Home A to Z Index Contact Us

About Spain

A Brief History
Spain, Europe's fourth-largest nation, occupies most of the Iberian Peninsula at the western edge of the continent. Integral parts of the nation are mainland Spain, containing about 98% of the national territory; the Balearic Islands, in the Mediterranean Sea; the Canary Islands, 1,046 km (650 mi) southwest of the mainland off the coast of Africa; the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclave the northern coast of Morocco; and small offshore islands.

Mainland Spain shares borders with Portugal on the west, France and Andorra on the north, and Gibraltar, held by Great Britain since 1704, on the south. Spain was united under the Catholic "kings" Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in the 15th century and reached a "golden age" in the 16th and 17th centuries based on gold and silver derived from colonies in the New World. Briefly a republic in 1873-74, Spain became one again in 1931. The leftist republican regime was overthrown in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), however, and for 36 years Spain was ruled by the right-wing dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Following Franco's death in 1975, Spain began the transition to a constitutional monarchy under Juan Carlos I. A new constitution was adopted in 1978. The country was divided into 17 autonomous regions; the Basque provinces and Catalonia elected their first parliaments in 1980, and the rest did so by 1983.

Spain's name is derived from its Latin name, Hispania, and may have come from the Phoenician i-sch-phannim, meaning "rabbits' coast."

Land and Resources
The second-highest country in Europe (after Switzerland), Spain has an average elevation of 660 m (2,165 ft), with 25% of the surface over 1,000 m (3,280 ft) and only 11% less than 200 m (656 ft). Mulhacen, which rises to 3,478 m (11,411 ft) in the Sierra Nevada of southern Spain, is the highest point on the mainland; Pico de Teide (3,718 m/12,195 ft), on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries, is the highest point in Spain.

The dominant landform on the mainland is the Meseta (or Tableland), a broad plateau that occupies the central 40% of the nation. It has an average elevation of 700-800 m (2,300-2,600 ft) in Old Castile and 600-700 m (1,968-2,300 ft) farther south in New Castile. It is crossed by the Cordillera Central north of Madrid that rises to more than 2,500 m (8,200 ft) in the Sierra de Gredos and by the Toledo Mountains south of Toledo that rise to 1,419 m (4,656 ft). The Cantabrian Mountains form the northern edge of the Meseta and reach a high point of 2,648 m (8,689 ft) in the Picos de Europa. To the northwest rise the hills and mountains of Leon and Galicia, and to the west rise the broken uplands of Estremadura that separate Spain from Portugal.

The southern edge is formed by the Sierra Morena, which rises to only 1,323 m (4,339 ft). To the east, beginning about 25 km (15 mi) east of Burgos, are the northwest-southeast-trending Iberian Mountains, which exceed 2,100 m (7,000 ft) in elevation.

To the north of the Meseta and its mountain rim are the Basque region and the Pyrenees, which mark the border with France and reach 3,404 m (11,168 ft) in Aneto Peak. To the south are the snowcapped Sierra Nevada and other ranges of the Betic Cordillera that stretch from Gibraltar to near Alicante and reappear offshore in the Balearic Islands. The two principal lowlands are the Ebro Basin, a structural depression between the Pyrenees, Iberian Mountains, and Catalan Mountains along the coast between Valencia and Barcelona; and the Guadalquivir (or Andalusian) Basin, between the Sierra Morena and Betic Cordillera in the south.

Spain has three temperate types of climate. Mild, humid conditions, typical of the northwest European type of climate, prevail in the northwest, north, Pyrenees, and Central Mountains. A Mediterranean type of climate, with mild temperatures and summer drought lasting from two to five months, prevails along the Mediterranean littoral, in Andalusia, and in the Balearic Islands. A continental variant of the Mediterranean climate, with sporadic rainfall, cold winters, and hot summers, occurs in the northern Meseta, Ebro Basin, and other inland areas. Except in the north and in the mountains, rainfall is everywhere scanty; annual amounts decrease from between 600 and 1,000 mm (24 and 40 in) along the Cantabrian and Galician coasts to less than 600 mm (24 in) in the southern Meseta, Andalusia, and Mediterranean coastal regions and as little as 350 mm (14 in) in some inland areas.

Vegetation and Animal Life
Slightly more than 20% of Spain is forested, and the remainder - where not cultivated - supports a variety of scrub vegetation used for low-grade pasture. The principal trees in the north are beech, oak, chestnut, eucalyptus, and some pine and fir. A more open, evergreen type of forest with groves of holm oaks and cork oaks predominates in drier regions. Wild animals include Hispanic goats, boars, chamois, wolves, foxes, deer, fallow deer, rabbits, and hares. Partridges and quail are common game birds, and storks, eagles, and vultures are sometimes seen.

About 35% of the land is cultivated; 7% is planted with permanent crops such as olives, wine grapes, and citrus; and 27% is used for pasture and meadow. Irrigation is practiced extensively, making water a major resource in drier regions. Fuel resources are inadequate, despite some deposits of bituminous coal, anthracite, lignite, petroleum, and natural gas. Large deposits of sulfur, mercury, gypsum, nickel, copper, phosphates, potassium, lead, zinc, and uranium occur, but most deposits lie in folded and faulted areas surrounding the edges of the Meseta and are difficult to extract. Hydroelectric power is important, but costly dams are required to regulate the seasonal flow of most rivers.

