Spain has no official religion. The constitution of 1978 disestablished the Roman Catholic Church as the official state religion, while recognizing the role it plays in Spanish society. More than 90% of the population are at least nominally Catholic.
Beginning in the ninth century BC, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Celts entered the Iberian Peninsula, followed by the Romans, who arrived in the second century BC. Spain's present language, religion, and laws stem from the Roman period. 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, Gen. Francisco Franco ruled a nation exhausted politically and economically. Spain was officially neutral during World War II but followed a pro-Axis policy. 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 investment.
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, Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon y Borbon, Franco's personally designated heir, assumed the titles of king and chief of state. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of post-Franco liberalization, in July 1976, the King replaced Franco's last Prime Minister with Adolfo Suarez. 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 to the Cortes (Parliament) since 1936 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 December 1978 national referendum.
In October 1982, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), led by Felipe Gonzalez Marquez, 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 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 privatizations, 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. A Spanish general currently commands NATO forces in Kosovo. A former foreign minister, Javier Solana, was Secretary General of NATO during the Kosovo Campaign and currently serves as the head of the European Union's foreign and security policymaking apparatus, with the informal title "Mr. Pesc."
In a landslide victory, President Aznar and the PP won reelection in March 2000, obtaining absolute majorities in both houses of parliament. This mandate has allowed Aznar to form a government unencumbered by the coalition building that characterized his earlier administration. Aznar is expected to continue the policies of economic and political reform that have won his government widespread popular support.
The 1978 constitution authorized the creation of regional autonomous governments. By 1985, 17 regions covering all of peninsular Spain, the Canaries, and the Balearic Islands had negotiated autonomy statutes with the central government. In 1979, the first autonomous elections were held in the Basque and Catalan regions, which have the strongest regional traditions by virtue of their history and separate languages. Since then, autonomous governments have been created in the remainder of the 17 regions. The central government continues to devolve powers to the regional governments, which will eventually have full responsibility for health care and education, as well as other social programs.
Spain maintains an embassy in the United States at 2375 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20037 (tel. 202-728-2340) and consulates in many larger U.S. cities.
Spain's accession to the European Community--now European Union (EU)--in January 1986 required the country to open its economy, modernize its industrial base, improve infrastructure, and revise economic legislation to conform to EU guidelines. In doing so, Spain increased GDP growth, reduced the public debt to GDP ratio, reduced unemployment from 23% to 15% in 3 years, and reduced inflation to under 3%. The Spanish Government under President Aznar worked to meet Maastricht Treaty requirements for economic and monetary union; the fundamental challenges for Spain remain to continue reducing the public sector deficit, to further decrease unemployment, reform labor laws and investment regulations, lower inflation, and raise per capita GDP.
As a member of NATO since 1982, Spain has established itself as a major participant in multilateral international security activities. Spain's EU membership represents an important part of its foreign policy. Even on many international issues beyond western Europe, Spain prefers to coordinate its efforts with its EU partners through the European political cooperation mechanism.
With the normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel and Albania in 1986, Spain virtually completed the process of universalizing its diplomatic relations. The only country with which it now does not have diplomatic relations is North Korea.
Spain has maintained its special identification with Latin America. Its policy emphasizes the concept of Hispanidad, a mixture of linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural, and historical ties binding Spanish-speaking America to Spain. Spain has been an effective example of transition from authoritarianism to democracy, as shown in the many trips that Spain's King and Prime Ministers have made to the region. Spain maintains economic and technical cooperation programs and cultural exchanges with Latin America, both bilaterally and within the EU.
Spain also continues to focus attention on North Africa, especially on Morocco. This concern is dictated by geographic proximity and long historical contacts, as well as by the two Spanish enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the northern coast of Africa. While Spain's departure from its former colony of Western Sahara ended direct Spanish participation, it maintains an interest in the peaceful resolution of the conflict brought about there by decolonization. Spain has gradually begun to broaden its contacts with Sub-Saharan Africa. It has a particular interest in its former colony of Equatorial Guinea, where it maintains a large aid program.
In its relations with the Arab world, Spain frequently supports Arab positions on Middle East issues. The Arab countries are a priority interest for Spain because of oil and gas imports and because several Arab nations have substantial investments in Spain.
Spain has been successful in managing its relations with its two European neighbors, France and Portugal. The accession of Spain and Portugal to the EU has helped ease some of their periodic trade frictions by putting these into an EU context. Franco-Spanish bilateral cooperation is enhanced by joint action against Basque ETA terrorism. Ties with the United Kingdom are generally good, although the question of Gibraltar remains a sensitive issue.
In addition to U.S. and Spanish cooperation in NATO, defense and security relations between the two countries are regulated by a 1989 agreement on defense cooperation. Under this agreement, Spain authorizes the United States to use certain facilities at Spanish military installations.
The two countries also cooperate in several other important areas. Under a 1964 agreement (currently being renegotiated), the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) and the Spanish National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA) jointly operate the Madrid Deep Space Communications Complex in support of Earth orbital and solar system exploration missions. The Madrid Complex is one of the three-largest tracking and data acquisition complexes comprising NASA's Deep Space Network.
An agreement on cultural and educational cooperation was signed on June 7, 1989. A new element, supported by both the public and private sectors, gives a different dimension to the programs carried out by the joint committee for cultural and educational cooperation. These joint committee activities complement the binational Fulbright program for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting professors, which, in 1989, became the largest in the world. Besides assisting in these exchange endeavors, the U.S. Embassy also conducts a program of official visits between Spain and the United States.
The US embassy is located at Serrano, 75, 28006 Madrid (tel. 34-1-587-2200; fax 34-1-587-2303). Consulate General, Barcelona, Passeig Reina Elisenda 23, Barcelona 08034 (tel. 34-3-280-2227; fax 34-3-205-5206).