1992: the year Spanish soft power conquered the world

The Seville Expo and the Barcelona Olympics put Spain at the center of the global stage

Luz Sánchez-Mellado

If cell phones with cameras and social networks had existed in 1992, there would have been a glut of selfies taken in front of the Expo site on the Isla de la Cartuja in Seville and by the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona with the subjects waving miniature Curro and Cobi toys – the mascots of those two events. Instead, our memories are jogged by old newspaper and magazine articles as well as period television footage.

The monorail train and the microclimate sphere: symbols of the Seville Expo '92.
The monorail train and the microclimate sphere: symbols of the Seville Expo '92.Marisa Florez

To remind readers of where we stood back then: in 1992 the Spanish royal lineup was as follows: King Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, Prince Felipe – a member of the Spanish sailing team and flag-bearer at the opening ceremony – and his sisters the Infantas Elena and Cristina, all of them majestic like there was no tomorrow. But of course there was.

Now that family, as well as all the articles and television footage, are a quarter of a century older. And of course we are too: 25 years of weddings, divorces, funerals, triumphs and woes. If we thought Spain was the center of the universe in 1992, the world and the crisis have put us in our place.

In 1992, you were no one if you weren’t going to the Expo and/or the Olympic Games

On April 20, 1992, dawn in Seville broke on what was hoped would be an era of prosperity. The Expo’s opening ceremony set off the first firework display of many – not only was there the inauguration of the Barcelona Olympics on July 25, but that was also the year Madrid was Europe's City of Culture and when the Thyssen art collection went on show. Spain was on a roll and the world was taking note. The Berlin wall had fallen in 1989 and, against the backdrop of the Gulf War, this old Iberian nation which had moved almost seamlessly from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, poured an ocean of public money into impressing people both at home and abroad.

Investment in infrastructure produced a high-speed (AVE) train from Madrid to Seville, the A92 highway across Andalusia, high-tech bridges, the Olympic Stadium and the Palau Sant Jordi arena in Barcelona, as well as a new waterfront for the Catalan capital. And incredibly, it was all achieved without the internet. Such activity generated a collective passion, excitement and pride that peaked when the paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo lit the Olympic Cauldron with his flaming arrow and the Fura dels Baus theatre group shook the stadium with a rousing crescendo of sound.

Spain’s (then) Prince Felipe at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
Spain’s (then) Prince Felipe at the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.Agustín Carbonell

Who could fail to be carried away by this display of soft power? In 1992, you were no one if you weren’t going to the Expo and/or the Olympic Games. Fidel Castro, Gorbachev, Mitterrand, Charles and Diana and Princess Caroline of Monaco all jetted in, not to mention Olympic heroes from Spanish athlete Fermín Cacho to US track star Carl Lewis.

Outside the stadiums, people partied endlessly. Sofía Mazagatos, Miss Spain 1992, called it “the era of the chandelier”. There was money to burn. Such a profusion of first-class entertainment generated its quota of jobs. Salaries – and rents and restaurant meals – were three times what they are now. Seville duo Victorio & Lucchino couldn't produce ruffled shirts fast enough while designer Toni Miró was dressing the Barcelona in-crowd in collarless shirts and deconstructed blazers. Singers Rocío Jurado and Imperio Argentina belted out the musical Azabache, elevating the Spanish song to new intellectual heights. Bullfights were de rigueur and Julio Iglesias was filling the Palau Sant Jordi arena with songs like Me Va Me Va. It is what people wanted to hear. There was an insatiable appetite for old Spain and its glorious traditions. We were, or believed we were, Amigos Para Siempre – Friends Forever, as Catalan pop flamenco group Los Manolos so melodically put it.

The world has changed since 1992; It is both bigger and smaller

The downward spiral began the next year. The Infantas, or daughters of Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, got married. Elena was first to walk down the aisle in Seville, with an aristocrat. She was also the first in her family to get divorced; Cristina married next, tying the knot in Barcelona with Olympic medalist Iñaki Urdangarin in a match that would squeeze the life out of the fairy tale once and for all.

In the wake of the massive spending spree, corruption cases began to emerge. Little by little, our innocence was lost and our nerves were shot, first by the Islamist train attacks in Madrid in 2004 and then an economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. We watched bemused as the then Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero accepted EU spending cuts, the anti-austerity protest movement 15M set up camp in the center of our cities, King Juan Carlos abdicated after his “mistake” in Botswana, where he was photographed while elephant hunting as Spain suffered through the crisis, and Catalonian separatists took heart from a speech by Prince Felipe, now the King.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales in Seville on May 21, 1992.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales in Seville on May 21, 1992.García Cordero (EL PAÍS)

We still have happy memories of 1992, and the high-speed train, bridges and highways are still with us. But now Barcelona and Seville are invaded by hordes of tourists, who annoy the hotel industry by renting out flats and apartments. We also have the children of those who were young in 1992, earning half of what their parents earned, if they are earning at all. Chances are, those parents are unemployed too, meaning the grandparents are using their pension to support the entire family. And then there is Felipe VI, a king who has to work hard at staying on his throne and who is visited in the palace by a certain Pablo Iglesias, the denim-clad leader of Spain’s new left-wing party Podemos.

In the wake of the massive spending spree, our innocence was lost little by little

In spring, 2017, Súbeme la radio, by Enrique Iglesias, is number one in the charts. Bullfighting is on its knees. The Basque terror group ETA is disarming, while Islamists mow down civilians in city squares around Europe. Seville-based architect Santiago Cirugeda says we are still cleaning up after the Expo party. He himself is moving structures from the Isla de Cartuja to Sant Boi in Barcelona province, a poetic twist of fate. There, the young and old take selfies with these symbols of a short-lived boom to post on Facebook and Snapchat.

The world has changed. It is both bigger and smaller. There would be little sense in a universal exposition now that globalization is here to stay and Barcelona hosts the World Mobile Congress each year. Sociologist José Juan Toharia highlights Spain’s capacity for abiding. We have put up with, and are putting up with and will put up with. What we will put up with exactly remains to be seen.

Murcia Day at the 1992 Seville Expo.
Murcia Day at the 1992 Seville Expo.García Cordero

English version by Heather Galloway.

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