||Issue Date: 4 / 2007
The Iberian Case of Sibling Rivalry: Spain vs. Portugal
As in Scandinavia (see "The Scandinavian Case of Sibling Rivalry," April 2007), Iberia has witnessed a long struggle between a unifying common cultural-linguistic and religious heritage. Contrast this with bitter national envies and rivalry, which for a time enforced a union that threatened absorption of the "lesser" siblings (Portugal and Denmark). This period was then followed by a renewed independence and sense of a distinct determination to resist the "greater" rival (Spain and Sweden) with far-reaching imperialist ambitions.
A map of Spain and Portugal. (World Factbook)
Click image to enlarge.
Portugal as the "younger brother"
It was the Portuguese who first achieved independence by expelling the Moors and achieving national unity, and then established a far-flung colonial empire, only to lose out later in large part to Spain. The result was a prolonged feeling towards the neighbor as an upstart and arrogant "big brother." As late as the sixteenth century, Portugal's greatest national poet, Luis De Camões, could still reflect on the two lands' common heritage embracing all peoples of the Iberian peninsula. In his epic poem, Os Lusiadas, he referred to the Portuguese as "Uma gente fortíssima de Espanha" (Canto I, verse 31). He used Espanha in the traditional geographic sense of the entire Iberian peninsular.
It was however the great successes of Portugal's heroic explorers, seamen and cartographers that made such achievements in the Age of Discovery, and cemented the essential feeling of national character that made separation from Spain a mater of national pride rather than regional distinctiveness. The Portuguese love to reassert their imperial past that outlasted Spain's, even though the final remnants eventually disappeared after World War II (Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde islands, Goa, East Timor and Macao). Quite a few Portuguese, while bemoaning the loss of empire, at least have the satisfaction knowing that there are almost as many speakers of Portuguese as Spanish.
Some were therefore recently dismayed to learn that Brazil, the largest Portuguese-speaking nation, adopted a new educational curriculum making Castilian Spanish a required subject (as the obligatory first foreign language studied in all schools), and resent their great linguistic partner in taking what appears to be a conciliatory step.
What makes Portugal different?
Why did Portugal become an independent nation, whereas other parts of modern day Spain (Aragon-Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque country, Asturias, Navarre, Valencia, Murcia and Andalucia), with original vernaculars as distinct from Castilian Spanish as is Portuguese--and all with their own sense of identity--eventually become absorbed in a united Spain?
One factor is probably the very rugged mountainous terrain and low population density that characterizes the Spanish-Portuguese border region along the course of steep swift-flowing rivers. However, several renowned Portuguese historians and geographers have highlighted human and historical-dynastical factors rather than geography or language in explaining the reasons for the permanence of Portuguese independence.
Spanish role as the "resented big brother"
Observers point out that the Portuguese national character is more sentimental, ironic, mild, and even more melancholic (as can be hear so clearly in the lilting strains of Fado music). These characteristics are often held up as the opposite of Castilian culture. Two scholars who have dealt with this question at length find both cultural and geographical factors at work. Pierre Birot put it this way (Le Portugal; Etude de Geographie Regionale, 1950):
Thus, the typical characteristics that so gracefully distinguish the Portuguese soul from its peninsular neighbors, were able to ripen in the shelter of frontiers which are the oldest in Europe. On one side, a proud and exalted people (the Spaniards), ready for all kinds of sacrifice and for all the violent acts that inspire them to be concerned with their dignity; on the other hand a more melancholy and indecisive people (the Portuguese), more sensitive to the charm of women and children, possessing a real humanity in which one can recognize one of the most precious treasures of our old Europe.Oliveira Martins, the dean of Portuguese historians had this to say (Historia da Civilizacão Ibérica, 1897):
There is in the Portuguese genius something of the vague and fugitive that contrasts with the Castilian categorical affirmative; there is in the Lusitanian heroism, a nobility that differs from the fury of our neighbors; there is in our writing and our thought a profound or sentimental ironic or meek note…. Always tragic and ardent, Spanish history differs from the Portuguese which is more authentically epic and the differences of history are translated into difference in character.Intense Spanish pressure and forced dynastic marriage compelled the Portuguese to follow the Spanish example of expelling the Jews in 1497, a step that deprived Portugal of many of its best merchants, diplomats, mathematicians, geographers, astronomers and cartographers. Feelings of resentment were aggravated by Spanish attempts to absorb Portugal, which temporarily succeeded from 1580-1640 (a period known as "The Spanish Captivity"). It was a political mistake that only encouraged a strong and proud reaction that cemented the identity of an independent Portuguese nation, a separate state and culture. Imagine what problems Spain would face today, if, on top of the current separatist agitation in the Basque country and Catalonia, Portugal was another antagonistic region.
