A Democratic Miracle That Stills Sets a Peaceful Standard

Stanley Meisler was The Times correspondent in Madrid from 1976 to 1978. He covered Spain in the 1980s from his post as The Times correspondent in Paris

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator of Spain. For almost all Spaniards, there will be no mourning or commemoration. But there will be celebration, for the date also marks the 25th anniversary of the ascent of King Juan Carlos I to the throne and the beginning of Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Spain’s transformation into a democracy, one of the most remarkable evolutions in 20th-century political history, worked so smoothly that many have forgotten what a marvel it truly was. Spain first demonstrated to the world that apparently powerful institutions, no matter how frightening and repressive, can prove suddenly fragile and weak when they are not rooted in popular support.

I was dispatched by The Times to Madrid a couple of months after Franco died to cover the turmoil that many outsiders and Spaniards expected. Some even predicted a second Spanish Civil War.


One night after my arrival, I joined a crowd of Spaniards at a movie theater in the bourgeois Madrid neighborhood of Salamanca to see Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” The marquee proclaimed, “Finally, after 40 years--” The Franco regime, which lasted from 1939 until his death in 1975, had never banned Chaplin’s movie outright, but no one had ever been foolish enough to show it.

“The Great Dictator,” produced in 1940, is not regarded as one of Chaplin’s great works. But it resonated among Spaniards after Franco’s death. They laughed uproariously at Chaplin’s slapstick antics exposing the pretensions of dictatorship while playing the Hitler-like character Hynkel. At the end, when the little Jewish barber, Adenoid, also played by Chaplin, made an eloquent plea for peace and brotherhood and democracy, the audience around me stood up and broke into fervent applause. It was a shivering, emotional moment.

That evening in the movie theater hallways served as a kind of metaphor for Spain at that moment in history. Not only did it demonstrate the enormous will of Spaniards for change, but the spirited laughter at old jokes, from a movie shelved for almost four decades, underscored how isolated Spain seemed in those days. Spain was a pariah in Europe, blackballed from pacts and markets. Spaniards feared that their reactionary army would strike down any tentative steps toward democracy.

Today, Spain is one of the most modern and democratic countries in Europe. Spanish officials and diplomats fill prominent posts in the highest international councils. Socialist Felipe Gonzalez, who would have been hunted down in Franco’s time, reigned as prime minister for 14 years. When conservative Jose Maria Aznar defeated Gonzalez in 1996, there was no turning of the clock back to francoism. It was just a normal changing of the guard in a normal European country. No one fears a coup anymore. Young army officers even serve as U.N. peacekeepers monitoring democracy in Central America.

Spanish corporations have rediscovered Latin America as a field of investment. El Pais, founded after the death of Franco, is the world’s most influential newspaper in the Spanish language. A few years ago, American historian Edward Malefakis concluded that “Spanish prestige abroad is higher now than at any time in the past 200 years.”

There is one terrible wound in democratic Spain. Basque separatist terrorists still murder officials, prominent professionals and bystanders throughout the country. There have been an estimated 850 political killings since the death of Franco.


The Basque problem is both depressing and infuriating. A little more than 2 million people, not all Basques, live in the three northern provinces that make up the Basque region. Powered by romantic chauvinism, the racism of their 19th-century nationalist guru and bitter resentment against their treatment by Madrid during the Franco era, the terrorist organization ETA (the initials in the Basque language for the slogan Basque Homeland and Freedom) uses terror as its main weapon in its campaign for independence from Spain. The Basques have far more autonomy than Scotland, but that isn’t enough for ETA.

There was a mood of calm and optimism in the Basque region for a year and a half during the late 1990s. ETA had declared a cease-fire. Tourists flocked to Bilbao to see the new Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry. Basques in Bilbao showed off their fosteritos--the steel-ribbed, glass caterpillar-like subway entrances, named for their designer, the renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster.

But the mood collapsed when ETA ended the cease-fire last December. Since then, 20 persons have been assassinated. This has led to recriminations between Aznar and leaders of the Basque National Party, the largest party in the Basque region, over the best way to deal with the terrorists. Aznar is a hard-liner who wants to crush them; Basque leaders insist that only dialogue and political concessions will ease the problem. But one thing is sure: The terror will not destabilize Spain; its democracy is too strong.

Why did Spain’s transformation work so well? First, there was extraordinary leadership. At first, few Spaniards believed that King Carlos, Franco’s handpicked successor, and Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, a bureaucrat associated with Franco’s fascist movement, could do the job. When the king selected Suarez as his prime minister, a newspaper commentator expressed the general disappointment. “What an error!” he wrote, “What an immense error!”

There were numerous setbacks and snags, but the king and prime minister led Spain steadily forward, though sometimes no more than a half step at a time. Each move, at first unthinkable, would seem inevitable by the time it came: legalization of the communists, a democratic constitution, free elections, treating socialists as capable of governing. When reactionary elements in the army and Civil Guard rebelled in 1981, King Carlos quashed their attempted coup and made it seem like a foolish act of comic opera.

The smoothness of the transition can also be attributed to the rapid changes within Spain during the last 15 years of the Franco regime. Spain had become an urban, industrializing society in which Spaniards found better jobs than their fathers, and many Spaniards, including priests, questioned the rigidity of the Catholic hierarchy. New ideas seeped in from outside as many educated Spaniards wearied of being scorned as the outcasts of Europe. Soon after Franco died, a Spanish sociologist concluded, “We have a governable people who want to be well-governed.”


Finally, Spaniards adhered to an unwritten el pacto del olvido (the pact of forgetfulness). There was no retribution against the agents of fascism, not even against the torturers and jailers and repressors. This made the transition almost bloodless and eased its acceptance. Former fascists could even profess a lifelong secret love of democracy and fit themselves into the new society. Active opposition to the transition was thus limited to diehards whose numbers diminished year after year.

As soon as it became obvious that the transition to democracy would be successful, most news organizations, including The Times, closed down their bureaus in Madrid and recalled their correspondents. The exodus did not bother Spaniards, because, in their view, the foreign correspondents had already done their job. Spanish intellectuals have fashioned a theory that the foreign correspondents, by holding a mirror up to Spain, played a vital role in the transition. If the government banned a book or harassed a theatrical troupe, we would write about it and bring worldwide condemnation down upon the government.

I am not sure my colleagues and I deserve such praise. We certainly never looked on ourselves as battlers for Spanish democracy. We were no more than witnesses to a wondrous turnabout from an ugly dictatorship to a modern democracy. *