“Is Venezuela a dictatorship?” the Spanish journalist Eduardo Inda asked Albert Rivera upon his return from a trip there in late May, on the eve of the campaign for Spain’s June 26 elections. Rivera is the leader of Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), a young right-wing party currently negotiating the terms for its support of a government led by the conservative Partido Popular (PP), which won the elections. His trip to Caracas to promote the opposition there was opportunistic. Desperate to stem the rising tide of Unidos Podemos, a new coalition on the left, Ciudadanos and other rivals tried to tie the party to Venezuela, where some of the founders of Podemos (“We Can”) served as political advisers in the past. In line with these scare tactics, Rivera turned Inda’s question into a reflection on Spain: “I’d say it’s even worse. Dictatorships don’t have freedom, but they do have a certain peace and order because everyone knows what to expect. But what they have [in Venezuela] is worse, it’s arbitrary tyranny.”
Some 60 years earlier, Spain’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, had uttered the same phrase. “Spain presents itself to the world as an example of peace and order. We will never sacrifice this unity, this peace, and this order for anything or anyone,” he told parishioners in Granada during a 1957 speech at the National Eucharistic Congress. During Spain’s four-decade-long dictatorship, “peace and order” were often invoked to justify the government’s violence and repression of the population. As early as 1945, Falangist newspapers were patting the dictatorship on the back for “having established in our country a peace and order that no other country enjoys.” During Spain’s transition to democracy, in the mid 1970s, Adolfo Suárez, the first president elected following Franco’s death, embodied what people would come to call “social peace and juridical order,” adding merely a pair of adjectives to the Francoist mantra.
Unwittingly echoing Franco, Rivera simply channeled an idea still held by a surprisingly large number of Spaniards: that the dictatorship wasn’t such a bad thing after all, and that, although he wasn’t a democrat, Franco saved Spain from communism. Had Rivera referred to Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy—the allies who helped Franco gain power—there would have been a public outcry. Yet only a handful of papers, almost exclusively confined to Spain’s burgeoning alternative media, covered and censured Rivera’s comment. Mainstream dailies, including the country’s paper of record, El País, ignored it, while right-wing outlets, such as La Razón or Libertad Digital, decried any criticism of Rivera as a smear campaign from Podemos.
Years ago, no one would have openly called out Rivera for his comment. But the climate around what is today referred to in Spain as “historical memory”—shorthand for the complicated legacy of the Spanish Civil War and ensuing dictatorship—has dramatically shifted over the past decade and a half. Since the turn of the century, the families victimized by Francoist repression have organized in a quest for justice, changing the narratives of Spain’s past and present alike. Today, exactly 80 years after the military rebellion that unleashed a three-year civil war and led to an almost 40-year dictatorship, these families enjoy the support of the country’s new progressive political class and a couple of daring judges. While the benevolent image of the Franco regime is finally crumbling, Spain might yet see some of its surviving officials end up in the dock.