Spain, Morocco, Sahara and Haidar

The desperate state of Aminatu Haidar (her given name is spelled various ways), who is near death in her hunger strike in the Lanzarote (Canary Islands) airport, has driven Spain's perennial big stories -- corruption and climate change -- from the front pages. Why has such a personal act by a woman who is not a political leader or even a Spanish national got the country in such a tizzy?

She is from Western Sahara, which was a Spanish possession from 1885 until 1976. Before that it had been part of the very large, amorphous and lightly governed kingdom of Morocco, its population (sparse) of Berber, Arab and/or Moorish (Mauritanian) origin. In those 90 years of Spanish control, peninsular Spaniards migrated to administer the territory and exploit its resources, and the native population was to some degree Hispanicized -- schooled (the lucky few who got to school) in Spanish, ruled by Spanish law, some of the people converted to Catholicism. In 1956, the Kingdom of Morocco gained its independence from France and Spain, but Spain held on to Western Sahara for 20 more years against military pressure and a "Green March" (a large civilian mobilization) organized by Morocco. Mauritania and Algeria were also eager to share in the decolonized region, which was especially attractive to Algeria because of its Atlantic coast. But when Spain finally pulled out, Moroccan troops defeated Mauritania and the Algerian-backed Polisario movement and took control. The Polisario guerrillas and many civilians fled into the neighboring desert wasteland of Algeria, where they set up refugee camps which still persist. Some of those Saharans who did not flee have actively opposed Moroccan rule, some -- including, we presume, Aminetu Haidar -- by peaceful means.

All of this complicated history has left Spaniards feeling that they have some obligation to their former subjects. They are aware of the terrible conditions in the refugee camps and hold Spain to some extent responsible for accepting Moroccan occupation of Sahara. Friends of ours in Carboneras are among the many Spaniards who travel regularly to the camps and bring children to spend a summer or longer in their homes, where they have access to far better education and health services than in the Sahara. So when Haidar, a Saharan independence activist of long standing, accuses Spain of complicity with the king of Morocco because it permitted the kingdom to expel her and for her plane to land in Lanzarote, the charge resonates. She had written "Sahara" instead of "Morocco" as her homeland on the form when she was returning to El Aaiún from Spain, and that was the pretext for expelling her.

As Juan Goytisolo points out in today's El País, Western Sahara is a very different place from what it was 30 years ago. There are now many more Moroccans from the north, who have no interest in independence and have no special relation to the Spanish language or culture -- they are more likely to speak French, along with Arabic and Berber. What would probably be best for all the people there would be greater autonomy and respect for local traditions, but not independence, he argues. But such a loosening of control from Rabat seems unlikely without continued pressure of the sort that Aminetu Haidar has been exerting.

If the Moroccan authorities had simply ignored her marks on the form and let her go home, nobody would even have noticed that little act of defiance. But they decided to make an example of her and expelled her, and now she is Spain's problem. Spain needs Morocco's cooperation to control immigration and the drug trade, and is reluctant to pressure King Mohammed VI -- but Morocco also needs the good-will of Spain and of the rest of Europe. This little woman from El Aaiún has thus also created a big problem for Mohammed VI, who is too stubborn to give in but who will be under increasing pressure to allow reforms because of her actions.

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