By the end of the 15th century, Spain controlled the largest empire the world had ever seen up to that time. In the Americas, except for Brazil, everything from the southwestern United States and Florida down to present-day Chile and Argentina belonged to the Spanish Crown, along with the islands of the Caribbean. As well, the Philippines archipelago in Southeast Asia and some south Pacific island chains were Spanish possessions.
However, Britain and France began to acquire Caribbean islands as Spanish power weakened, and in the first quarter of the 19th century, the vast colonies in Latin America all acquired their independence as seventeen sovereign republics.
In 1898, defeated in a war with the United States, Spain also departed Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the South Pacific Caroline and Mariana islands, including Guam.
All that was left in the 20th century were a few small bits and pieces, all in Africa: Ifni and the protectorate of Spanish Morocco in northern Morocco (the rest of Morocco was a French protectorate); Spanish Sahara to Morocco’s south; and Spanish Guinea, consisting of the offshore island of Fernando Po (now Bioko) and the small continental enclave of Rio Muni.
In 1968, under pressure from nationalists and the United Nations, Spain granted independence to its tropical colony, renamed Equatorial Guinea. It has since been one of Africa’s worst-run states, under the dictatorial rule of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been president since 1979.
After Morocco achieved independence from France in 1956, Ifni and Spanish Morocco became part of that country. However, Spain has retained two small enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast, though Morocco considers them to be under foreign occupation. Spain has ruled both cities for centuries and the local populations of the disputed territories reject the Moroccan claims by a large majority. The Canary Islands, off the Moroccan coast, also remain part of Spain.
Morocco also laid claim to Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara), which Spain had acquired in 1884 during the so-called “scramble for Africa,” asserting that the territory was historically an integral part of the Moroccan monarchy. The population there is of mixed Arab and Berber descent.
Since 1973, a guerrilla war led by the Polisario Front, representing the native Sahrawi tribes, had also challenged Spanish control in the colony, and Spain had actually begun negotiations for a handover of power with leaders of the indigenous rebel movement.
Meanwhile, Morocco lost its case for legal control of the territory at the International Court of Justice in October 1975 and a United Nations mission to the territory found that Sahrawi support for independence was “overwhelming.”
So one month later some 350,000 Moroccans advanced several miles into the territory, escorted by 20,000 Moroccan troops, in the so-called “Green March.” It caught Spain in a moment of political crisis. In 1975, with the death of Francisco Franco, Spain was transitioning from a fascist dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy.
Madrid decided to withdraw from Spanish Sahara following renewed Moroccan demands and international pressure, mainly from United Nations resolutions regarding decolonization. The Spanish government feared that the conflict with Morocco could lead to an open colonial war in Africa,
Under immense pressure, therefore, Spain agreed to cede the colony to Morocco and Mauritania, to Spanish Sahara’s south; the area was then split between the two. But after a disastrous four-year war with the Polisario, Mauritania withdrew from Western Sahara, and left Morocco in control of all of what it calls its Southern Provinces.
The Polisario, aided by Algeria, has continued to oppose the Moroccan occupation, which has not been recognized by the African Union or the UN. In 1976 the guerrilla movement proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and set up a government in exile in Algeria. Since 1979, the Polisario Front has been recognized by the United Nations as the representative of the people of Western Sahara. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was admitted to the African Union in 1984, prompting Morocco to withdraw from the organization.
In 1991 Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN -backed cease-fire, which included an agreement by Morocco to allow a referendum in Western Sahara to determine the wishes of its population. However, to date the referendum has not been held because of questions over who is eligible to vote. In 2001, Algeria proposed a division of the area, with the southern part going to the Polisario and the northern part to Morocco, but both parties turned it down.
As of 2013, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has been recognized by 85 states. On the other hand, Morocco’s claim is supported by the Arab League.
In the 1980s Morocco built a 2,700 kilometre-long barrier to keep Polisario fighters out of the bulk of the area that lies to the north and west of it. Today the Polisario Front controls the eastern third of the territory, but this area is almost uninhabited, while many thousands of Sahrawis languish in refugee camps in Algeria and Mauritania.
The stalemate continues, and bloody clashes erupted between police and pro-independence protesters in October when a UN envoy visited the territory.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.