For lovers of historical series, here is one recommendation. Hořící keř is a Czech HBO miniseries that depicts the moral corruption and the political and judiciary misery of the former Czechoslovakia during the communist dictatorship. In January 1969, Jan Palach, a young student of history, alights himself in the centre of Prague in protest against the Soviet occupation that takes place months earlier, and against the lack of freedom and prospects in a hopeless country. In order to prevent the event from triggering a widespread protest challenging the order imposed by Soviet tanks months before, some regime leaders engage in lying about the event and the circumstances surrounding it.
The three episodes of the drama then focus on the lawsuit filed by the leading character’s mother, and the subsequent trial, against the party’s high officials who have tarnished the memory of her son, and recount how the state uses various legal tricks, political manoeuvres, journalistic distortion and pressure on the environment to make the lawsuit fail and take all of this to their advantage to crack down on dissent. The series, directed by filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, shows what a dictatorship is all about in detail. Under an appearance of legality, of separation of powers, of a Constitution that defines the state as “popular” and “democratic”, which boasts rhetoric of equality and socialist values, a group of people who act arbitrarily is concealed, using all the mechanisms of the state to retain their own interests, more group than class.
Watching Hořící keř can be a good exercise to understand why Spain is not a democracy, even though it hides behind a Constitution of great principles and scarce results, an appearance of separation of powers and belonging to the club of European countries. It is not difficult to draw parallels between the Czech dictatorship of the 1960s and the current Spanish “rule of law”. We should also reread the works of Milan Kundera or Václav Havel in order to have a better understanding of ourselves. The trials against the “Catalan procés” seem to have been filmed by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish film director who is perfectly aware of what it’s like to live under a dictatorship based on fear, repression and, above all, lies. But even Pablo Iglesias himself, a moderate leader of the opposition to the regime, knows what it’s like to be watched by the political police, like Havel was, monitored by the (not so) secret services. Or it is just enough to watch the impunity of an extreme right who can physically attack citizens without having to face a judge while people who have taken part in peaceful protests, have been persecuted, slandered, fined, imprisoned, exiled or confined, without evidence, because of extrajudicial pressures (often very real), as in the case of Tamara Carrasco or various musicians or social activists.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Spain has never been a democracy. Right now the masks are falling off. The so-called “Regime of 1978” was the continuity of Franco’s regime by other means, although 20 or even 30 years ago we probably wouldn’t have made this statement. The difference is that at the moment dissent against the regime is much more consistent and widespread, and that is why the dark forces of the deep state are abusing repression in order to defend themselves against those who question an increasingly fragile status quo. We simply need to examine how they have reacted since the turn of the century to the pressure of those who claim historical memory, the interesting (and still poorly and badly analysed) police infiltrated and violently repressed 15-M, the emergence of a force like Podemos (counteracted by the State operation with Ciudadanos), the substitute bill submitted by independence parties, and the growing emergence of a new republicanism. Decades ago, in the 1980s or 1990s, arbitrary repression was just as unfair, though to a lesser extent and impact than it currently is. To give an example, in 1981, holding a pro-independence banner in Barcelona resulted in dozens of detentions and mistreatment by the police. The same thing happened in the days leading up to the 1992 Olympics, when dozens of political activists were imprisoned and tortured on fabricated charges. Recently I have been reading the draft of an interesting memoir Joan Martínez Alier, an intellectual and professor of ecology (and an anti-Franco dissident) who was arrested that same year for preparing a campaign to condemn the indigenous genocide during the Fifth Centenary festivities.
Spain is not a democracy. Next, I am going to give some reasons that reinforce this.
