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Spain Today: Is the Party Over?

[clock] 30-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1996

Spain’s experiment with post-Franco socialism is now part of time past, or at least it is on temporary hold. The elections of March 3, 1996, issued in a new period of conservative government, and while participation in the elections was high, enthusiasm was not. The majority of voting Spaniards—nearly 40 percent of which was born since Franco’s death in 1975—viewed the ruling Socialist Party with contempt and the Popular Party with fear. Indeed, the entire country seems to be suffering from a giant collective hangover: the champagne days of the 1980’s—even the heady, wild international party of 1992—are now merely memories, and the ice packs, Alka Selzers and egg-and-tabasco concoctions are as prevalent in the corridors of power as are the traditional chocolate y churros in the streets of Madrid after a long night on the town. Everywhere one turns today one hears complaints about the political situation, moans of disbelief about the corruption eating away at the core of the political structure, and frustration at the seeming inability of the country to get its political house in order. Spanish politics today are a mess, and the 15-year rule of Felipe González and his Socialist party (the PSOE) has been ended by the return to fundamentalism and conservatism of Jose Maria Aznar’s rightist Partido Popular (PP).

Yet Spaniards did not always feel so bewildered or angry. In fact, not too many years ago Spain was known as the very model of political decorum, a country which had moved from tyranny and dictatorship (under the 40-year reign of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, 1936—1975) to a modern democracy without returning to the bloody civil wars of the past. Spain’s recent transformation was hailed in international circles as a kind of political miracle, and indeed it was. Its achievements are real and permanent. But still, the gnawing suspicion that something has gone awry, that something is not quite right in Spain today, pervades the dinner conversations of everyone who watches the contemporary Spanish scene carefully. What happened? That is, what went on in Spain in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and what is its current situation as the 1990’s bring us rapidly toward the new millennium?

It is essential for us to know from whence Spain is coming if we are to try to understand where it is today and where it is headed. On Nov. 20, 1975, Spain began to emerge from its 40-year domination by Francisco Franco, the Generalísimo of the Armed Forces, the “Caudillo” of the country, and the Supreme Leader of all aspects of Spanish life. Franco was—he claimed—the “guardian” of the legitimate monarchy which, for complex reasons, had lost power in the 1930’s to a series of conflicting political interests that subsequently lead to the brutal and bloody civil war of 1936—1939. The heir to the Spanish throne, Juan Carlos de Bourbón, the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of the nephew of the French Bourbon king Louis XIV, was mocked in the international press in the late 1960’s, when he became the designated heir apparent, the successor to Franco, as an incompetent and poorly educated follower of the Fascist dictator. In fact, as kings and queens are frequently given sobriquets like “Juana la Loca,” “Catherine the Great,” or “Richard the Lion Hearted,” Prince Juan Carlos was labeled by reporters “Juan Carlos the Brief—not a reference to his Calvin Kleins, but because of the widely held view that as king he would not last months, let alone years, in the turbulent, conflictive, and tense moments following the death of Franco in 1975. But, as “Saturday Night Live” kept putting it during those emotional moments, Franco was indeed dead “and still dead.” The country was faced with a momentous shift of political leadership as well as with a stunning opportunity to prove to the world that it was not a nation of hotheaded, gun-toting militia men out of a Hemingway novel (or, sadly today, out of the farms of Michigan and Oklahoma), but rather a modern power fully capable of deciding its own destiny peacefully.

And prove it, it did. In a dazzling series of beautifully orchestrated moves, Juan Carlos, in tandem with a small group of hand-selected advisors, began to use the old Franco state machinery to dismantle itself. Juan Carlos chose Adolfo Suárez to spearhead his proposed changes, and together this Dynamic Duo managed to move Spain from a repressive dictatorship to a full-fledged modern democracy in a mere half dozen years. I should like to recall briefly the major steps in this modern democratization of Spain because it is not only important in and of itself, but it will set the stage for the troubled times Spain is now undergoing and provide a better understanding of the current crisis.

