GARCÍA ÁLVAREZ, Jacobo (2002): Provincias, Regiones y Comunidades Autónomas. La formación del mapa político de España, Secretaría General del Senado (Temas del Senado, 8), 776 pp. [ISBN:84-88802-64-1]


In Spain, after Franco’s death in 1975 and through the next 10 years, the period of formation of the new autonomous regions, there was a successful devolution of power (mm a highly centralised government in Madrid and the 17 new regions have been largely successful in taking over a substantial range of competences. For the most part, the map of the regions is now unchallenged. At the time, there was a great outpouring of literary works about the new division of the state. Much of this was tendentious, arguing the case for a particular party or regionalism, and only a limited amount was dispassionately written, whether by Spanish or foreign observers. This book provides an excellent critical re view of the actual process and of the discourses which were advanced from ah sides, showing as one of its main themes that the new regions were heavily based on the traditionally known regiones historicas, the regions which had existed before the reform of the internal structure of Spain, creating the provincias, in 1833. These older historic regions were learnt by every school pupil in Spain even during Franco’s era, so that their re-adoption after Franco met with relatively little opposition.

A further theme, which involves the author in writing what is effectively a second book, is that these historic regions were not, as might be supposed from the school textbooks of the past 150 years, a well-founded framework which had existed since the Reconquista —the reconquest of the peninsula from the Moors— but had in fact been in constant change over a period of many centuries. In outlining their evolution, Garcia Alvarez writes a good historical political geography of Spain. Some of the useful maps drawn specifically for this book are used to support this argument, to show that there was a long evolution of a complicated regional division map for Spain, so that what the new autonomous regions finally picked up, after a gap of 150 years of centralist government, was at best just the latest phase of the evolution and, probably more accurately, represented only an imagined geography of the country, whose boundaries could not be seen on the ground and which had relatively little importance in defining separate cultures or physical divisions.

Some readers will find the book of value simply for its discussion of the negotiations over the new regions during the period 1976-83. This is well researched and based on the official documents of Parliamentary sessions, as well as on a variety of newspapers and journals and some of the many books and other documents of a more academic kind. Using post-structuralist idiom, but without allowing the language to cloud his clarity of arguments, the author reports the way in which each region was justified, the way they were referred back to the Spanish imaginary which had identified the historic regions for schoolchildren, even though some of them had only a theoretical existence and never an internal administrative structure. The new Autonomous Region of Cantabria, for example, formerly the province of Santander, was really historically part of Castille and even its name was suspect, referring to a tribe of Roman times rather than any medieval kingdom.

In some cases, geopolitical considerations and the balance of power were important in the new regions. Leon, for example, was combined with Castille, partly on historical grounds but perhaps more because of fears over total fragmentation of the Spanish state and fears over the potential power of Basque and Catalan national isms. La Rioja was given separate region status also to provide a stopper to Basque nationalists who might have claimed the province.

For those who have studied the post-1789 revolution period in France and Spain, which created the départements of France and the provincias of Spain, there is an excellent section (ch. 3, pp. 189—290) which goes in some depth into how the provincias were formed. Contrary to the simplistic model, adopted uncritically by political geographers and historians since the early 20th century —that the 49 provinces created in 1833 were part of a broad strategy to promote a central dictatorship and destroy any regional isms— Garcia Alvarez shows a more complex situation. The old regions had varied greatly in legal systems, forms of land tenure, internal administration and relations to the central state, and had included many exclaves and discontinuities in the physical shape of their territories. Fiscal divisions did not correspond to administrative units set up for other purposes. In the face of these anomalies, the parliamentarians of the day agreed over the need to modernise the state and to provide every individual within the state with equal legal status and rights. Such a stance fitted well with the liberal philosophy of the time, and grew out of the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. Additionally, when first contemplated in 1811, Spain was under the rule of French armies of invasion and the Spanish state itself was threatened. Creation of a modem state, with a new overarching nationalism, was desired by ah Spaniards, apart from a tiny class of landlords and ecclesiastical land-owners, who between them controlled 40 per cent of Spanish land and over 50 per cent of the population. These aristocrats and religious holders were dispossessed in the new order, and this purpose, modernisation, is seen as the driving force creating the provinces, not centralisation of power.

The work is a tour deforce in Spanish historical political geography and will provide postgraduate students from the exterior with ample leads to new sources for the study of the emergence of Spain, as well as many academics seeking new views on Spanish regionalism. It is clearly written in erudite Spanish and will deserve to be known widely to a broad readership, although it is doubtful whether it could be translated directly lino an English language version. It will be of particular interest to geographers because of the relatively slight contribution by this discipline to the debate at the time of formation of the new regions in the 1970s. Garcia Alvarez attributes this to the lowly status of geography in Spain at the time and its focus on the micro region following too slavishly in the French classical Vidalian school of regional geography. This book, with an encyclopaedic coverage, evidence of comprehensive of varied literatures and strong theoretical stances, Hill do much to restore the position of Spanish geography in the study of complex presentday problems.


Arthur Morris

University of Glasgow


Recensión publicada originalmente en Space & Polity, vol. 7, nº 1, 2003, pp. 87-89.




© Grupo de Trabajo de Historia del Pensamiento Geográfico - Asociación de Geógrafos Españoles


© Grupo de Trabajo de Historia del Pensamiento Geográfico - Asociación de Geógrafos Españole