A World to Win News Service

Backfire: Spanish Government Ousted Amid Upsurge Against Iraq War

Revolutionary Worker #1234, March 28, 2004, posted at rwor.org

15 March 2004. A World to Win News Service. A year after the Azores summit when George Bush, Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar sealed their formation of a coalition to invade Iraq, Aznar's government has been unexpectedly and humiliatingly driven from office. The government counted on the people's pain after the 11 March Madrid train bombings to make them docile and grateful for a strong hand to protect them. Instead, in a rapidly escalating series of events, grief turned into anger--anger at the government's lies and manipulation of the facts surrounding the deaths of 200 people, and most of all, anger against the war.

Within two hours of the rush-hour attacks, government representatives announced that the Basque organization ETA was responsible. The Interior Minister said that there was "no doubt whatsoever." The Foreign Minister sent Spanish ambassadors around the world instructions to "use every opportunity" to get that message across. Aznar personally phoned the editors of the major privately owned media to hammer this home. Government-run media pressed the same message and censored reporters who didn't go along with it. The UK government backed Aznar in this assertion. In the U.S. the chief State Department spokesman made a point of explicitly pointing to "the threat Spain faces from the evil of ETA terrorism," although for their own political purposes it was easy to foresee that the Bush government would switch over to blaming al-Qaida after the Spanish elections. Later U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tried to explain this away by saying, "ETA and al-Qaida are the same thing." This may have been Aznar's plan as well.

The Spanish government and its allies abroad insisted on the ETA claim when they did--before facts about the bombings were known--because they felt they had to. With the elections only three days away, Aznar's Popular Party (PP) was eager to use the dead and injured against the rival Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Some months ago a Socialist official in the Catalonia region had held negotiations with ETA, which in turn declared a regional cease-fire in January. The PP made the accusation that the PSOE was "soft" on the ETA, a central campaign theme. More deeply, Aznar wanted to further the vicious campaign against the Basque nationalist movement that both his party and the PSOE have pursued when they were in office. But most basically, there was a fear that if the blasts were attributed to Moslem fundamentalist forces and tied in with the Iraq war, then people would react by blaming the Aznar government for dragging Spain into that war in the first place. This fear turned out to be very well founded.

Aznar's plan began to go wrong from the start. The fact that he had ignored the will of 90% of the people, according to all the media, and enlisted Spain alongside the U.S. had made millions mad. In the weeks before the war was launched, almost every city in Spain had seen enormous, repeated demonstrations. As in the other countries that threw in their lot with Bush against the clearly expressed wishes of the people, Aznar's decision revealed something about the fundamentally dictatorial nature of the state, despite the existence of elections. After Aznar's downfall an observer commented that the "15 February spirit" (the day of global protests in 2003) had not been extinguished when the U.S. ignored the antiwar movement and started the war anyway, but rather smouldered underground.

Further, along with hatred of the war, there were two other major elements in the people's sentiments that have to do with the fascist rule under Francisco Franco (1939-1977). One is the experience of fascism and the very powerful and often revolutionary movement against it still marks Spain, despite the so-called pact of silence after Franco's death in which the post-Franco forces, the Socialists and the other major parties agreed to throw a thick blanket over the past. Aznar was a member of Franco's Falange and his party is rooted in that fascist movement. The other is the fact that the U.S. propped up Franco's dictatorship for more than three of its four decades, in return for American military bases in Spain. Those bases are still there and played a vital role in attacking Iraq.


These factors created a stage on which Aznar's scenario was bound to run into trouble. But there was a problem with the script itself: it was based on lies that quickly began to unravel. It is not true, as Aznar's ministers and other representatives claimed, that in the past ETA has deliberately targeted ordinary people. Its most famous target was Franco's prime minister and appointed successor, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, and on another occasion, Aznar himself. Nor was it true, as the government said, that the explosive was a French product ETA had used in the past; by the day after the attack, when an unexploded bomb was found, it became known that the explosives were made in Spain. Further, a phone call from a known ETA "channel" and a Batasuna spokesman speaking from France (the Spanish government recently banned this electoral party for not condemning ETA) denounced the action. They denied that the Basque movement was involved in any way, and called for people to go out in the streets.

But apparently the argument many people found most compelling was political: how would it serve the ETA's cause of Basque self-determination--a goal shared by most Basque people and even Basque parties totally opposed to ETA--to carry out such a massacre, and if it wasn't ETA, then why was the government so insistent that it was?

The day after the attack, millions of people marched in the pouring rain all over the country. In some cities, a majority of inhabitants turned out. Leading the march in Madrid were the leaders of all the parties and heads of many European governments, along with the king Franco had picked out and put on the throne (and made head of the armed forces) to ensure the continuity of the Spanish state after his death.

