The view from here

The world looks different from this little town in Spain than it did from New York, where I lived for more than 25 years. Especially, America looks different -- the U.S. of A. and all the other countries of that hemisphere.

To start with, the U.S. electoral process is hard to explain to Spaniards. How is it that that whole huge country can sustain a campaign of so many months, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people and costing millions or even billions of dollars, just so that the parties can choose their presidential candidates? Especially when, after all, there are only two parties, which should make things simpler than here. And why is that? Why has no third party emerged or survived, and why are there no important regional parties? The answers must be historical, geographical and legal, but back in the U.S., few of us ever raise the questions. I think they are things we should be asking ourselves -- there are alternative systems, representing a much wider range of views.

The campaign process fascinates Spaniards because so much here and everywhere else in the world seems to hang on the outcome. Or maybe not, because there's no guarantee that the next U.S. president, whoever he or she may be, will do anything about the most grievous of the problems created by his/her predecessors -- except probably closing down Guantánamo prison camp, as an embarrassment, though possibly continuing the tortures and abuses in other sites.

Hillary or Barack? my Spanish friends ask me. Gee, I don't know -- either one would open up the democratic process in the U.S., and that would be good. But how much difference will it make to the rest of the world? Nobody among the candidates has a convincing proposal for ending the war and undoing the damage to Iraq, and none even hints at a rational, comprehensive Mideast policy including a firm attitude toward Israel, such as cutting off support until that country begins obeying international law. And the lack of such a policy is a major stimulus (though not the only one) to the turmoil and violence spilling out from that region to Spain, Belgium, France, the U.K. and elsewhere.

The bizarre and complicated pre-presidential campaign in selected states of the United States seems likely to affect lives of everybody else, in some ways. But nobody knows how or -- except for voters in those selected states -- can do much about it. In a presidential system, the chief executive can get away with just about anything (invasions, wire-tapping, secret or overt funding of favored causes) as long as it doesn't affect the most powerful vested interests. That kind of power far beyond the country's borders seems really frightening, especially to people who don't even have the privilege of voting in the U.S. People who do have the privilege should be frightened, too.

The other parts of America also look different from here -- the parts that speak Spanish or Portuguese. Spain has complicated but basically good relations with those countries, most of the time, and takes them much more seriously than does the government of the U.S. For generations, migration flowed from peninsular Spain to those ex-colonies, where opportunities seemed much greater. Since the restoration of democracy in Spain and the 1982 constitution, that flow has been reversed -- because the economy has grown and civil rights have become much more secure than in much of Latin America. Spanish companies are heavily invested in every Latin American country, and the Spanish governments, national and regional, grant extensive aid in many of them.

But then, after looking from here at the globe, I turn back to Spain and see that a lot of what gets the media and some voters most excited is overblown. ETA terrorism is a real problem, but not one that deserves so much more press than the far graver threat of Islamist terrorism, which is international but includes Spanish institutions among its targets. The Islamists have killed many more Spaniards lately (Atocha, Casablanca), but the Basque ETA is useful in divisive politics -- the PP accuses the governing PSOE of being soft on ETA; focusing on Al Qaeda might foster national unity, which doesn't sell papers or mobilize party voters.

Behind ETA is the whole "nationalism" question, which seems archaic -- Do Basques or Catalans really want to become an independent new country in Europe? What would either of them gain, in terms of rights or economic benefits or anything else, in a Europe with a common currency and where national borders are becoming less and less relevant? As for the Basques, could they even really become a single, new independent country? For example, could the French Basques get along with the Spanish ones, or the sophisticated urbanites of Bilbao with the their rural countrymen? And could they even agree on what language, or which dialect of Basque, to use? What would they do about the very large non-Basque population of the so-called Basque Country? And so on -- questions that could only be settled by patient negotiations, not by bombs, kale borroka (street violence) or assassinations. Or by outlawing political parties.

And then there's "the Church" (because in Spain, there's only one billing itself as "the true Church"). Why does anybody pay attention to a group of robed fanatics so terrified by sex that they insist that their savior was born to a virgin? But those self-repressed men in purple have managed to infect others with their fears and close down perfectly legal abortion clinics in the past few weeks, creating enormous problems for hundreds of women. Some of those women have made their own internationalist response: they've maxed out their credit cards to flee to France, where the hospitals treat them courteously and professionally in the national health service.