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Spain: Regional Disparities
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Population > Regional Disparities


Spain is more a subcontinent than a country, and its climate, geography, and history produced a state that was little more than a federation of regions until Philip V, a grandson of Louis XIV, brought the centralization of the Bourbon monarchy to the country in the eighteenth century. However, when an autonomous community is made up of only one province, provinccial institutions have been transferred to the autonomous community.

On the map, the Iberian Peninsula resembles a slightly distorted square with the top bent toward the east and spread wide where it joins the rest of Europe. In the center lies the densely populated Spanish capital, Madrid, surrounded by the harsh, sparsely populated Meseta Central. King Philip II made Madrid the capital of Castile (Spanish, Castilla) in the sixteenth century, partly because its remoteness made it an uncontroversial choice. The city, surrounded by a demographic desert, in the late 1980s was still regarded by many Spaniards as an "artificial" capital even though it had long been established as the political center of the country.

Around the periphery of the peninsula are the peoples that have competed with Castilians for centuries over control of Iberia: in the west, the Portuguese (the only group successful in establishing its own state in 1640); in the northwest, the Galicians; along the northern coast of the Bay of Biscay, the Asturians; and, as the coast nears France, the Basques; along the Pyrenees, the Navarrese and the Aragonese; in the northeast, the Catalans; in the east, the Valencians; and in the south, the Andalusians. Although most of these peoples would decline to identify themselves first, foremost, and solely as "Spanish," few of them would choose to secede from Spain. Even among Basques, whose separatist sentiment ran deepest in the late 1980s, those advocating total independence from Spain probably comprised only one-fifth of the ethnic Basque population. Whereas culture provided the centrifugal force, economic ties linked the regions together more closely than an outsider might conclude from their rhetoric.

Spain's seventeen regions, defined by the 1978 Constitution as autonomous communities, vary greatly in size and population, as well as in economic and political weight and Extremadura -- each of which holds 8 to 9 percent, and seven much smaller regions that together account for about 20 percent of the national territory. Regional economic disparities between "Rich Spain" and "Poor Spain" were also highly significant, and they continued to shape the country's political debate despite a century of efforts to redistribute the wealth of the country. Imagine a line drawn from about the middle of the north coast, in Asturias, southeastward to Madrid, and then to Valencia. To the north and east of the line lived the people of Rich Spain, sometimes referred to as "Bourgeois Spain," an area already substantially modernized, industrialized, and urbanized, where the transition to an information and services economy was already well under way in the 1980s. To the south and west of the line lay Poor Spain, or "Traditional Spain," where agriculture continued to dominate and where semi-feudal social conditions could still be found. To aggravate this cleavage still further, Rich Spain, with the exception of Madrid, tended to be made up disproportionately of people who felt culturally different from the Castilians and not really "Spanish" at all.

Indicators of economic disparity are stark reminders that not all Spaniards shared in the country's economic miracle. The autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Madrid accounted for half of Spain's gross national productit ran between 15 and 20 percent. A 1987 report by Spain's National Statistics Institute revealed that the country's richest autonomous community, Madrid, exceeded its poorest, Extremadura, by wide margins in every economic category. With the national average equal to zero, Madrid's standard of living measured 1.7 while Extremadura scored -2.0; in family income, the values were Madrid 1.0, Extremadura, -2.1; in economic development, Madrid, 1.7, Extremadura, -2.0; and in endowment in physical and human resources, Madrid, 1.4, Extremadura, -1.7.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Spain was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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Section 48 of 183


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