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The International Writers Magazine: Sr Adolfo Suarez remembered

A True Statesman
• James Skinner on Sr Adolfo Suarez
I was going to report on the continuing scandals of corruption in Andalucía being brought to light by Judge Mercedes Ayala, the battle for independence by the Catalans or the many demonstrations, some extremely violent that went on during the month for every type of grievance you could think of when a tragic yet predicted event took place.

Suarez and King

Sr. Adolfo Suarez, Duke of Suarez and the 1st President of Spain after the death of Generalissimo Franco passed away on the 23rd of March. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease since 2002. The news, despite the fact that most Spaniards knew he was in a very ill state has shocked the nation. The latter part of his life had been very tragic in deed. His wife Maria Amparo died of breast cancer on the 17th of May, 2001 and his elder daughter with the same name passed away for the same reason on the 7th of March 2004. He is mourned by 4 other children, Miriam, Adolfo, Laura and Javier.

But who was this Spanish political figure that most of Europe had forgotten about including a great deal of today’s young Spanish generations? Why is he being exulted by most if not all those in the hierarchical position of the large spectrum of Spanish political parties, all the media and general public alike? The main attribute that is being bounced around by all and sundry is that he was the architect and implementer of a smooth transition from a ‘horrific’ forty-year dictatorship into a modern and prosperous European democratic country. There is no doubt that he was an exceptional personality, great political negotiator, of firm ideas and above all a true statesman. He loved Spain. However, in order to understand why this country at the time did not revert back to the early 30’s and plunge right into yet another armed conflict of right versus left, two vital factors must be taken into account. The first is that the Franco regime had been planning a sort of smooth transition long before Sr. Adolfo Suarez appeared on the scene and the Generalissimo would disappear for good. The second is that to appreciate the events that took place on the hand over we need to revert to the 1970’s and take a hard look at what was actually going on in the rest of the world at the time. Let’s look at the first point.

Franco’s original idea of a transition was to return Spain to a Monarchy with a King as the Head of State. The most obvious choice was a member of the Bourbon dynasty in this case Don Juan de Bourbon. He was the 3rd son of Alfonso XIII who was the last King, exiled from Spain back in 1931 during the change of government and the establishment of the II Republic. After the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) Franco and Don Juan did not get on with each other. Don Juan was eventually exiled to Portugal in 1941 and Franco decided instead to groom Don Juan’s son Juan Carlos as the future monarch when the time came. As from the early age of 10 the young prince was educated in Spain and later, already married to Princess Sofia of Greece was proclaimed ‘heir’ to the throne by the Spanish Courts in July 1969. On the 2nd of September, a year before Franco’s death he was named ‘successor’ and eventual Head of State. Apart from this particular political move, and despite the ruthless control that the Regime had, the second half of the dictatorship was a turning point in many areas of the country. Spain was enjoying an important period of prosperity. Many if not most of the international sanctions had been lifted. It joined the United Nations and accepted into other world institutions. Thanks to outside influence, especially from European tourists that began to flock the ‘Costas’ as well as many rich Spanish emigrants that returned with cash in their bank accounts, economic growth was taking place, censorship had been relaxed, bikini clad women flocked to the beaches and what was most important, a very large middle class was created!

Spain, in other words was ready for transition.

The second factor to take into account was the world situation at the time with the various influences and pressures that had an effect on a country that was about to transform into a Western democracy.

Herewith are some basic facts in a nutshell.

In 1973 OPEC, the oil producing countries’ cartel decided to increase the price of oil and impose an embargo by reducing production. It caused an economic tsunami throughout the world. Spain was included. Stock markets crashed, inflation occurred and what was worse there was an immediate shortage of fuel at the petrol pumps. The Middle East, apart from the continued Palestinian/Israeli problem was not a conflict area. The Cold War however, was still in full swing. The undercover fight against communism, especially in Latin America allowed the takeover by unscrupulous right wing generals in countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay aided by the secret services of the USA. In the early 70’ Europe was also going through many industrial problems. Britain had its fair share of union strikes and labour disruption. The Far East was still recovering from the brutal Vietnam, Cambodian and Laos wars that finally ended in 1975. Spain, at the time was on no government’s agenda, let alone the dramatic political change about to unfold. However, the international economic turmoil over these years in the 70’s did have its impact especially on unemployment and inflation adding a further burden on whatever power took over at such a crucial time in Spanish history.       

