DATELINE: GIBRALTAR

Anxiously toward a rocky future

David Baird November 23 1981
DATELINE: GIBRALTAR

Anxiously toward a rocky future

David Baird November 23 1981

Anxiously toward a rocky future

DATELINE: GIBRALTAR

David Baird

Slipping over the “garlic wall” is a little simpler than breaching the Iron Curtain — and a good deal more pleasant. From a port on Spain’s southern coast it is possible to hitch a lift by yacht to the only remaining colony in Europe. “Don’t worry,” says the craft’s skipper as his boat skims over the silk-smooth Mediterranean, “the Spanish navy doesn’t usually bother us. And we’re not carrying contraband, not this time.” Through the haze loomed the rock of Gibraltar, like a lion frowning down on the narrow sand strip separating the British territory from the Spanish mainland. A somewhat ludicrous relic of Empire, this barren mass of limestone, five kilometres long by 1.5 km wide, has an air of defiance about it even from a distance. Sacked over the centuries by pirates and bombarded by men-of-war, today Gibraltar is lambasted by the angry rhetoric of Spaniards demanding that the British return it to Spanish sovereignty.

This year marks the 277th anniversary of Britain’s seizure of Gibraltar and the rock has once again become a hot issue, both politically and militarily. Spain has applied for membership in the European Community (EC) and expects to be admitted by 1984 at the latest. The country is also linking its likely entry into NATO with an end to British rule on the rock — the Spanish believe it would be ridiculous for them to enter NATO while there still exists a colonial possession, belonging to another mem-

ber of NATO, on what they see as their soil. As one prominent Spanish journalist put it: “You can’t very well have a sealed border between fellow members of the Common Market or between members of a military alliance, for that matter.” Often a source of tension between the two countries, the rock was particularly the object of strained relations in the ’60s when Gen. Franco campaigned to plant the Spanish flag there. Since the Spanish dictator cut off all his country’s communications with Gibraltar in 1969, the rock has become a virtual island, a claustrophobic community of 30,000 people. Unless you arrive by private vessel, the only scheduled surface approach from Spain requires a lengthy sea trip via Morocco.

Old cannons and fortifications dot the rock, and the town has a decidedly British look. Union Jacks proliferate, and the aroma of fish and chips lingers in the streets, which bear such names as Horse Barracks Lane and King’s Court Yard. Helmeted “bobbies” patrol the pub-and-English-tearoom-studded streets. Many of the true Gibraltarians, 19,500 inhabitants descended from Moroccan Jews, Genoese, Maltese, Portuguese, Spanish and British, are in no hurry to see land links with Spain reestablished or to be decolonialized. Frequently switching in mid-sentence from Spanish to English, they point out that in a 1967 referendum 12,138 citizens voted in favor of staying under British rule, and only 44 against. The chief minister, Sir Joshua Hassan, who heads a 15-member House of Assembly, in-

sisted: “We are autonomous except for defence and foreign affairs, and we don’t want those in Spanish hands. Anything that savors of a Spanish say in our affairs is not acceptable to the people.”

Gibraltarians harbor deep suspicions with regard to the Spanish character. “Our people hate the Spaniards’ guts with good reasons,” says opposition leader Peter Isola. “Those guys tried to bring us to our knees by undermining our economy.” The wire fence that cuts off Gibraltar from Spain has left profound psychological effects. “It has

made us insular and introspective, and done more to create a nation here than anything else,” declares Joe Bossano, the wiry, moustached head of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party and a leader of the powerful Transport & General Workers’ Union, which has forced up local wages to parity with those in Britain. “It’s the only thing that Franco can be thanked for during his infamous career.” The only candidates in the 1980 elections who supported autonomous rule under Madrid finished bottom of the poll. Understandably, perhaps, the Gibraltarians do not relish the prospect of Spanish civil guards, bristling with firearms, taking over from their mild-mannered policemen who carry nothing more lethal than a truncheon.

