- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

Forty years ago this week, I was a graduate student attending the University of Madrid in Spain. I lived in a pension (boarding house) near the Plaza de Espana, and at one of the evening meals there, I was told that Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the dictator of the Spanish state since 1939 (the end of the Spanish Civil War), was going to propose the next day a new “organic law” of succession to his regime which had already lasted about three decades. The talk at the table that night was that the aging Franco might reinstate formally the Spanish royal family with the young prince Juan Carlos as the future king (after Franco’s death).

The next day, camera in hand, I made my way to the Plaza de las Cortes where the Spanish parliament building (the Cortes) stood. The plaza and the streets leading to it were decorated with many bright flags and banners, and huge crowds lined the broad avenue that led into the large open square where approximately 30,000 persons (including myself) had gathered for a rare sighting of the aging chief of state.

The Cortes itself had a large ornate red canopy in front for the occasion, and members of the parliament, government officials and high military officers stood on its steps awaiting Franco’s arrival.

Before he did arrive, there was an extraordinary parade of mounted horsemen, military bands, motorcycle police, the Civil Guard wearing their distinctive hats and marching soldiers. The music was not only martial, but quite festive, and each wave of horsemen brought soldiers wearing the uniforms of the Spanish military from what seemed to be every era since the 15th century. There were plumed hats, helmets of the conquistadores, alabarderos with their distinctive medieval halberd weapons and the red boinas (berets) of La Guardia Mora, Franco’s personal bodyguards. Armored knights and modern soldiers marched by, one after another, in a seemingly endless parade of Spanish history, all accompanied by cheers from the crowd and stirring music. Then the parade itself came suddenly to an end, and there was a tense silence.

From far down the great avenue that led into the plaza, however, could be heard a growing rhythmic chant. As it came closer and louder, I could hear the chant was “Fran-co! Fran-co! Fran-co!” Finally, moving slowly, came a single 1930s black Rolls Royce limousine which eventually pulled in front of the Cortes (and only a few feet from where I stood). An admiral wearing a white sash, laden with medals, with a crimson cummerbund, walked to the limousine door and opened it.

Out stepped “El Caudillo” (The Leader), a short pudgy man with a small moustache, wearing a military uniform, and looking exactly, it seemed to me, like Xavier Cugat, the Cuban band leader I had seen a few years before in Cleveland, Ohio. The legendary fascist dictator paid little attention to the crowd which had been chanting his name. As he walked up the many steps to the entrance of the Cortes, virtually all the 30,000 persons now made the Falangist (Nazi) salute, and began to sing the Falangist anthem.

The color and sound of this spectacular occasion had, until this moment, been thrilling for me, a kid from Erie, Pa. (who doesn’t love a great parade?), but when all around me were making the chilling Nazi salute, I was soberly thrust back into a time before I was born, a time when crowds even bigger than this routinely rallied before Franco and his two notorious allies, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini on the streets of Europe.

The Organic Law which Franco presented that day to the parliament was rubber-stamped, and went into effect. Franco’s purpose, of course, was to perpetuate his Falangist regime, and in 1969 it was made official that Juan Carlos would be king. Franco had apparently decided years before to bypass Juan Carlos’ father, Prince Don Juan de Borbon, who was the son of Alfonso XIII, the last king of Spain. Alfonso had left in 1931 when the brief Spanish republic was established. Don Juan lived in exile in Italy and Portugal for many years, awaiting Franco’s death, so he could return to claim his throne. But Don Juan was known to be a democrat, and by Spanish standards, a liberal who despised Franco’s regime. Cunningly, Franco had decided that instead of Don Juan, he would turn over power to his son, then a young boy. Franco would educate the boy in Madrid, away from the influence of his father. In fact, Juan Carlos came to Spain, was educated under Franco’s eye, and attended the University of Madrid at about the time I was there.

As it turned out, Juan Carlos defied expectations that he would be a puppet of Franco’s supporters, and after a courageous stand against a right wing coup d’etat attempt in 1981, has become a popular and admired figure throughout Spain. But unlike his Bourbon predecessors until the 19th century, and Franco before him, Juan Carlos has little technical power and very little say over the day-to-day management of the government. The real political power in Spain today is through its democratically elected parliament and the government of the prime minister it chooses.

After an initial period (1977-81) in which a centrist government under Alfonso Suarez was in power, a socialist government under Felipe Gonzalez took over (1982-96). Then, a center-right government under Jose Maria Aznar took over in 1996. Mr. Aznar was a strong ally of the United States and supported our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which included sending Spanish troops. When Mr. Aznar’s conservative successor was defeated in 2004 by socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain reversed its support of the United States in Iraq. Mr. Zapatero has been trying to move Spain decidedly to the left. His critics contend he is moving too far and too fast. Recently, Mr. Zapatero has called for the removal of the remaining public presence in Spain of Franco and his regime, which includes taking down statues and renaming streets and public buildings.

This has drawn some attention recently in the U.S. press. Stories have appeared relating how grandchildren of Spanish men and women killed in the civil war on both sides are now taking out commemorative obituary ads in the newspapers, recounting the grievances of that war, and reviving memories of the atrocities committed by both sides.

But that is not the important story of what’s happening in Spain today.

The significant story, rarely reported in the U.S. media, is how the Spanish nation is struggling to keep it national identity and territorial integrity. Tensions in the ethnic (and linguistic) regions of Spain, many of which were granted some form of autonomy after Franco’s death, now threaten this historic identity and return the Iberian peninsula to a modern version of the several contiguous and rival kingdoms that dominated it prior to the 16th century. Independence has been the stated goal of Basque (north central Spain) separatists for many years, but they are now being joined by some Catalans (northeastern Spain) and some Galicians (northwestern Spain). Virtually all of Spain is now experiencing a huge immigration of Muslims from North Africa and of workers from Eastern Europe, and with the separatist tensions, the Castillian center of the country where the capital Madrid is located, is becoming more isolated and challenged by upheaval.

Forty years ago, an aging Franco tried to devise a way to keep Spain together under his Falangist ideology. His plans were upset from the beginning, but the nation has, until now, held together. Spain, so long a feudal holdout in Europe, now has a real middle class and a modern society. Its cultural contributions for centuries have included some of the greatest figures of world art, literature and music.

New forces, however, are conspiring to break this historic nation, once a world colonial power, apart. As the mother country of almost 400 million people who speak the Spanish language all over the world (40 million in the United States alone), and a new economic power in Europe, these tribulations in Spain bear watching.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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