There were contradictory sentiments and forces at work. One major theme was the unity of all of Spain's people. Sometimes this was put in opposition to ETA's supposedly "racist" attacks on the "Spanish" people. But many people came out in the streets with the feeling that the government was at fault. This was very explicit in the Basque region, where slogans at the huge marches included, "Aznar murderer!" "No to the war!" and "Down with oppression!"

People interviewed in Madrid and other cities shared similar sentiments. The prevalent peace signs and symbols had different meanings for different people. Many signs expressed opposition to all violence. Some said, "We are all Madrid" or "They were killed for being Spanish--I am Spanish." Others said, "No to the war," "For all the victims in Iraq and Ma- drid" and "We are all Iraqis." People chanted, "Murderers," but there was angry debate over whether the murderers were Basques, Arabs or the government. According to newspapers, the most popular chant among the more than two million people in Madrid was "Quien ha sido?" (Who did it?). Others cried, "Liars! Liars! Liars!"

In Barcelona, where the desire for self-determination of the Catalan people runs deep, at the end of the march demonstrators starting shouting "Murderers!" at government representatives, who had to be protected from the crowd by the Catalan regional government police. According to El Pais , of the more than a million people present, "the majority associated the massacre with Spain's involvement in the Iraq war."

Recently, when the Catalan governing party dedicated to elections had asked to negotiate more autonomy from the central government, Aznar arrogantly announced he wouldn't even listen. Many demonstrators in Catalonia carried signs proclaiming their solidarity with the inhabitants of Madrid but not the Madrid government. Like Aznar's banning of Batasuna--prohibited from running in elections because its votes show that an important section of Basque society, especially youth in the working class cities, consistently support ETA--government policies towards Spain's various oppressed nationalities weakened the appeal of Aznar's call for the unity of all "Spaniards."

In Andalusia, Moroccan farmworkers joined the protests against the bombings. Steelworkers involved in violent clashes with police last month held a demonstration with the slogan, "Aznar, this is what your war has brought us."

An incident that day in the Basque city of Pamplona concentrated the clashing political currents. A policeman shot and killed a Basque storekeeper who refused to put an anti-ETA sign in his window. The cop turned himself in to the authorities, expecting, many people said, to enjoy impunity. Basque nationalists setting up a memorial outside the shop were assaulted. Yet despite an atmosphere of hysteria and demonization of Basque nationalism and even Basque people themselves in the first hours after the bombings, there was a determined and growing counteroffensive by people in the streets of the Basque cities.


By the second day after the attacks, a Saturday, the tide began to shift very rapidly. Instead of going home as they were supposed to, people were continuing to protest and their political aim sharpened. Because there were less than 24 hours before the elections, demonstrations were illegal. The police were put on alert and there were preparations to unleash them.

In Madrid, reporters were surprised to see people watching the afternoon football game in cafés and bars cheer goals scored against Real (Royal) Madrid--known to be Aznar's favourite team.

In many cities all over the country, throughout the day a few hundred people at a time would start marching from one or another location (in Madrid, the train stations where people were killed) and end up at the local headquarters of Aznar's party. In some cities, this happened over and over again at different times of the day, apparently relatively spontaneously. They shouted "PP murderers" and "Aznar, Franco, same fight!," stoned the buildings and threw debris. In Pamplona, youth hurling stones and bottles battled with police firing rubber bullets. A slogan was against "the crimes of the state," a reference to the murdered shopkeeper, the bombings and the war. Elsewhere there were skirmishes, but the police did not attack. In Madrid, people chanted, "Aznar, you're the guilty one" and "Aznar, we'll see you at The Hague" (at a war crimes trial). At 9 p.m., the government warned that no more "illegal gatherings" would be tolerated. In Madrid, as in many cities, swelling crowds surrounded the PP headquarters and banged on pots and pans as loud as they could or honked car horns.

Many thousands did the same in Barcelona. Similar scenes took place in Seville, Grenada, Bilbao, Taragon, Zaragossa, Gijon, Santiago de Compostella, Burgos, Alicante and many other cities. At 2 a.m. Sunday the authorities once again warned that all this was prohibited. It went on all night long, until Sunday morning, when against all expectations 77% of potential voters in disorderly and raucous crowds turned Aznar's government out of office.

It is widely agreed that a great many people who did not intend to vote at all ended up casting their ballot, in their own thinking, not for Aznar's rival Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, but against Aznar. This may be what people meant in the widespread chant in celebrations after Aznar's ouster, this time directed at Zapatero: "No nos falles!" (Don't let us down!") One of the main reasons why Aznar's party was almost universally expected to win was that so many people who had previously voted Socialist had become thoroughly disgusted with the PSOE during its dozen years in power. Even some people who had planned to vote for Aznar were furious at being lied to.

