They are Europe’s favourite sunshine holiday islands. And Pedro Sánchez’s too.No
Spain’s prime minister is spending his summer break in the Canaries, in Lanzarote to be exact. And not all the islanders are happy about it.
Last week the socialist took three hours out of his vacation for official business, ignoring protesters as he did so.
Sánchez clambered about the tiny fortress of San José in Lanzarote’s sometimes run-down capital Arrecife.
His main companion for the tour: fellow socialist Ángel Víctor Torres, the president of the Canaries.
Opposition figures, who were uninvited, erupted in anger. The brief meeting with Torres, said Coalición Canaria, the main regionalist party, showed how “weak” the islands’ president was. And it demonstrated a “lack of respect and a lack of concern” from Sánchez about the Canaries, not least about how to rescue the tourism sector after Covid, how to handle a road construction debt or revive the local banana industry.
Unemployment on the islands is running at 25%, the highest in Spain.
This is on top of the human tragedy presented by a wave of migrants arriving on the islands from nearby Africa.
Only last week a boat capsized, killing 42 people on board. Eight of them were children. A Spanish charity, Caminando Fronteras, says more than 2000 people died or disappeared trying to make the crossing in makeshift vessels in the first half of this year alone. The number of migrants arriving has more than doubled this year, about 7,500 on 200 boats since January.
The Canaries, worried locals argue, are facing multiple crises all at once.
The archipelago, Coalición Canaria, stressed, was “much more than a holiday destination and should be a priority in his [Sánchez’s] agenda in the way other places are”.
The Coalición – which exists to campaign for more money and more power for the Canaries and whose leader ran the archipelago until two years ago – would say that, wouldn’t it?
But as Catalonia, the Basque Country – and Scotland and Wales – talk about independence there are those in Spain’s most distant province are starting to think they should too.
The rhetoric of “lack of respect and concern” about Sánchez on his holidays echoes criticism of the UK’s Boris Johnson when he visits Scotland, including on his Coronavirus camping trip to the Highlands last year.
The Canaries have not had an outright pro-independence movement for decades. Most islanders – and there are more than two million of them – say they feel as Canarian as they do Spanish.
But they turned their backs on “separatism” after a violent terror campaign in the 1970s led by independence campaigner Antonio Cabillo.
This was a time when Basque nationalists were also fighting an armed war against Spain as the country moved towards democracy after the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
Cabillo and his colleagues called their group the “armed forces of the Guanches”, of the native people of the Canaries before the Spanish conquest in the late 1400s. This reference was clear. The Canaries, it suggested, was not a region, but a colony, 1000km from mainland Spain, the “peninsula”, but just 100km from Morocco.
In 1977 Cabillo’s blew up a shop at Gran Canaria airport and threatened further explosions. Spanish authorities redirected planes to Tenerife’s Los Rodeos. Two Jumbo Jets then collided on the runway, killing 583 people, It was the world’s most deadly ever plane crash.
Cabillo, who lived in exile in Algeria, later survived an assassination attempt by Spanish special forces but was badly injured. He was to renounce violence.
His political party, the Movement for the Self-Determination and Independence of the Canarian Archipelago, known by its Spanish abbreviation MPAIAC, was disbanded in 1979 and almost forgotten. Until now.
Late last year Coalición Canaria’s only member of the Spain’s parliament, Ana Oramas, lost her rag with what she saw as Sánchez’s lack of action on the migrant crisis and other problems on the islands.
“We don’t have the capacity to welcome [the migrants],” she yelled through a black face mask. “We don’t have work and we don’t have food.
“Are we Spain? Are we Europe? Or do the Canaries have to have an independence party and resurrect MPAIAC for this government to pay us any attention?”
Oramas even questioned whether the African Union would do more than the European Union ‘to resolve the social and humanitarian drama in the Canaries”.
Then she concluded: “The Canaries are a powder keg. The Canaries are a volcano”. According to El Día, the Tenerife daily that is the most read paper in the Canaries, her cry “stupefied” Sánchez. Oramas’s unsaid implication was that would-be breakaway regions, such as the Basques and Catalans, were getting more than the Canaries.
Coalición Canaria is routinely referred to as a nationalist party in the Spanish and Canarian press. But its principles are fundamentally devolutionist.
Was Oramas ramping up the rhetoric to get Madrid’s attention? Or is she really wanting to wake the ghost of Cabillo, somebody who was firmly Africanist, who saw the Canaries as a colony of a European power?
Canaries watchers are not sure.
The islands have autonomy but not the right to break away under Spain’s constitution.
But as El Día has been reporting, new small parties have been emerging calling for full independence. Such parties argue, like MPAIAC did in its day, that the Canaries are not like Catalonia or the Basque country.
The islands are off Africa and were colonised by Spaniards. They therefore, the argument goes, should have a right to self-determination, as an ex-colony.
This may not convince many people in Madrid – or in the islands. And these parties do not get a lot of votes. But the pandemic, pro-independence Canarians say, has shown the dangers of dependency, both on Spain and on the one industry which has developed on the islands: holidays.
Vicente Quintana, of Ahora Canarias, one of the micro-parties supporting a Canarian state, said Covid had underlined that Spain for the Canaries had “put all its eggs in the tourism basket”.
Quintana talks of the Canaries negotiating with Madrid and Brussels, attracting investment as an archipelago that could be a trading hub between three continents, Europe, Africa and America. “Because what we cannot put up with any longer is trying to live by tourism alone,” he said.
Ahora Canarias, however, has barely registered electorally, collecting around a quarter of a per cent of the vote. Coalición Canaria, in contrast, got a quarter of the entire vote in the last Canarian elections when they lost the socialists.
Domingo Gari-Montllor is a professor at Tenerife’s La Laguna University and a leading expert in Canarian politics.
“Politically, nationalism is split in to a multitude of small and fairly sectarian factions,” he told El Confidencial newspaper. “I don’t think they have a big chance of breaking through.”
But the expert does think there is the prospect of a more robustly regionalist like some of those in the Basque Country or Valencia. And that would worry Spanish unionists.
Torres, the socialist Canarian president who met with Sánchez in Lanzarote last week, has plans to squeeze more concessions and more money out of Madrid, including support for the islands to host the European tourism agency.
Speaking after his chat with Sánchez, Torres thanked the prime minister for choosing the Canaries for his holidays.
He said nothing about independence but he did repeat a line that will be familiar in many places with a secessionist movement.
“We are at a tine when people are asking us to come together and look for solutions to the many problems we have,” he said.