Spain, this great nation, a member of the EU and the UN, not to mention NATO, has been incapable of effectively using its power to bring about the referendum on self-determination in the Sahara, a referendum that it promised and that has been endorsed by international organisations.
Western Sahara among the hunting trophies of a great hunter, King Emeritus Juan Carlos I
For all its boasting, the history of Spanish imperial colonialism is really quite shameful. Case in point: the flight from the Western Sahara territory, leaving to their own fate the inhabitants of a territory that until then (1975) had been considered a Spanish province, with its inhabitants considered de facto Spanish citizens.
The final months of 1975 sped by. Franco lay in his bed in what would prove to be his final days. The country was in suspense; no one knew what was going to happen. Was everything "all wrapped up, and well wrapped up", the message disseminated from the corridors of power, or would an era of profound democratisation emerge? (The latter being our desired outcome as anti-Francoists.)
In the midst of this suspense, the "green march" was triggered, advocated for by the Moroccan Monarch Hassan II, sponsored by the Americans and financed by Saudi money.
I still remember my disbelief upon seeing masses of Moroccans, men, women and children, advancing across the desert, heading towards the erstwhile "Spanish Sahara" without encountering any resistance. Was the entire army shirking away from a confrontation with Morocco? Was the United States behind this, as they are in the present day? Had Western powers arrived at an agreement in the face of the danger posed by Algeria and other African and European countries supporting the Sahrawi people? What was the extent of the previous and current Saudi financial support?
We are not privy to the background, but what we do know is that despite the UN having ordered the retreat of the march, Spain abandoned the territory, entrusting it to the expertise of Morocco and Mauritius, precisely the two invading powers at that time. With them, it signed the Madrid Accords on 14 November 1975. Is it possible to imagine a more tragicomic ending for a colonial power? Not even the American retreat from Vietnam in that plane taking off from a roof in Saigon is quite as ridiculous.
Tens of thousands of Sahrawis were left behind, some 75,000 according to the 1974 census, who have hitherto lived divided: some in tents in the middle of the desert and others in the occupied territories, partitioned by a 2,720-km-long wall. Spain, this great nation, a member of the EU and the UN, not to mention NATO, has been incapable of effectively using its power to bring about the referendum on self-determination in the Sahara, a referendum that Spain promised and that has been endorsed by international organisations, including both the European Union and the Organisation of African Unity in addition to the UN. It has not even managed to negotiate a dignified route out of the conflict with Morocco, despite the fact that the Western Sahara territory is still internationally recognised as a Spanish colony and remains as one of the few territories pending decolonisation. The sheer absurdity of the situation is such that the United Nations regards the Madrid Accords in 1975 transferring sovereignty to Morocco and Mauritius as null and void; Spain was not allowed to do this, as it did not hold sovereignty over the colonised territory but rather its administrative jurisdiction. The then Spanish prince, who would later become King Juan Carlos I (now emeritus), was the protagonist of such accords.
According to declassified documents from the CIA, the then prince appears to have agreed with the King of Morocco that the march would enter the Spanish zone, from which troops would have been conveniently withdrawn. Events here transpired exactly as agreed. In his encounter with the American ambassador Wells Stabler, King Juan Carlos notified him of the above agreement as he simultaneously requested Stabler’s help through the U.S. facilitating diplomatic relations with European countries, wherein the dignitaries of some were not quite able to trust a king appointed by a dictator, as well as in supplying munitions to the Spanish armed forces. A document prior to all this points out that if a referendum were held, it was almost certain that the Sahrawis would vote for independence, but "Spain is confident that the results can be manipulated" (?)
The referendum never took place. The POLISARIO Front has spent decades calling for it to be held; the United Nations, for its part, has sent a mission to the area, MINURSO, with this very objective. However, conditions are not the most favourable. Donald Trump's recognition of the Moroccan occupation makes the prospect even less likely, unless the Sahrawis, with their own armed forces, manage to enforce it.
Meanwhile, in a Spanish nation proud of its imperial past, this failure to decolonise remains hidden from many Spanish compatriots. We now know about other misdemeanours of the former monarch, and the abandoning of the Sahara is by no means one of the lesser evils. Other countries managed to bring about a much more honourable form of decolonisation than the flight across the seas of the last Spaniards who occupied the province formerly known as "Ifni," soldiers and civilians arm in arm.
Although late, perhaps Henry Kissinger had a point when in one of those relaxed encounters that usually accompany important conferences, he remarked that the Spanish monarch was not, for the moment (1976), evidencing the same Bourbon capacity for self-destruction. Time was all that was needed to continue the tradition.
In the complicated geopolitics of North Africa, the Sahrawis have paid a high price for Spain's involvement, now backed by Trump and Saudi money, and which no Spanish government to date has been able to reverse. Morocco's occupation of the territory has been the scene of detentions, torture and the disappearances of people accused of having links to the POLISARIO Front, to the point that in April 2015, the judge Pablo Ruz indicted 11 Moroccan soldiers for a diverse range of human rights violations. Reading the indictment alone is sufficient to appreciate the scale of the genocide.
This is why when people talk to me about the glories of Spain's imperial past, I answer, "No, thanks." No humanitarian action, as beneficial as it might be, will be able to compensate for the violations of the most fundamental laws of politics. No decolonialisation process, and there have been some quite complicated ones, has consisted of gifting a previously colonised territory to a neighbouring country without so much as consulting its inhabitants. This feat is only commensurate with the status of Spanish colonialism and its highest representative, the emeritus Juan Carlos I. It is now time for the current government to use all the means at its disposal to repair this injustice.