C is for Corona
La corona, the Crown.
Far from wanting to turn this chapter into a history lesson, I think it’s important to know a little bit about the events that took place in the twentieth century, to understand the image that the current Royal Family have today in Spain.
One Republic, Two Dictators and Three (well, two and one who never got the crown) Kings.
In 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera headed a coup which led him to become the head of the Spanish state for seven years. The monarch at the time, King Alfonso XIII, supported him fully, a fact I ask you to hang onto – its significance will come apparent later. When Primo de Rivera stood down as dictator and left for France, Spain’s Second Republic was established.
In 1936, Francisco Franco led a military coup which kicked off a civil war dividing the country into two: the right and the left. Up to this day, most Spaniards still think that there are only two ways of viewing the world: from the left or from the right, although about 32% of them consider their political views to be somewhere in the middle. (Source CIS July 2011.) The Civil War lasted three years and resulted in a military dictatorship that ended in 1975. During this time, Franco refused to let the new heir to the throne, Don Juan de Borbón, anywhere near the Spanish crown. Instead, in 1969, Franco passed a law that gave monarchic powers to Don Juan’s son: the current king of Spain Juan Carlos I.
In 1975, Franco died (for more on the civil war and Franco, see the next chapter, D is for Duende). For quite a few months, the Spanish population waited to see whether they would continue to be ruled by a dictator or whether democracy might finally arrive. The King kept Arias Navarro at the head of the civil government, as he had been in charge over the last years of the dictatorship as Franco’s health deteriorated. In 1976, Juan Carlos took the first steps in changing the way Spain was ruled by asking a young politician, Adolfo Suarez from the party UCD (Unión Centro Democrático, Democratic Centre Union) to become the country’s president.
With freedom of speech came also the freedom to choose your own religion as well as the right to choose your country’s government. In 1977, Suarez was elected president and even made the cover of the USA’s TIME magazine, with the headline “Democracy Wins”. A year later, a constitution was drafted and approved by the Spanish people on the 6th December 1978, a date which has been a national holiday ever since.
History (almost) Repeats Itself
A few years later though, Suarez felt like he was losing the support of the Spanish population and he resigned. On the 23rd February, Calvo Sotelo was ready to become the second president of Spain’s new democracy. All Spanish eyes (or most of them) were glued to the television to witness another event with democracy at its core.
And then it happened.
Under the counting of the votes, a commotion.
A bit of noise outside.
The President of the Congress asking softly, “¿Qué pasa?” (“What’s going on?)
And then a lieutenant, in full guardia civil gear, wearing the classic tricornio (a three-pointed hat worn by the civil guard) entered the Congress, with a gun in his hand.
“Quieto todo el mundo.” (“Everyone, stand still.”)
“Al suelo, al suelo todo el mundo.” (“Everyone, down on the floor.)”
Then more military, this time with machine guns. A few shots and most of the politicians were forced to crouch down in their seats. Most except Suarez and Gutierrez Mellado, a military man who was Minister of Defence of the time, who directly challenged the intruders. Luckily for him, he was just pushed around a bit and not shot. I was watching the television at the time and I also remember Suarez shouting at the military, “I’m the president, I’m the president” as if thinking that his resignation had caused the mess and wanted to take it back.
Looking for footage of the event on YouTube, I also found a video with commentary from a radio journalist. You don’t need to speak Spanish to hear the panic in his voice as he realised what was happening. Meanwhile, the camera darts everywhere following the bullets from the machine gun and finally it stops, pointing at the ceiling. A male voice is then heard saying:
“No intentes apuntar la cámara que te mato.”
(“Don’t try to point the camera or I’ll kill you.”)
You can have a look at this footage yourself in the A to Z of Spanish Culture blog (http://atozofspanishculture.com).