1. The current regime was originally flawed by an imposed monarchy
It is no secret that the continuity between Franco’s regime and the Constitution was personified in the Bourbon. A Bourbon shielded from criticism and the law who enjoys unsustainable impunity based on indications of questionable family behaviour, professional incompetence, lack of neutrality, and growing evidence of tampering with government or expressing sympathies for the far right. It was a legal continuity dictated by Franco’s own law of succession and the dictator’s will. The Constitution itself served to regulate the chaotic legislation of Franco’s regime, incorporating most of the content of the Fundamental Laws. The imposed monarchy secured the permanent leadership of the State by avoiding a referendum, which, based on the revelations by former President Suárez, would have been adverse. From a legislative and political point of view, an attempt was made to preserve the brutality of the dictatorship and to cover up its crimes, in particular through the (self-)Amnesty Law. In other words, with respect to the balance of power between war winners and losers, the regime of 1978 is an update of the regime of 1939. The failure to repair and to prosecute war crimes (and criminals) is very indicative of what happened next. The main obsession of “democracy” was to keep the power, the influence and the privileges of those sectors that benefited from Franco’s regime intact. That is why the repressive bodies were left untouched, especially the armed forces, the police and the judiciary, but also the church or the media.
2. There is a flagrant absence of a democratic culture
The damage caused to Spanish society after four decades of dictatorship was so profound that it determined its regenerative capacity. Repression to the very foundations of dissent and order through fear produced generations of Spaniards, as Jarcha’s song said, who were obedient even in bed. Sociological Francoism, which came to believe that the precarious welfare propaganda was the result of the regime’s development, turned out to be a brake on the prosecution of the Francoist crimes, the “Spanish Holocaust”, in the words of the British historian Paul Preston. In a way, the submission of the Spanish population to the escalating regression of recent years, and their support, by action or omission, for the repression of the Basque Country or Catalonia illustrates the extent to which authoritarianism has been internalised within society itself, becoming more and more like the fearful and mistreated peasants in Miguel Delibes’ The Holy Innocents. The electorate’s behaviour, supporting those who demand more nationalism (Spanish nationalism, of course), more repression, more regression, despite the high unemployment rates, precariousness and poverty, is a good barometer to explain how internalised the country’s hierarchical world view is. But also, the idea that democracy is a mechanism for majorities to impose themselves on minorities is also a sign of the degree to which authoritarianism is installed in the subconscious. Democracy serves to manage conflicts on the basis of pact and compromise, seeking consensus and making mutual cessions to reach solutions. But this does not seem to be happening.
3. Unsubtle mechanisms of censorship and the silencing of dissent
As it happened with the Czechoslovak dictatorship, it is risky attempting to dissent in the face of repression in Catalonia, in the Basque Country, or questioning the impunity of Franco’s crimes. There are dozens of mechanisms of repression, not always subtle. Here are a few examples. During the anti-Catalan demonstrations following the return of the documents of the Generalitat from the Salamanca archive in 1995, the few journalists in the local press who understood the motives of the Catalans had their media pages closed forever. Many of those who questioned the repressive policy in the Basque Country were prosecuted for “apology of terrorism”. Judges, like Garzón himself, who tried to investigate the Franco regime’s crimes, were expelled from the judiciary, as were so many others who dealt with sensitive issues. Six lads who attended a demonstration in Madrid in support of the October 1 referendum are being prosecuted. Some of the events organised in support of the independence supporters in the state have been banned (unlike the far right’s events). MPs such as Joan Tardà were unable to lead a normal life in Madrid because incidents in which they were reprimanded or threatened due to their republican ideas were frequent. Members of the military who have dared to report their superiors’ Francoism have been dismissed. Journalists who have exposed corruption scandals are being harassed by mafia groups or by the police forces themselves. To be a dissident in Spain, when the interests of Franco’s heirs are targeted, is a risky exercise… as with those who backed Jan Palach’s mother in her search for justice.
