Franco Exhumation: Will Spain Finally Confront its Troubled Past?

In a landmark decision, the Spanish Supreme Court has ruled that the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco should be exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen and re-interred at the El Pardo cemetery to the north of Madrid.

The Valley of the Fallen – and Franco’s internment in it – has become synonymous with Spain’s failure to confront its past

Franco’s four-decade rule stills casts a long shadow over contemporary Spain, as does the bloody civil war (1936-1939) that propelled him into power. The decision to exhume ‘El Caudillo’ “as soon as possible” will be welcomed by many, particularly those whose family members either died during the war or the subsequent dictatorship, which only ended on Franco’s death in 1975. Others, potentially including the Catholic Church, will be less enthused, and regardless of opinion it draws Spain no closer to getting a collective grip on its history.

The descent of Spain into divisive anarchy began after the 1936 elections, when the Popular Front came to power. A left-leaning conglomerate, the Popular Front’s rhetoric and policies inspired a military uprising in garrison towns across the country, of which Franco was at the forefront. Supported by the Falangists (fascists), conservative elements of the clergy and landowners, Franco’s Nationalists triggered a conflict that would kill some 500,000 Spaniards.

Franco (r) during the Spanish Civil War

Occurring during a time of political turbulence across Europe, the Spanish Civil War drew in international actors. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany supported the Nationalists, particularly with air-power, most notoriously deployed at Guernica. The Soviet Union sent war materiel to the Republicans, as the ‘leftist’ side in the conflict came to be known. There were also the “International Brigades”, volunteers of liberal idealists, socialists, communists and adventurers, who fought against Franco’s army.

International Brigade poster

After sealing victory, Franco largely sealed Spain off from the horrors of World War Two (WWII), the country officially neutral despite its fascist sympathies. What is perhaps more remarkable is his regime’s post-WWII survival, persisting at a time when the abominations of fascism had turned most of Europe, if not the world, away from its principles.

But Franco was anti-communist and it was the Cold War; ostracism by the Western powers was limited and Spain’s economy grew. Perhaps this helps to explain his longevity, and the acquiescence of the population to his will. Whereas the rest of Europe turned their back on Europe after WWII, Spain allowed it to linger and the Francoist era has been immune from critical attention since its end. This has undoubtedly been aided by the 1977 Amnesty Law which guarantees impunity for those who committed crimes during the Civil War.

The Caudillo’s exhumation therefore offers a chance to reflect and repent, to grieve and seek closure. Spain remains a severely divided nation, the Catalonia crisis one of many political polarisations and separatist anxieties for the government. Meanwhile the silent, bitter legacy of the Civil War continues to draw lines between classes, religious denominations and age groups, even if few really know why anymore.

The Catalan referendum on independence sparked mass civil unrest. The region was a Popular Front bastion for much of the Civil War

It should be noted that Spain is not unfamiliar with controversial exhumations. In 2017 the revered surrealist artist Salvador Dali was exhumed so that a DNA test could prove whether he was the father of a female complainant. He was not.

More significant in an historical sense was the exhumation of a set of bones in Seville who the Spanish argued belonged to Christopher Columbus. The Dominican Republic, where Columbus founded Santo Domingo in the late 15th century, claimed his bones were beneath a lighthouse there. Scientists stated that there was a 95% chance the Seville bones belonged to the famed explorer.

The tomb of Columbus in Seville Cathedral

At least for Franco’s family – who are understandably angered by the decision of the Supreme Court – they know that the former dictator’s body will simply be removed from the earth and then plonked into an empty plot next to that of his wife. Better that than the fate that befell the body of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England in the aftermath of that country’s own civil war (1642-1651).

On the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II ordered Cromwell’s exhumation (he had died in 1658). First, the body was hung from the gallows. Next, it was beheaded and Cromwell’s head displayed on a spike. The body was then dumped and the head traveled around for a bit, until it was finally reburied in Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge in 1960.

There are surely some who would request a similar end for Franco. Then again, perhaps if the exhumation provokes just a general reckoning with the past in a bid to confront an uncertain future then it has served Spain a much greater purpose.

From Innocent Paradise to Helpless Devastation: the Bahamian Struggle in the Wake of Hurricane Dorian

The Bahamas is currently mired in a rather hapless state of desolation following the ravages of Hurricane Dorian. As is often the case in these situations, international attention has quickly passed on to other issues and the Caribbean nation is left fighting a forlorn battle of reconstruction.

The images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian speak for themselves

Having only achieved independence from Britain in 1973 after centuries of colonial rule and slavery, this is a setback one of a poor region’s more prosperous states could ill afford.

It can be very easy to draw a clear line between the pre-contact and post-contact histories of ‘New World’ states – in the main it is unavoidable – and suggest that this is where the good times ended and the bad began.

The Bahamas has the dubious honour of being the first ‘discovery’ that Christopher Columbus set foot on, when he triumphantly strode ashore one of its islands (the exact one is debated) on the 12th October 1492. His description of the initial encounter with the native peoples is typically naive:

They go as naked as when their mothers bore them…They are very well made with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horsetail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white…They neither care nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance.

The infamous first landing of Christopher Columbus

Of course the people who are suffering in the wake of Dorian bear no resemblance to this ‘hairless’ race. 95% of Bahamian people are of African origin, descended from the slaves brought to the islands by the British in the 17th century.

The people Columbus encountered were Lucayans, a Taino sub-group. An estimated 40,000 of them inhabited The Bahamas at the time of the European arrival. A mixture of introduced disease and enslavement to work for pitiful quantities of gold on Hispaniola saw to their extinction.

The Lucayans greeted the Spaniards with a friendliness they’d soon regret – within a couple of generations they were wiped out

Columbus’ portrayal of an Age of Innocence did not stop with the people. He described the landscape thus:

Rather large and very flat, with bright green trees, much water, and a very large lake in the centre, without any mountain, and the whole land so green that it is a pleasure to look on it.

Such a tranquil and pleasant land is the last thing most Bahamians would recognise at the moment, but it has certainly been long sought after by colonists and holidaymakers alike, the pristine beaches and brackish lagoons helping to reinforce a notion of paradisaical calm.

For many, The Bahamas epitomises the idea of an earthly paradise

Another thing that has persisted from Columbus’ descriptions is the name; “baja mar” translating as shallow sea in Spanish.

With as many as 2,500 people still unaccounted for after Hurricane Dorian, the Bahamian government could be excused for not giving much thought to history. The international community, and the USA in particular, on the other hand, should be more mindful of the significance of this land.

Modern American history as we know it dates to Columbus’ first landing in October 1492, and a great play is often made about the ‘origins’ of  modern American people. Naturally this overlooks the first people to actually inhabit these shores and the mark they have left on humanity.

But if the Columbian adventure means so much to people then it should be reflected in the present, in the land where it all began, and that necessitates providing as much material support to The Bahamas in its time of need as is possible. No conditions, no bureaucratic red tape. Just unfettered aid.

To return Columbus’ mirage of an innocent and idyllic paradise and, more importantly, ensure a future for the Bahamian people, will require far more than the generous donations of individuals and the tireless efforts of NGOs. Just ask Puerto Rico.

The amount of money America directs The Bahamas’ way could be dictated by geopolitical strategy. There are fears China will send billions of dollars Nassau’s way in exchange for greater influence in the region