Just before the death of Franco, the Basque terrorist group ETA (“Basque Homeland and Liberty” in its native language) decided to put its mark on the political scene by assassinating Admiral Juan Carrero Blanco, one of Franco’s right-hand men and the presumed heir to the Spanish Fascist machinery. The “flying” of Carrero Blanco—so called because so much dynamite was used to blow up his car that the car literally FLEW up and over a four-story apartment building and landed in a courtyard on the other side—set the stage for possible civil war in Spain. ETA, founded in 1959 to fight Fascist repression and to demand an independent Basque state, was warning the government that it would not tolerate a continuation of “franquismo”; Franco reacted by closing forces around himself and pretending that nothing had changed. It was claimed, in a statement that echoed Louis XIV’s famous “L’etat c’est moi,” that “Franco does not make politics, he IS politics.” But even Franco could not live forever. In spite of the heroic and often grotesque measures taken to prolong his life, he finally succumbed to decrepitude and a bewildering array of infirmities on Nov. 20, 1975, exactly 20 years ago last fall. Not one head of state of a democratic country anywhere in the world attended his funeral. On Nov. 22, 1975, King Juan Carlos was sworn in as monarch; in his speech he promised “justice, freedom, and democracy” to his fellow Spaniards, words which, many feared, would prove to be hollow.

Juan Carlos was 37 years old when he assumed the kingship of a troubled and deeply conflicted country. In the first three months of 1976 alone Spain experienced 17,731 strikes (compared with just 2000 in 1974), but the king moved quickly to insure that his promise of justice, freedom, and democracy would become a reality. In July he forced the resignation of Carlos Arias Navarro, the pro-Franco prime minister who had been appointed after the “flying” of Carrero Blanco. Adolfo Suárez then moved in and quickly created an agenda of political reform to establish democracy in Spain. Suarez opened a dialogue with opposition parties, many of which had been banned in Franco Spain. The two dominant opposition parties were the PSOE, the Socialist Party led by the young Seville lawyer Felipe González, and the PCE, the Communist Party led by General Secretary Santiago Carrillo, who had lived in exile since 1939. In November 1976, just one year after Franco’s death, the parliament voted an important Law of Political Reform, which opened the way for the rapid changes about to take place in Spain. Here briefly is what happened:

  1. In January 1977 Prince Felipe, the son of Juan Carlos, was officially designated the Principe de Asturias, setting him up to be declared the legal heir to the monarchy. This meant that Spain would have—theoretically at least—a legal successor to the throne should anything happen to Juan Carlos.
  2. In February 1977 the Socialist Party was legalized (it had been illegal since 1939). Along with the Socialist Party, the government legalized 24 other political parties, but not the Communist Party, which as the main representative of the left (in many people’s minds) was still considered to be too threatening and too much of a provocation to the thousands of Spaniards who had lost loved ones or body parts in the gruesome Civil War.
  3. In March 1977 Spain established diplomatic relations with Mexico, which had been broken off in 1939. Juan Carlos’s father, Don Juan, who still had claims on the Spanish monarchy, officially relinquished his rights in favor of his son.
  4. In April 1977, in a bold and very daring move, Suárez legalized the Communist Party by fiat.
  5. In July 1977 the first open and free elections in Spain in 41 years (since 1936), took place. More than 150 political parties were represented in these elections, but the dominant winners were Suárez’s centrist party, the UCD (Unión Centro Democrádtico) and Felipe González’s leftist PSOE. Suárez held the majority and was subsequently reelected president of the government.
  6. The most important job facing the new pluralistic congress was the drafting and ratification of a new constitution. The important Constitution of 1978 was discussed and ratified overwhelmingly (by 91 percent of the voters) in December of 1978.
  7. And so, in just three years, Spain transformed itself officially, spectacularly, and aggressively into a modern, constitutional democracy.


The battles for democracy had been won but perhaps not yet the whole war. The populace was moving faster than its leaders, and what seemed just a year before to be a perfectly stable, centrist government led by Suárez, was now looking like an overly conservative continuation of earlier politics and policies. Felipe’s Socialist Party was increasingly being viewed as the only modern alternative to the Suárez government. Spain, which for 40 years had been a one-party country, now had two viable options to present to the voters. Suárez, once the daring darling of the political scene, was viewed increasingly as too old-fashioned for the “new” Spain, too much a bridge to the past rather than a bridge to the future; as a consequence of his growing loss of public support, he resigned in 1981 in favor of an unfortunately uncharismatic leader called Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo.

