Spain's Dilemma: To Toast Franco or Banish His Ghost?

Lingering support for the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, often hard to detect in Spain, rises readily to the surface here at his grave, which is encased in a huge austere monument 30 miles north of Madrid.

His normally reticent defenders speak less guardedly about their admiration for him, while the passionate hold spirited political rallies on each anniversary of his death.

But Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has proposed ending all political tributes to Franco at the monument, which is called Valle de los Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen, saying they are an offense to those who suffered during his rise to power in the 1930's and subsequent 40-year dictatorship.

"We rejected calls for it to be destroyed, and we accept that Franco can remain buried there," Ramón Jáuregui, a top member of Mr. Zapatero's center-left Socialist Party who helped draft the proposal, said in an interview. "But it shouldn't be a platform for the exaltation of Francoism."

Parliament is expected to debate the ban in November. But the measure has already drawn a hostile response from conservative sectors of Spanish society.

Mr. Jáuregui said that Franco supporters had recently vandalized his summer home, painting a warning across his door that said, "The valley is not to be touched."

The proposal is part of a major legislative package put forth by Mr. Zapatero aimed at ridding Spain of monuments to Franco and honoring the memory of those who were oppressed under his rule.

It is the first time that a Spanish government has so actively sought to reopen discussion of the Franco era, a volatile topic in a country that remains divided over his legacy more than 30 years after his death.

"The transition to democracy demanded that we overlook thousands of memories and claims that weren't convenient to bring up because they could endanger the pact of the transition," Mr. Jáuregui said.

"But millions of Spaniards have been crying in silence, and that pain is still there today," he said. "It is a pending duty of the government to make sure that the forgiving of the transition is no longer confused with forgetting."

The effort has nevertheless prompted rebukes from members of the main opposition group in Congress, the center-right Popular Party, who say it will rekindle old grudges and undermine the spirit of democratic consensus that has taken root in Spain since Franco's death in 1975.

"History is written by historians," Manuel Fraga, a minister under Franco and now a senator from the Popular Party, said in an interview. "When politicians get involved, it's always bad news."

Still, opponents have been careful to avoid criticism that sounds overly supportive of Franco, perhaps fearful of damaging their democratic credentials. Many have shied away from defending the right to conduct tributes to Franco at his grave.

The Valley of the Fallen, a large church that was carved into the mountains north of Madrid from 1940 to 1958 by prison labor, including political prisoners, is Spain's most conspicuous reminder of Franco's dictatorship, and the most cherished among many of his supporters, although soldiers on both sides of the Spanish Civil War are buried there. Franco himself is buried near the altar, and flowers are often left at the grave.

The monument attracts Spaniards and foreign tourists alike.

During a recent visit, Pablo López, 72, a resident of Madrid and a retired industrial engineer, denounced the government's proposal, saying it was an effort to impose its view of Franco on the public.

"The sense of Spaniards my age is that we remember him with affection," he said. "There was political oppression, but there was no crime. Today, criminals walk in one door of the jailhouse and out the other."

The proposal says that "acts of a political nature or that exalt the civil war, its protagonists, or Francoism will not be allowed to be carried out in any part of the grounds."

But even opponents of Franco express reservations about the measure. "We have freedom of expression," said Víctor Cervera, 55, a construction worker from Valencia on Spain's eastern coast, whose family fought Franco in the civil war.

"If people want to come salute him, let them come," he said as he toured the church. "As long as Franco stays in that grave, they can say whatever they want."

José Ignacio Fuster, 43, an electrician from Alicante in southeastern Spain, said that the government's ban might be well intended, but would be futile.

"It makes no sense to prohibit tributes here," he said. "People will just choose somewhere else to do it. You can't stop people from believing in something."

[Source: By Renwick Mclean, The New York Times, 08Oct06]

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