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Letter From Spain

VALENCIA, Spain — The days of national mourning are gone and with them most outward signs of the pain, beyond the thousands of candles and bouquets that have turned the entrance to Atocha train station into a memorial. Regular service has resumed on the bombed rail lines in Madrid, with some passengers boarding in tears, others reaching the platform before turning on their heels and leaving, and near-panic attacks at the sight of backpacks.

But Spain will never be the same after March 11, and it’s no stretch to suggest parallels with September 11. The bombing already generated a seismic shift three days later, when the governing Partido Popular (P.P.) of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar suffered an electoral defeat at the hands of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist Party (PSOE) so unexpected it genuinely merited the headline “Stunning.”

But politics aside, March 11 is a before/after day that marks the end of “It can’t happen to us” innocence for the post-transition-to-democracy generation of teenagers and 20-somethings growing up with elections and racing to be as European as they can. Planes flying into Twin Towers is one spectacular, symbolic kind of trauma viewed from Spain, but backpacks flung into overhead bins on local trains is so mundane it may hit hard and may linger just as long.

No matter what political party is running the government, the security of the Spanish citizenry will now be priority number one. That means a commitment of financial resources diverted from other objectives, in a country starting from a serious high-tech disadvantage. Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, but my first encounter with scanners for carry-on baggage on intercity trains came only last May.

It could mean constraints on the delightfully free-and-easy social dimension of Spanish life, a bar-café culture where people go out to find, not lose, themselves. Especially in Mediterranean locales like Valencia, people favor meeting in public and all but live in the street during the hot summer months. Festivals like Las Fallas or Semana Santa (Easter Week) in Seville draw hundreds of thousands of people free-flowing through city streets for days. It’s impossible to make the events secure without losing their essence.

And one has to wonder if March 11 will prompt a backlash against the Moroccan community or the return to a more insular, Spain-only culture. Not to mention a rise in fear lurking at dozens of professional soccer games each weekend, or the annual summer festivals held in hundreds of towns, or for anyone simply traveling around in a country on public transportation.

But then, fear figured to rule the March 14 vote. When Joachim, a young German who lives in Valencia, asked on election night how I thought the vote would go, I said, “If people

vote their fear, it’s P.P.; if they vote their anger, it’ll go more Socialist,” and fully expected fear to win. Everyone knew an ETA connection aided the P.P. and an al Qaeda–Arab link favored the Socialists. Everyone figured that, at most, the latter might deny the P.P. an absolute majority in the Legislature . . . and everyone figured wrong.

Certainly the anti-war sentiment was crucial. But the vote was as much a slap in the face to Aznar for cumulative stonewalling arrogance, a legacy starting with the Prestige oil spill when fishermen in Galicia wound up scooping oil from the sea with their hands while the government washed theirs of responsibility. Adding Spain to the Bush-Blair camp despite an 85 percent to 90 percent popular opposition to the Iraq War and then the March 11 rush to ETA judgment and media manipulation were the final straws that made people snap.

 

Valencia jazz-bar owner Chevi Martinez came up with desfachatez as a good word for Aznar’s attitude, which translates as arrogance mixed with disdain for others, insolence and cynicism, or shamelessness and impudence. Incompetence is part of desfachatez, too, and there was no sign Aznar would suffer until the 10 backpack bombs revealed how his massively unpopular policy had failed disastrously in its pledge to make Spain more secure.

Another point to consider: The Spanish Constitution was only 25 years old last December, opening up the post-Franco era of non-rubber-stamp elections, so the right to vote is far from taken for granted here. People in Valencia have constantly asked me about the low turnout in the U.S., especially after the 2000 election.

I remember the spontaneous, nonpartisan “Basta Ya” (“Enough Already”) street demonstrations in response to the ETA kidnapping-murder of the young P.P. Councilman Miguel Angel Blanco in 1997. It left every political party and leader in Spain scrambling frantically to follow the popular lead. March 14 impresses as much as a reaction against a government attempting to put a partisan spin to another deeply shared sense of national grief.

So, that entire first wave of pundits interpreting the vote results, be it the Munich appeasement-of-terrorism rap or the sticking-it-to-Bush-the-II’s-Iraq-War-policy flip side, struck me as oh-so-U.S.-worldview-centric. Spain doesn’t exist only as an extension of U.S. policies, thank you very much. The lesson in the election results here is that people refuse to let their vote and voice be devalued, and instead take the democratic reins and remind their leaders who ultimately answers to whom.

Don Snowden is a freelance writer who has lived in Valencia, Spain, since 1997.