Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Unexpected Hero of Our Time: Juan Carlos

A few days ago, Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain attended a conference of leaders of Spanish speaking countries in Chile. Among those also attending was that democratically-elected gangster Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela (but soon to be dictator). Mr. Chavez loves to make long anti-American leftist harangues, and when his turn came to speak, he decided to go after former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a long-time ally of the U.S. who, when in office, supported President Bush in Iraq. Mr. Zapatero, a socialist, defeated Mr. Aznar (and the two remain bitter opponents), but he found himself defending his rival to Mr. Chavez as "a man who was elected by the Spanish people." Mr. Chavez does not care about this principle (he said he will sidestep the Venezuelan constitution to stay in office beyond the allotted two terms), and kept interrupting Mr. Zapatero (a fellow socialist) in a most boorish fashion.

Finally, a man seated next to Mr. Zapatero, leaned over and in a loud vice said to Mr. Chavez, as if they were two men in a working class tapas bar in the Madrid rastro (flea market), "Why don't you shut up?" ("Por que no te callas?")

The man, of course, was the Spanish head of state, King Juan Carlos, and not one known for crude talk. Nevertheless, his riposte has now become a cheer throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and in not a few other places as well.

Forty years ago, I attended the University of Madrid It was during the closing years of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco who had triumphed in the bloody Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and had ruled Spain with an iron hand for 30 years. Although Franco was to remain in power until he died in 1975, he had been planning his succession. Realizing that Europe and the world was changing, he needed a respectable head of state who would permit his falangist right wing ideology to continue after his death. The previous king of Spain had been overthrown in a revolution by the brief Spanish republic (1931-39), and was living in exile. His son, Don Juan, was the crown prince and heir to the throne. The problem for Mr. Franco, however, was that Don Juan was a liberal figure (as royalty goes) and a long-time critic of the Franco regime.

The Spanish dictator came up with a way out. Don Juan's son, Juan Carlos, was then only a child, and Franco offered to allow Juan Carlos to return to Spain by himself and receive his education under Franco's tutelage. This was finally agreed to, and Juan Carlos returned to Spain, eventually enrolling at the University of Madrid sometime before I did. I never met the young prince, but on occasion I would see a line of black cars pull up on campus, and when I inquired who that was, I was told it was Juan Carlos. I met a young officer on Franco's general staff at that time, and he said they were calling Juan Carlos "Juan el Breve" ("Juan the Brief") in private military circles, suggesting that his reign as king would be very short after Franco's death. But it did not work out that way. After Franco died, the law decreed that Juan Carlos would become head of state. The civilian government was fairly liberal, and finally the falangist right wing staged a coup in 1981. They took over the parliament building, holding the deputies hostage, and waited for the army to fall in behind their revolution. It did not happen. The reason was that King Juan Carlos, his queen and family, remained in the royal palace in Madrid, and refused to recognize the coup. He then telephoned the various commanders of the Spanish army, and demanded that they support him and Spanish democracy. Reported plots to kidnap and even assassinate the king were everywhere, so that Juan Carlos's action was extraordinarily courageous, not only politically but physically as well. The king won the confrontation, and the second Spanish democratic government was saved. Overnight, Juan Carlos became a huge hero throughout Spain.

Twenty-five years later, Juan Carlos remains personally popular, but secular and liberal Spain has produced calls to end the monarchy. The king's son, the Prince of Asturias, does not enjoy his father's popularity (Is this reminiscent of contemporary Great Britain and its royal family?), and the Spanish media is filled with small royal scandals all the time, including the latest, the divorce of the eldest princess.

After the king's retort to Mr. Chavez, some Spanish commentators suggested it was not dignified for the king to speak in this way, as if he was making it into a street fight. Numerous British left-wing media and other continental commentators actually took Chavez's side. (This should be no surprise, considering the venomous hatred of the U.S. in European media circles,) There has been very limited coverage of this story in American mainstream media.

But almost everywhere else, the king's rebuke has become a new rallying cry. In Venzuela, the opposition to Mr. Chavez has adopted "Por que no te callas?" as its slogan. A reggae ballad has already been composed, and along with videos of the incident, is available world wide on You Tube and its equivalents.

The irony of all of this is that Juan Carlos is the descendant of generations of Spanish Bourbon kings whose most distinguished achievements other than brutal and rapacious conquest, include being portrayed by the sublime Spanish masterGoya (portraits of Spanish royalty by Velazquez were of another royal dynasty, the Hapsburgos, that preceded the Bourbons) and in being the protagonists in 19th century Italian operas. Most of the Spanish kings oversaw the savage colonization of South and Central America which suppressed advanced Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilizations (including, it should be noted, the forbears of Mr. Chavez) and produced eventually the politically unstable regimes that are so common in South and Central America today.

I don't know if Juan Carlos's controversial rebuke to Mr. Chavez will, in itself, save the Spanish monarchy, but one more time, this under-rated member of one of the world's few surviving monarchies has defied expectations and shown himself to be a cut above many of those who have been elected to high office.

Can you imagine Neville Chamberlain telling Adolf Hitler to shut up in Munich?


-This article was originally published in Real Clear Politics on November 17th, 2009.

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