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Spain’s Post-Franco Emergence from Dictatorship to Democracy

Spanish leader Francisco Franco died November 20, 1975 at the age of 82 after 36 years in power, first as a dictator, then as head of a semi-pluralist authoritarian system. His regime was held responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 political dissenters, many during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939. Franco persecuted political opponents, repressed the culture and language of Spain’s Basque and Catalan regions, and stifled freedom of speech.

Although Spain maintained an official policy of neutrality during World War II, Franco aligned himself ideologically with Hitler and Mussolini, allowing the German and Italian navies to use Spanish harbors at the beginning of the conflict and, in the process, leading to loss of U.S. support for his government amid diplomatic and economic isolation. Once the war concluded and the threat of Soviet aggression pervaded Western Europe, relations between the U.S. and the anticommunist Franco warmed. Spain was invited to join the United Nations and to come under the protection of NATO.

Franco had vowed to restore the monarchy, and in 1969 picked Prince Juan Carlos, the grandson of King Alfonso XIII, as the next king. Juan Carlos publicly supported Franco’s regime but pressed for change as soon as he took the throne, including the legalization of political parties. A new constitution was adopted, transforming Spain into a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The first post-Franco elections were held in June 1977.

Serving as administrative counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Madrid at the time, Clint A. Lauderdale was witness to this transformational point in its history. Ambassador to Madrid Wells Stabler also recounted this milestone moment and the role he played in ensuring a smooth and peaceful transfer to a parliamentary democracy. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Lauderdale in August 1994 and Stabler in July 1991.

To read more about Spain’s King Juan Carlos I, normalizing ties with Franco, dictators, World War II or the Cold War, please follow the links.

Check out the oral histories of Clint A. Lauderdale and Ambassador Wells Stabler to learn more about their experiences in Spain

“Nobody knew for sure what kind of sovereign he was going to be”

 Clint A. Lauderdale, Administrative Counselor, U.S. Embassy Madrid, 1975-1979

LAUDERDALE: When I arrived in Spain, Franco was dictator. He had been dictator ever since the civil war. He ran the country with an iron grip, with the Guardia Civil. He controlled the press. There were elements of a rough Parliament, which he controlled; basically a police state.

He was getting on in years, was in ill health and was expected to die several times even before I came. Somebody told me, “You may be in Spain when Franco dies. Two successive tours of officers had thought they were going to be in Spain when Franco dies.”

He outlived their tours. So when Franco was going to die and who was going to succeed him was a big part of the reporting…

Ambassador Stabler was … getting a first class team. He got Frank McNeil as Political Counselor, which was an excellent choice. So he was on hand and in place when Franco died.

When the Spanish wanted to talk about a new constitution or parliamentary democracy we had Frank McNeil there who could…we might have brought experts from the States, but Frank had a lot of this stuff right in his head. And he did a lot of groundwork with the foreign affairs people and with parliamentarians and so forth. And Stabler had excellent contacts, right from the King on down to discuss all of these issues. So I think the U.S. was able to play a facilitating role and offer some good counsel in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

One real problem, which actually occurred later, was the threat of a military coup. Not exactly a coup, but that some other military general would step in and say “I’m going to succeed Franco.” Of course our goal was to move Spain, or to see Spain move, to a parliamentary democracy.

There were also concerns about retribution, the same thing we’re concerned about now in Haiti. When you change from a Franco government to a non-Franco government there’s a lot of people who have grievances going back to the civil war. Are some of those people going to come out on the streets? Is there going to be a new civil war? Are there going to be killings in retribution for what happened in ’36? Or even ’56? Mostly that didn’t happen. There were some strikes of course.

Luckily the impression of King Juan Carlos (seen with Franco at right) was favorable, but with some kind of lingering doubts because he had kept a low profile. He hadn’t really stepped forward and said “This is who I am, this is what I stand for and this is where I’m going to take Spain.”

I think he felt he couldn’t do that with Franco alive, so he stayed in the shadows and nobody knew for sure what kind of sovereign he was going to be. So there were some doubts, some let’s watch carefully, but with an overlay of optimism…

After Franco died obviously our way of doing business and all our contacts and relationships changed markedly. There was a period of a few months when there was some stress, dealing with the palace where Franco had lived and dealing with Mrs. Franco’s aspirations and demands. But by and large the Embassy disengaged from dealing with the Franco aides and Franco household and so forth.

“Suddenly you could buy Playboy magazine, which had been banned for 30 years”

There was an election, an elected prime minister. So you now had a constitutional monarch, an elected prime minister, and the Cortes, a parliament. So, our business was with the prime minister, the prime minister’s cabinet and his aides and members of the Cortes whom we wanted to influence and also learn their views.

And of course the Ambassador met periodically with the King. The Secretary of State came, I think still Kissinger at that time, and called on King Juan Carlos, and they made some arrangement whereby the Secretary of State would visit Spain once a year.

I was very hopeful. My concern was primarily about the economic side of Spain. Two or three things happened when King Juan Carlos came into power and democracy, and along with that came a lot of abuse, a lot of pent-up resentment that produced abuse.

The press wasn’t a self-disciplined press. Suddenly you could buy Playboy magazine, which had been banned for 30 years, so guess what, the newsstands were just filled with girly magazines, just to excess. Boys and girls who weren’t allowed to kiss and hold hands on the park benches for 30 years now would kiss and hold hands not only on the park bench but in restaurants and just about everywhere else!

