Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón: 1938

views updated

Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón: 1938: King of Spain

Spain's King Juan Carlos I has ushered his country through an unusual political evolution: handpicked by military dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco to succeed him, the new monarch quickly moved to restore Spain to a democratic constitutional government in the late 1970s. In doing so he gave up much of his own power, and within a decade had brought the Iberian Peninsula nation into the pan-European political community. "The transfer of power in Spain was a model," observed UNESCO Courier writer Ramón Luis Acuña, "a source of inspiration for guiding democratic changes not only in a number of Latin American countries but also, and despite a very different political situation, in the Eastern bloc countries, including Russia."

The future king was born Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón in Rome, Italy, on January 5, 1938. His grandfather had fled Spain after the country was proclaimed a republic in 1931, an act that served to oust a Borbón dynasty whose rule in Spain dated back to 1700. The family had long, complex ties to the royal houses of Europe: the Borbón line was originally a French one, there was princely German blood as well, and Juan Carlos' grandmother was the granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria. Juan Carlos' father, Don Juan de Borbón y Battenberg, became regent-in-exile in 1941 after the grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, abdicated in Don Juan's favor that year. By then, Spain had become a military dictatorship under Franco. The exiled royal family moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, during World War II, but after the war's end settled in Estoril, Portugal. In 1947 Franco announced that he planned to choose his posthumous successor from the Borbón line. Franco then informed Juan Carlos' fathera bitter foe of the Generalissimothat in order for his son to be considered, Juan Carlos would have to return to Spain for his schooling.

Attempted to Bridge Gap in Politics

In November of 1948 the ten-year-old Juan Carlos set foot for the first time on Spanish soil. He was schooled in Madrid and San Sebastián, finishing with a bachill-erato in 1954. Against the wishes of his father, he agreed to attend Spain's three military academies at Franco's urging. His education was completed in 1961 at Madrid University with courses in law, political science, and philosophy. Eight years later, Franco formally proclaimed him successor, bypassing Don Juan and causing a rift that would endure for years. Juan Carlos' father refused to abandon his claim to the throne, and claimed that Juan Carlos sided with Fran-co's fascist politics. On the other hand, supporters of the Franco regime believed that Juan Carlos harbored leftist views, and because he made almost no political pronouncements that would jeopardize his neutral stance, he was sometimes derided as the idiota per-dido, or "lost fool."

At a Glance . . .

Born Juan Carlos Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón, on January 5, 1938, in Rome, Italy; son of Don Juan de Borbón y Battenberg and Maria de las Mercedes de Borbón y Orleans; married Sofia de Grecia de y Hannover, May 14, 1962; children: Felipe, Elena, Christina. Education: Graduate of Spain's three military academies, late 1950s; Madrid University, BA, 1961. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Career: King of Spain, 1975.

Awards: Charlemagne prize, 1982; UNESCO, Bolivar prize, 1983; Candenhove Kalergi prize, Switzerland, 1986; Nansen medal, 1987; Elie Wiesel Humanitarian award, 1991; UNESCO, Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace prize, 1995; Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms award, 1995.

Address: Office c/o Embassy of Spain, 2375 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.

Juan Carlos did say later that he realized there was a great generational chasm between him and his father. Should Franco have appointed a successor from the ranks of Spain's military brass, it would have brought permanent military rule to the country. Yet he also realized that the imperial era that his father had knownthat of King Alfonso XIII, which dated back to 1886was a long vanished one after two world wars had sundered Europe. "I realized the Spain my father was always talking about no longer existed," he recalled of this moment in an interview with Europe journalist Robert Latona. "The men and the women I met were nothing like those my father had known when he was 18 and had to go off into exile."

In the six years between his formal proclamation and Franco's 1975 death, Juan Carlos clandestinely began courting members of Spain's intelligentsiathe liberal politicians, writers, and other estimable personalities who had either been forgotten or harassed by the authoritarian Franco regime. Sometimes they were even smuggled into the Zarzuela Palace, a hunting lodge outside of Madrid that Juan Carlos had made his family home after his 1962 marriage to Sofía de Grecia de y Hannover, a princess of Greece. The couple had three young children by the time Juan Carlos ascended to the throne on November 22, 1975, giving Spain its first monarch since 1931.

