Spain exhumes dictator Franco with civil war looming over vote
Workers moved in on Thursday to lift a 1.5-ton granite slab from the tomb near Madrid where the late dictator Francisco Franco has lain for the past 44 years.
It was moment laden with significance for Spaniards bracing for general elections next month.
Twenty-two members of the Franco family and the head of the Benedictine monastery that has tended his mausoleum attended the government-ordered exhumation, overseen by Spain's Justice Minister Dolores Delgado. His grandsons carried his coffin to a car where the prior sprinkled it with holy water before relatives saluted it with a cry of "Viva Franco!" It was then taken by helicopter to the pantheon outside the Spanish capital where his wife Carmen Polo was buried in 1988.
Franco was buried in 1975, amid scenes of military pomp and extravagant mourning, in a zinc and wooden coffin in a basilica hewn from the mountainside near the town of El Escorial. But the monument was considered an offense by many Spaniards: Of the right-wing dictators who upended Europe in the middle of the 20th century, Franco was the only one still honored in his country.
Family members carried Franco's casket from the monument before its short journey by helicopter and cortege of funeral cars to the Mingorrubio cemetery on Madrid's north-western outskirts. The change of burial site marks a political victory for Pedro Sanchez, the Socialist prime minister who made shifting Franco's remains a political priority.
"It's a big victory of our democracy," Sanchez said in an interview in New York last month. "I am really happy, really proud that our democracy made this step forward -- it was nonsense to have a monument to a dictatorship that did so much damage to our citizens for 40 years."
Juan Chicharro, chairman of the National Francisco Franco Foundation, said the decision to exhume Franco would give fresh energy to the ideas and values represented by the dictator.
"Mr. Sanchez has brought back to life a division between Spaniards that didn’t exist," he told state broadcaster TVE in an interview. "What we are seeing is nothing more than a partial victory -- the war will continue." He said Franco's supporters would keep fighting to preserve his legacy through legal means.
Television images showed small crowds gathering at the Mingorrubio cemetery with Franco supporters draped in Spanish flags. Francis Franco, the dictator’s grandson, arrived at the site of the exhumation carrying a Franco-era Spanish flag with its trademark black-winged eagle.
The Valley of the Fallen complex was built from 1940 to 1958 by workers who included prisoners that got time off their sentences for contributing to the project. It was funded by public subscription and money from Spain’s lottery and contains the remains of more than 33,700 dead from both sides in the Spanish Civil War.
The government has refused any kind of state honors to accompany the exhumation and his coffin will not carry a flag. However, the Francos will be able to use any symbols they choose in the private ceremony in the family crypt where he will be re-buried.
"It's long overdue," said Paul Preston, a professor of Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics who published a biography of Franco in 1993. "It's shameful that just outside Madrid there has been this colossal monument to the dictator. In a perfect world, it should have happened a long time ago but in the early years of the democracy, people didn’t dare to."
Spain's rightists however have attacked the move as a political stunt designed to fire up Sanchez’s base before an election on November 10. That ballot will again be shaped by fundamental questions about the Spanish state and its constitution, with violent demonstrations in Catalonia, where separatists are protesting against jail terms for the leaders.
"I'm enormously happy that the Left has finally decided to bury Franco," Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo, head of the parliamentary caucus of the center-right People's Party, told reporters on Tuesday.
In another detail that speaks to Spain's tense transition to democracy, family members have requested that Ramon Tejero should be the priest officiating at a mass to be held at the Mingorrubio pantheon.
He is the son of Antonio Tejero, the former Civil Guard lieutenant-colonel who led an attempted military coup in 1981. Tejero senior was present at the Mingorrubio cemetery to pay his respects.
Though Sanchez has been in power for 16 months, first as head the government and now as acting chief, he's had little in the way of concrete achievements to point to. Thursday's events cement his place in the history books.
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