Spain in History

Catalan police officer and protestors. Barcelona, October 2017.

Catalan police officer and protestors. Barcelona, October 2017.

Over the past nine months, we have seen evidence of rising popular discontent in Spain. Last February, in Madrid, there were university student riots, in protest over Falange control of the student body and government restrictions on free speech.

In July, after the trial of 4 riot ringleaders, Franco moved to strengthen Falangist control over students. During April and May, discontented industrial workers in northern Spain defied the government’s ban on strikes. Over 50,000 workers walked out, protesting that the government’s 16% wage boost of 1 April had been inadequate to keep pace with the continuing rise in Spanish living-costs (up from 1940 ’s index of 100 to 515 this year). A further 6% wage raise, scheduled for this month, has not yet been implemented and in any case, would not close the gap.

Although this popular discontent is no immediate threat to the stability of Franco’s regime, we also have evidence of growing uneasiness among the regime’s principal supporters, which may prove to be a more serious problem. The Falange is bitterly opposed to Franco’s apparent determination to engineer the eventual restoration of the Spanish monarchy. The Falange is also angered by Franco’s failure to expand the nation’s social welfare program. The Catholic Church hierarchy, which has close ties with Franco, nonetheless contains elements which are uneasy over these ties.

This September all eleven of Spain’s archbishops called for a fair distribution of national wealth and decent wages for labor. Finally, Franco’s main prop, the army, is becoming increasingly critical of his indulgence toward the Falange and has reacted strongly to his termination of the Spanish protectorate in Morocco. The military is concerned over the problem of finding places in home garrisons for the 50,000 officers and men who will be withdrawn from Morocco.

As public order decays, the armed forces might feel impelled to take over the reins of government to restore social peace. With the assumption of civilian roles, the officer corps will become politicized, and significant numbers of junior officers might turn radical as Spain’s major economic and social problems remain unsolved.

These problems result in large part from Spain’s chronic economic difficulties — low agricultural and industrial productivity and mass poverty. Last winter’s adverse weather intensified these problems and this year has been marked by increasing inflationary pressures. The principal factors underlying inflation are the government’s growing budget deficit, the consequent curtailment of essential imports, a severe shortage of such basic items of diet as olive oil, and the impact of this year’s wage boosts. Added to these has been a sharp increase in the expenditure of US base construction counterpart funds.

The Spanish government has done little or nothing to correct a spreading popular belief that the presence of Americans in Spain is responsible for many of the country’s difficulties, including both the influx of “liberal” ideas and the shop rise in living costs. The major issue, however, concerns the details of US control and operation of its three naval base facilities in Spain. The Spanish Navy sees the US creating three “little Gibraltars.”

Franco wants more US military and economic aid and has hinted he will cooperate with the US only as long as this assistance is forthcoming. Although Soviet and Spanish officials have discussed the resumption of diplomatic relations on several occasions recently, the Spanish government denies that a resumption of relations is imminent.

The Soviet Union recently approved the return of 1,000 Spanish civilians mostly Republican children refugees of the Spanish Civil War — from the USSR. However, Franco’s basic price for recognition of the USSR — the return of $500 million in Spanish gold sent to the USSR during the war and repatriation of the remaining Blue Division prisoners of World War II — has not been met.

If Franco lingers on over the next two or three years, Spain will become even more polarized: the political right and petit-bourgeois interests will be ascendant; moderate politicians will be alienated; the working classes will be further radicalized, and the Communists will grow stronger among them.

Under these conditions, unrest is bound to escalate, and the right — with or without Franco by then — may not be able to control it. Either called in by the government or on their own initiative, the armed forces would then enter politics to restore order. With the assumption of civilian functions, groups of officers resenting the burden of underwriting an isolated and ineffectual dictatorship in Western Europe might feel impelled to reform Spain fundamentally.

The gap between the regime and the working classes remains to be bridged, and political leaders will have to see that it is in their own self-interest to accommodate labor and linked regional demands. While the extreme right no doubt will try to sway sympathetically inclined old time officers, the military will hesitate to intervene in civilian politics so long as the government appears moderate in its views, capable, and maintains a firm grip over public protest.

Compiled using US government cables via Photograph courtesy of Sasha Popovic. Published under a Creative Commons license.