Donostia-San Sebastián’s Mayor, Juan Karlos Izagirre, and his predecessor, Ordón Elorza, hug after the city was chosen European Capital of Culture in 2016.– ULY MARTÍN
San Sebastián will be the European Capital of Culture in 2016 (an honor it will share with the Polish city of Wroclaw). But despite widespread local joy over the designation, everyone involved in the project is keenly aware that five years is a lengthy period of time and that the «complex reality» of this Basque city means there is a tricky road ahead to achieve the triple slogan of «coexistence / peace / tolerance» advertised in its bid.
The city’s candidacy was based on a program of intense cultural activity and overtly pacifist tones, and it was selected over five other Spanish candidates by a committee of 13 individuals, whose president Manfred Gaulhofer underscored «San Sebastián’s commitment to ending violence» and «the idea of using culture towards that end.»
Not everyone was pleased with that argument. Agriculture and Environment Minister Rosa Aguilar, a former mayor of Córdoba – which was the favorite to win over San Sebastián, Segovia, Burgos, Zaragoza and Las Palmas – said it was «a grave mistake» to have taken political issues into account.
Jerónimo Saavedra, until recently mayor of Las Palmas, agreed. «Every cultural event has a political reading, and that worries me, because out of the 13 members on the committee, six were appointed by the [Spanish] Culture Ministry and I’m assuming they are aware of our country’s politics at the present time.»
Some representatives of the losing cities were on Wednesday murmuring about the possibility of a legal challenge against the decision. Zaragoza mayor Juan Alberto Belloch said he was «seriously» considering that option, while Javier Lacalle of Burgos sent the Culture Ministry’s selection committee a «formal request» for more information about the basis for its choice.
Iñaki Gabilondo, a seasoned journalist who is originally from San Sebastián, said that «the designation is not about who we are, but about who we would like to be. At a moment like this one, so unsettling at the political level, this can help us become a capital of coexistence between different people.»
Fresh in everyone’s minds is the recent victory in Basque local elections of Bildu, a coalition of radical separatists whose core is made up of former ETA sympathizers who now say they reject violence for political ends – although they still refuse to ask the terrorist group to lay down its weapons. Bildu was allowed to run in the May elections after taking its case all the way to the Constitutional Court, which narrowly determined that the coalition was not a continuation of Batasuna, ETA’s outlawed political wing.
But there is widespread skepticism about what Bildu will do now that it holds power at the provincial level in Guipúzcoa and in scores of town halls including that of San Sebastián. In theory at least, Bildu’s nationalist concerns and radical views on what it means to be Basque – which an EL PAÍS analyst recently described as «trite and folkloric» – do not marry well with this city’s cosmopolitan attitude or with the notion of hosting a European event.
The fact is that Bildu is inheriting this project from its predecessors, including Odón Elorza, a Socialist who was mayor from 1991 until last month and the biggest champion of the European Cultural City drive. Santi Eraso, the cultural director of the project, dismisses the criticism, but even he admits that one of the things that the committee members were most worried about, after Bildu won the elections, was meeting some of its representatives. Eraso says he based the candidacy on «the need to build a common European space from a place with many dead bodies behind it and many open wounds, and the way to do that is by investing more in education and culture.»
Olas de energía ciudadana (Waves of citizens’ energy) was the slogan that former mayor Elorza and his team were able to sell to the more than 186,000 residents of this seaside city (436,000 in the metropolitan area) that was once the summer playground of royalty. And in a place with almost all the imaginable attributes for a pleasant lifestyle (except for the unresolved issue of ETA), citizens did lend their support to Elorza’s bid.
But it so happens that Elorza, who put his political and personal soul into those waves of popular energy, is gone. And the man who replaced him in city hall is Juan Carlos Izagirre, of Bildu. The photograph of both men hugging over the city’s victory could become one of two things five years from now: an icon for a new, much-desired political and cultural period in the history of San Sebastián, or else a forgotten moment buried by a layer of disappointment and old demons.
Everyone involved in the project – those who created it from scratch and those who had it fall into their laps – agree that there is much left to do. «It’s been a very long road. When we started out there were just four of us,» said Elorza. The new mayor, Izagirre, also had some words of support for a project whose 89-million-euro budget is being financed by public institutions (75 percent), the private sector (20 percent) and 1.5 million euros from European funds. «This candidacy brought together different people and ideologies, and in this Europe, difference is a fundamental value. The really important thing was the work in common, the hope of attaining a goal in a participatory manner.»