Wednesday, March 4, 2009

as leaders go, so go their statues

MADRID -- Every Nov. 20, for the past dozen years, Sinforiano Bezanilla has visited a pigeon-covered statue of Gen. Francisco Franco to pay homage to Europe's longest-serving fascist dictator.
This year, the sculpture won't be there. Acting on a law passed by Spain's Socialist government, authorities uprooted the statue of the Generalísimo in December from the city square of Santander in northern Spain and banished it to the local museum.
"The left is attempting to rewrite our country's history. They base it on a series of half-lies, half-truths and outright lies," says Mr. Bezanilla. The 44-year-old municipal worker was just 11 when Franco died. But he has read volumes on the former dictator's ideas and is nostalgic for his regime.
More than three decades after Franco died and 72 years after he seized power, Spain is on a controversial mission to expunge the many emblems of its painful past that are still on public display.
While monuments to Franco have lingered long in Spain, other leaders' statues have been toppled soon after their regimes fall -- and each time, the monuments become battlegrounds of history.
The Socialist government says the assorted icons of the Franco regime still on view -- fascist-style eagles, yokes and arrows -- have no place in modern Spain. A year ago, it passed a law to eliminate them.
But the drive -- part of a broader law aimed at redressing Franco-era injustices -- has raised hackles among conservatives who say Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is reopening wounds they say were healed after the dictator's death.
"The question is whether Spain should be looking at what happened 70 years ago, or whether the government needs to start looking to the future," says Jaime García-Legaz, congressman for the opposition Popular Party.
Nazi symbols are illegal in Germany. No statues of former Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini are on display in Italian streets. But in Spain -- today a modern democracy at the heart of the European Union -- monuments to Franco have remained to this day.
"This is the only fascist regime that has seen its symbols survive into the 21st century," says Alejandro Quiroga, a Spanish history professor at Britain's University of Newcastle.
The emblems have lasted so long partly because Spain's dictatorship, which began in 1936 after Franco's forces won a bloody civil war in which 500,000 were killed, lasted far longer than similar authoritarian states. Spain stayed out of World War II, which toppled Hitler and Mussolini, and Franco managed to rule until he died in 1975.
After a new constitution in 1978, Spain's new leaders decided to bury the hatchet in order to preserve the country's fragile new democracy.
No generals ever went on trial, as generals did in Latin America. There were no Truth and Reconciliation Commissions like those held in South Africa. An abortive coup in 1981 reminded Spain's first post-Franco democratic governments of the danger in trying to hold Franco's regime to account.
"There were other priorities than getting rid of the symbols of the Franco regime," says Jesús de Andrés Sanz, a professor at UNED University who has studied the issue. "The new leaders didn't want to make enemies of the extreme right. There was always the threat of a military coup."
The decision not to look back has had curious effects. Politicians ditched the words to the national anthem used during Franco's rule ("Raise your arms, sons of the Spanish people") but couldn't agree on any replacements. Now, when the anthem is played, Spaniards hum awkwardly or invent their own lyrics.
Despite attempts to sweep history under the rug, the deep and bitter ideological divisions that gripped Spain during its three-year civil war have never dissipated and are evident today.
People whose families fought Franco tell stories of repression, torture and killings. After the war, Franco's Nationalist troops rounded up suspected Republicans and killed tens of thousands. The vanquished were sent to labor camps, where an untold number perished. Their children were often given to families that were supportive of the regime.
Descendants of Franco's side say he saved the country from communism and restored the Catholic Church to its rightful place. In today's Spain, where gay marriage, divorce and abortion are all legal, some conservative Spaniards look back fondly on the dictatorship and say they don't want to be persecuted for doing so. "A lot of people are afraid to express themselves," complains Mr. Bezanilla.
The Socialist government's edict is being followed far and wide. The Spanish enclave of Melilla, in northern Africa, has promised to remove the last remaining statue of Franco on public display on Spanish territory, though it hasn't yet set a date.
Some are dragging their feet. In the southern city of Granada, artists are trying to get City Hall to remove a monument to fascism showing five disembodied limbs in stiff-armed salute. "It is very bothersome that it should still be there 30 years on," says Luis García Montero, a local poet. "It recalls a dark period in this country's history. The time has come to get rid of it."
Campaigners want the government to go further and force town halls to rename the hundreds of streets that still commemorate Franco, his generals or his victories.
Even as Franco's statues are banished to basements or museums, the government has a thorn in its side: What to do with the fascist-style mausoleum Franco built for himself and an estimated 40,000 civil-war fighters?
Bored into the side of a mountain near Madrid and topped with a 500-foot cross, Franco's "Valley of the Fallen" cannot be removed or ignored. At the moment, visitors find no mention of the 14,000 laborers who built the complex in the 1940s and '50s, most of them drawn from the ranks of losing fighters from the civil war. The church there remains an active place of worship.
Mr. Zapatero's government toyed with the idea of turning the site into a museum dedicated to Franco's victims but ultimately ducked the issue entirely in its so-called Law of Historical Memory, passed in December 2007.
Since last year, the government has banned neo-fascist groups from commemorating Franco's death there each Nov. 20. Yet fresh wreaths are still laid on his grave there daily, courtesy of the Spanish state.
For some, the Valley of the Fallen is much more than just a symbol from the past. It's the place where their missing fathers ended up. In a bizarre effort to demonstrate Spain's national reconciliation, Franco opened the mass graves of his opponents at the end of the 1950s and had their remains transferred to the site. Some Spaniards have grown up knowing that their relatives, shot by Franco's firing squads and dumped in mass graves, now lie just feet away from the dictator.
"It's a sick joke, an absolute affront, that they are still in there," says Fausto Canales, a 74-year-old man who has spent the decade since he retired trying to retrieve the remains of his father.
Others want Franco's bones taken out. "We can't forget it is the mausoleum of a 20th-century dictator," says 83-year-old Nicolás Sánchez Albornoz, who himself worked for five months at the site when it was being constructed before finally escaping. "No other European country has a state-financed mausoleum of, say, Hitler or Mussolini."

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