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10 Years After Franco : New Spain: The Fears Are Gone

Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died at the age of 82, and his death ushered in one of the most astounding episodes in European history--the swift and relatively peaceful transformation of Spain from a puritanical dictatorship to a modern democracy.

The change in Spanish life in the decade since Nov. 20, 1975, has been enormous, and it is easy enough to come up with sensational and titillating examples.

In the early 1970s, Spaniards would bus across the border on package tours that took them to French movie houses to see Marlon Brando in the then-sexually shocking “Last Tango in Paris.” Now, in downtown Madrid, the theater Sala X is offering “The First Porno Marathon of Madrid, From 10 in the Morning Until 12 at Night, Eight Movies Daily, Eight.”

No Kissing in Public

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In the early 1970s, young Spanish couples were hesitant about offending public morals by kissing on downtown streets. Now, prostitutes, female and male, show no shyness about accosting possible customers on the same streets. “Vamos, " they say. “Let’s go.”

Commenting on all the changes of the decade, Josep Ramoneda of the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia wrote recently that Spaniards seemed to have moved from one fantasy to another.

“After once believing that the sight of a naked bottom brought perdition,” he said, “they began to believe that they could die happy only after seeing one.”

Yet in some ways these examples distort reality. The transformation in Spanish life has been more profound and subtle than the burst of nudity and seamy sex in downtown Madrid. It may be difficult, though, for a visitor to sense the real change. In many ways Spain, on the surface, still seems like Spain.

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Transformed Itself

Also, the process of change has been as remarkable and as important as the change itself. Unlike Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan 40 years ago, the dictatorship of Spain was not dismantled by occupying armies. Spain, under unlikely leadership, transformed itself.

The approach of the 10th anniversary of Franco’s death has caused many Spaniards to reflect on what has happened to their country. Angel Vinas, 44, who has emerged in the last 10 years as one of Spain’s best known historians, said recently:

“I think that Spanish society of 1985 is a completely different one from 10 years ago. The changes are to be found in every walk of life, in every sector of public and private life.”

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Yet for every example of surface change, like nudity on the beaches, a persistent observer could probably come up with an example of constancy.

In Madrid, genteel old men in suits still escort their bourgeois wives on evening walks, crowding later into the old mahogany and marble cafes. Thin, hollow-cheeked men still don their hoods and, dragging heavy wooden crosses, walk barefoot in Good Friday processions through rural villages. Aficionados still cram the bullrings for an afternoon’s obsession with death.

The most profound changes in Spain, however, go beyond these surface impressions and center instead on attitudes and feelings. The absence of repression, the confidence in democracy and the questioning of relationships in private life make up the great transformation of Spain.

Guardians of the Regime

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Ten years ago, dour policemen in gray uniforms carried submachine guns and posed against the walls of buildings on Madrid street corners, fearsome guardians of the regime. Riot police, swinging truncheons, aiming tear gas cartridges at eye level, firing rubber bullets and live bullets as well, squelched all attempts by Spaniards to assemble for protest, often knocking down bystanders for good measure.

An elaborate censorship apparatus had been constructed over the years and much of it remained in place. The censors were sometimes ridiculous.

In the movie “Mogambo,” for example, the censors did not want Spaniards to know that Clark Gable, who played a hunter, and Grace Kelly, who played the wife of a scientist, were committing adultery. So they changed the script in the dubbed-Spanish version to make it appear that Kelly and her husband were sister and brother. Spaniards were saved from witnessing adultery only at the cost of witnessing incest.

Now, both the foolishness and the repression are gone and the absence of tension is obvious, even startling, to anyone who knew Spain a decade ago.

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Juan Luis Cebrian, the 41-year-old editor of El Pais, the newspaper that has served as the reflection and guide of the Spanish transition, cited “the loss of fear” as the most important change in Spain in the last 10 years.

“It is very difficult to explain what it means for a country to lose its fears,” Cebrian said in a recent interview in his office, “not to be afraid to participate, to give opinions, to walk in the streets. . . .

‘Man of the Regime’

“All the Spanish people, even the Spaniards of the regime--and I know, because my father was a man of the regime--all of us had fear of expressing ourselves for many, many years. The losing of fear is very, very strange to explain. You have to live under it to feel it.”

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Democratic institutions are now in place in Spain. An elected Parliament enacts laws, and the government is run by a popular prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, who leads a Socialist Party that was long reviled as subversive by Franco and his minions. But even more important, there is an extraordinary confidence these days that democracy works.

Democratic attitudes are not instilled completely. Some older people still fear authority. Politicians still seem to cater to the whims of military officers. Many Spaniards still resent the criticism that comes from open debate. “You don’t go through 40 years of dictatorship without being contaminated by it,” historian Vinas said. Yet the belief in democracy is now pervasive.

More time is needed before serious studies can be made of the changes in private life since Franco’s death, especially in relations between the sexes. Divorce is now permitted. Legal abortions, though very difficult, are possible. But a new assertiveness by many Spanish women seems obvious, an increasing refusal to accept a secondary role in a macho world. Some Spanish marriages are showing the same tension from this assertiveness that has long been evident in the rest of the industrialized world.

No Overnight Change

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Sometimes the change seems swifter than it really is. Spain has not changed overnight. When Franco died, his people had long outgrown his dictatorship. Spain had become a middle-class country, and Spaniards had some of the same aspirations that other people had in Western Europe. In the view of many analysts, many forces were in place, ready to be unleashed by Franco’s death.