Every morning at six, the British symbolically unlock the gate on their side of the border and ritually close it at midnight. The Spanish gate has stayed shut to date, except to allow an occasional ambulance carrying an emergency case through. It is here that the ambivalence of many Gibraltarians can be observed, since the sealing of the border has divided many families. Every evening at six, Isabela Espinosa, a shy 16-year-old, meets her mother at the frontier. Peering across 55 metres of no man’s land, she shouts to her mother, Maria, on the Spanish side: “How are you?” Maria, a distant, black-clad figure, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, yells back: “Life goes on, daughter. The family is fine. Have you bought those new shoes yet?” Isabela came to Gibraltar after meeting her fiancé, 20year-old Gibraltarian Albert Nelson, while he was vacationing in Spain. Albert, the proud owner of a new Japanese car in a territory that has 9,700 vehicles but only 48 km of roads, noted: “It would be nice to drive anywhere you want, but I don’t think opening the border would necessarily do us any good. Right now we’re not badly off and there’s little crime. But over there in La Linea you can’t walk the streets at night.”

From the Spanish town of La Linea

nearly 5,000 workers used to cross the frontier every day to work on the rock. Attempts to establish new industries in the La Linea area have been largely unsuccessful and unemployment runs at 30 per cent. A suggestion by the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee that, in return for opening the border, Spaniards should be given the same rights as EC nationals to live and work in the territory, has alarmed the Gibraltarians. “We’re not going to tolerate the Spaniards coming in here looking for jobs,” snapped Bossano. “If the Spaniards were allowed to flood in here and claim all the benefits allowed in EC countries, they could bust our economy in six months.”

Despite high rents and costly imported food, Gibraltarians live relatively well. The 2,500 Moroccans, most of whom are employed as laborers (including graveyard workers, digging up human remains to make way for the newly dead because of an acute shortage of cemetary space), earn far more than they could hope to back home. Britain spends $66 million (U.S.) a year on its naval base and dockyards, which employ 1,500 workers, and has also plowed millions of dollars into educational and housing projects. But the latest Thatcher government defence cuts could mean the winding down of the dockyards, and Spain is anxious to establish command of the Gibraltar naval base. “The most inestimable jewel in the British crown,” as 18thcentury British statesman William Pitt once described it, still has strategic importance because of its position commanding the straits between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Military pageantry is very much a part of local life with 2,000 British servicemen and their families based on the rock. One British sergeant, Alfred Holmes, guards the Barbary apes that scamper about the upper levels of the 430-metre-high rock. Legend has it that if this breed of tailless monkeys dies out, the British will depart. No doubt to Spanish chagrin, at least 40 apes remain. They are high on every tourist’s visiting list, although this summer the number of vacationers lured by the slogan IT’S BRITISH, IT’S FUN AND IT’S IN THE SUN, dropped sharply, allegedly because they felt they were not getting their money’s worth. Restaurateur Johnny Stagnetto, who ran three eating places, three bars and a nightclub until the frontier closure deprived him of his staff, remarked: “Wealthy tourists are not going to come here, so we should cater to those who want a bit of sunshine with their beer and chips. We should turn the whole place over to Butlin’s, the British holiday camp people, and they could build bingo centres, dancehalls, the lot. Not that I would

want to live here anymore.”

Last August, almost the entire community turned out to give a rousing welcome to Prince Charles and his bride, whose decision to start their honeymoon from Gibraltar provoked Spain’s King Juan Carlos to boycott their wedding. The Madrid daily, El Pals, spoke of “the shameful spectacle” of the royal yacht in Gibraltar harbor attended by “light craft which, usually dedicated to smuggling, were converted for one afternoon into a flotilla of honor for the future monarchs of England.” Smuggling, in fact, has been a traditional pastime, but these days slimmer profits on whisky and cigarettes have reduced the traffic. Even so, mystery surrounds the activities of half a dozen sleek, sinister-looking Gibraltar-based powerboats, and intrigue is heightened by the presence of a swarthy, tough-looking individual at dockside warning away would-be picture-takers. According to most unofficial sources, drugs are the profitable business today. The drugrunners don’t bring anything into Gibraltar but rendezvous out at sea with boats from Morocco, where they take aboard hashish, then unload it on some lonely Spanish beach or drop it on a buoy to be picked up by another vessel.

Although in some Spanish eyes the rock is a den of piratical types devoted to smuggling, the territory has a rather sedate garrison town atmosphere. Gibraltarians and British servicemen, with their own housing and recreation facilities, do not mingle much — the British know that sooner or later they will return home. The Gibraltarians feel a separate identity and do not relish the prospect of being swamped by their Spanish neighbors on the other side of the border. Says Joe Bossano: “You have no doubt about what you are and who you are in Gibraltar, and we don’t want to see that lost. It’s the one thing the Spanish cannot offer me.”