I have written before about my year of student life in Spain
in the mid-1960s, and the often fascinating, but at the same
time, claustrophobic experience of living in that historic
ancient kingdom reduced to post-World War II isolation,
dictatorship and poverty.
That student year was at the tail end of the notorious regime
of Francisco Franco, “El Caudillo,” the fascist dictator who
overthrew a short-lived and mostly incompetent Spanish
republic that followed the end of the Spanish monarchy a few
years before in a coup in 1931.
The year I was attending the University of Madrid was also
the 30th anniversary of the Franco regime, and it was
celebrated as “treinta anos de paz” or “thirty years of peace”
in the national celebration that took place. On December 14,
1966, Franco appeared before the Spanish parliament (El
Cortes) to declare and sign the “Organic Law” that set down
the rules for his succession. Franco, a royalist, had wanted
a king to follow him, and so he negotiated with the Spanish
“pretender” in exile, then living in Portugal, to have his young
son return to Spain, be educated under the direction of Franco,
and then become actual king on Franco’s death. The pretender,
a bitter opponent of Franco who was, in turn, disliked by the
Spanish dictator, agreed, and the teen-age Prince Juan Carlos
returned to his homeland.
I was in the huge crowd in front of El Cortes that day when
Franco arrived in a black limousine to sign the new law of
Although I never met the prince, I became aware of him when
on the University campus I often saw a string of black official
cars parked in front of university buildings. I had become
friendly with a young Spanish painter and his family soon after
arriving in Madrid, and it turned out that the painter’s father
was a member of the Spanish general staff. This man, who later
became infamous as the “commandante de Madrid,” informed
me that the black cars were the entourage of the young Prince
Juan Carlos, then attending classes at the university. He also
described the prince with the epithet “Juan El Breve” or Juan
The Brief, the nickname then circulating among the general
staff, because it was believed that his reign as king would soon
be soon ended by a fascist takeover of the government.
Soon after I left Spain to return to the U.S., Franco died, and
the prince became king. Free elections were held, and a leftist
was chosen as prime minister by a very liberal parliament.
As expected, elements in the military were unhappy with the
direction the newly democratic Spain was taking, and a “golpe
de estado” or revolt was staged in Madrid by taking over the
parliament by a military faction. As sympathetic military
divisions were moving to solidify the revolt, the young and
allegedly "weak" king was isolated in the royal palace with his
wife and young children. A fate for them similar to that which
befell Russian Czar Nicholas II and his family (in 1918) might
have then happened, especially when it was learned that the king
was not willing to support the insurrection.
But the young “weak” king was made of much tougher stuff
than his military coup leaders imagined. He called the
division commanders of Spain’s army, and demanded as
“Yo El Rey” (I’m your king) their loyalty, and a rejection of
the golpe de estado. Their elaborate plans of the fascist revolt
were shattered when the army commanders fell in line with
the king, and Spanish democracy was saved. Overnight, Juan
Carlos was a national hero, and he quickly became one of
Europe’s most popular monarchs. Although his role as chief of
state was largely ceremonial, his stature following his
courageous defeat of the army revolt gave him enormous
popular influence in Spanish life.
A few years ago, there was a reprise of his popularity when,
while in South America presiding at a conference of
Spanish-speaking government leaders, the late dictator of
Venezuela Hugo Chavez was rudely making defaming remarks
about the Spanish government. King Juan Carlos then, in front
of the world’s TV cameras, interrupted Chavez, saying “Why
don’t you shut up!” It was vintage Juan Carlos, the former
prince who had been given the derisive nickname “The Brief,”
but who was now in his fourth decade as king of Spain.
Juan Carlos’ personal life over the years, however, had
suffered some decline. He had several children, and one of
his daughters married a famous commoner who subsequently
was accused of a massive fraud. The scandal eventually also
led back to the princess. During the recent economic downturn
in Spain, the king, a man who had always enjoyed the “high”
life went off on a secret African safari, accompanied allegedly
by his current paramour, and it became a cause celebre when
the king was injured on the safari, and had to return suddenly
to Spain for treatment. The king subsequently apologized to
the nation, but his reputation and national regard was no
longer the same.
Now 76, and in obvious declining health, the king has just
announced his abdication in favor of his eldest son, Prince
Felipe, a figure generally held in respect in Spain. With a vote
for secession of the Catalan province ahead, ongoing national
economic problems and a general doubt about Spain’s and
Europe’s future, perhaps Juan Carlos has decided wisely the
moment for a change.
There were mountains and valleys in his long reign, but there
was nothing “brief” about the kingship of Juan Carlos. I think
he will be remembered for the mountains he climbed in
saving Spanish democracy and in standing up to a South
American dictator, and the valleys of scandals will become
Whatever history writes, however, there can be no doubt that
he survived his doubters and detractors in a long reign of true
peace and democratic growth of his old kingdom in the
I still have not met him, but now perhaps some day soon I will.
I will show him my University of Madrid I.D. card, and invite him
for a beer, a few tapas, and some talk about the days when Spain
was not free, and students were dreaming about better days ahead.
Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.