Then, dramatically, the first real test of the modern Spanish democracy occurred. On Feb. 23, 1981, a disgruntled and armed band of Civil Guard conspirators, headed by a mustached buffoon named Antonio Tejero, crashed into the parliament building when parliament was in full session, and, brandishing a pistol, declared a coup d’etat. The entire Spanish government—leaders of all political stripes—were trapped in the building as Tejero and his cronies bullied them into submission. Tejero had assumed, erroneously it turned out, that Juan Carlos, as chief of the armed forces, would support his pathetic attempt to return Spain to the “safe” times of yesteryear, to the controlled fascism of the Franco decades. But the king, in what has become his most breathtaking moment of glory and dignity, refused to go along with the coup’s leaders, and that night, decked out in his full military regalia, he went on television and issued a statement to the nation that the coup was illegal, unsupported, anti-democratic, and finished. The conspirators, severely demoralized, surrendered within hours. Four days later, one million Spaniards marched through the streets of Madrid in an unparalleled outpouring of support for the king and for their democratic institutions.

Elections were called for October 1982, and in a stunning turn of events which in hindsight only seems like the natural consequence of the political momentum of the previous seven years, the Socialist Party, lead by Felipe González, was given an overwhelming mandate. Ten million Spaniards voted to let the once-illegal Socialist party lead them into the 1980’s and 90’s. Felipe (no one ever calls him anything other than “Felipe”), 40 years old, represented the NEW Spain: he was modern, youthful, charismatic, and intelligent. He named his long-time ally, Alfonso Guerra, to be his vice president. Franco, who spent his entire political life trying to maintain his vision of Spain (conservative, Catholic, child-like), must have been fairly spinning in his grave at the Valle de los Caídos; had his doctors not already done so, he would probably have disconnected himself from his life-support system. In the short time from November 1975 to October 1982, Spain had managed to do what nobody thought it capable of doing: it had transformed itself from a Fascist dictatorship into a stable, modern democracy governed by the PSOE. The world breathed a sigh of relief, applauded, and invested heavily in Spain’s future.

Spain had arrived. It was suddenly perceived as modern, with it, exciting, expensive, chic, and ever so slightly exotic. “La movida”— that complex array of cultural and social ferment stimulated by, among others, the film director Pedro Almodóvar, began to capture the attention of the world press, the jet set, and the culture mavens. Money flowed freely, clothes were shed, and all rules seemingly suspended in an orgy of creativity and excitement as Spain liberated itself from its repressive past. $150 lunches at Zalacaín, the first Spanish restaurant to win three stars from the vaunted and snooty Michelin people, were not only not uncommon, they became de rigeur for the new political and business establishment. As did expensive designer clothes and first-class travel and flashy living. Spanish nightlife, always the envy of the rest of Europe, went on into the wee hours of mid-morning, and traffic jams at 2:00 am were not uncommon on Madrid’s central boulevards, jammed as they were during the day with Mercedes and BMWs and other—as they would say—yoopie vehicles. Spaniards took weekend shopping expeditions to New York, which was considerably cheaper than their own capital, where a pair of designer blue jeans would easily sell for $80. (And this in a country that was so poor in the early 1940’s that one could buy cigarettes by the piece, ball-point pens on credit, and used tooth-brushes on the streets of Madrid). The go-go years of the 1980’s put Spain in the global limelight, and by 1992 it was this once spurned nation which had been elected to host the Olympic Games (Barcelona), the International World’s Fair (Seville), and the Cultural Capitalship of Europe (Madrid). Whereas in 1982 only 23 percent of Spaniards defined themselves as belonging to the middle class, by 1992 more than 52 percent did so.

As William Finnegan wrote in The New Yorker in 1992, “for all the medieval images that still cling to the country, “the real Spain” is a thoroughly modern land, increasingly sexy and shockproof and rich.” Yes, but the question became: could it last?

The answer is yes and no, and, well, maybe. Let’s see.

Even as the 1980’s crescendo of prosperity and spending kept up, many Spaniards were already becoming disillusioned with what they perceived to be the growing indifference of their political leaders, a rising incidence of corruption at high levels, and an increasing threat to their daily security. One saw graffiti which played on the name of the Socialist Party—turning it from the PSOE to the corruPSOE— and statements such as “We lived better with Franco,” a direct allusion to the incontestable fact that the streets of Madrid were impressively crime- and drug-free during the Franco years, began to be heard. Basque terrorist violence increased (between 1977 and 1987 some 475 people were assassinated by ETA terrorists, a figure that had risen to 600 by 1988, and to more than 750 by 1996). As early as May 1983, the first rumblings of the oncoming round of accusations, betrayals, fraud charges, and defense strategies came in the form of the collapse of RUMASA, a huge holding company which controlled 700 (!) banks, construction companies, corporations, and other major industrial concerns in Spain. RUMASA’s founder, Jose Maria Ruiz-Mateos, was arrested on charges of misappropriation of funds, bad management, and monetary transgressions. This was the most serious banking crisis in post-World War II Europe, and it was only the beginning of what would become the tidal wave of corruption with which Spain is dealing today.