So what actually took place on the 20th of November, the day Franco died?

According to plan Juan Carlos was immediately proclaimed King of Spain and head of the Spanish Courts on the 22nd handing over the Presidency to Sr. Carlo Arias Navarro of the late Franco regime. There was an immediate series of disagreements between the new King and Sr. Navarro on how to proceed with the necessary changes in political reform that were now needed. Meanwhile the country stood and waited. The two men began to dislike each other to the extent that on the 1st of July the following year the new president handed in his resignation. The design of a new system and governing of the country was back to square one. For obvious reasons, whoever was to assume the responsibility had to come from the old Franco Government, if only for his experience dealing with the various sectors and institutions still in place. The King was presented by his advisors with three possible new candidates one of which was Sr. Suarez. He chose Sr. Suarez.

This young lawyer from Avila had held several senior posts in the previous government including Governor of Segovia and later as head of the public Spanish Television network. He was a member of the Phalanx (Falange) Party. He was asked to form a government almost immediately after the resignation of Sr. Arias Navarro. So began the real crucial moment in Spanish contemporary history.

The first move that took place was the design of the ‘Law of Political Reform’ as it was called so that political parties could be formed and general elections take place to eventually pave the way for full democracy. It was approved by the courts and put to a referendum in December 1976. Following the go ahead by the Spanish public it was ratified on the 4th of January 1977 and general elections were held in June of the same year. Sr. Suarez was elected, head of his own party, the UCD (Centre Democratic Union). What he had worked on between these two crucial dates, his appointment and the elections, was tantamount to a miracle.

His government began to work on the design of a new Constitution that would allow the creation of a new set of laws. He declared an amnesty and opened the doors to all exiled anti-Franco militants including the Communists so that they could participate by forming their respective parties. This was finalized on the 6th of December 1978 under a new approval by the Spanish people. General elections were again held on the 3rd of March 1979 and Suarez’s party again was voted into office. However, many fronts were now opened on the growing left wing side of the ‘New Spain’.

To start with, Sr. Suarez had alienated the Army by allowing the communists in, he upset the Catholic Church when divorce was legalized and very soon bickering within his own party began to take place. To cap it all, the new Socialist Party (PSOE) under the leadership of an up and coming Felipe Gonzalez joined forces with the PCE (Communist Party) and had won election victories in many of the town councils and major cities of the country. The young lawyer was out of favour with almost everyone.

Sr. Suarez, on the 29th of January, 1981 handed in his resignation but not without a final blow to his brief career as President.

On the 23rd of February, when Sr. Suarez was handing over the reins to his successor, Sr. Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo a Lieutenant Colonel of the Civil Guards, Antonio Tejero broke into the Spanish Parliament with a posse of armed guards and literally took over the government. The army had been called out into the streets of Madrid and Barcelona. Fortunately, King Juan Carlos, who was also the Head of the Armed Forces, in a television broadcast, ordered the whole lot back to barracks. Sr. Suarez was amongst the few that stood firm against the criminal act in parliament. Luckily the coup failed.

Whilst all this was going in Spain, the Shah of Iran had been removed and Ayatollah Khomeini had taken over. Part of Latin America was in full swing with military dictatorships fighting against communist terrorists and the USA was too worried about these areas to think that Spain could have lapsed back into a new Civil War had it not been for the work and friendship between King Juan Carlos and his President, Adolfo Suarez. They used an astute policy of consensus and compromise to pave the way for the Spain of today, a full democracy and member of the European Union and other international bodies.

However, as an epilogue to this note, I compare Sr. Suarez to Winston Churchill. The latter was asked to form a coalition government during World War II to fight against Hitler’s Nazi Germany and for 6 years turned the cards around into victory only to be defeated in the elections once the war was over. Adolfo Suarez performed all kinds of political juggling tricks to make sure that his beloved Spain survived a very difficult transition only to be lambasted during his brief period in office and later forgotten, that is until his recent death.

Adolfo Both statesmen are today considered as pillars of contemporary history and will be remembered as great politicians that contributed far more to the greatness and stability of their respective countries than many of their successors who may hardly receive a mention.
© James G. Skinner. April 2014    

Author of The Goa File and Serene Maiden

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