Spain's Tribulations; from Franco's Dictatorship to a Democracy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 15, 2006 | Go to article overview

Spain's Tribulations; from Franco's Dictatorship to a Democracy


Byline: Barry Casselman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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