Ironically, however, Felipe and the Socialist Party made impressive gains in popularity during the mid-1980’s because of their wise political policies, their obvious dedication to social welfare concerns, and their notable improvement in areas as diverse as education, health care, and the infrastructure. Spain, once blocked from membership in NATO, entered the alliance in 1985 (thereby breaking a PSOE campaign promise), and in 1986 it was admitted as a full member into the European Economic Community. (In one of the delicious ironies which mark contemporary Spain, the commander in chief of NATO today is Javier Solana, once Spain’s secretary of state who ran with Felipe’s anti-NATO campaign). In February 1986, on his 18th birthday, Prince Felipe was sworn in officially as the heir to the throne, insuring the continuity of Spain’s constitutional monarchy. And in the June 1986 elections, the Socialist Party once again gained an absolute majority (44.3 percent) and continued to rule triumphantly. Still, one heard more talk about “Felipe’s blunders” and “Felipe’s deceits,” and, for the first time in a decade, an opposition party began to achieve some coherence. There had been underground opposition parties during the Franco regime and legitimate opposition parties since the 1977 elections, of course, but neither the rightist Alianza Popular nor the leftist Izquierda Unida had posed any real threat to the rule of the Socialists for most of the 1980’s. Slowly, however, the Alianza Popular transformed itself into the newly constituted Partido Popular, a right-wing coalition of technocrats, conservative businessmen, and disenchanted military and religious leaders, and began to position itself as a legitimate and stable alternative to the Socialist government.


Cracks in the once solid Socialist wall could be detected by early 1988. Several commissions were formed to investigate influence peddling and misappropriation of funds by high government officials and members of Congress. In July 1988, two policemen were arrested and charged with establishing a secret police hit squad whose sole mission was the elimination of Basque terrorists. These arrests, while widely publicized, were not at the time seen to be a major threat to Spanish democracy. In hindsight, as we shall see, they appear to be defining moments—metaphors of the internal weakening of the government and time bombs waiting to explode across the political face of Spain, as they would indeed do in 1994. The suspicion that government funds from the Ministry of the Interior had been used to finance this secret police organization remained at the time only that—a suspicion.

Disenchantment and unrest were growing among the general population, although Felipe still could rightfully claim great strides in the improvement of the standard of living for most Spaniards. Spain successfully negotiated the dismantling of an old and irritating treaty which had allowed American air force and navy equipment and personnel to be stationed on Spanish soil. Spain was Western Europe’s fastest growing economy. Industries had been modernized and the steel and shipbuilding sectors, which had fallen onto hard times a decade earlier, were once again prospering. People seemed to live well, to spend money freely, to enjoy themselves with abandon. One-month summer vacations were not only possible, they were an absolute and immutable right of workers. Working hours shortened as mattress lengths lengthened (proving the real benefits of improved nutrition), corporate and banking profits tripled and quadrupled. Tourism set new records. But as was the case with other Western economies, the price for these changes was high. Spanish prosperity benefited the rich much more than the poor, or even the middle class, and inflation began to run rampant. Unemployment, which in the U.S. hovered between 3 percent and 5 percent at the time, reached a catastrophic 20 percent in Spain by 1988, and has stayed there (or moved even higher) ever since. The country reacted by staging the largest national strike ever witnessed on Spanish soil in December 1988, a strike which in effect closed the country down. Even the king, in his traditional Christmas message, called for some serious talks among the competing sectors of a society he feared would unravel if left unattended. Public confidence in the leadership and the morality of the Socialist party was eroding.