Another factor in predictions of Aznar's victory was that people were expected to "vote for their pocketbooks." Under Aznar Spain has had more economic growth than most European countries. Some observers thought that was enough for Aznar to be forgiven. But the shock of the bombings and then Aznar's attempted manipulation brought what was supposed to be a remote "foreign policy issue" to the forefront.


What made this election result possible was not, however, just the fact that most people in Spain opposed the war. The Spanish ruling class was itself divided over the question of the country's foreign alignments--just as it was in the civil war. Important ruling class forces do not believe that their interests now lie in joining with the U.S. against France and Germany. The relationship of Spanish imperialism to U.S. domination of Latin America, for instance, where Spain is becoming the primary investor, is a complex one, as is Spain's current partnership with France and rivalry with the U.S. in exploiting Morocco. Iraq is just not as important for Spain as it is for the U.S. If there were an attempt to drive Spain out of Morocco, which in some ways is to Spain as Mexico is to the U.S., the Socialists and the PP would probably unite in a single war party.

It goes without saying that Zapatero's party is no more "socialist" than his fellow social- democratic leader Blair or Germany's Schroeder, or former U.S. president Clinton. The Iraq war was one of the few points where there was much difference at all between the programmes of the two Spanish parties. In fact, the PSOE's combination of anti-Franco credentials and essential unity with Franco's heirs on most issues is a big reason why the Spanish ruling class was able to switch from open fascism to elections. Exemplifying the continuity of the policies of the Spanish state, for many people, was the "dirty war" the Socialist government waged against Basque nationalists in the 1980s. At least 28 Basque refugees in France were murdered by Spanish government death squads, often using explosives supplied by the U.S. military, many of them by "mistake," as Socialist authorities later admitted.

What Zapatero will do now is not clear. In his speech the morning after the election, he said he would withdraw Spain's troops when the U.S.'s puppet provisional government takes over June 30-- if by then the United Nations has not agreed to take over. This is a very big if. An occupation under the UN signboard would be no less an unjust occupation. If it were much less than an American-dominated occupation, the U.S. isn't likely to agree to it. Bush's Secretary of State Colin Powell said, after the Spanish elections, that in his opinion an acceptable UN agreement is possible. The people of Spain never approved of the war, and when they got a chance they voted against it, but whether or not the government they have now elected really ends Spanish participation in that war remains to be seen.

If the troops are withdrawn, there could be a series of cascading consequences. Although the 1,300 Spanish soldiers are only 1% of the total, as the U.S. likes to point out now, their departure is likely to lead to a withdrawal of Dominican Republic and Central American men under Spanish command. It would cause very serious problems for the Polish forces who were counting on Spain to take over leadership of the south-central sector. Analysts foresee Spanish withdrawal as stepping up pressure on Poland and Italy to leave as well, both because of the military difficulties and the encouragement that would give to the antiwar forces. The already tattered myth that the U.S.-UK axis is part of a broad coalition could collapse completely. Bush's Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell lent their weight to Aznar during his campaign and spoke openly of the importance of his victory for the U.S.'s goals.

Now Bush's henchmen are muttering to the media, "al-Qaida won the election in Spain." What could be a better illustration of what Bush's project is really all about than this outrageous sentence? If you're "with us," then who cares how many dead and injured there are or what kind of filthy things you do, you're "democratic." If you're "against us," then even if all you've done is given in to the people, then you're a "terrorist" or a "terrorist ally."


In the end, contrary to what political figures in the U.S. and Europe are saying, it was not the train bombings that "punished" the Spanish government for supporting the war in Iraq. Whoever was behind the attacks, the Spanish government tried to use them to its advantage and for its own warlike purposes. The Aznar government was punished by the people of Spain who rejected the line of national unity against "terrorism." The policy of the big lie--of which Bush and Blair are the most infamous practitioners--was dealt a crushing defeat. This just twists the knife into the political pain felt in Washington and London. All in all, it is a very bad sign for Bush, Blair and their very junior partner, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

Many governments in Europe, and not just Spain, are preparing public opinion for a "European 11 September" so that they can appeal for national unity around their imperialist interests the way Bush has done in the U.S. Maybe they should take warning from Aznar's failure.

In fact, his disgrace is a concrete manifestation of the political instability the U.S.-led war on Iraq and the Iraqi resistance is continuing to provoke not only in the Middle East and in the world as a whole but within the "coalition" powers themselves.