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Juan The Brief

La Vanguardia La Vanguardia 04/06/2014 Barry Casselman, the Prairie Editor

I have written before about my year of student life in Spain in the mid-1960s, and the often fascinating, but at the same time, claustrophobic experience of living in that historic ancient kingdom reduced to post-World War II isolation, dictatorship and poverty.

That student year was at the tail end of the notorious regime of Francisco Franco, “El Caudillo,” the fascist dictator who overthrew a short-lived and mostly incompetent Spanish republic that followed the end of the Spanish monarchy a few years before in a coup in 1931.

The year I was attending the University of Madrid was also the 30th anniversary of the Franco regime, and it was celebrated as “treinta anos de paz” or “thirty years of peace” in the national celebration that took place. On December 14, 1966, Franco appeared before the Spanish parliament (El Cortes) to declare and sign the “Organic Law” that set down the rules for his succession. Franco, a royalist, had wanted a king to follow him, and so he negotiated with the Spanish “pretender” in exile, then living in Portugal, to have his young son return to Spain, be educated under the direction of Franco, and then become actual king on Franco’s death. The pretender, a bitter opponent of Franco who was, in turn, disliked by the Spanish dictator, agreed, and the teen-age Prince Juan Carlos returned to his homeland.

I was in the huge crowd in front of El Cortes that day when Franco arrived in a black limousine to sign the new law of succession. Although I never met the prince, I became aware of him when on the University campus I often saw a string of black official cars parked in front of university buildings. I had become friendly with a young Spanish painter and his family soon after arriving in Madrid, and it turned out that the painter’s father was a member of the Spanish general staff. This man, who later became infamous as the “commandante de Madrid,” informed me that the black cars were the entourage of the young Prince Juan Carlos, then attending classes at the university. He also described the prince with the epithet “Juan El Breve” or Juan The Brief, the nickname then circulating among the general staff, because it was believed that his reign as king would soon be soon ended by a fascist takeover of the government.

Soon after I left Spain to return to the U.S., Franco died, and the prince became king. Free elections were held, and a leftist was chosen as prime minister by a very liberal parliament. As expected, elements in the military were unhappy with the direction the newly democratic Spain was taking, and a “golpe de estado” or revolt was staged in Madrid by taking over the parliament by a military faction. As sympathetic military divisions were moving to solidify the revolt, the young and allegedly "weak" king was isolated in the royal palace with his wife and young children. A fate for them similar to that which befell Russian Czar Nicholas II and his family (in 1918) might have then happened, especially when it was learned that the king was not willing to support the insurrection.

But the young “weak” king was made of much tougher stuff than his military coup leaders imagined. He called the division commanders of Spain’s army, and demanded as “Yo El Rey” (I’m your king) their loyalty, and a rejection of
the golpe de estado. Their elaborate plans of the fascist revolt were shattered when the army commanders fell in line with the king, and Spanish democracy was saved. Overnight, Juan Carlos was a national hero, and he quickly became one of Europe’s most popular monarchs. Although his role as chief of state was largely ceremonial, his stature following his courageous defeat of the army revolt gave him enormous popular influence in Spanish life.

A few years ago, there was a reprise of his popularity when, while in South America presiding at a conference of  Spanish-speaking government leaders, the late dictator of Venezuela Hugo Chavez was rudely making defaming remarks about the Spanish government. King Juan Carlos then, in front of the world’s TV cameras, interrupted Chavez, saying “Why don’t you shut up!” It was vintage Juan Carlos, the former prince who had been given the derisive nickname “The Brief,” but who was now in his fourth decade as king of Spain.

Juan Carlos’ personal life over the years, however, had suffered some decline. He had several children, and one of his daughters married a famous commoner who subsequently was accused of a massive fraud. The scandal eventually also led back to the princess. During the recent economic downturn in Spain, the king, a man who had always enjoyed the “high” life went off on a secret African safari, accompanied allegedly by his current paramour, and it became a cause celebre when the king was injured on the safari, and had to return suddenly to Spain for treatment. The king subsequently apologized to the nation, but his reputation and national regard was no longer the same.

Now 76, and in obvious declining health, the king has just announced his abdication in favor of his eldest son, Prince Felipe, a figure generally held in respect in Spain. With a vote for secession of the Catalan province ahead, ongoing national economic problems and a general doubt about Spain’s and Europe’s future, perhaps Juan Carlos has decided wisely the moment for a change.

There were mountains and valleys in his long reign, but there was nothing “brief” about the kingship of Juan Carlos I. I think he will be remembered for the mountains he climbed in saving Spanish democracy and in standing up to a South American dictator, and the valleys of scandals will become footnotes.

Whatever history writes, however, there can be no doubt that he survived his doubters and detractors in a long reign of true peace and democratic growth of his old kingdom in the contemporary world.

I still have not met him, but now perhaps some day soon I will. I will show him my University of Madrid I.D. card, and invite him for a beer, a few tapas, and some talk about the days when Spain was not free, and students were dreaming about better days ahead.

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Artículo del periodista Barry Casselman publicado originalmente en su blog.

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