Still, on Jan. 1, 1989, Spain assumed the presidency of the European Economic Community, a breathtaking recognition of the world’s willingness to deal with the Iberian state as an equal. Barely 15 years after the demise of one of the most hated and brutal dictatorships in the West, Spain had gained a position of leadership in the community of nations. That year the Socialists retained their absolute majority in Congress in national elections, but their margin had declined and in fact, their majority rested on just one single vote. Spain began preparations in earnest for the world-class festivities of 1992 which included the International Fair in Seville, the celebration of the Discovery of America, and the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Yet the swelling surge of scandal threatened to drown Felipe and his government. In March 1991 his long-time ally Alfonso Guerra (now openly called “henchman” by his enemies) was forced to resign as vice president, caused in part by a major scandal provoked by his brother Juan, who was accused of influence peddling and enriching himself illegally. The forces of opposition rose up against Felipe: José María Aznar, Manuel Fraga, Adolfo Suárez, Jordi Pujol, Julio Anguita and others formed a loose coalition of opposition, both from the right and from the left, and they began to demand more accountability. The one voice which has remained resolutely neutral, as it should be, is the king’s. Juan Carlos has never politicized his position, and this is one of the great strengths of the Spanish monarchy. A recent article in The New York Times (May 4, 1995) praised him as a “hard-working, serious sovereign” and pointedly compared his royal family, which rarely if ever has a breath of scandal whispered about it, with the contentious, flamboyant, and frequently embarrassing British royal family. One can hardly imagine Princess Elena having her toes sucked by a suitor (as did Fergie) or Prince Philip stating that he would like to be a certain feminine hygiene product living in his lover’s intimate parts, as did Prince Charles to Camilla Parker-Bowles. Juan Carlos and the Spanish royal family have remained respected and popular. But the government of Felipe lost the people’s confidence. As The New York Times put it in a not very subtle headline in July 1994 referring to Felipe: “Spaniards Grow Disenchanted With a Once-Charismatic Leader.”

Why is this so? Why is Felipe, for the first time in 13 years, now the leader of an opposition party? Felipe has not been convicted of any wrongdoing, nor has he been caught with his fingers in the till or with his pants down or with his hands sullied by any muck. His political achievements are real and lasting. He is known to be honest and forthright and energetic. Yet I think we can answer this question if we look upon the Spain of the last seven or eight years in light of our own experience with Watergate in the early 1970’s. Like Felipe, but with an entirely different ideological orientation, of course, Richard Nixon got caught up in a swirl of political machinations, and allowed himself to be surrounded by men and women who got confused about right and wrong, or who got plain greedy and were convinced that their power would protect them from investigation or judgment. (Reaching back to a dead president for a model is not all that far fetched. In fact, in a recent magazine article I read about a man who thinks that Nixon should be the next Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency. His campaign slogan? “Death is no excuse.” I suspect that Franco would have loved that one.) Felipe’s current predicament is somewhat similar. He has allowed himself to be surrounded by men and women who used public money for private gain, who contravened the laws of their land for personal purposes, and who used their influence to crush their enemies, enrich themselves, and perpetuate their own power.


Here are just a few examples, issues which have dominated Spanish political discourse for the past several years. One might even claim that these issues are paralyzing Spain today, rendering it nearly incapable of civilized political debate; they are certainly among the major reasons for Felipe’s loss in the March 3 election.

I return first to those two policemen who were accused in 1988 of illegal activity against the Basque terrorist group ETA. As it turns out, the Civil Guard’s quasi-fascist organization, the Grupo Antiterrorista de Liberation, known as GAL, had been created in 1983 with the goal of using the techniques employed by ETA (assassination, kidnapping, bombings) against ETA itself. ETA had murdered its first child in 1978; its first senator would be killed in 1984. The trouble was, though, as happens with all quasi-fascist secret militia groups, it not only got out of hand, it was also illegal, anti-democratic, and unconstitutional. By the time justice caught up with the perpetrators of this vicious little group, it had already turned itself into the most complicated crisis faced by modern Spain and was threatening to topple Felipe’s government. To the two men most intimately involved in its creation, José Amedo and Miguel Domínguez, it seemed like a good and necessary idea at the time. Felipe had just been elected by 10 million votes in October 1982 and Spain seemed to be entering a period of hope and renewed stability. But ETA continued waging its bloody war against the government, the police, and, at times, the innocent population itself: between 1980 and 1982 it was killing a person per week. Something obviously needed to be done. Felipe’s mandate that violence needed to be combatted “by all possible means” was interpreted by a small group of ultra-rightwing cops, to mean “by all possible legal or illegal means.” When their years of dirty tricks were finally revealed, Amedo and Domínguez received prison sentences of more than 100 years each, and three of their superiors also spent time in jail, among them Julián San Cristóbal, the ex-director of state security. The suspicion remained (and remains), however, that behind them was a higher official—one whom the press dubbed “Mr. X”—who knew of and condoned their activities. Some people think “Mr. X” was Jose Barrionuevo, the minister of the interior from 1982 to 1988, who is now facing possible jail time; some people think it was Felipe himself. The case will not go away: just last spring, the bodies of two ETA terrorists were unearthed in Alicante; they had been tortured, murdered, and buried by the GAL hit squad. The country reacted with appropriate disgust. ETA responded by attempting to kill Jose Maria Aznar on April 19, 1995, by placing a 176-lb. plastic explosive under his car; they failed, but the country was reminded of their murderous past and still very dangerous potential. Later that year, in August, an ETA plot to assassinate the king himself (to shoot him with a high-powered rifle on his yacht in Mallorca) was luckily foiled. In January of this year an ETA hitman did manage to walk into the university office of Francisco Tomás y Valiente, the much-respected former head of the Constitutional Tribunal, and shoot him dead in broad daylight; nearly one million Spaniards showed up in the streets of Madrid to protest this senseless violence.

