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Original sins, enhanced legacies

Former Spanish prime minister Adolfo Suárez (left) and King Juan Carlos, who abdicated on Monday.
By Sebastián Lacunza
Editor-in-Chief
On the abdication of Spain’s King Juan Carlos

Four decades after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, Spanish public life has lost the last leader of the transition, a man who was still taking part in the major leagues of local politics.

Any transition to democracy is a complex process. Years and decades after the end of a dictatorship, it still affects the social body and more than anything, the collective unconscious. In the Spanish case, such influence was particularly lasting, given the fact that the regime had ruled for 38 years and left its legacy in the hands of its most trusted men.

One of them, the young promise of the Francoist elite, was the then-deputy chief of the Falangist movement who became later the first elected head of the recovered democracy, Adolfo Suárez (who died last March). Another protagonist was Franco’s monarchical invention, Juan Carlos de Borbón.

Biographers say that Suárez and Juan Carlos’ good relationship flourished when the future prime minister took over Spanish Radio Television in the late sixties.

With little to say through the monopolistic channel of a stifling regime, a bold Suárez found in journeys taken and inaugurations attended by the then-prince a good way to bring entertainment to audiences. Years later, both weaved the delicate path to democracy in a game of silence and complicity with the third great protagonist of the Spanish transition, the historic Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, who passed away in 2012.

Having said that, nobody should be confused: it had nothing to do with an epic novel, it was the game of politics, unexempted from pacts, suspicions and betrayals .

Paradoxically, the original sin of Juan Carlos I and Adolfo Suárez — having been both conceived as political figures by Francisco Franco — is, at the same time, the key fact that enhances their legacies. Instead of giving way to democracy, Suarez and the now-abdicating king could have chosen to postpone it. They could have kept the Communist Party illegal, or deepened the repression, increasing the number of victims in a country that had been counting them by hundreds of thousands throughout the century.

This stage doesn’t appear to be a science fiction piece in the Spain’s second seventies. Even though the country was then a pariah in European democracy, many in the Francoist circle wanted more blood and, above all, to preserve their privileges and values over the rest of Spaniards. Their extorsive potential and some death squads were still alive yet the momentum of the economy that started a decade before had begun to decline.

And the ship sailed on, but far from the simplistic idealizations that hindered the analysis of Spain’s recent decades. Suárez and Juan Carlos I could also have tried to seek justice for atrocities, as Argentina or Germany managed to do. Instead of silencing victims, they could have listened to them, as Peru or South Africa did. They could have investigated how the fortunes of the Francoists were built or have built the cornerstone of a democracy without such a significant presence of names from the past. Not only did they choose another less problematic way but politicians and judges also followed them in failing to make any progress on this path, with much more room when democracy wasn’t under threat anymore.

February 23, 1981, is often called a crucial hinge of Spanish democracy. After Suarez resigned a week earlier, a group of military officers attempted a coup known as “Tejerazo,” a name derived from the one who fired the shots in Congress, Civil Guard Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero. In a dramatic turn of events, not all the military units that had been committed to the coup joined it, and King Juan Carlos, expecting such a result and having approved it from the Zarzuela Palace, according to some researchers, finally decided to support democracy and earned a place in history.

A few days before the “Tejerazo,” on January 28, 1981, an episode registered in some books shows how conflicted Suárez and the king’s coexistence had become.

Without almost any political capital and pushed out of the government by, among others, Juan Carlos I, the prime minister went to the Zarzuela Palace to inform the monarch of his decision to quit in order “to leave the government to those who didn’t allow me to govern.”

The king did not speak to him. No gestures, no sign of grief. He urged his assistant Sabino Fernández Campo to go up to his office.

Before the head of the government elected by popular vote, Juan Carlos I reportedly only dropped these words — “Sabino, this one goes.”

@sebalacunza
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