Monday, November 1, 2010

Thoughts on...Nations, Minority Cultures, and Countries

Poster in downtown Sa
The Basque Country is an enigma.  After being here for a month I am still no closer to defining it - is it a country or a nation?  

We usually use the words interchangeably, but there is an important difference.  A nation is a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.  

A country is the next step -  a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory.  The Basques are a nation of three million people, but they have no country of their own.  So perhaps the Basque Country may be better defined as the Basque Nation

The Basque Country forces me to reconsider my previous understandings of nations, countries, tribes, and races.  It forces me to look backwards to pre-historic times to see how the tribes of Europe transformed into modern nations.  I look at Iberia, the peninsula that contains Spain and Portugal, and wonder how much different the map could look if things had been different. 

In short, the map of Iberia is a reflection of the geo-political status of Iberian kingdoms in the 15th century, while the Christians were pushing the last of the Muslim Moors back to Morocco.  

By that time, the pre-modern tribes of Europe had evolved into kingdoms, largely along ethnic lines. Some, like the Basque kingdom of Navarra, were weak at the time.  Others, like the kingdom of Castile or Aragón, were more powerful and they led the fight against the Moors.  To do this, they united all the separate kingdoms to fight a common enemy. 

Many different languages were spoken at that time and no single tongue was universally accepted as modern Spanish is today.  But the kingdom of Castile was unarguably the most dominant power and their language, castellano, is the language we now know as 'Spanish.'  

Over the centuries, the Castilians centralized and consolidated power to form the basis of the modern Spanish state.  All of the smaller kingdoms, including Portugal and the Basques, were eventually absorbed into the growing Spanish Empire.  

Portugal eventually won its independence, but the rest did not.  The Basques, the Catalans, the Gallegos, and the Valencians transformed from independent kingdoms into mere provinces of a Castilian-dominated country called "Spain".  Today they function as semi-autonomous regions, with the Basques and the Catalans exercising the most independence.  Many people in both regions want more than this - many want full independence.  

The essential conflict is that the geographical map of modern Spain does not reflect all the changes that have occurred in the last 500 years.  Castile (where I lived last year) may be considered the most 'Spanish' region, but today this agricultural region is one of the least-developed parts of Spain.  

By contrast, the Basque Country and Catalonia, arguably the 'least Spanish' regions, are the richest, most developed and cosmopolitan parts of Iberia.  This, of course, means they contribute a disproportionate amount of taxes compared to the rest of Spain.  

So I look at the map of Spain and wonder how things could have been different.  What if the Castilians had not been powerful enough to hold together all the separate kingdoms?  What if the Basques had gained independence instead of the Portuguese? 

The point is that these geographical and political demarcations are largely arbitrary.  If we assume that language is the basis of culture, which is the basis of nations thus countries, then the map of Spain must be re-written.  

For example, Gallego, the language of Spanish-owned Galicia, is much closer to Portugese than Spanish - should it be moved into Portugal, or be independent?  And Basque has nothing to do with any other language, so it should be off on its own, no?  Perhaps it is better scrap nations altogether, unite Portugal and Spain and rename the whole place 'Iberia.'  

The question that puzzles me is this - in the age of globalization, are we not moving irrevocably towards larger integration?  Take the European Union, for example - are countries not trading sovereignty for greater political integration?  Surely separation and nationalism is a thing of the past.  

Perhaps that is the case for those of us who are content with the way the borders currently lie, but not for everyone.  Regardless of where the country's borders lie, there are nations of people that know no political boundaries.  This one, the Basque Country, spreads across both sides of the Pyrenees as it has since the dawn of man.  Nothing is going to make it disappear.  

So I continue to walk the streets of Donosti, trying to piece together all the conflicting opinions and perspectives to forge my own understanding of this complex question.  This subject is incredibly controversial and it can be hard to get straight answers to my questions from anyone.  So for now I will keep thinking, keep trying to make sense of it all and report back to you what I can.

Wish me luck.  

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