Spain Forgets Franco, But Not Pinochet

Stanley Meisler was The Times' correspondent in Madrid during the Spanish transition to democracy

If Gen. Augusto Pinochet ever stands trial in a Spanish court for crimes against humanity, the venue will be odd and ironic. That is because Spaniards, in the celebrated transition from the cruel dictatorship of Francisco Franco to democracy more than 20 years ago, never tried anyone for complicity in their villain’s crimes against humanity.

Spain, in fact, never even created a truth commission to delve into the carnage of the Franco past. Instead, Spaniards abided by what they called el pacto del olvido (the pact of forgetting), an informal understanding that blame and revenge must be laid aside lest furies break loose and smash the movement toward democracy.

Franco’s sins were hardly the lesser of Pinochet’s. In the wake of Franco’s 1939 victory in the Spanish Civil War, he and his henchmen killed thousands of their countrymen, often in summary executions or after swift and bogus trials. For the 36 years of his reign, he allowed no dissent; leftists languished in prisons for decades. Even in Franco’s last years, when repression eased somewhat, opponents gathering for protests could expect his fierce police to descend on them with batons, tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and, finally, lethal bullets, as well.

In some ways, Franco and Pinochet were two of a kind, fanatic enemies of the left and fanatic believers in themselves as the embodiments of their nations’ souls. It was no accident that Pinochet was the only significant head of state to attend the funeral of Franco in 1975.


Spain imposed el pacto del olvido on itself after Franco’s death mainly because of the Spanish Civil War. Although that terrible conflict had taken place four decades earlier, its memory hung heavily on every Spaniard.

Led by King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, former Francoists cooperating with leftist leaders, Spaniards measured each step toward democracy carefully, fearful that if they moved too far too quickly they would provoke the armed forces into an uprising that would bring a return to fascism or a second Spanish Civil War. When military elements did attempt a coup in 1981, democracy proved so solidly based that hapless coup plotters ended up resembling comic-opera buffi.

The Spanish example flies in the face of those who insist a country cannot have peace and democracy unless it reckons with its past and demands accountability of those who transgressed. Spain managed its transition without a reckoning.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Spanish example works for all. But the example does lend some weight to the remarks of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright last week. In what seemed like a tepid tilt toward keeping Pinochet out of Spain, Albright told a news conference that “significant respect” should be paid to the views of Chileans as they wrestle “with a very difficult problem of how to balance the needs of justice with the requirements of reconciliation.”


Like the Spaniards, Chileans had an informal pact of their own in the transition to democracy. Pinochet, who took power after overthrowing President Salvador Allende in a coup in 1973, did not step down easily.

Pinochet overconfidently called for voters in 1988 to approve another 10 years of rule by him. But Chileans shocked him by rejecting the plebiscite. He then reluctantly allowed democratic presidential elections, but only after politicians agreed to forgive political crimes by the military, his continued command of the armed forces for 10 years and his appointment as a senator for life.

Chilean officials, even some who have contempt in their hearts for Pinochet, are trying to persuade the British and Spanish to let him return to Chile. The Chileans are motivated by their fear of the military, their desire to avoid anything that might arouse internal conflict and the sense that they must honor their pact with Pinochet.

Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish magistrate who sent Britain the warrant for Pinochet’s extradition, is not trying to make any point about the refusal of Spain to arrest the perpetrators of repression during the Franco era. His actions, however, tell us a good deal about the strength of democracy in Spain today.


Even without a truth commission, Spain’s new freedoms allowed historians, archivists and journalists to rake over the past and expose the shallowness and cruelty of the Franco regime. Franco is a thoroughly discredited figure in Spain today and Francoism a shameful joke.

The experience under Franco and the successful transition have made Spaniards feel like apostles of democracy. Surveys show that Spaniards embrace democratic values more strongly than anyone else in Europe these days.

At a time when intellectuals and politicians are accepting the thesis that the suppression of human rights through terror, even when committed by a leader on his own people, violates international norms and laws, it is not surprising that a Spaniard like Garzon should put himself in the vanguard of the battle.

Yet, a Pinochet trial in Spain, a country that never tried its own criminals, would border on hypocritical. It is doubtful, however, that a trial will ever be held in Spain. British, Spanish and Chilean politicians will probably work out some deal that sends the former dictator home.


Nonetheless, Garzon has accomplished a good deal with his warrant. He has put violators of human rights on notice that there is an international community intent on hounding them. By acting on his own, he has demonstrated the need for an international criminal court. And he has humiliated an arrogant general with blood on his hands.