Por Morgan Smith
It’s November 15, a cold and very foggy day. We’re in Belchite, a small town of some 1,500 inhabitants about 40 kilometers east of Zaragoza, Spain. In five days, Spaniards will be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975. It was a brutal war with roughly 500,000 deaths out of a total population of 25 million, followed by many years of repressions, exiles, vengeance, poverty and suffering. We visited Spain twice during his dictatorship –1966 and 1974– and the feeling of fear and repression was very evident.
Although it’s very small as well as isolated in the countryside of Aragon, Belchite is one of the most powerful symbols of the war in the whole country. In August 1973, the Republican forces began an offensive against Franco’s troops with the idea of capturing Belchite and then Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon. The battle for Belchite lasted more than a week with 6,000 deaths and the town destroyed. (Twenty Americans who were volunteers at the Lincoln-Washington Brigade died there). After Franco’s victory, he ordered Republican prisoners to Belchite to rebuild the town. But he then decided to have them build a new town and leave the ruins as a symbol of the evil of the Republican forces and the communists. As a result, the whole area –the new town as well as the ruins– has a frightening and supernatural feeling. When we visited, there was no body on the streets, not even a dog or a sheep.
For most Spaniards, the memory of Franco is a distant one. There were a few articles in the papers but not many. Spain is now a strong democracy and fourteenth in the world in terms of its economy. But during our brief visit we could see signals of continuing problems.
In April the unemployment rate was 22.7% compared to 10.5 % in France and 13% in Portugal, Spain’s two neighbors, as well as only 5.4% in the United States. Part of the problem is the educational system. There is little emphasis on learning English, the language of business, and on studying/using technology.
This is the topic that is most discussed. The corruption of Jordi Pujol, leader of the Catalan government from 1980 to 2003 and his two sons, for example. Or the corruption of Princess Cristina and her husband, Iñaki Urdangarin on charges of fraud. (Her brother, King Felipe VI had to take away her title as princess last June, an enormous disgrace for the concept of the monarchy).
The Catalans and the Movement for Independence
This is a debate –or battle– that isn’t going to stop or resolve itself. Although the Catalan leaders claim there is a majority for independence, the people I talked to say something different. They see this as a huge distraction at a time when there are more important issues like the economy and the high level of unemployment.
Notwithstanding these problems, it is clear that these forty years since the death of Franco have been enormously successful. Spain is a democracy, something that Franco never wanted to see. That will never change.