The “Caso GAL” was not the only problem Felipe faced, but it is the one which seemed to symbolize his declining power. Alongside the protagonists of Caso GAL slithered other reptilian representatives of modern Spanish democracy run amuck. One now tarnished example is that of Mario Conde, one of the flashiest, richest, and most talked-about bankers of the 1980’s. Conde was not a politician, but as a rich banker he wielded even more power than most of those. His wealth was enormous, his influence unprecedented, and his every move documented in detail by the sentimental press. Mario on his boat; Mario with yet another gorgeous young thing; Mario at an auction; Mario on a shopping expedition in Paris. Handsome and young and once unimaginably wealthy, he spent two years in the Alcalá-Meco jail just outside Madrid, where he rubbed elbows with, among others, Julián San Cristóbal. (The Alcalá prison became a kind of home away from home for dozens of ex-bigwigs.) In prison, Conde conspired with several others to blackmail the king for the return of some compromising documents currently in the hands of the government; the blackmail attempt failed, but it does indicate the lengths to which these men will go to secure their freedom. The once powerful president of Banesto, Conde had founded holding companies and investment houses all across Spain and around the world, and he wove them together in a confusing tangle of loose associations. His enemies accuse him of siphoning off huge quantities of money to his secret accounts in Switzerland and by the time he was forced out of Banesto he had provoked a banking crisis of monumental proportions.

Yet another name in this Gallery of the Dishonorable is that of Luis Roldán, the ex-director of the feared rural police, the Civil Guard. Roldán managed to accumulate a personal fortune of 7 BILLION pesetas (some $54 million) on a salary of—what? $80,000 per year?—and used public monies to buy investments and real estate and give gifts to his girlfriend (several of which were valued at 30 million pesetas [$250,000]). His misbehavior was particularly troublesome to modern Spaniards because he represented the civil control that had finally been established over the military-minded Civil Guard following the Tejero coup attempt and the rise of the Socialists to power. What a disappointment. He disappeared from view and quickly became Spain’s most wanted criminal. His capture became a national obsession because his absence was like a thumbing of his nose at the Socialist government. A popular magazine, Cambio 16, even offered a reward of 1 million pesetas for his capture. He was finally found in Bangkok in February 1995, and he is now awaiting trial, but throwing blame on everyone in his immediate vicinity, including his ex-bosses at the ministry of the interior, Jose Barrionuevo and Jose Luis Corcuera, and even on the vice president of the government, Narcis Serra (Serra resigned in June 1995).

The Rogues’ Gallery continues. Just like our Watergate period, Spaniards arise each morning to new revelations of the high and mighty brought down by their own greed and corruption. Mariano Rubio, the respected director of none other than the Bank of Spain, has been jailed for misappropriation of funds, paying bribes, tax evasion, and influence peddling. His fall brought the fall of his friend and protector, Carlos Solchaga, then minister of the economy. Javier de la Rosa, the ex-head of KIO, a major investment corporation which was constructing the tallest twin towers in Spain (the famous X-shaped towers in Madrid’s Plaza de Castilla), collapsed his firm and escaped with a half a billion pesetas. Carmen Salanueva, the ex-director of the Boletín Oficial del Estado, seems to have “lost” $8 million from her budget. And the FILESA case has opened up a whole new series of questions about legal and illegal financing of the Socialist Party under Alfonso Guerra’s leadership; investigations have lead to the formal indictment of some 39 individuals—among them high government officials, bank heads, and CEOs of large corporations—who donated more than one billion pesetas to the party. Julian García Vargas, the defense minister, resigned in June 1995 after a wide net of illegal government wire-taps was discovered, some of them on the phones of the king himself.

