The Spanish president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is having a tough time. No, on this occasion it is not the economy. Actually, it’s something far removed from our everyday concerns; it couldn’t be more far removed, in fact: the desert. Protests in the Morocco-occupied (and former Spanish colony) Western Sahara have been met with a violent clampdown, but the Spanish government has so far resisted calls to issue a condemnation. The government says it knows little of what’s going on there, and that’s true, since Morocco is detaining and expelling foreign journalists from the area. The government keeps saying it has to consider Spain’s higher interest, but the Spanish public is outraged. To an outside observer, this level of anger over a seemingly faraway land may seem excessive. And it is, in a way. The Western Sahara is one of Spain’s secret passions.
It all began with a lie. It was precisely 35 years ago, in November 1975. Back then Morocco pre-empted the referendum that should have led to an independent Western Sahara, in keeping with UN resolutions. The Sahrawi, whose flag sports the same colours as the Palestinians, counted on Spain’s protection. But in a clever move, King Hassan II of Morocco sent over the militarised border hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians (the green march) to force Spain either to back down or cause a massacre. Gandhi’s book annotated by Milosevic. The timing was perfect: Spain’s dictator, General Franco, was terminally ill, only days away from his death. In his last cabinet meeting, he had electrodes attached to his chest and a team of doctors was monitoring his heart from a nearby room. The electrocardiogram showed the precise moment in which the Sahara was mentioned. The pain the dying general felt was nothing compared to what the Sahrawi were about to feel – for in that cabinet meeting it was decided to hand the Western Sahara to Morocco.
In truth, it was all a sham. A pro-Morocco lobby had been at work in Madrid for years, preparing to circumvent the UN resolutions. Henry Kissinger had given his green light to the march and France didn’t want a free Western Sahara, either. Both feared an independent country could become a base for revolutionary Algeria or even the USSR. To make it more embarrassing, the whole thing was presided over by King Juan Carlos, then a prince filling in for Franco as head of state. The truth was too shameful, so Spaniards were told a lie: Spain had been duped, we were told, betrayed by Morocco. We did our best, it could have been war.
Since then, this lie has evolved into a dichotomy between what people feel on this issue and what the governments that represent them do. Successive governments keep paying lip service to the rights of the Sahrawi people while going about their business with Morocco and slowly eroding those rights. At the same time, thousands of Sahrawi children have been hosted by Spanish families, and Spanish film stars and NGO activists have been hosted at the refugee camp in Tindouf, where they show their support and stage the hottest film festival in the world. There is no more powerful emotion than love except guilt, and when it comes to the Sahara both are intertwined in the Spanish collective psyche. The Sahrawi cause is the only thing that has ever united left and right in this country of fraternal hatreds: the right wing sees it as a matter of honour, the left as a matter of justice. No wonder people are angry at the government.
What has changed this time is that Spain has been awoken abruptly from a comfortable dream and is just discovering at last that it was no more than desert mirage. For a whole country to learn at once what political cynical analysts have always known is a true shock. No, Spain is not the gallant defender of an oppressed people but an active poacher of their riches. No, the UN will not keep its promise of a referendum in exchange for the ceasefire the Sahrawi have been holding for 20 years. Yes, the Sahrawi made a mistake and lost all their negotiating power. Peace processes are not always what they seem. And yes, if they go back to war now, they will be described as terrorists. It’s only too fitting that everything that begins with a lie should end in a lie.
Miguel-Anxo Murado, a Spanish writer and journalist.