Crime went up. There was no crime before — at least you didn’t know of any because it wasn’t reported in the press — and the Guardia Civil ran a tight ship. Now there was rampant crime, pickpockets all over the place.

I had a good relationship with the chief of police, who was an army colonel, until they got democracy. There was a demonstration while I was there and the police beat up a number of demonstrators, which caused quite a flurry.

I had lunch with the chief of police and he told me “You know, I have a hell of a time re-directing the police. They’ve been used to beating people with a club for 30 years when they don’t get out of the way or do what they’re told. And I’m trying to tell them this is democracy now, and we don’t hit people over the head, you can steer these crowds down dead-end streets or cul-de-sacs to get them out of the way. There are other techniques we can use to defuse these crowds without hurting a lot of people.” So I was confident that some of these things would peter out, and it did, and it all worked.

“I wish you could have heard my knees knocking”

Wells Stabler, U.S. Ambassador to Madrid, 1975-1978

STABLER: When Franco fell ill, basically everything stopped in Spain. The whole system of government just came to a halt. No business was conducted. Indeed, there was this incredible sort of death watch that went on as the man lay ill and was then operated on two or three times. (Stabler is seen at right.)

There were incredible tales about the operations being performed in the El Prado Palace where he lived and how a room had been turned into an operating room and how all the hangers-on gathered in the room right next to it. Doors were swinging open between the reception room and the operating room with people going in and out.

It was utterly chaotic. But, of course, this was an enormously traumatic thing in many ways. He had been in power since 1936. That was 39 years and everything had rotated around him. The process of government halted.

Franco finally did die on the 20th and I think the King’s swearing in took place a couple of days later. [Vice President] Rockefeller came right over…

That went off very well. The King became King. He made a speech and I congratulated him on it and he said, “Yeah, but I wish you could have heard my knees knocking.” Then, several days later there was the formal funeral in front of the main royal palace in Madrid.

Afterwards we all drove out to the Valley of the Fallen which was a huge underground basilica where many of the fallen in the Civil War were buried, including a few of the Republicans, and, of course, the main leaders of the Franco period. And that is where Franco was buried that day.

I had felt long prior to Franco’s death that there was a tendency in Spain to move towards an updated concept in the political system and the recognition by a great deal of the younger people that Spain had to move on and catch up in the 20th century to where a lot of other countries were and had been for many, many years.

Yet a lot of people in Europe and elsewhere felt that the King simply would continue the Franco regime…the Franco structure would remain in place and he would simply be a figurehead of the Franco regime, version II.

In fact, when the King came to this country in June, 1976, he had a meeting with newspaper publishers, etc. here in Washington and they said to him; “Well, we don’t see that anything has changed in Spain. You still have Arias Navarro as Prime Minister. He was Franco’s Prime Minister. You have this, you have that and you have the other thing. You don’t seem to have changed anything.” (King Juan Carlos is seen with President Ford in 1976 at left.)

The King replied, “Well, I will also say to you that you don’t seem to have changed your people. The newspaper people reporting on Spain today are the people who reported on Spain under Franco. They don’t see what is going on, what is changing.”

It was fairly clear to me however there were a lot of people who had made great improvements in their standard of living recently and didn’t want anything to happen that would interfere with that. I also had come to recognize that the military as such was a fairly disciplined group and probably would not take any action on their own. And then it was also clear to me from talking with Juan Carlos, as Prince before, that he was on the right track with all this and it was likely that the transition would go peacefully. 

“Don’t just destroy everything and start from the beginning”

By simple changes, they maintained the same structure with a new Prime Minister, ultimately leading, of course, to rewriting the constitution and leading to elections. The constitution wasn’t finally finished until sometime in 1978, so the first elections under the new constitution were in ’78 or ’79.

But in the meantime, Spain had moved from the dictatorship of Franco into a democratic regime without changing any of the laws. I mean without revoking these fundamental Organic laws – they were simply adapted to the new situation.

That was one of the big arguments I used to have with some of the members of the democratic opposition, particularly the Socialists and the Christian Democrats who said that the slate needed to be cleaned, that it was essential to start from scratch.

I would say that that was a very dangerous thing to do. You had to have something in place and work on that and gradually work into the next phase. But don’t just destroy everything and start from the beginning, because that would lead to immense trouble because you would have no reference points. Now you have a reference point which, with certain changes, will lead towards what you eventually want to do. Fortunately that is what they finally did.

My main preoccupation was to support the elements that wanted to move towards a democratic system and to persuade those people who had been in strong opposition to Franco, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, not to try to force the issue to the point of throwing everything out and making a new beginning.

It was important to believe that the King was going in this direction and to play the game along with him and not to rock the boat in the extreme sense. So I was in very close touch with the King, with the government, and with leaders who were coming into the new government… (King Juan Carlos seen in 2012 at right.)

The decision had to be made as to what to do about the Communist Party. The Government decided that it simply couldn’t declare nonexistent a certain element of the population. So they waited until Good Friday, when all of Spain ceases to function for a whole week, the military and other public opinion leaders go out of town, papers do not publish, etc.

They selected that moment to legalize the Communist Party to try to reduce to the extent possible the outcry of some parts of the press and military, etc. It really worked remarkably well because by the time some of these people got back into town the thing had been done and there was no time to organize anything. So the Communist Party was legalized.

This was a fascinating period to be there because to watch a country that has been almost 40 years under a dictatorship gradually turn itself into basically a very successful democracy is; from a professional point of view, a fascinating thing to watch.