The New York Times
March 31, 2004, Wednesday, Late Edition - Final
HEADLINE: HEADLINE: LETTER FROM EUROPE;
A New Future for Spain: Call It Social Socialism
BYLINE: By Elaine Sciolino
In the aftermath of the terror attacks here, it seemed that the advent of a
new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and his Socialist Party would
have its greatest effect in foreign policy -- the possible withdrawal of Spanish
troops from Iraq, the repair of damaged relations with France and Germany. But
the realization is dawning that the greatest effects may ultimately be felt in
Mr. Zapatero, it seems, thinks that his country should have a sexual and
The 43-year-old lawyer wants to legalize some form of gay marriage, rid
public schools and medical research of Catholic dogma, create nonpartisan state
television and enact laws eradicating sexism in Spanish society.
These are not just idle campaign promises. In a speech to Socialist leaders
last Friday, he said, "The time has come for extreme respect for the sexual
opinions of every individual, a time for a secular vision." His administration,
he added, will mark "the beginning of complete equality of the sexes, of the
unceasing fight against criminal machismo."
Mr. Zapatero wants nothing less than a brave new Spain, one that he said in
the speech would be "modern, cultured, tolerant."
At first, this sounds strange. As the world's eighth largest economy, growing
faster than most others in the European Union, Spain is certainly modern. And of
all the countries in Europe, Spain is already among the most cultured, tolerant
and socially liberal. This is, after all, the country that produced the
anything-goes filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.
One of the most enduring features of the post-Franco era has been the
celebration and protection of individual choice and freedom of expression, even
when it clashes with traditional Catholic doctrine.
That may explain why prostitution (but not pimping) is legal, and the
classified ads for the services are so explicit in both liberal and conservative
Or why Barcelona is one of Europe's leaders in the pornography industry, with
Private Media Group, a leading adult entertainment company, trading on Nasdaq.
Every year the city plays host to an erotic film festival.
Spain's gay community is vibrant, flamboyant and politically active. Drug use
by individuals in the privacy of their homes is tolerated.
Spaniards of all political colorations scoff at the puritan streak in
American politics that made the Monica Lewinsky affair such a big deal.
So why the need for radical change?
Most immediately, Mr. Zapatero wants to purge the country of the residue of
conservatism that marked Jose Maria Aznar's eight-year administration. Although
94 percent of Spaniards are Catholics, a recent survey indicated that only 12
percent of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 go to Mass every week, and
most Spaniards favor the strict separation of church and state.
Some changes will be easier than others. Last year, Spain passed a highly
unpopular law that would make religious instruction a required part of the
curriculum in public schools. Under the Zapatero administration, the law will
not go into effect.
As for gay marriage, some form of civil unions is already in force in most of
Spain's 17 autonomous regions, but there is no countrywide protection under the
law. Mr. Zapatero pledged in a television interview after the election to
introduce legislation to put gay unions "on the same footing as marriage," even
if he waffled a bit, adding, "Marriage is perhaps not the best word."
It helps that 68 percent of Spaniards favor gay marriage, according to a
Gallup poll in 2003 (compared with 58 percent in France and 47 percent in
Italy). But on the more delicate and contentious issue of adoptions by gay
couples, Mr. Zapatero has promised only to find "broad consensus."
Abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, a deformed fetus or the
endangering of the woman's mental or physical health. Although clinics routinely
employ psychologists who attest to the mental fragility of the patients, there
were efforts under the Aznar administration to prosecute doctors for flouting
the law. The Socialist Party electoral platform includes a proposal to change
the abortion law to allow women to terminate their pregnancies in the first 12
weeks for any reason.
On another level, Mr. Zapatero wants to spread Spain's wealth around. For
example, he has announced the creation of a Ministry of Housing to provide more
low- and middle-income housing for young people and new immigrants.
This undertaking coincides with an economic boom not seen in Spain since the
discovery of the Americas, and ridiculously low mortgage rates that have helped
produce one of the highest home ownership rates in Europe.
But Mr. Zapatero's most sweeping vision in domestic policy by far is to
transform the role of women.
Spain is still a country of gender inequality -- in the family, in the
workplace and in the public imagination. During his campaign, Mr. Zapatero
emphasized the fact that Spanish women earn 25 percent less than men do for the
same work, that Spain has one of the highest female unemployment rates in Europe
and that only 10 percent of its business executives are women. He said that each
year there were 50,000 reports of spousal abuse and that 500 women had died as
"victims of gender violence" in the last eight years.
His government, he has said, will make women respected in Spain, guarantee
equality between men and women, force men to contribute more to family duties
and even "eradicate machismo." Education, he added, is the key to changing
But it will not be easy to alter the fact that women in 84 percent of Spanish
households always or usually do the laundry, or that in 73 percent of the
households they always or usually prepare the next day's meals, according to a
2002 survey by Spain's Center for Sociological Research. And what about
help-wanted ads that routinely specify that only attractive women under the age
of 35 need apply? Or divorce laws that still favor men?
Asked in an interview in El Pais last week whether the sheer scope of his
domestic and foreign policy agenda made him dizzy, Mr. Zapatero replied, "I have
the advantage that I usually sleep well." A political cartoon published since
his election showed him sitting up in bed next to his wife, Sonsoles Espinosa,
reading a book on how to become a leader in three days.