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Spain's Heritage and Democracy


I cannot avoid noticing that the "rule of the people by the people" which is the basic principle of the democratic process seems to be more difficult to establish in countries of Catholic tradition than in those with a Protestant heritage. Particularly those of Spanish Catholic heritage.

The violent religious conflicts that shook Europe following the 16th century Protestant Reformation spared Spain in its peninsular isolation. The Protestant belief that man can be heard by God directly without the intercession of priests sanctioned by the hierarchy of the Church had little chance of contaminating Spanish minds subjected to the ever watchful Inquisition. Neither was Spain much influenced by Locke's concept of "man's inalienable rights" or of Rousseau's call for a "social contract" that spread through Europe at the turn of the 18th century.

In Spain, all truth came from God through the Pope and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and all power passed from above through the Monarchy and its delegates. The privileges of the Church and of the nobility were God given, therefore unchalengeable.

While Spain's absolutist monarchy and clergy squandered the riches they extracted from their monopoly of trade with their colonies, the rest of the world entered the age of enlightenment which led to the French Revolution and the American War of Independence. In the 18th century, Charles III expelled the conservative Jesuits and attempted reforms intended to favour the development of a bourgeois class in Spain but it was "too little, too late". After the French Revolution and Napoleon's occupation of Spain, a liberal constitution was drafted by the Cortes but Fernando VII revoked it, re-instituted the Inquisition and brought the Jesuits back. Spain had missed the boat and the struggle between pro-clergy Conservatives and anticlerical Liberals became a characteristic of the Spanish culture.

The American-born colonists or "Criollos" who seized power from the peninsula-born representatives of the Spanish crown had the examples of French and American Revolutions before them but they had been isolated from the world trends of thought and had not participated in the development of the human and social values that led to these momentous events. As they had never experienced anything but the autocratic rule of King and Church, it is not surprising that they adopted the same values and style as that of those they replaced when they gained independence from Spain.

Thus, 18th century Spanish Absolutist Catholicism set the table for all the caudillos, dictators and juntas that have plagued all of the ex-Spanish colonies. The people traditionally accepted that power flows down from the top of the pyramid because that's what they have been taught for generations. They knew that truth came from the infallible Pope at the top of the pyramid of the Church hierarchy and was passed down through the archbishops, the bishops and the priests. Furthermore they had been taught that they cannot reach God directly and that they were dependent on a priest to be pardoned for their sins by confession.

The rejection of this overwhelming respect for the authority of the Church was naturally radical whenever it occurred. It lead to excesses and instability for it was not tempered by the experience of power derived from a consensus at the grass roots level.

Personally, I don't think that it is only a coincidence that democracy in the ex-Spanish colonies is so different than what it is in predominantly Protestant countries where power is not God given.

Just compare for an instant what democracy means for Canadians, Americans, and North Europeans to what it means for Mexicans whose Institutionalized Revolutionary Party has been in power since 1910, or for all other Latin Americans whose countries have all been ruled by dictators or military juntas at some time or other. It is difficult not to see difference between the level of social disparity that exist in the two groups of countries. Nor is it possible to close our eyes to the high level of corruption encountered and often condoned in the countries that bear the heritage of Spanish Absolutist Catholicism. The privileges and corruption of Marcos in the Philippines were not exceptional in that context.


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