Juan Carlos promptly announced himself the "king of all Spaniards"meaning those who had fought on the losing Republican side during the bloody Civil War of the 1930s, and the Francoists who were victorious. His investiture speech made some hints at democracy, but it was his appointment of Adolfo Suárez, once a Franco acolyte, as prime minister in 1976 that served as the beginning of the end of fascism in Spain. Unbeknownst to many except the king, Suárez had democratic leanings, and the two began making sweeping changes. The important Law of Political Reform was passed by the Cortes, or Spanish parliament, in November of 1976, and this formally ended the military dictatorship. It established a two-chamber legislature to be elected by universal suffrage, and within a few months the political parties outlawed under Franco were legalized. In June of 1977 the country held its first free, multiparty elections in 41 years.

Faced Challenges to Prosperous Reign

In 1978 Spain's new constitution was formally sanctioned on December 27 after a national referendum. It granted Juan Carlos little political power, save for the right to appoint the prime minister, but even this was subject to the approval of the Cortes. "This Constitution is in many respects one of the most advanced in Europe, particularly concerning regional political freedoms and the defence of the rights of cultural minorities," noted Acuña in the UNESCO Courier article. Both the Basque region and Catalonia were made autonomous regions in an attempt to eradicate longstanding cultural hostilities.

Juan Carlos' new Spain faced its greatest challenge on February 23, 1981, when the Cortes was stormed by military units during a vote for a new prime minister. The politicians were held hostage, and martial law was declared. The coup was fomented by some of the army's top generals, still loyal to the Franco ideal, and its leaders mistakenly believed that the king would either give his support or tacitly remain silent. Instead, Juan Carlos summoned a television crew to the Zarzuela Palace, put on his formal military uniform as commander-in-chief of all Spain's armed forces, and told the nation that the move against a constitutional government was an assault on the crown, and that the coup would succeed only in the event of his death. Privately, Juan Carlos personally appealed to the generals who had instigated it, as well as others who had not yet sent in their regiments, for he knew many of them from his years at Spain's military academies in the late 1950s. Within hours, democracy was restored and the coup leaders were arrested.

The 1981 crisis would remain Juan Carlos' finest hour. Just five years later, Spain was able to enter the European Economic Community, and in 1992 welcomed the world to Barcelona for a festive Summer Olympics. The king consistently polls as the most respected political figure in the country, and earns high marks for eschewing any pomp and pageantry due him and his family. Nobel laureate Camilo Jose Cela remarked to Europe journalist Latona, "We have a better King than we deserve." Juan Carlos and the Reina Sofía still live at Zarzuela, with Madrid's far more opulent Palacio Royal the haunt of tourists. He receives an annual household budget of $5 million, but must pay taxes on it. He has also won praise for his role in forging ties to Latin America; relations across the Atlantic had disintegrated considerably after the end of Spain's once-mighty colonial empire. His role as a goodwill ambassador has had so much success that he is sometimes affectionately referred to by some South Americans as "the king."

Juan Carlos is an avid sailor, as is his wife. Their children are the Infantas Elena and Christina, and Felipe, Prince of Asturias and heir to his father's throne. Felipe was 13 years old when the 1981 coup erupted, and at the time Juan Carlos kept him near his side. He reportedly told him, according to the Europe article by Latona, "Watch closely. Nobody ever said this king business was easy, and someday it will be your turn."



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, 17 vols., Gale, 1998.


Economist, September 21, 1996, p. 54.

Europe, October 1993, p. 18; October 2000, p. 39.

Life, December 1985, p. 4, 46.

New Leader, October 6, 1997, p. 8.

UNESCO Courier, November 1995, p. 33.

U.S. News & World Report, April 27, 1992, p. 54.

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 28, 2000, p. 362.

Carol Brennan