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Carlos, Juan I (b. 1938)

JUAN CARLOS I (b. 1938)



King of Spain since 1975.

Juan Carlos I succeeded the deceased dictator, Francisco Franco, as Spain's head of state in 1975. He is the grandson of King Alfonso XIII, who went into exile in Rome when the Second Republic was proclaimed in April 1931. Juan Carlos was born in Rome on 5 January 1938.


Juan Carlos's father was Don Juan de Borbón, who although not the eldest child of the exiled king, became the legitimate heir to the throne. When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, the monarchists supported the military rebellion against the republic, and Don Juan tried to join the rebel army. Franco, the emerging leader of the rebels, cunningly prevented this. Victory in the war consolidated Franco's political preeminence in the New State, while the monarchists became dependent on the dictator's will. As World War II loomed, Don Juan's family moved to Switzerland. From there, coinciding with the Allied defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945, he issued a manifesto requesting Franco's resignation and the restoration of both the monarchy and democracy in Spain. Because the Francoist regime did not collapse, the result of this manifesto was to expose Don Juan as a "liberal" thus making him an unacceptable choice for the restoration of the monarchy in Spain. In 1947 Franco made himself regent for life with the right to designate his successor. Don Juan was forced to reach an agreement with the dictator in 1947 and the following year sent his son Juan Carlos to Spain to study and, it was understood, to be prepared to succeed Franco. This arrangement created a contradiction between the continuity of the dynastic line in the person of Don Juan and the future of the monarchy in the person of his son. This situation created numerous tensions among the royal family, the monarchist sectors of society, and even the hard-core Francoists. The issue was not fully resolved until 1977, when Don Juan ceded all his dynastic rights to his son.


Franco supervised Juan Carlos's education, and the personal relationship between them was always good, albeit not exempt from moments of tension. Juan Carlos studied in the three military academies and took courses in the humanities, law, politics, and economics. The dictator's plan was to make him both a competent and politically reliable successor. In 1969 Franco made him his official successor but gave him the title of "Prince of Spain" instead of "Prince of Asturias," the traditional title of the Spanish crown prince. Previously, in 1962, Juan Carlos had married Princess Sofia, daughter of Paul I, king of Greece. Juan Carlos and Sofia had two daughters, Elena (1963) and Cristina (1965), and a son, the future Crown Prince Felipe (1968). In political terms, Sophia was an excellent choice because she consistently proved to be a highly intelligent, skillful, and cultured partner, with a strong sense of duty.

In spite of the couple's credentials, as the dictator's health deteriorated rapidly in the early 1970s, many hard-core members of the regime still hoped that Franco would eventually reverse the designation of Juan Carlos as successor. Several other candidates from the different branches of the royal family were positioning themselves for this eventuality. Franco, however, stood firm in his decision. On 22 November 1975, two days after Franco's death, the Cortes, the dictatorship's rubber-stamp parliament, proclaimed Juan Carlos I, king of Spain.


The new king's political plans were unknown, and many people, democrats and Francoists alike, distrusted him. His first signals were mixed. He declared his desire to be the "king of all the Spaniards," but he almost simultaneously confirmed Carlos Arias, Franco's last prime minister, in his post. Arias was no democrat, having had a prominent role in the extremely harsh political repression that took place in the country after the war. Consequently, political reform was stagnant, and Juan Carlos seemed bound to fail, with many predicting the king would not remain on the throne for long.

In July 1976, however, he surprised almost everybody by replacing Arias with the young Adolfo Suárez. This appointment was ill received by most democrats because Suárez until then had impeccable Francoist credentials and strong links to the dictatorship's single party (the Falange) and to the Catholic Right (Opus Dei). Working closely with Suárez and other lesser-known advisors, King Juan Carlos in the next months was able to dismantle the main obstacles to reform. In November 1976 Suárez used his knowledge of the inner workings of the system to cajole the Cortes to pass a Law of Political Reform, which effected the dissolution of the very same Cortes and the legalizing of political parties. In early 1977 the king used his position as supreme commander of the armed forces to clamp down on growing military opposition to these reforms. The legalization of the Communist Party on Easter was a high point of tension. Eventually, in June 1977, the first fully democratic elections in Spain since 1936 took place. Suárez's own newly created, centrist party won, with the Socialists coming in a strong second. Both the far right and the far left were soundly defeated.

Political reform came at a time when other problems were mounting, such as increasing terrorist activity, mostly by the ETA (a Basque organization), economic decline, growing unemployment, and questioning of the national unity. The late 1970s were a period of tension, with frequent rumors of an impending military coup. Exhausted and probably with the intention of avoiding a coup, Suárez resigned in January 1981. On 23 February, during the debate to replace him, police units stormed parliament. This was the sign for unleashing the feared coup. In those crucial hours, with both parliament and government in the hands of the insurgents, the role of the king became crucial. His personal calls to the commanders of the major military units ensured that almost all of them abstained from participating in the coup. Juan Carlos appeared on television in the early hours of the next morning reassuring the population that he had the situation under control and that democracy was not at risk. These interventions not only doomed the coup but also radically transformed the public image of the king and the monarchy: both the person and the institution imposed by Franco were now seen as the main guarantors of the recently regained freedoms of ordinary Spaniards. By defending democracy in those crucial hours, Juan Carlos gained a political legitimacy and popular support that had been questioned until then. This phenomenon has been called "Juancarlism." Juan Carlos's popularity has remained consistently high ever since.

See alsoFranco, Francisco; Spain.


Carr, Raymond, and Juan Pablo Fusi Aizpurúa. Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy. 2nd ed. London, 1981.

Pérez-Díaz, Víctor M. The Return of Civil Society: The Emergence of Democratic Spain. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Powell, Charles. Juan Carlos of Spain: Self-Made Monarch. New York, 1996.

Preston, Paul. Juan Carlos: A People's King. London, 2004.

Antonio Cazorla-Sanchez

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