End of peace process in Basque Country

The recent bombing in Spain seems to have derailed the peace process according to the NYTimes. The ETA, which was on its way to establishing peace negotiations during my GMF trip this past summer, are alleged to be responsible for the bombing that killed 19 people this week. Raids in Bilbao have uncovered stockpiles of bomb making equipment.

Since Bilbao has come to represent real people for me (Paul Orgeta and Aitor Esteban), I feel the tragedy of the failure of peace very deeply.


After effects of the GMF experience 1

Before the trip, I diligently followed European news, but now it means something different to me. My interest is no longer just intellectual but personal. For example, the recent news of Catalonia of Spain's vote for autonomy and the opening of talks with the ETA now are very important to me because It effects people like Paul Ortega, our GMF host in Bilbao, and Aitor Esteban Bravo, one the Basque representatives in the Spanish Parliament.  The sharpness of the debate about opening talks with the ETA is clear because I can still feel the animosity of the Popular Party toward's ETA and Batasura as passionate expressed by Angel Rodriguez during the panel discussion with representatives of the Basque Political Parties.

What strikes me is how complex my feelings are about this events because of the different perspectives to which I was exposed, especially when compared to the experiences of the group that went to Madrid.

So effect number 1 of my GMF experience is that Europe is no longer an abstraction for me, but a place in which I am somewhat personally entangled in the events that shape the lives of the people I met. For that I am grateful because the "path to true enlightenment" is the dissolution of the boundaries we place between self and others (Americans and Europeans). I hope that for all participants in the GMF it is not just about TransAtlantic dialogue but hopefully the dissolution of TransAtlantic boundaries.


Bilbao Guggenheim and the power design as culture

One of the distinctions between the US and Europe is the public emphasis on culture. This is not to say that American does not have culture; it does. We build museums and opera houses, and other "high cultural" institutions. The difference is that in the US you would rarely hear a public official refer to these as a "cultural" industry. As my colleague from Atlanta state, "We would call it tourism after its deliverables not its content."

In Bilbao, they talk about culture as an economic sector as well as providing social identity. The Geary-designed Bilbao Guggenheim museum is a case study in this approach. Over the past few days in Bilbao, all of the economic and public officials have discussed the museum and how it had transformed the city of Bilbao.
Image_00106 In the 1980s when it was first proposed by the Basque provencial and local governments to the Guggenheim Foundation, Bilbao was in the middle of a deep economic recession. The steel and shipping based industries were collasping and the area had not found a new economic engine for Bizkaia. Unemployment was as high as 20-25%.

At great risk at the time, the Bizkaia goverment agencies saw the museum as a means to create an international identity for the city of Bilbao, improve the cultural life of the city, and serve as a cornerstone to the redevelopment of the waterfront from industrial to service-based and residential space.



Image_00117Image_00115 And it worked. The building was completed on time and on budget. It had to be completed within five years incase the government was voted out of office. In their feasibility studies, they estimated 300,000 visitors for the first year, they first opened with and continue to pull in 600,000. One of the goals was to help the inhabitants of Bilbao see this area as part of the city. Now it is one of the most expensive areas in town.

In addition to the Guggenheim, the city built a new Metro system, designed by Sir Norman Foster.
Image_00120 Image_00125 It has won prizes, but also when I talked to BAI, the Bizkaia Center of Innovation. It was the one example they provided of how civic design has positively impacted the lives of everyday people.

So can design transform a city? It seems the answer is yes. The Bizkaia government has commissioned for their other urban projects a performance space to be build by Zara Hadid on the waterfront. But again, the discourse is not tourism dollars and urban renewal, but rather recreating the cultural identity of the city of Bilbao and the Bizkaia area.

Like in Hamburg, Bizkaia is able to do this because of the relative autonomy it has in collecting taxes and distributing resources from the national government in Madrid. The "state" and the rail system owned the land. It was able to invest directly for the construction costs as well as provide sustaining resources. Is it an accident that the two most economically successful areas have this political and financial autonomy or to put it another way. Is a decentralized structur, that allows it to be more flexible and responsive to local needs, better for situations of economic change and growth?

But what is most interesting for me is that these areas place emphasis on culture as a sector for innovation and growth, which is why they have such strong design-orientations not just in their architecture but in information systems in airports and metro stations.


Bilbao, Basque Country

Bilbao is a wonderful city located in Northern Spain, which is part of Bizkaia or Basque Country. I have known about the Basque region because their language is always a case study in anthropological linguistics. It is an Indo-European language over 7000 years old, but it doesn't have the connecting branches like the Germanic or Romance languages. The language is the heart of Basque identity. The area is bi-lingual with signs in Spanish and Euskara.
Image_00077 Out coordinator Paul Ortega is awesome and has set up a wonderful program for us. We met with the Lehendakari (President) of the Basque Government yesterday. Some of the main objectives of his government are:

Negotiating more autonomy from the Spanish government. Bizkaia is considered an "Autonomous Community" in Spain. They control their own taxation, police force, and administration. They send anywhere from 10-18% of their tax revenue back to Madrid, but the rest they use in Bizkaia. They had proposed a new agreement to allow for access to EU bodies, but it has been rejected by Spain. This is the main political problem.

Start exporting Basque companies to China and India. The region has the second highest GDP in Spain and is 25% higher than EU average. In the 90s, they shifted from an industrial base to a service economy. They are not looking for foreign investment, but rather be the investor in Asia. This is in contrast to Solvakia and a lesser extent Hamburg.

Innovation is the metric by which all government and private industries and institutions are measured. The government supports "sustainable human development" through setting up educational and industry clusters.

After meeting the Basque president we visiting the seat of the Basque parliament in Gernika, of the Picasso painting fame, and the Gernika Museum of Peace. The tradition of democracy in Bizkaia goes back further than the Magna Carta. More later...

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