4. The impunity of Francoism
The Regime of 78 was built to safeguard the old order of 39. As the Falangist Antonio Labadie explained in 1974 when faced with the uncertainty of the changes to come, “we will fight tooth and nail to defend the legitimacy of a victory that today is the heritage of all the Spanish people”. And, given what we have seen, the bunker got away with it. Not a single Francoist has been judged. Despite the fact that Spain is the country, after Cambodia, with the highest number of missing people, the state has only obstructed any policies of memory and reparation. The Valley of the Fallen continues to be a place of pilgrimage for the far right, where the ethos of violence and fascism are spread. In fact, fascism is legal in this country. Democracy was never used to extradite dozens of internationally hunted Nazi criminals, such as the Belgian León Degelle, following 46 requests from Brussels. He died peacefully in 1994. In addition, following the 1977 (self-)Amnesty Law, dozens of crimes committed by the far right or cases of torture carried out by the police have either remained unpunished or been systematically reprieved. It is clear that a democracy cannot be built in such a way. After all, the lives of many Spaniards are still affected by the crimes of Franco’s regime which the Transition was unable to put right. Without justice and equality, no democracy is possible.
5. A systemic and protected corruption
Linked to all this, it has to be said that Franco’s regime worked, above all, towards granting impunity to the benefactors of 1939, and this resulted in a free pocketing of money, turning the whole of Spain into the spoils of war of the Francoists. Corruption, protected through privileged connections with power, which was systematic under the regime, continued during the so-called democracy. Unlawful enrichment, through contacts with the highest echelons, particularly through a promiscuity between political, economic, legal and administrative powers, continued without excessive problems. The Nóos case, for example, is a great illustration of how influence at the highest levels made it possible for certain protected elites to use public funds as ATMs. But, above all, the culture of impunity was set up in such a way that the nepotism and the endogamy existing in the judiciary, diplomacy, high administration, and revolving doors, with an IBEX 35 full of pro-Franco sagas, turned the State into the assets of a few families. To top it all off, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Franco regime do not even blush when they display master’s degrees and university degrees that we all know are fake. This is the kind of deep-rooted “you don’t know who you’re talking to” in Spanish daily life.
6. Poorly pluralistic media
Spain is the country where facts and the media narrative have no connection, even beyond ordinary lies. The Spanish press often explains how the facts should have happened along the lines of a political party. The following statement, written by Georges Orwell during the Spanish Civil War, could be applicable today. “In a deeply divided society with no democratic tradition, information is a mere trench“. In recent decades there has been a shift from a generalised functional illiteracy, which was the result of the lack of educational policies during the Franco regime, to a media illiteracy, promoted by the mainstream TV channels. The Franco regime created a propaganda model mainly based on the audiovisual information monopoly, which could not be renovated during the constitutional stage. Nowadays, there is an oligopoly in which the big media are connected to an endogamous economic power where large media groups broadcast the interests of the authoritarian elites. We have seen this in recent years, when, for example, not only the Basque nationalism has been criminalised because of their highly consultative and deliberative debate structures, but also the 15M or the Catalan independence movements which originate from a highly organised, self-managed and profoundly democratic and plural civil society, but which the media potrays as a blend between North Korea and Leni Riefenstahl, based on the harshest possible media manipulation, and fuelling hatred in similar terms to Yugoslavian television in the months leading up to its dramatic disintegration. Over the last few decades, television and the media have been working to convey an image of a homogeneous Spain that does not correspond to reality, concealing, for instance, the 10 million Catalan speakers in the state, shutting away Euskera or Galician, or making up facts that should fit together with one’s own prejudices, as Orwell said. And we all know that without a free and pluralistic media, there can be no democracy.
But even those uncomfortable and dissenting voices have been silenced, and those who, through meticulous research, have brought uncomfortable truths to the table have been sanctioned. Journalist Xavier Vinader was persecuted and forced into exile after exposing the dirty war in the Basque Country. Recent investigations into the fake academic titles of PP leaders, the Bar España, corruption networks or the abduction of children by institutions related to the regime have given the authors quite some grief, making them worthy of a Pulitzer award.
7. A political police and, worse still, the inability of Spanish society to react
The revelations about the Spanish police tracking and monitoring Pablo Iglesias is the tip of the iceberg. The forces of law and order seem more concerned with carrying out actions of discredit and siege against the opposition and dissent than with prosecuting the many varied crimes committed by those in excess of power. Many people are unaware of these various actions, involving the fabrication of false evidence to discredit Mayor Xavier Trias, the illegal persecution against Catalan independence, the inexplicable role (as in not allowed to be explained) of the secret services in the Jihadist terrorist attack in Barcelona in August 2017, the actions to damage public health and many more scandals that have not prompted the slightest reaction from Spanish public opinion. These actions have even benefited from a television boycott, despite their remarkable audience and authenticity. In Spain there are several Watergates every year, and very few people react. And that is unlike a democracy. It is appalling that, as in the case of Jan Palach, the police are used to prevent people from reacting, to maintain an order that quite clearly goes against the common interest.
