La Ironía Es Un Plato Que Se Sirve Frío

For a blogger, discussing foreign affairs is strictly an academic exercise, sort of like complaining about our summer heat in Tucson. Nonetheless, sometimes, the irony of a situation is so rich that one must indulge his inner nerd and comment.

Last week, the news came that Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil, using terms like “decolonization,” has stated his government’s support for Argentina in its never ending dispute with the United Kingdom over Las Islas Malvinas the Falkland Islands. Margallo’s comments may have been an expression of Panhispanismo, a political movement which seeks to promote ties between Spain and its former colonies. More likely, they were part of an effort to secure international support in the ongoing dispute over Gibraltar, which has heated up recently.

British sovereignty over Gibraltar, as some may recall, has been contested by Spain for over three centuries, resulting in about a dozen battles and sieges, the most recent of which was the largest battle in the War of American Independence.

It would be easy to say that Spain’s position is ironic given the kingdom’s own history of conquest and colonization. Margallo’s own namesake and ancestor, General Juan García y Margallo became a national hero by being killed while enforcing Spanish colonial claims in Morocco in 1893. That is him in the picture at right, taking a bullet from an angry local tribesman. But it would be unfair to hold modern Spaniards responsible for things that happened decades or centuries ago, though they, and all of us have to cope with their legacy. It is especially unfair to do so in light of the fact that other nations, including Britain and even the United States, also have a problematic history in this regard.

No, Margallo’s comments are ironic because of Spain’s current situation.

Spain remains the only European power on the African continent. The Spanish flag flies over handful of plazas de soberanía (“Places of Sovereignty”), consisting of islands and coastal enclaves, and the kingdom’s last two presidios: the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, all along the Mediterranean coast of Morocco . Spain’s claim to these areas dates back to the waning days of the Reconquista, the eight century war (711-1492) to end Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula, and has been cause for dispute ever since. Back in 2002, Morocco landed a dozen troops on the uninhabited island of Tura Perejil, a contested rock in the Strait of Gibraltar, and raised a flag, prompting a brief diplomatic crisis which resolved nothing.

Spain argues against Morocco’s claims by arguing that, after 500 years, residents of these territories consider themselves Spaniards, and opinion polls support this position. When Spain’s economy was booming several years ago, there was talk that Moroccan immigration, much of it illegal, would make Spaniards in a minority in Ceuta and Melilla, there seemed a possibility that this might change, but this trend has reversed somewhat more recently as Spanish immigrants have crossed the Mediterranean from their economically troubled homeland to seek opportunity in Morocco. It could be argued that the presidios have been safety valve in this regard for both nations.

This being said, the nearly 3000 residents of the Falkland Islands, who are famously outnumbered by over fifteen to one by sheep, consider themselves British and want no part of Argentina. A referendum back in March confirms this. There is no indigenous population clamoring for foreign intervention to protect their sovereignty, nor is there an oppressed Argentine minority there calling for self-determination. Similarly, Gibraltar’s population is proudly and defiantly British.

In short, the United Kingdom’s arguments regarding the Falklands and Gibraltar and sound remarkably like the case for continued Spanish rule over its territories in Africa.

Ironic, dontcha think?

None of this is said to dismiss any of the very serious issues, or the centuries of historical baggage, that are playing out in these disputes. The pettiness and lack of seriousness with which we conduct our own foreign policy debates gives us as Americans little room to criticize others.

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