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Even in death, Franco has the power to divide Spaniards

October 29, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

EL VALLE DE LOS CAIDOS, SPAIN — The flowers on the grave of Gen. Francisco Franco are only slightly wilted.

The steady click of footsteps echoes in the cavernous Catholic basilica that cradles his tomb. Frequent visitors, whether in admiration or revulsion, snap photographs in the gloomy and grandiose granite and marble sanctuary larger than many airport terminals.

"This is shameful!" said Antonio Gonzalez, a tourist from southern Spain. "But better he's here than in Moncloa," he added, referring to the headquarters of the Spanish government.

"I guess it's all about forgiving and forgetting," said Gonzalez's wife, Maricarmen Chavez. "I lived in Germany and never saw anything like this for Hitler."

The civil war led by Franco erupted 70 years ago, and the dictator has been dead for 30 years. But Spain is today confronting his ghost, torn over how to remember the conflict and Franco's four-decade reign.

In some cities, the Defense Ministry and other institutions have taken down the larger-than-life bronze statues of the fascist leader that graced plazas and building fronts, or moved them to locations out of public view.

In a few weeks, parliament is scheduled to begin debate on a hotly contested law that would go further: banning ceremonies at Franco's grave and giving greater recognition to his victims. The basilica would become, in the words of one official, just a church with Franco in the basement.

Spaniards, with the support of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his 2-year-old socialist government, are examining the brutalities of the dictatorship and giving a voice to its long-ignored victims -- men and women who fought to defend the elected leftist government that Franco ousted and who then worked clandestinely (and fruitlessly) to undermine the generalisimo. Tens of thousands were killed, imprisoned or sent into long exile.

But the process of reassessment has angered conservatives, some who admire what Franco stood for and many more who disdain the dictatorship but oppose dredging up the past.

Spain's rapid transition from authoritarian regime to vibrant democracy is seen as a shining model of reconciliation. Its success is largely credited to a political pact in which the left and the right agreed to seal the dark chapter of their history and move forward.

As that pact unravels, El Valle de los Caidos, or the Valley of the Fallen, remains the most ostentatious example of state-sponsored Franco reverence.

Carved nearly a quarter of a mile into the side of a mountain, the gigantic church was constructed by the hard labor of political prisoners in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Some were able to get their sentences lowered by working with dangerous explosives and in grueling conditions. A huge cross atop the mountain towers over the valley, visible for miles. Taxpayers finance the upkeep of the site.

Nicolas Sanchez Albornoz, 80, was one of the prisoners forced to help construct the monument. Captured in 1947, he eventually escaped, fled to France and lived for decades in Argentina, where he became a historian and university professor. To this day, he remembers the names, faces and final moments of fellow prisoners hauled away to their execution before a firing squad.

Sanchez Albornoz said Franco ought to be disinterred and the monument transformed into a Civil War memorial for both sides.

"Nowhere in Europe is a dictator buried so gloriously," he said. "Not Lenin. Not Stalin. Why Franco?"

Other surviving victims -- and their numbers are dwindling -- share his anger.

"You cannot forget the past. I dream of the tortures. How can I forget that?" said Matias Esteban, 85, a veteran communist who has small scars on his left wrist from the restraints applied to him during 11 years in prison. He was arrested when he was 19. He was beaten repeatedly and moved from jail to jail, he said.

Many of the survivors are concerned that the government's efforts will fall short. They expected more from the ruling socialists; Zapatero's own grandfather was slain by Franco's forces.

The new law, for instance, would ban ceremonies at Franco's grave but would not remove his remains or significantly change the site. The limitations come in part from negotiations with the chief opposition party, the rightist Popular Party, the somewhat reformed heir of Franco's fascism.

Ramon Jauregui, a socialist lawmaker, acknowledged a need to confront the past and find justice for those who suffered and were always relegated to the stigmatized status of the war's losers. But, he said, removing Franco's remains from El Valle de los Caidos would be too divisive and too inflammatory.

"We don't want to open wounds," he said, "but we also don't want Franco to be exalted."

Some in Spain see the civil war being fought, rhetorically at least, all over again. Spanish newspapers routinely publish death notices. Suddenly, in the midst of this debate, death notices alluding to the civil war era have appeared.

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