at the University of San Pablo in Madrid. "Zapatero doesn't like to use words like 'centre' or 'moderation,' the way his conservative predecessors did -- but he has not abandoned the centre ground.
"The enormous surprise in Spain, really, is how amazingly tolerant and laissez-faire Spanish society has turned out to be. France took 100 years to reach this realization. Germany took 150. But in Spain it has happened in a generation. But I think there's been enormous continuity. . . .
"The Socialists sometimes adopt this anti-capitalist, anti-free-market rhetoric to appeal to young supporters, but it's wrapped in an enormous taste for consumerism and commerce."
That's another big part of the second transition: A dozen years ago, when I visited Spain, I saw proud people in the cities wearing old clothes, living very traditional lives and getting by on little money. In many ways, Spain liberated itself by making money: Those snappy Zara shirts didn't just jazz up their wardrobes; they became one of the world's leading exports.
Ms. Fernandez de la Vega has realized that you can't break people from the painful constrictions of the past unless you make them well-off first.
"We need to have a healthy economy, good growth," she says. "Today in Spain, we are growing far faster than the European average, and that growth is enabling us to redistribute more and better -- because if you don't grow, you can't hand out more, and that's clearly the essence of social democracy.
"We are a government that believes in the market economy; and from that standpoint we believe that the economy should be liberal and unrestricted. . . . We're not interventionist as a government in terms of economy, but we are in terms of social policy."
Those interventions are likely to continue. "Our government is undertaking a different kind of policy, giving priority above all to individual rights, strengthening individual rights from a philosophical republicanism based on citizenship, citizens' rights, a secularism of popular sovereignty."
Then she offers a list of the "new-generation rights" that she would like to add during her next two years: "The right to good water quality, clean air, to sustainable development, the right to have an urban development that takes the individual into account, that takes people into account, and takes most especially women into account. . . .
"What we're going to do is to be enlarging, expanding the status of citizenship. Citizens should feel that they have greater rights recognized to them, and that their citizenship weighs more than it did before."
None of those things sound quite as simple as the cultural revolution of the past two years. Ms. Fernandez de la Vega is currently considering a pro-euthanasia law, which, as in northern European countries that have tried it, is unlikely to be as popular with the public. Her efforts to quell the Basque terrorist threat -- she is uncompromising in her desire to shut down ETA operations -- are not going to be simple, either, and failure could derail her government.
For now, Spaniards are getting used to their new lives. "I don't even really know what to call him," Mr. Menéndez says. The traditional Spanish appellation for husband, "my man," sounds ridiculously macho in this context. "Partner" and "lover" don't sound very good in Spanish, either.
"They're going to have to invent a new word, I think," Mr. Baturín says. "For now, I'll just call him Emilio."
EDIT/UPDATE: If anybody wants the "pretty" version of this news story to share with others, let me know and I'll use my subscriber privileges to email it to you.