Spain gasped when the rumor spread that Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco had been killed in an explosion the morning of Dec. 20, 1973. It wasn’t until midnight that government-controlled media confirmed what many feared: The hand-picked heir to replace Gen. Francisco Franco had been assassinated.
The bombing “changed Spain’s history” and contributed to a more rapid transition to democracy after over three decades of fascist dictatorship and hundreds of thousands of deaths, says Mikel Buesa, a terrorism expert and professor of economics at Complutense University of Madrid. Carrero Blanco was the country’s first prime minister after the Spanish Civil War, a Navy admiral, head of the secret police to control dissent, and a longtime friend and confidant of the all-powerful caudillo. “He was Franco’s ‘dauphin’ and was called upon to pilot the transition once Franco died,” Buesa says, referring to the French term for the next in line to the throne.
“Carrero Blanco symbolized better than anyone else the figure of pure Francoism.”
After tightened security made kidnapping unlikely to succeed, the Basque Country and Freedom group, aka ETA, decided to kill Carrero Blanco. From a rented basement, the terrorists dug a tunnel for five months and placed a bomb under a street where Carrero Blanco’s car routinely drove after Mass. When his car drove past a line the bombers had painted on a wall, one of the three militants disguised as gas company workers remotely detonated the device.
The vehicle was propelled into the air, clearing a five-story building and also killing Carrero Blanco’s chauffeur and his bodyguard, before falling to a terrace on the other side. Hours later, an ETA militant would explain to journalists that the group’s intention was to destabilize the regime. “Carrero Blanco symbolized better than anyone else the figure of pure Francoism,” the terrorist said, noting how “nobody managed as he did to maintain the internal equilibrium of Francoism.”
Everyone expected a crackdown in response. “There was a real fear the murder would trigger a hard-line reaction” and unleash a “repressive movement,” says Buesa. Instead, it was as if the regime capitulated, allowing for its demise, much like ETA wanted. Even the 80-year-old Franco appeared to give up. “They have cut the last thread that tied me to this world,” he was quoted as saying about Carrero Blanco’s assassination. Franco would later cry in front of his ministers and during the funeral.
Oddly, Carrero Blanco’s death proved to be “a blessing” for democracy, says Tom Burns, a former Reuters journalist who has written numerous books about Spain’s political history. “If he had taken over in 1975 [when Franco died], the movement toward democracy would have been much slower,” Burns adds. To ensure the regime post-Franco, Carrero Blanco had been slowly leading a timid political and economic reform to placate prodemocratic camps. He was instrumental in introducing a backward Spain to Europe’s competitive economy and in persuading Franco in 1969 to name Prince Juan Carlos as the future puppet head of state when he died, to add a semblance of reform.
For two years after the bombing, the regime weakened along with Franco’s health, in no small part because new Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro failed to unify Francoists: They were split between those who wanted more economic and political opening and those who preferred hard-line repression. Arias Navarro’s new cabinet was “hostile” toward the prince and to hints of reform within the regime.
As Francoism wobbled, the democratic movement grew bolder, and exiled leaders and political forces started aligning in preparation for an inevitable transition, Buesa says. Outside pressure also increased, namely from the U.S., which was at odds with Franco’s regime over Spain’s reluctance to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a strategic handicap for a U.S. trying to broaden its presence in the Mediterranean.
Prince Juan Carlos read the writing on the wall: Francoism was dying and Spain’s future depended on the ability of the monarchy to distance itself from the regime and build ties with reformers. “The prince actively meets anti-Francoists and realizes that when Franco dies, he must move quickly to push for democracy” or risk the recalcitrant regime taking over and delaying the process, Burns says.
When Franco died, on Nov. 20, 1975, Arias Navarro succumbed to pressure from all sides and, unable to lead a transition, resigned a year later. The future King Juan Carlos filled the power vacuum, finally launching Spain’s democratic transition.
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