Spain on the Brink

Juan Carlos
Juan Carlos; drawing by David Levine

During this bizarre Spanish autumn, event followed event with the somberness of a Greek tragedy. For more than a year, the Spaniards have sensed that the end of the Franco era would come not in a graceful “transition” but in a harsh effort to preserve the old man’s dictatorial powers. Since the assassination of Premier Luis Carrero Blanco on December 20, 1973, Franco and his family had increasingly surrounded themselves with figures of the extreme right, such as Rodriguez de Valcárcel, president of the appointed National Assembly, and Torcuato Fernandez Miranda, a Falangist minister in the present cabinet, all opposed to even the timid attempts at liberalization advocated by Carrero’s successor, Premier Carlos Arias Navarro.

By the end of this summer, the ultra-right wing of Franco’s government, getting ready for a stormy winter, passed an antiterrorist law that not only imposed a mandatory death sentence for those convicted of killing or aiding or abetting in the death of a policeman but also made political protest a highly punishable crime; it also allowed policemen to enter private homes and make arrests without a warrant.

Thus the police were given an autonomy of action they had not possessed for fifteen years. On September 27 the antiterrorist law rapidly went into effect. After a summary kangaroo trial which caused a deep split within the government, five young members of the Basque ETA and a Maoist group known as FRAP were grimly executed by police firing squads. The armed forces, significantly, declined to participate, although normally they are in charge of political executions.

Following these killings, Franco’s government staged a strange, enormous rally in support of the government in the Plaza de Oriente in Madrid, a rally in which thousands of government employees and members of far-right groups were quickly recruited to shout their approval of Spain’s defiance of the rest of Europe, of the Vatican, and of the foreign press which had condemned the executions. For a moment, it appeared as though the country was in the hands of the ultra-right. But if one looked beneath the surface, even before Franco’s heart attacks three weeks later the ultras appeared to be floundering. In the past the large rallies in the Plaza de Oriente were organized in times of the regime’s weakness—not in moments of strength. As one observer close to the Spanish political scene remarked to me: “Make no mistake about it. Despite the government’s public bravado about Western Europe’s condemnation of Spain, privately they are badly shaken.” The trials of twenty-five additional members of ETA and FRAP awaiting death sentences were held up, and trials of other political prisoners were removed from the Military Tribunal to the more innocuous Court of Civil Order.

If outward calm had been restored, Spain remained in a state of confusion that worsened three weeks after the rally when Franco suffered his long series of heart attacks. But…

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