You can imagine every Spanish heart sinking very low as they watched this coup. People who’d fought for freedom of speech; politicians who had been involved in the transition to democracy (la transición), young people like me (I was 9) who knew they had narrowly escaped repression and oppression and could see clearly in their parents’ faces the words “No, please, not again.”…Everyone stared at the TV, waiting to see if this event would affect their lives.
The phone rang in my house. The Danish mother of a friend of mine phoned to ask for advice. What should she do? Send the kids to school? What was going on?
Luckily, all this happened at a time when TV was already strong. Calvo Sotelo (who was being elected president on the 23rd February) points out in his book Memoria viva de la transición, that watching the drama unfold on TV stripped the coup of any mystery and therefore, of some of its impact. There wouldn’t be time for rumours or urban myths to emerge, as everyone had had the chance to witness the event live on TV. Just as the Spanish population saw the event live, they also witnessed how it was knocked on the head by a simple, straightforward speech.
The Royal Family – from Heroes to Villains
Remember I asked you to hold on to the fact that king Alfonso XIII fully supported the military rebellion during his reign? Here is why.
On the evening of the 23rd February 1981, young Juan Carlos I sat in front of the cameras and asked the Spanish people to defend the constitution and democracy. Antonio Tejero Molina, his moustache and all the other guardia civiles had no support from the king, also head of the armed forces. The military entered the congress and put an end to the coup. From then on, Juan Carlos won a special place in most Spanish hearts, having acted in a much more democratic way than his grandfather and given the rebels no choice but to surrender.
As I remember it, the Spanish Royal Family were always welcome by the Spanish as the country’s ambassadors, except for the Republicans of course, who will never accept them. The high ranking civil servants are invited to a public event celebrated on the King’s birthday, the 5th January (how apt, on the day of the arrival of the “three kings” – see U is for Uvas), maybe a way to stay in touch with the people. The Greek Queen Sofia, always at his side, has always appeared stern, elegant and correct and their three children, Cristina, Elena and Felipe stayed out of the spotlight for quite a long while.
In the last few years though, the members of the Royal Family have become the subject of headlines more and more often, for various reasons. The Prince, the heir to the throne, married a journalist, Letizia, raising a few eyebrows. The King himself grabbed the spotlight when he had a go at Hugo Chávez at a meeting, when the Venezuelan head of State kept interrupting Spain’s president at the time, Rodriguez Zapatero. In what became a very famous soundbite, Juan Carlos just plainly said to Chávez:
“¿Por qué no te callas?” (“Why don’t you shut up?”)
Another video worth watching on YouTube.
These two facts are just anecdotes, gossip.
However, the Royal Family has now become not just the subject of severe criticism, but some of its members have also become the subjects of a serious fraud investigation.
These investigations are currently (May 2012) taking place and involve mainly the husband of Princess Cristina, Iñaki Urdangarín but also the Princess herself and the King. Urdangarín has been formally accused of moving money from a not-for-profit organisation (Nons) he ran, to two of his commercial companies. His wife, who was involved at board level with one of the companies allegedly receiving funds through Nons, is also now being investigated as her and the King had been named in a series of e-mails, which suggested they were involved in dealings on behalf of the ONG (source elmundo.es 17 April 2012.).
As if this hadn’t been enough to turn public opinion against the Royal Family, in April 2012, the King broke his hip… while shooting elephants in Botswana. Twitter went completely mad, with people complaining about the fact that while Spain was in a crisis, the King was out hunting elephants. I loved this very creative tweet from @XoseMorais:
Efecto mariposa: yo pago mis impuestos en España y un elefante muere en Botsuana.
The Butterfly Effect: I pay my taxes in Spain and an elephant dies in Botswana.
What made this even worse, was that King Juan Carlos was at the time (and maybe still is when you read this) honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund. The King, who was 74 years old at the time, apologised to the cameras as soon as he was able to walk out of the hospital: a sincere apology with a promise of “never doing it again”, a rare occasion seen in Spanish public and political life. Just a shame that the King who saved Spain from another potential dark era managed to screw things up so near the end of his life.