Lorenzo Olarte, autonomies and the Sahara

Lorenzo Olarte y Miguel Ortiz en la ONU
Lorenzo Olarte and Miguel Ortiz at the UN

Our beloved Lorenzo Olarte, a historic figure in Canary Islands and Spanish politics, has passed away. His long record includes, among many other things, his presidency of the Government of the Canary Islands (1988-1991), and his appointment as advisor to Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, a position he held from 1977 to 1982 as a man of his utmost confidence, and where he is remembered as an important player in the arduous and laborious work of articulating the transition to democracy.  

  1. An important vision of Western Sahara 

But beyond the well-deserved praise and accolades, as well as the summaries and portraits of his political and personal career that have been published in recent days in the wake of his death, it is worth mentioning some chapters of his career which, although no less well known, do not detract from their interest. 

An important vision of Western Sahara 

We have been linked to Olarte in relation to the Sahara issue for two decades, where we coincided in the IV UN Commission (to which I will refer shortly) and other related events. But on a personal level, and even in my late student days, I cannot fail to remember how, without hesitation or hesitation, he came to my alma mater, the University of Murcia, when I asked him to participate in a conference on the Autonomous State, which we were organising to mark the centenary of the university.  

That generous effort, taking a night flight on the eve of the conference and the subsequent connection by train, is something I will never forget. It was well worth the effort; that round table discussion under the title "Autonomous State: past, present and future" left several highlights of his life and career. For example, when he recalled the transition "not as a work of engineering, but of goldsmithing", due to the difficult political and social context of the time. Or when he emphasised with great pride that, more than a centrist, he considered himself a "suarist". And as a good autonomist, he said: "If autonomies did not exist, they would have to be invented". 

Olarte also positioned himself in this duality, autonomies and Sahara. As early as 2006, even before Morocco proposed the autonomy plan, he spoke out at a conference in Rabat, proposing "full and sincere autonomy, for which the Canary Islands model is an important reference" and recalling that "the old Polisario's representativeness has given way to a plurality of different conceptions of the future of the Sahara". Although he flirted at some point with the idea of a Confederation or an Associated Free State for the territory, he finally recognised this option as the most feasible, as did another recently deceased former president, Jerónimo Saavedra. 

Subsequently, between 2007 and 2009, he participated in the annual sessions organised by the UN Fourth Committee in New York. Olarte's interventions and his position on the issue can be examined in his session diaries, which are freely available on the UN website. As he himself stated, he spoke there in his capacity as "former president of the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands and former member of the Congress of Deputies and the Commission that oversaw the process of decolonisation of Western Sahara concluded by Spain in 1975". 

For example, in his 2007 intervention, he claimed before the Commission that "the Canary Islands, which share a history and close relations with the Sahara, provide a considerable amount of humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of Tindouf. The purpose of this aid is to meet the basic needs of the population and never to support the military activities of the Polisario". It also urged the parties to "make every effort to reach an agreement", although it qualified that "a possible obstacle would be the territorial ambitions that Algeria, which hosts part of the Sahrawi population, may harbour". 

The following year, in 2008, he declared at the UN that "the situation of the Saharawis living under Moroccan rule is much better than that of those living in the refugee camps in Tindouf", and referred to autonomy for the territory as "that status which would give the people the economic and financial conditions they need to establish a modern and democratic society, capable of achieving its development potential". 

Finally, in 2009, Olarte reminded the UN that "every effort should be made to avoid a violent solution that will benefit no one". He pointed the finger at Algeria, stating that "with its hostility towards Morocco, it is continuing the dispute. Its support for the Polisario Front only serves the objective of creating a puppet state that would provide it with an Atlantic coastline, a strategic advantage and mineral wealth. The UN must put pressure on Algeria to reach a solution. He concluded by stating forcefully that "Morocco's proposal for full autonomy will guarantee the people of Western Sahara a better and more decent life, while respecting their culture and national identity and safeguarding their political, economic and cultural rights". 

As we can see, many of the problems and possible solutions raised by Lorenzo Olarte at the UN are still valid today and urgently need to be resolved. Now that there is so much self-serving talk of "swerves" and "abrupt changes of position", it is worth revisiting his words, as a key figure in the transition that he was, speaking of something he knew well: territorial integration and the autonomous state. 

Although now widely topical and increasingly accepted by the international community, this is good proof that, far from being a backflip, Moroccan autonomy for the Sahara has been debated and recommended by experts in the field for two decades as the most viable and humanitarian solution, over and above castles in the air or sectarian positions. Olarte's example is one of them. Democrat, centrist, "suarist" and, even on the Sahara issue, autonomist. 

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