Spain debates enshrining bullfighting by law as cultural heritage, prohibiting bullfight bans

MADRID (AP) — Ernest Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting and artist Goya depicted it in some of his most famous paintings. Now Spain's leading opposition party wants to enshrine it as part of the nation's cultural heritage — and stop efforts to ban the bloody pastime.

Supporters who say bullfighting is a form of art crucial to Spanish national identity say the move would also overturn the high-profile bullfighting ban enacted last month in the populous northeastern Catalonia region, and strike down a 1991 ban in Spain's Canary Islands.

Other parts of Spain would be prevented from enacting regional bans so Spaniards and tourists would have the freedom of choice to attend bullfights, said lawmaker Juan Manuel Albendea, the spokesman for the longshot bill being pushed forward by the conservative Popular Party.

"What if, say, Madrid banned the cinema?" asked Albendea. "It would be ridiculous."

The proposal also states that Spain's government must protect bullfighting as culture, though Albandea didn't say how that would happen and the initial proposal doesn't offer details.

However, the Culture Ministry is already responsible for preservation of historic buildings, and for protecting development from encroaching on hiking routes through various parts of Spain that lead to the famed medieval Catholic shrine of Santiago de Compostela.

"Cultural heritage would provide bulletproof protection," said bull breeder Eduardo Martin-Penato, who is also president of Spain's leading bullfighting industry association. "Under the Constitution the government is obliged to protect culture."

While the ruling center-left Socialist Party opposes the bill, the center-right Popular Party has filed paperwork to put it up for debate in Parliament after national lawmakers return to work in September following their summer break.

Mimi Bekhechi, the anti-bullfighting campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calls the effort "just a desperate attempt by a small minority of people to cling to this former tradition that most Spaniards have no interest in whatsoever."

She added: "There is nothing cultured about torturing an animal."

Some tourists attending a fight Sunday at Madrid's historic Las Ventas ring, however, said bullfighting should be protected quickly because the Catalonia ban represents a threat to fights elsewhere.

"Bullfighting has great significance for the Spanish soul," said Patrick O'Hara, a 69-year-old Canadian who works in France as a university English professor. He was attending his first fight, as was Tanya Case, a 41-year-old Spanish professor from Bennington, Vermont.

She said bullfighting deserves protected status because it has been passed from generation to generation and is a huge draw for tourists learning about Spain.

"We should preserve culture, and you cannot have Spain without bullfighting," said Case, touring Spain with her daughter.

The number of bullfights across Spain has declined sharply over the last two years after a lengthy Spanish recession hit the sector hard.

And Spain's economic woes have prompted small towns and cities with lower tax revenue to reduce or eliminate the subsidies they provide to bullfight promoters to put on the shows during traditional summer pueblo parties.

Luis Corrales, who headed the Barcelona-based pro-bullfight organization that opposed the Catalonia ban, denied Spanish interest in bullfighting is waning. He said there also was widespread speculation that bullfighting would die in Spain in 1930, after a new law mandated giving horses a special form of protective armor in the rings so they wouldn't be killed or badly hurt by gorings.

"They said the move robbed the spectacle of its excitement and it presaged the end," he said. "Clearly that didn't happen."

Spanish newspapers still feature pages of reviews of bullfights, along with prominent pictures of leading national figures watching fights from grandstands overlooking the rings, including members of the royal family.

Elena Valenciano, a leading Socialist Party lawmaker, said last week that Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero's administration is against the bullfighting proposal because such decisions should be in the hands of Spain's regional governments.

If the ruling party maintains its stance, the effort to enshrine bullfighting as part of Spanish culture will almost certainly fail in Parliament, Albendea and Martin-Penato conceded.

But the popularity of Zapatero and his party declined substantially over the last year as Spain's economic problems mushroomed. Polls show the Popular Party, known here as the PP, would likely win national elections if they were held now though Zapatero doesn't have to call them until 2012.

So bullfight supporters are pinning their hopes on a win after the next national elections, and want the PP to include the issue in its electoral platform.

"It will have a much better chance of becoming law in two years if the PP wins," Corrales said.

If the bill fails, the opposition will file a lawsuit with Spain's highest court to repeal the Catalan law on grounds that regions have jurisdiction to oversee bullfighting but not ban it, Albendea said. The Popular party also plans to ask UNESCO to declare bullfighting as part of the world's cultural heritage.

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Associated Press Writers Harold Heckle, Ciaran Giles and Daniel Woolls contributed to this report from Madrid.