There is great resentment too that Portugal during the period of the Spanish Captivity was drained of its resources and forced to provide much of the timber, a substantial number of ships and crews and its nautical expertise as part of the doomed "Invincible Armada" in the foolhardy attempt by Spain to invade England in 1588 and restore the Catholic faith there as the state religion.
The Portuguese often sadly reflect that their loss of empire was the result of attempts to seize control of much of Morocco and North Africa from its base in Ceuta. There they faced a numerically superior enemy armed with equivalent firearms, while the Spaniards obtained much of their great empire in the Canary Islands, Mexico, Peru, the Americas and the Philippines by fighting people who possessed a Stone Age technology.
Why is Galicia Spanish and not Portuguese?
In today's Spain, the Constitution grants three autonomous provinces (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) control over their cultural identity and educational systems. The result is that these areas are in part bilingual and the "minority" languages are recognized by the local administration and courts as equal to Castilian Spanish.
Galicia, in the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsular, has been closely associated with Castile, the heart of Spain for 600 years though its climate, vegetation, indented Atlantic coastline and language resemble Portugal more closely than the rest of Spain.
At one time in the Middle Ages, Galician and Portuguese were identical and have only slightly diverged since then. How and why Galicia came to be part of Spain rather than Portugal proves that the cherished ideal of may poets, patriots and philosophers that "language is the heart and soul of nation" is not necessarily so. If it were, then Galicia should be part of Portugal.
The reason for this doesn't have to do with history. The region was liberated from Muslim rule before the independence of Portugal with the help of nearby Asturias-Leon, the minor kingdom that later became absorbed by Castile. The early development of an important pilgrimage site in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia tied the region effectively to Castile, even though the spoken Galician language (Gallego) more closely resembles Portuguese than Spanish.
The Olivença border question
There has also been a lingering border dispute between Spain and Portugal that continues to be officially "unresolved." Spain seized the border town of Olivença from Portugal during the Napoleonic wars in 1801 and has subsequently refused to return it, in spite of several treaties promising to do so. This is the only border dispute between two members of NATO.
The town (population of less than 9,000) is located along the left bank of the Guadiana River, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) to the south of Badajoz. Together with seven small villages, the area of 750 square kilometers (about the size of Singapore) has a population of about 12,000 people. According to the Portuguese, the present population is descended from Spanish settlers who dispossessed the original Portuguese population in the mid-nineteenth century.
Although both governments ignore the problem and the local population today is thoroughly Spanish in outlook, an activist pressure group called O Grupo dos Amigos de Olivença keeps the issue alive through demonstrations and propaganda. It maintains that Portugal has right on its side through historic treaties agreed to by Spain, more than Spain has in its claim to regain Gibraltar from the British.
The official Portuguese position, reiterated many times during the long dictatorial rule of Prime Minister Salazar and over the last twenty-five years of democracy, as well as in international forums for the settlement of boundary questions, is that Olivença de jure belongs to Portugal and no Portuguese government official has ever refuted this.
It is an embarrassment, since so much legal evidence through treaties supports the Portuguese case--yet both governments have agreed to simply regard it as a dead issue. For the "Friends of Olivença" this is due to Portuguese subservience. The group maintains a website and continually researches the extent of Spanish involvement in the Portuguese economy, pointing out that many firms employ cheaper Portuguese labor and market goods as "Made in Spain."
World War I trauma in Portugal
Relations between the two countries have been marked by mutual suspicion, fear and scheming. The successful Portuguese revolution in October 1910 deposed the corrupt monarchy and established a republic, setting an example that remained a nightmare for the Spanish monarchy. Overnight, the Portuguese broke with the past by introducing a new flag, national anthem, separated church and state and adopted a new constitution as well as ending the monarchy--all anathema to the ruling circles in Spain.
Fears that Germany and or Britain would conspire to deprive Portugal of its African possessions made Portugal's leaders uneasy. They feared that Spanish King Alfonso XIII was playing with the idea of Spanish aid to the Allies in World War I and eventual entry into the war in return for British recognition of a Spanish "re-integration" (conquest) of Portugal. This scheme encouraged Portugal to outbid Spain to enter the war.
Spain remained neutral and devoted itself to serving as a meeting ground for peace advocates. Alfonso XIII even succeeded in using his personal prestige to back several humanitarian projects, such as putting pressure on Germany to persuade its ally Turkey to rescind the expulsion order against the Jews of Jaffa in Palestine. These measures only increased Portuguese suspicions that Spain was seeking publicity and capitalizing on its neutrality to gain increased recognition and prestige on the international stage.
Fear of losing their independence and their African colonies in the event of a German victory drove the Portuguese to enter the war on the Allied side in 1916. The British had no problem in promising the Portuguese they could keep what they already had of their colonial empire, whereas they were hardly ready to bargain away their important naval base in Gibraltar in order to buy Spain's promise to join the Allied side.
