Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Spain 40 years after General Franco

Forty years ago today (20 November), General Franco, the chief protagonist of nearly half a century of Spanish history, died. ‘Caudillo by the grace of God’, as his coins proclaimed after he won the 1936-39 Civil War, Generalissimo of the armed forces, and head of state and head of government (the latter until 1973), Franco was buried at the colossal mausoleum partly built by political prisoners at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) in the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid.

Under the guiding hand of King Juan Carlos, appointed Franco’s successor in 1969 when the dictator decided to re-instate the Bourbon monarchy, opponents and moderate elements in the regime came together and negotiated a transition to democracy, sealed in the 1978 Constitution.

Since then, Spain has enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity and peaceful co-existence, even taking into account the country’s prolonged recession which ended in 2014. The country telescoped its political, economic, and social modernisation into a much shorter period than any other European country.

  • Economic output increased almost tenfold between 1975 and 2015 to around $1 trillion.
  • Per capita income rose from $3,000 to $25,600.
  • The structure of the economy is very different: agriculture’s share of output dropped from 9% to 2.5%, industry – including construction – from 39% to 23%, and services increased from 52% to 74%.
  • Employment by sectors has changed even more: only 4% of jobs today are in agriculture compared to 22% in 1975, 14% of employment is in industry and construction, down from 38%, while services employ 76%.
  • Exports of goods and services more than tripled to 32% of GDP.
  • The inward stock of foreign direct investment in Spain surged from $5.1 billion in 1980 (the earliest recorded figure) to $722 billion in 2014.
  • The outward stock of direct investment jumped from $1.9 billion to $674 billion, with the creation of well known multinationals.
  • The number of tourists rose from 27 million to an estimated 68 million this year.
  • There were 123 cars per 1,000 people in 1975 and more than 500 today.
  • The population rose by 10.4 million to 46.4 million, mostly over a 10-year period as a result of an unprecedented influx of immigrants. In the decade before the 2008-13 crisis, Spain received more immigrants proportional to its population than any other EU country.
  • Average life expectancy for men and women was 73.3 years in 1975; today it is 82 years. Spanish women live 85 years, almost the longest in the world.
  • Close to 30% of the population was under the age of 15 in 1975; today it is 15%. Those over the age of 65 rose from 10% to more than 18%.
  • The average number of children per woman has more than halved to 1.3, one of the world’s lowest fertility rates.
Francisco_Franco_and_Carmen_Polo
“Francisco Franco and Carmen Polo” from Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989. CC BY-SA 3.0 NL via Wikimedia Commons.

Spain also became one of the world’s most socially progressive countries, a far cry from the rigid and asphyxiating morality of the Franco regime and the strictures of the powerful Catholic Church. In 2005, Spain legalised marriage between same-sex couples. Only three other countries at that time had taken this step –Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands.

In the Basque Country, the terrorist group ETA, which murdered 857 people in its more than 40-year fight for an independent state (95% of them since 1975), has been defeated by the rule of law. The group declared a ‘definitive’ ceasefire four years ago, although it has yet to lay down its arms.

The main black point as regards the economy is the unemployment rate: up from a mere 5% in 1975 to a whopping 22% today, although that low level at the end of the Franco regime was artificial as the economy was protected from the chill winds of competition and could not have sustained that situation for much longer.

No Spanish company was known outside of Spain in 1975, except, perhaps, for Iberia, the flagship airline, and the Real Madrid football club. Today, there are at least 20 companies with significant positions in the global economy. Santander is the largest bank by market capitalization in the euro zone and the leader in Latin America, Iberdola is the world’s main wind farm operator, and Inditex, best known for its Zara brand, is the world’s top fashion retailer by sales.

The country today faces several challenges. The massive unemployment, austerity, and corruption that flourished during the 2000-2007 boom are impacting politics. Two new upstart parties at the national level, the centre right Ciudadanos (Citizens) and the anti-austerity leftist Podemos (‘We Can’), will challenge the conservative Popular Party and the Socialists (the two parties that have alternated in power since 1982) in the general election on 20 December. Opinion polls show none of them will win an absolute majority.

The most heated problem facing Spain is the issue of Catalan independence. The parties campaigning for independence, an unholy alliance of conservative nationalists, radical republicans, and anti-capitalists, won 48% of the vote in September’s regional election and 53% of the seats in the Catalan parliament. This is hardly a clear mandate to declare a separate state.

Franco famously said that he had left his regime and its institutions ‘tied up, and well tied up.’ One, however, has proven to be very difficult and sensitive to untangle, and that is how to openly confront Spain’s recent past. Perhaps the wounds caused by a civil war are the most difficult to heal and so, this argument goes, better left as they are.

There is still no consensus on what to do with the contentious Valley of the Fallen monument, which in no way can be called a site of reconciliation. The failure to agree on how to confront the past makes it difficult to find an accord over an uncertain future.

Featured image credit: “El Valle de los Caídos” by Sigils. CC BY-SA 3.0 ES via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *