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Franco's Dark Legacy Hovers Over Madrid's New Regime

July 21, 1996|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler served as the Madrid bureau chief for The Times in the late 1970s and has returned to Spain often since then

WASHINGTON — Jose Maria Aznar, the new, nondescript, conservative prime minister of Spain, surely did not realize it, but he sullied an icon of Spanish democratic history when he ordered the dismissal of TV news correspondent Jose Antonio Martinez Soler a month ago. Four months after the death of the ruthless fascist dictator Francisco Franco, in November 1975, Francoist thugs kidnapped Martinez Soler in Madrid, tied him to a tree and dripped acid on his face because they did not like what he wrote in his magazine, Doblon. Martinez Soler has been looked on since as the last journalistic victim of Francoism, and his abrupt dismissal two decades later raises questions about the health of Spanish democracy.

Spain is the model of peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in the modern age. In recent years, South America rid itself of juntas, the Soviet Union allowed its empire and communist dictatorship to disintegrate and the whites bowed to black-majority rule in South Africa. But Spain transformed itself before the others. The Spanish achievement seemed so effortless that it never attracted enough attention and awe. King Juan Carlos probably deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the transition--but he did his job so quietly and well that he was overlooked.

Powerful politicians try to carry out vendettas against journalists--especially government-salaried journalists--often in countries, like France, that are democratic. But the incident in Spain has taken on a special glow because of the legacy of four decades of Franco's dictatorship.

Aznar evidently exacted his revenge because of a question posed by Martinez Soler in a television interview during the recent campaign. Ironically, the 49-year-old Martinez Soler, the New York correspondent of Spanish national television, was brought back to Madrid for the campaign because he was the only interviewer that all the leaders of the six major political parties would accept. Far from a favorite of former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, Martinez Soler differed with the Socialist leader often in public and voted against him in private when he felt Gonzalez had held power too long.

Aznar's Popular Party harbors most of the country's unreconstructed Francoists--they have no other place to go. During the interview, Martinez Soler, who has a good-natured Andalusian sense of humor, asked Aznar if he would have trouble as prime minister dealing with the "Jurassic Park" wing of his own party. The question clearly infuriated Aznar, who never really answered it.

Aznar and the Popular Party narrowly won the election, ending the Socialists 14 years in power. Soon after taking office, the new government began to clean house at the government TV network and fired Martinez Soler and five other reporters. Although government officials talked about the need to save money, the dismissals were obviously political.

The dismissal has proved embarrassing. Martinez Soler has a worldwide reputation, and there have been numerous foreign protests. William Kovach, director of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation, sent a letter to the king protesting that the dismissal of Martinez Soler, a former Nieman fellow, "is a serious blow to the image of a civic society nourishing the rights of its citizens." So far, however, the Aznar government is stubbornly trying to weather the storm. Even if it does relent, it probably will do so without understanding that a prime minister fails democracy when he retaliates against a journalist because of an irksome question.

The Martinez Soler incident reflects a greater problem. The young Spanish democracy has grown stronger during the last two decades by facing certain historical bugaboos and brushing them aside. In a sense, Aznar's election was supposed to give Spain a chance to do that again. That may happen, but it hasn't so far.

To understand this, an outsider has to sense how fragile democracy seemed in the first months and even years after Franco's death. The hated Armed Police still clubbed workers who dared demonstrate in the streets. Screaming rightists still tried to destroy Picasso lithographs in Madrid galleries. There was a queasy feeling among many Spaniards that powerful fascists and the army would not stand for much change. And few felt that the young Juan Carlos would have enough commitment and gumption to stand up to the army and the Francoists.

When the time came in 1981, however, King Juan Carlos stood up to the plotters and quashed an attempted coup. It began on Feb. 23, when Lt. Col. Manuel Tejero--sporting a bushy mustache and brandishing a pistol--led 150 other members of the Guardia Civil onto the floor of the House of Deputies and seized all members of the government and Parliament.

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