8. Almost total Francoist control in key institutions
This is obvious in the genealogy of the state elites and in the Catholic Church (which, unlike what happens in the rest of the world, is neither being investigated nor prosecuted for abuse, child abduction, exploitation, etc.), the IBEX 35 companies, the judiciary (where judges who “poke their noses where they shouldn’t” are removed without hesitation), the high-ranking officials, the army, the security forces, as well as the complicity with a far right that seems to enjoy strange immunity in spite of hundreds of criminal acts (unlike peaceful activists).
9. The hegemony of its symbols
No. The Spanish flag, the anthem, the monarchy, or certain traditions are not the symbols of all Spaniards, but the symbols of the Spain of 39. There has been a policy of imposition and appropriation of symbols that do not seek consensus, but the staging of the victory of Franco’s regime, to the point that a large proportion of a coward and self-conscious left is adopting them as their own. The most logical would be to reconsider a new symbolism that should be debated and agreed upon. But this is not the case. The discomfort of radically anti-Franco societies such as the Basque and Catalan do not accept them. And it is much simpler to claim one’s own than to try changing those that represent a rather non fraternal Spain and so hostile that it does not hesitate to be the chromatic and musical complement of the “a por ellos” pack. (Translator’s note: The military police leaving from cities all over Spain to stop the referendum vote in Catalonia were seen off by crowds gathered with Spanish flags and chanting “Go get them!”). It is no secret that a significant part of the national cohesion is manufactured based on the external or internal enemy. But this identity is toxic, based on hatred and despise. And hatred and despise are the feelings that feed dictatorships. A democracy seeks agreement and consensus. No one should be afraid to create new symbols accepted by all, but a territory and society should also be structured on the basis of new agreements.
Unfortunately, the unionist vision of Spain represented by its excluding symbols will end up dissolving it, because, after all, the exhibition of the Spanish flag is a way of resisting an agreed solution, that is, a democratic solution.
10. Catalonia and the sham trial
The analyst Joe Brew, in his studies on audiences and social networks, highlighted the scarce interest that the trial against the independence leaders in the Supreme Court is generating among the Spanish public opinion. The analyst Joe Brew, in his studies on audiences and social networks, highlighted the scarce interest that the trial against the independence leaders in the Supreme Court is generating among the Spanish public opinion. It is obvious that for a vast majority, the shame of a televised farce in which the sentence has already been written, the testimonies of the accusation openly lying, witnesses and key evidence of the defence are vetoed, renders a public image of Spain similar to that of Saudi Arabia. Yet few voices are raised in the face of such injustice. In a way, the trial against the Catalan leaders is a supreme act of prevarication, not only from an administrative point of view, but, especially, from a moral point of view. In dictatorships, everyone keeps silent in the face of injustice. In democracies, a conflict as serious as the Catalan one would be dealt with through dialogue, always uncomfortable, always difficult, always unsatisfactory, but much more practical than causing an irreversible break that will end up turning against those in power.
Surely, this article will generate some indignation among those who prefer to live in a state of oblivion. Like Josep Borrell, Minister of Foreign Affairs, many will shout their heads off, claiming that Spain is an exemplary democracy. But as the proverb goes, “tell me what you brag about and I’ll tell you what you lack”. The authorities of the communist Czechoslovakia never grew tired of describing paradise on earth, the best of all possible worlds that their democratic and popular republic represented. So why should they attack those who defended the honourability of the young Jan Palach’s gesture? Spain is not a democracy. It won’t be until the toxic Franco heritage is shaken off; that of the institutions, but even more importantly, the one that still permeates the subconscious of millions of Spaniards.
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