The popular reaction to Portugal's disastrous losses in the trenches of France provoked a renewed debate over the country's individuality. For many, it was the outrageous and exaggerated sense of the "Spanish danger" that had impelled the leaders of the various factions which made up the Republican movement to actually force Britain to accept Portugal as an ally.
The Portuguese leaders were aware of the schemes and secret treaties that had been made by Germany and Britain to eventually dispose of Portugal's great African empire in the event of serious disorders affecting mainland Portugal or its African colonies (a British anti-slavery society was also extremely critical of Portuguese colonial policies). They feared that the Spanish government, anxious to restore the Portuguese monarchy, had schemed with exiles and even aided insurrection and would always be waiting in the wings to march on Lisbon unless Portugal could prove its worth as an ally of Great Britain.
Ironically, it was the most conservative and pro-German of the Republican leaders. Sidonio Pais, who seized power in a three-day armed uprising in early December 1917, and promised to limit further Portuguese participation in the war and grant full democratic rights to the country's largely illiterate peasant population, who had been sent to the front as cannon fodder to rescue and save the Republic and the Empire. The more radical Republican leaders had denied them the right to vote and entered the war without any popular mandate.
Portugal's lament at the Versailles Peace Conference
Some Portuguese nationalists hoped to regain Olivença as a reward for participation on the Allied side in World War I and prepared a legal case to present at Versailles. This was a thoroughly utopian hope. Portugal received a disputed border town that the Germans had occupied and the promise of reparations--less than throwing a bone to a hungry dog as a reward for its sacrifices. Moreover, the British had no intention of offending Spain. In fact, Portugal had to face the humiliation that in spite of its contribution and grievous casualties it was Spain that was rewarded with a seat on the Council of the League of Nations at the suggestion of President Wilson.
As late as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and in spite of Portugal's aid to General Franco and the friendly alliance between him and President Salazar of Portugal, part of the Portuguese High Command schemed to seize Olivença. However, the Fascist uprising quickly took control of the town and the military commanders were decisive in expelling any local sympathizer of restored Portuguese sovereignty.
The rivalry continues in World War II
Another important consideration of the differences between the two countries was their role in World War II and the strategic importance of Portugal's Atlantic islands, especially the Azores. These "stepping stones" on the way to America were seen by the German High Command as critical for a naval blockade against American supply of Great Britain by sea. German control of the islands would have aided their U-boats in posing an even greater threat to Allied shipping.
In 1940, on the 300th anniversary of Portugal's renewed independence, a leading Spanish magazine editorialized that it was "God's will that the two countries be united again." In April 1941, President Roosevelt declared that the Azores lay in the Western Hemisphere, implying that they came under the protection the Monroe Doctrine.
Their significance for the American and British navies was paramount. Whereas General Franco maintained a position of non-belligerency favoring the Axis (even permitting Spanish volunteers to fight alongside the Germans on the Russian Front), and then switched to "strict neutrality," the Portuguese knew where their most vital interests lay. In June 1943, they permitted the British to invoke their ancient alliance with Portugal and use and develop the airfields on the islands. Following the war, Portugal was an honorable ally and invited to join NATO, while Franco's Spain remained a pariah state for another decade and was not admitted to the United Nations until 1955.
The new harmony
The two countries have drawn closer than ever before, due to membership in NATO and the European Community, and especially following the establishment of democratic regimes following the long dictatorships of Franco and Salazar, and the loss of their last colonial possessions. American policy in the current war in Iraq was fully supported by both Prime Ministers Jose Maria Aznár and Durrão Barroso of Spain and Portugal, respectively. Both leaders highly valued their traditional ties with Great Britain and the United States, although recent elections have produced a sharp shift to the Left in both countries who now look more towards France than the United States.
Iberian cooperation is still a delicate flower. More could be done to increase public awareness of events and issues in the other country. In the Spanish press and media particularly, there is extensive reporting of international events from all over the world, but little coverage of Portuguese affairs and there is still no direct highway link connecting Madrid with Lisbon. The two Iberian "brothers" are more like quarreling cousins who have come closer together in old age.
For related articles, visit The World & I Online eLibrary archives:
--"The Scandinavian Case of Sibling Rivalry: Sweden vs. Denmark," by Norman Berdichevsky, April 2007
Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Ocala,
Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in Human Geography from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of
The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press,
2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland &
Co., Inc., 2004) and Spanish Vignettes: An Offbeat Look
into Spain's Culture, Society & History (Santana Books,
Malaga, Spain. 2004). He is the author of more than 175
articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of
American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals.
Dr. Berdichevsky teaches Literature, English, Geography,
History and Creative Writing at the Central Florida Community
College in Ocala, and he writes a regular monthly column for
the online publication New English Review.