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A Democratic Miracle That Stills Sets a Peaceful Standard

November 19, 2000|Stanley Meisler | 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

WASHINGTON — 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.

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