Spain’s Generation of ’86

by Joel Hernàndez on April 22, 2013

Protests in Spain - by BarcexSpanish literary historians like to classify authors by generation: the Generation of ’98 witnessed the disastrous Spanish-American War; the Generation of ’27 saw the Borbón monarchy collapse over the 1920s. Their literature, voicing a profound desire for national revival, found vindication in the 1931 proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic—an exuberant attempt at popular rule that would collapse at the mercy of the Fascist movements arising in Italy, Germany, and Portugal, and metastasizing within Spain itself. From 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Civil War would ravage the land and soul of the Second Republic, extinguishing the optimism of ’98 and ’27, and paving the way for four decades of Fascist rule under Generalíssimo Franco.

In 1977, the people of Spain cast their ballots in the first free election since 1936. A year later, they approved the Constitution of 1978, relegating Franquismo to the dustbin of history. Spain’s transition will celebrate its 35th birthday this summer.

This era of pluralism and democracy saw its greatest validation in Spain’s 1986 admission to the EU, in the diplomatic legitimacy tendered by the Madrid Peace Talks, and in the global recognition earned with the Barcelona Olympics. Thus came of age the Generation of ’86, the generation of Euro-growth, of full employment. What then, of these hopes? The Generation of ’86 now graduates, with advanced university degrees, into a decaying economy, where unemployment tops twenty-five percent and youth unemployment tops fifty percent; where a yawning deficit demands austerity, which in turn chokes any prospects of recovery.

To be fair, a crisis of this magnitude would sap the energy of even the most capable government. Yet Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s preoccupations are of an altogether different nature. His chief task has become containing Gürtel, the unraveling of a decades-old racket involving the ruling Partido Popular (PP), corrupted local PP operatives, and grasping real estate developers. After gathering steam for years, the investigation exploded in January 2013 when El País published the accounts of former PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas, revealing a seventeen-year history of suspected illicit payments to party leaders from a secret €38 million slush fund and the laundering €1.2 million euro in unlawful donations to the PP between 2002 and 2007. The PP suffered another shock in March, when El País published photos of Alberto Feijóo, governor of the province of Galicia and rising star within the party, vacationing in the mid-1990s with Marcial Dorado, a notorious drug dealer currently serving a fourteen-year prison sentence.

Crippled as the PP may be, its opposition offers no viable alternative. Although the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) made considerable social policy achievements during its 2004-2011 tenure in government, it is hopelessly tarnished by its complicity in fueling the speculative bubble that burst in 2008, and by then-Prime Minister Zapatero’s baffling failure to react to the subsequent collapse of the real estate and financial markets. Humiliated in the 2011 election, the PSOE has yet to recover even a shadow of legitimacy.

What of the monarchy? King Juan Carlos deserves profound esteem for relinquishing the absolute power that the dying Generalíssimo bequeathed him in 1975, instead choosing to steer Spain toward democratic rule. In 1981, the King took the lead in suppressing the Tejerazo, a coup attempt by monarchist officers against a young and still fragile democracy. Spain now faces, yet again, a critical juncture where calming action from the Head of State, if not a panacea, could prove a welcome stabilizer. The King, however, has no clothes. He has been disrobed by the Nóos scandal and the charges of tax fraud and embezzlement of public funds filed against his son-in-law, Duke Iñaki Urdangarin, and his daughter, the Infanta Cristina.

The trenchant, if unkind, words of Spanish commentator Enric Sopena perhaps best describe the situation: at a time of severe institutional crisis, with decisive leadership in dire need, Gürtel and Nóos have ground both Spain’s Head of Government and Head of State into a state of abject paralysis, rendering them pathetically incapable of exercising the authority of their offices.

What, then, of the Generation of ’86? The promise of the post-dictatorship era has wilted, pilfered by a corrupt and mediocre political class. Regeneration must come, but in which form? Is a fragmentation of the Spanish state, with the restless Catalans trying their luck with independence, a platform for revival, or merely an opportunity for regional politicians to divert attention from their own mismanagement and corruption? Is continued austerity a viable solution? Does the answer lie in closer integration with the European Union, or in asking, à la Beppo Grillo, to duck out? Spanish politicians have proved woefully unable to answer these questions. The Generation of ’86 now bears the dismal task of coming up with these answers, and of digging Spain out of the catacombs dug by its leaders.

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