20-20 hindsight

Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, it’s now difficult to understand why many people – both inside and outside Spain – feared a renewal of the political antagonisms that had led to the Civil War after Franco died. In a way, that feeling underlined the fact that the dictator had dominated Spain so absolutely for almost 40 years that an alternative form of government was difficult to imagine. No-one at the time believed that King Juan Carlos would amount to much because only a very few people knew that he even intended to try to turn Spain into a democracy. He was a silent figure who appeared in public with Franco and never expressed any political ideas. There was no hint of the agony he was going through, knowing that he had to keep silent in order to survive long enough politically to implement the necessary reforms, but also knowing full well that his silence only reinforced the widespread perception of him as Franco’s puppet, selected by the dictator to carry on his regime. While Franco lay dying hardly anybody spared a second thought for the future King. Hundreds of thousands of people – like myself – hoped that Franco would be suffering great pain as he drifted in out of coma “to make up for some of the pain he had inflicted on the Spanish people”, while just as many more were hoping against hope that he would survive, because a future without him was too terrifying an unknown. Many were genuinely mourning his passing, but many feared what that passing would bring. The downplaying of the coronation only seemed to confirm that Juan Carlos would not last long. Las Cortes proclaimed him as king two days after Franco died in a simple ceremony on November 22nd, followed by a coronation mass on November 27th. Very few people knew then just how hard Juan Carlos had to work behind the scenes to get some respectable heads of government to attend the ceremony. With the exception of the Chilean dictator, Agustin Pinochet, none had attended Franco’s funeral. German President Walter Scheel came willingly but Juan Carlos had to send his friend and trusted adviser Manuel Prado y Colon de Carvajal to convince French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing to attend. Harold Wilson sent the Lord Privy Seal, Lord Shepherd, because he did not want to upset the trade unions, who were against anything to do with Franco. However, he told US President Gerald Ford: “I recognise, even if it cannot be put bluntly in public, that King Juan Carlos has a very hard row to hoe. So we shall encourage him privately to move as fast as possible, but try to avoid public condemnation when we can, if the pace is slower than public expectation here may demand.” Ford sent Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller to represent the US at the funeral, while the Duke of Edinburgh represented the Queen. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that people actually expected the new King to wave a magic wand and transform the country overnight. They forgot that the so-called Bunker – Franco hardliners – had not died along with the dictator and the King had to move very carefully those first few months to avoid provoking the military top brass who had fought in the Civil War. In a way, the situation was very similar to the one that existed back in July 1936. If the top brass had attempted a coup, most of the younger officers would have backed the King. This division was reflected in civil society but fortunately cooler heads prevailed and followed the King as he made those first tentative steps towards reform. Unfortunately, the public expectation Harold Wilson referred to was soon disappointed. Justice Minister José María Sánchez-Ventura announced pardons for prisoners which fell far short of the full amnesty most people wanted. Only 30% of the prison population was affected, and most of them were common criminals rather than political prisoners – who numbered 235 of the total of 4,000 released. So even as Juan Carlos and Sophia drove down streets lined with cheering people after the coronation mass, riot police armed with batons were using tear gas and water cannons to break up protests outside the country’s prisons. To make matters worse, several political prisoners were immediately re-arrested, which caused huge amnesty demonstrations in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valladolid and Vigo. The demand for a full amnesty was taken up by Amnesty International and demonstrations against the King were held regularly in most Western countries until the Spanish government declared a full amnesty a few months later. It was not an auspicious start. However, Juan Carlos by now had the tacit backing of several important capitalists anxious to ditch Franco’s obsolete political mechanisms which hindered the development of a modern economy. He also knew the masses would back his reforms but he still had the Bunker to contend with. To be continued.

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