“The suit of Francoism, the suit of the dictatorship, was very tight,” said Jose Antonio Martinez Soler, 38, the news director of one of Spain’s government-controlled television channels. “It was breaking apart. It didn’t fit. The regime was decrepit. It was dying slowly. Everyone was waiting.”

The emergence of the newspaper El Pais reveals a good deal about the pace and meaning of change in the new Spain. El Pais appeared for the first time more than five months after Franco died. Within a year, it not only became the best newspaper in Spain and the conscience of the transition to democracy, it also took its place among the finest newspapers in Europe. El Pais seemed to come out of nowhere, but that, of course, was not true.

Unsightly, Amateurish

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Newspapers under Franco had been a disgrace--mostly fearful, dull, turgid, unsightly, amateurish. It is hard to imagine how Spanish journalists trained by these newspapers could have joined to produce so professional and distinguished a product as El Pais. Yet these journalists had learned their craft by struggling for a decade with the Francoist bureaucracy.

“We were trying every day to use one new word, to gain freedom word by word,” said Martinez Soler, a member of the early El Pais team who began his career at Franco era newspapers.

“Little by little, the journalists started to publish more and more,” said Cebrian, who worked under the restrictions of the Franco era as assistant editor of a Madrid newspaper before putting together El Pais.

When Franco died, young journalists like Martinez Soler and Cebrian were prepared to take their place with the best of Europe.

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Two Men’s Leadership

In a surprising way, the transition to democracy and the enormous changes in Spain were led by two young men without any democratic credentials. In July, 1976, King Juan Carlos I, who had been handpicked by Franco as his successor, named Adolfo Suarez, the chief of the Francoist Falange movement, as prime minister. This was widely looked on as a dismaying error, as an immense obstacle to change.

“I didn’t trust Suarez at all,” historian Vinas said in an interview at his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he now serves as an adviser. “Even when Suarez launched himself on the path of change and introduced the bill for the political reform, I still didn’t trust him. I just couldn’t believe that he was the man to put through this evolution. . . .

“I didn’t trust the king either. There were no reasons to trust the king, mind you. . . . It was difficult for us to believe that the king would divest himself of all his prerogatives and would support the transition to democracy.”

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Power to Enemies

Yet the king and Suarez, the heirs of Franco, led the transition to democracy and even turned over power, when the voters so decided, to the enemies of Franco. The two relatively young men--Juan Carlos was 37 and Suarez was 42 when Franco died--adopted the mood of their generation.

Many analysts, including Vinas, now believe that the transformation of Spain was made smoother because it was led by men so close to the old regime. But perhaps it did not matter who led the transition.

“Freedom for us,” Martinez Soler said in an interview at his home outside Madrid, “was like water coming down a mountain. You put something here, it goes there. You put something there, it goes here. It does not matter. Even without the king, even without Suarez, we would have arrived at the point of freedom.”

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Abducted, Tortured

Martinez Soler insisted that he maintained this kind of optimism even after he was abducted and tortured by unknown assailants--identified in some news accounts as members of the Guardia Civil, a police agency--a few months after the death of Franco.

There was a terrible moment in 1981. Fear of a military coup had long lurked in the thoughts of young democratic Spaniards. It was, after all, a military rebellion by Franco, in 1936, that ignited the civil war that brought down the Spanish Republic. Fears were intensified by the failure of the new democratic government to squelch the terrorism of Basque separatists.

On Feb. 23, 1981, the fears become reality. A troop of Guardia Civil led by Lt. Col. Manuel Tejero stormed the Spanish Parliament, holding the elected ministers and deputies prisoner while waiting for army generals outside to bring down the democratic government. But the attempted coup collapsed when King Juan Carlos took to national television and made it clear that he would defend democracy.

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The failure of the coup has fueled the present optimism about democracy.

Blessing in Disguise

“The attempted coup,” historian Vinas said, “was a blessing in disguise. It completely showed to everyone that the military putschists had no plans, had no future, had nothing, in fact. They were people looking backward. And the reaction of the king made it clear to everyone that any new attempted coup would have to be directed against the king himself.”

Martinez Soler, the television news director, used the image of a vaccine to describe how the failure of the coup now protected Spain from similar adventures.

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“This segment of the army lost so badly and feels so ridiculous that they won’t try again so long as they remember what happened,” he said. “We have this vaccine now in our social body.”

Remote and Scorned

In a land where Spaniards were once forced to adulate their dictator in public, Franco, 10 years after his death, now seems a remote and scorned figure. Publishers are putting out new or revised biographies. Some nostalgia is evident. The extreme right-wing party that is patterned after Franco’s old Falange still sells little medallions of Franco in front of the main post office.

But the Francoist party is not strong enough to hold a single seat in Parliament. And the young democrats who now mold public opinion in Spain and make up its establishment look on him with more disdain than ever.

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“I will never forgive Franco,” Martinez Soler said, “for killing or exiling the best part of society. I grew up without any leader or any authority of art, music, philosophy, literature, painting. Picasso was abroad. Casals was abroad. Everybody was abroad. We had no maestros here.”

Divided the Country

Cebrian, the editor of El Pais, said: “Franco maintained the idea of the civil war until the end of his life. He divided the country until the end of his life. I still feel that he was a real catastrophe for my country.”

Vinas said that after eight years of historical research into the Franco regime, “my personal opinion of Franco and his system has steadily deteriorated.”

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“I think the system was a disaster and Franco was a disaster,” he went on. “Maybe I am being very unjust. But I don’t think that Franco is a man of historical greatness. I cannot think that the Franco dictatorship will go down in history as a positive achievement.”


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