Most Spaniards are more conscious of regional differences based on cultural and historical factors than of minor racial differences. The three principal regional minority groups are the Basques, who make up more than 2% of the total population and are concentrated in the three northern provinces of Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa, and Alava and also in Navarre; the Catalans, who make up about 16% of the total population and live mainly on the east coast; and the Gallegos (Galicians), who constitute about 8% of the total population and are concentrated in the northwest.

Spain's principal language is Castilian Spanish, but Catalan, Basque, and Galician also have official status within their own regions. Catalan includes Valencian and Balearic as subtypes and is related to Provencal French. The Basque language is of unknown affinity. Galician is related to Portuguese. Distinctive regional accents include that spoken by Asturians (called "bable") in the north and that spoken by Andalusians in the south, although neither group encounters major difficulties in being understood in other parts of Spain.

Spain has no established religion, but it is estimated that more than 95% of the people are Roman Catholics. Small groups of Protestants, Jews, and Muslims also exist, mainly in the larger cities.

The Spanish have long tended to live in defensible urban centers rather than scattered on the land. Rapid urbanization, however, did not take place until more recently than in the rest of Europe. Approximately 75% of the population lived in urban areas in 1980; in 1953, only 53% of the population was urban. The two largest cities, each with well over 1 million inhabitants, are Madrid and Barcelona. Other large cities are Valencia, Seville, Bilbao, Malaga, and Las Palmas. Population densities in Spain are generally lower than in most other parts of Europe. The most sparsely populated areas are Guadalajara and barren Teruel.

Education and Health
The present educational system is based on laws adopted in 1970. The system provides for optional preschool education and 8 years of compulsory general basic education beginning at age 6. Education is free in state-run schools, which offer a primary program lasting 5 years and a 3-year program of secondary education. Students thereafter may enter the 3-year Bachiller (B.U.P.) program, after which a 1-year college orientation program (C.O.U.) is required for entrance to a university. Higher education is structured in three cycles: the first cycle lasts 3 years, and the second and third cycles 2 years each. Major universities are located in Madrid and Barcelona, and there are regional universities in most larger cities.

The number of public schools remains inadequate to serve the student population. Approximately one-third of all students attend private schools, the majority of which are administered by the Catholic church. The government has provided direct subsidies to private schools since 1970. Legislation passed in 1984 gives the government greater control over private schools, setting state standards for teachers, requiring state-subsidized schools to admit a certain number of local and disadvantaged students, and involving parents and teachers in school administration.

A compulsory national social security system covers more than 85% of the population. Many Spaniards supplement the health, disability, and pension benefits provided under this system with private insurance. A network of government health centers has been established in the major cities.

The Arts
Cultural institutions are overseen by the Ministry of Culture, and official culture centers are located in each of the provincial capitals. Additional cultural centers, both official and private, are concentrated in Madrid, Barcelona, and other large urban centers. Of special importance in Madrid are the Centro de Cooperacion, Iberoamericana, the Ateneo, the Villa de Madrid cultural center; several private foundations such as the March, Mediterranea, Universitaria Espanola; and the Club Siglo XXI.

Economic Activities
Slow to industrialize in the 18th and 19th centuries, Spain remained predominantly agricultural until 1950. During Franco's rule, the state-run INI (National Industrial Institute) attempted to lessen imports and make Spain industrially self-sufficient by rapidly expanding petroleum refining, shipbuilding, automobile assembly, aeronautics, and the production of chemicals, fertilizers, petrochemicals, and electricity. With the 1959 stabilization program, private industry and foreign investment were again encouraged, and Spain grew rapidly under a series of economic development plans, although the per capita income remained less than that of most Western European countries.

After 1975, efforts were made to correct some of the imbalance resulting from earlier growth, to reduce dependence on imported petroleum, as an energy source, and to streamline inefficient industries to enable them to compete more efficiently in the European market. In 1984, Spain and Portugal signed a treaty admitting them to the European Economic Community (EEC), effective Jan. 1, 1985, although the full economic integration of the two countries into the EEC would be phased in over a ten-year period.

Manufacturing and Mining
About 34% of the labor force is employed in manufacturing and construction, with the greatest concentrations of industry in the areas of Bilbao-Santan der-Oviedo and in Catalonia; a smaller concentration occurs around Madrid. Industrialization made rapid strides in the second half of the 20th century. The auto industry, especially SEAT, the largest producer, employs the greatest number of workers. Iron and steel, centered in the north, is the leading metal processing industry. Other major industries include shipbuilding, chemicals, cement, textiles, electronics, leather goods, toys, and furniture. The steel and shipbuilding industries suffered a steady decline in the 1980s, hurt both by world trade conditions and by outdated and inefficient facilities. Spain, like the rest of Europe, was hit by a recession in the early 1990s. The growth rate declined and the trade deficit rose in 1992. In 1993 the unemployment rate increased to nearly 22% - the highest of any country in the European Community.