These people are only the most spectacular criminals in the contemporary morass of Spanish politics; behind them, hundreds, if not thousands, of Spaniards spent much of the 1980’s collecting illegal commissions, avoiding income taxes, spending public money, and using their influence to line their own pockets. The magazine Cambio 16 rather snidely titled one muckraking article, “Everyone off to jail!” which has been, alas, not far from the truth.

This naturally instigates a groundswell of frustration and anger that sweeps up to the door of the Moncloa Palace, home of the president, Felipe González. Rosa Montero, one of Spain’s most clear-speaking and feared journalists (and one of the country’s best women novelists as well) has called all of this a “political nightmare,” and has suggested, in her blunt way, that her countrymen are just plain “pissed off.” Felipe had his chance to exit gracefully and thus be remembered as the leader who presided over the most startling changes in Spain in decades. In 1994 he was offered the presidency of the Commission on European Unity of the ECC in Brussels, but he turned it down, hoping and believing that he could resolve the mess created under his watch. While there is no evidence that Felipe is in any way directly involved in any of the above-mentioned scandals, nonetheless as of March 1995 more than 65 percent of Spaniards believed that he was deeply implicated in or at least knew about the GAL case. All of this, naturally, has been a giant embarrassment to the Socialist leadership and has taken its toll. As the political cartoonists see it, these cases wounded Felipe, perhaps mortally. In the 1992 elections, Felipe’s party lost its absolute majority and was forced into an uncomfortable alliance with the Catalan party of Jordi Pujol, who shares Felipe’s desire to rule but not his deep ideological convictions. But Pujol lost his own absolute majority in the Catalán elections of November 1995 (although he still heads his party), and Felipe has just lost his government as well.

One additional negative result of this political chaos is an economic one: in two and a half years, the Spanish peseta has been devalued four times. Felipe admitted to congress last year, “After so many years in government I have lost credibility”; by law, he had to call new elections by 1997, but was forced to do so earlier than that date (March 3, 1996). In the regional and municipal elections of May 28, 1995, Felipe’s Socialist party was trounced by the PP; in fact, this marked the beginning of a profound shift in the balance of power. To demonstrate how deep this change promises to be, in the 1991 elections, the PP garnered only 24 percent of the vote; in May 1995, they walked away with over 31 percent, and they more than doubled their control of provincial capitals. Aznar, the non-charismatic, 43-year-old ex-tax inspector, is now charged with forming a new government. While Aznar did not win a clear majority, and in fact the PSOE and Felipe garnered more votes than the polls had originally predicted, the PP now comes to national power. This is a thought that frightens many people because of the PP’s roots not only in traditional conservative politics but, more tellingly, in the conservative politics of the Franco era. Observers wonder if the PP is the “civilized right” which Spain needs as a real alternative to the Socialist mess. A telling anecdote is the fact that a close friend of mine, who has voted Socialist ever since he came of age, cast a blank vote in the recent election. He could not bring himself to vote for the PP, whom he fears (many observers believe they are not yet ready to exercise power in a fair and evenhanded way), yet he also feels that the Socialists needed to be taught a lesson and that it is time for Spain to develop a modern, democratic central right party that can eventually take over the reins of power.

Spain has undergone monumental changes in the past 20 years. It must be kept in mind that in one generation Spain went from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society, from a predominantly agricultural to a predominantly industrial/service society (50 years ago Spain was 70 percent agricultural; now it is only 6 percent agricultural); indeed, it has been said that Spain has moved, in one generation, from the 19th century to the 20th century. 1975 to 1995 have been the most important years in Spanish history in the past several centuries. This has been the longest democratic period Spain has ever witnessed. The changes have been dramatic and lasting, and Spain can never return to its agricultural, rural, 19th-century roots. With all its current problems—and they are many— Spain nonetheless remains a dynamic, tolerant, and exciting country which looks to the future as much as it does to the past. The party of the go-go 80’s may be over, but my Spanish friends would claim that it was sure fun while it lasted. Even if the champagne bubbles have gone flat, and with many of the partying go-getters now rubbing elbows in the Alcalá jail, democracy in Spain is strong and will burble on for a very long time.


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