Spain’s Iberian Peninsula has been settled for millennia. In fact, some
of Europe's most impressive Paleolithic cultural sites are located in Spain,
including the famous caves at Altamira that contain spectacular paintings
dating from about 15,000 to 25,000 years ago. The Basques, Europe’s oldest
surviving group, are also the first identifiable people of the peninsula.
Beginning in the ninth century BC, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians,
and Celts entered the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans followed in the second
century BC and laid the groundwork for Spain's present language, religion,
and laws. Although the Visigoths arrived in the fifth century AD, the last
Roman strongholds along the southern coast did not fall until the seventh
century AD. In 711, North African Moors sailed across the straits, swept
into Andalusia, and within a few years, pushed the Visigoths up the peninsula
to the Cantabrian Mountains. The Reconquest—efforts to drive out the Moors—lasted
until 1492. By 1512, the unification of present-day Spain was complete.
During the 16th century, Spain became the most powerful nation in Europe,
due to the immense wealth derived from its presence in the Americas. But
a series of long, costly wars and revolts, capped by the defeat by the
English of the “Invincible Armada” in 1588, began a steady decline of Spanish
power in Europe. Controversy over succession to the throne consumed the
country during the 18th century, leading to an occupation by France during
the Napoleonic era in the early 1800s, and led to a series of armed conflicts
throughout much of the 19th century.
The 19th century saw the revolt and independence of most of Spain's
colonies in the Western Hemisphere: three wars over the succession issue;
the brief ousting of the monarchy and establishment of the First Republic
(1873-74); and, finally, the Spanish-American War (1898), in which Spain
lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. A period
of dictatorial rule (1923-31) ended with the establishment of the Second
Republic. It was dominated by increasing political polarization, culminating
in the leftist Popular Front electoral victory in 1936. Pressures from
all sides, coupled with growing and unchecked violence, led to the outbreak
of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936.
Following the victory of his nationalist forces in 1939, General Francisco
Franco ruled a nation exhausted politically and economically. Spain was
officially neutral during World War II but followed a pro-Axis policy.
Therefore, the victorious Allies isolated Spain at the beginning of the
postwar period, and the country did not join the United Nations until 1955.
In 1959, under an International Monetary Fund stabilization plan, the country
began liberalizing trade and capital flows, particularly foreign direct
Despite the success of economic liberalization, Spain remained the most
closed economy in Western Europe—judged by the small measure of foreign
trade to economic activity—and the pace of reform slackened during the
1960s as the state remained committed to “guiding” the economy. Nevertheless,
in the 1960s and 1970s, Spain was transformed into a modern industrial
economy with a thriving tourism sector. Its economic expansion led to improved
income distribution and helped develop a large middle class. Social changes
brought about by economic prosperity and the inflow of new ideas helped
set the stage for Spain's transition to democracy during the latter half
of the 1970s.
Upon the death of General Franco in November 1975, Franco's personally
designated heir Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon y Borbon assumed the titles
of king and chief of state. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of post-Franco
liberalization, he replaced Franco's last Prime Minister with Adolfo Suarez
in July 1976. Suarez entered office promising that elections would be held
within one year, and his government moved to enact a series of laws to
liberalize the new regime. Spain's first elections since 1936 to the Cortes
(Parliament) were held on June 15, 1977. Prime Minister Suarez's Union
of the Democratic Center (UCD), a moderate center-right coalition, won
34% of the vote and the largest bloc of seats in the Cortes.
Under Suarez, the new Cortes set about drafting a democratic constitution
that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in a national referendum in
Parliamentary democracy was restored following the death of General
Franco in 1975, who had ruled since the end of the civil war in 1939. The
1978 constitution established Spain as a parliamentary monarchy, with the
prime minister responsible to the bicameral Cortes (Congress of Deputies
and Senate) elected every 4 years. On February 23, 1981, rebel elements
among the security forces seized the Cortes and tried to impose a military-backed
government. However, the great majority of the military forces remained
loyal to King Juan Carlos, who used his personal authority to put down
the bloodless coup attempt.
In October 1982, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), led by
Felipe Gonzalez, swept both the Congress of Deputies and Senate, winning
an absolute majority. Gonzalez and the PSOE ruled for the next 13 years.
During that period, Spain joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) and the European Community.
In March 1996, Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party (PP) won a plurality
of votes. Aznar moved to decentralize powers to the regions and liberalize
the economy, with a program of privatization, labor market reform, and
measures designed to increase competition in selected markets, principally
telecommunications. During Aznar's first term, Spain fully integrated into
European institutions, qualifying for the European Monetary Union. During
this period, Spain participated, along with the United States and other
NATO allies, in military operations in the former Yugoslavia. Spanish planes
took part in the air war against Serbia in 1999, and Spanish armed forces
and police personnel are included in the international peacekeeping forces
in Bosnia and Kosovo. In a landslide victory, President Aznar and the PP
won reelection in March 2000, obtaining absolute majorities in both houses
Because of its experience with ETA Basque terrorism, the Aznar government
had made fighting terrorism a top priority. After the terrorist attacks
on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, President Aznar became a key ally in
the fight against terrorism. Spain backed the military action against the
Taliban in Afghanistan and took a leadership role within the European Union
(EU) in pushing for increased international cooperation on terrorism. The
Aznar government, with a rotating seat on the UN Security Council, supported
the intervention in Iraq.
Spanish parliamentary elections on March 14, 2004 came only three days
after a devastating terrorist attack on Madrid commuter rail lines that
killed 191 and wounded over 1,400. With large voter turnout, PSOE won the
election and its leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, took office on April
17, 2004. Unfortunately, the defeat of the Aznar government and the
subsequent removal of Spanish troops from Iraq, gave the terrorists exactly
what the wanted and rewarded them for the Madrid train attack. It
is probable that as a result, other nations will probably suffer terror
attacks during their electoral processes as Al Qaeda and other groups try
to influence international politics through violence.