The most valuable mineral mined is mercury, followed by anthracite, bituminous coal, lignite, iron ore, sulfur, potassium chloride, fluorspar, lead, and zinc. Petroleum and natural gas are produced in small quantities, but Spain has to import most of its petroleum.

In an effort to lessen the country's dependence on imported oil, an attempt has been made to increase coal production and expand nuclear-power capability. This program has met with some success: nuclear power provided nearly 40% of Spain's electrical power in 1991, as compared with about 30% in the mid-1980s. However, Spain still relies on petroleum for most of its energy needs.

Less than 15% of the labor force is employed in agriculture - a significant drop from the 55% so employed in 1950. Cereals occupy more than 60% of the cultivated area, with wheat and barley the main crops. In general, rainfall in inland and southern regions is not sufficient for diversified farming, and the lands are either dry-farmed or irrigated. Unirrigated areas are traditionally planted to wheat one year and left fallow the next, although this low-yielding method of cultivation is being replaced by a triennial rotation based on cereals the first year, a soil-enriching leguminous crop the second year, and a fallow third year.

Olive trees and vineyards cover large areas, Spain being the world's largest producer of olives and one of the largest producers of wines. Irrigated agriculture is important in the Ebro Basin, Douro Valley, Guadalquivir Basin, and lowlands along the Mediterranean; high yields of citrus and other fruits, vegetables, sugar beets, cotton, and tobacco are obtained. Some beef and dairy cattle are raised but are greatly outnumbered by sheep and pigs.

Forestry and Fishing
Lumber, cork, and resin are the leading forest products. Fishing has traditionally been an important industry, and Spain's fishing fleet remains one of the world's largest, but the value of the catch is declining as seafloors close to Spain are depleted and territorial claims by other Atlantic nations are extended. The catch consists mainly of hake, sardines, and tuna.

Almost half of all roads are suitably surfaced for modern traffic, but few are superhighways. The railroads are operated by Spanish National Railways (RENFE), but - unlike the rest of Europe - wide-gauge tracks are used. The rail network is less dense than in other European countries, but a major upgrading program is under way. Air transportation is dominated by nationally owned Iberia and Aviaco airlines. The main airports are in Madrid, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Las Palmas, Malaga, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and Alicante. The busiest ports are Bilbao, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Cartagena, La Coruna, Santander, and Malaga.

In most years Spain has an unfavorable balance of trade, with earnings from tourism and remittances from overseas workers significantly reducing the deficit. The main exports are iron and steel products, motor vehicles, machinery, appliances, shoes and leather items, electrical goods, and refined-petroleum products. Agricultural products now constitute less than a third of all exports, with citrus fruit, canned fish and vegetables, wines, olive oil, and fresh vegetables the most important. The principal imports are petroleum, basic chemicals, machinery and equipment, and food products (mainly coffee and tea). More than 50% of all exports go to member countries of the European Community. Most imports are derived from these same areas and most petroleum from Saudi Arabia.

According to the 1978 constitution, Spain is a hereditary, constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. King Juan Carlos I came to the throne in 1975. The prime minister is conservative Jose Maria Aznar, who replaced Socialist Felipe Gonzalez Marquez when Aznar's Popular party won the largest share of the vote in the elections of March 1996. Executive power rests with the king, the prime minister, and the council of ministers. Legislative power is invested in the Cortes, consisting of the Congress of Deputies and the Senate. Elections are held every four years.

Spain is divided into 50 provinces, each with an appointed governor and a local council. Demands for autonomy from the Basques and Catalans, with their own languages and traditions, have also led to the creation of a system of regional self-government. Between 1979 and 1983 the country was divided into 17 autonomous regions, each with its own elected parliament.

Aurora Garcia Ballesteros


Crow, John, The Root and the Flower: An Interpretation of Spain and of the Spanish People, 3d ed. (1985); Elliott, J. H., The Spanish World (1991); Michener, James, Iberia (1968); Pritchett, V. S., The Spanish Temper (1957; repr. 1989).

Land and People
Barrett, Richard, Benabarre: The Modernization of a Spanish Village (1986); Brenan, Gerald, South from Grenada (1957; repr. 1980); Fisher, William B., and Bowen-Jones, Howard, Spain: An Introductory Geography (1966); Gilmour, David, Cities of Spain (1992); Pitt-Rivers, Julian, People of the Sierra, 2d ed. (1972).

Harrison, Joseph, The Spanish Economy in the 20th Century (1985); Martin-Acena, P. and Simpson, J., The Economic Development of Spain since 1870 (1995); Martinez, Robert, Business and Democracy in Spain (1993); Salmon, K., The Modern Spanish Economy (1991).

Government and Politics
Arango, E., Democracy Regained (1995); Carr, Raymond S., Modern Spain (1981); Gunther, Richard, Politics, Society, and Democracy: The Case of Spain (1992); Maxwell, Kenneth, ed., Spanish Foreign and Defense Policy (1991); Perez-Diaz, Victor, The Return of Civil Society: The Emergence of Democracy in Spain (1993); Sullivan, John, ETA and Basque Nationalism (1988).

© 1997 Grolier Interactive Inc.

SearchGo Search