The Spectre Haunting The Spanish Monarchy

At a summit in 2007, Juan Carlos de Borbón, King of Spain, the head of state hand-picked by dictator Francisco Franco as his successor, was moved to outburst by remarks by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. "Why don’t you shut up?” the King spat, as Chávez recalled Spain's support of the attempted coup d’état that sought to depose him in 2002.

Well, look who’s shutting up now.

Hugo Chavez

Perhaps a spectre is haunting the Spanish monarchy. At a summit in 2007, Juan Carlos de Borbón, King of Spain, the head of state hand-picked by dictator Francisco Franco as his successor, was moved to outburst by remarks by the President Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected head of state of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

“¿Por qué no te callas? (Why don’t you shut up?)”, the King spat, at the moment Chávez was recalling the attempted coup d’état that sought to depose him in 2002.

Chávez had been referring to the role played by the Spanish government in supporting the coup, and in particular to the role of its prime minister at the time, José María Aznar, whom he referred to as a fascist.

Such plain speaking from a dark-skinned Chávez was intolerable to the blue-blooded Bourbon king, no stranger to supporting right-wing coups himself.

His monarchy, at the time, rested on enough public acceptance in Spain to reassure him that this uppity loudmouth from the former imperial territory had no right to be speaking back about one of his men, that diplomatic reserve had its limits, and that the Indian needed to be put in his place.

Chávez was simply telling the truth. Aznar was -and is- a fascist, by any reasonable measure. The contempt Aznar displayed for democratic norms -sending the country to war despite overwhelming public opposition; lying brazenly about the authorship of terrorist attacks in order to win elections; support for Israeli barbarism; public declarations that Muslims should “apologise to him for Andalusia” (thereby justifying ethnic cleansing)- all showed a consistent trajectory from his past as a student Falangist, where he was part of an organisation that actually opposed the Franco regime on the grounds that the dictatorship had not gone far enough in imposing a national corporate system. The support lent by Aznar’s government for the overthrow of a democratically elected president, and the latter’s replacement by a business leader who would liquidate the rights and gains won by ordinary Venezuelans through the Chávez government, was just one more mundane example.

In Spain, the King’s outburst received mostly favourable media attention. Here was the down-to-earth monarch, laying down the law to a character who was variously portrayed as a dictator, a clown, or a dangerous red, protecting the honour of Spanish democracy and rule of law. For many in the ruling Socialist Party too, ever obsequious towards the monarchy, Chávez was a totem for contempt and condescension, not respect.

Hello! magazine originated in Spain during the early years of Franco’s regime. The photos of the rich and famous, and often just the rich, are presented as part of a world in which monarchy, and deference to royal titles, are part of the normal order of things. At the centre of this world of fawning and ceaseless gossip -which today extends into a panoply of magazine titles and interminable TV panel shows where pseudo-journalists pore over every minute and brain-crushing detail- sit the Bourbons, their triumphs exalted and their disasters hidden beneath a lavish, worshipful, photoshopped gloss. The Bourbons’ importance, beyond the constitutional role designed to maintain continuity with Francoism, consists of maintaining deference towards the rich, towards the people who run things.

The other day I watched part of one such panel show. It was presented by one such pseudo-journalist, a woman called Ana Rosa Quintana, with a long and distinguished career in fawning over rich people, and also the author of a novel that plagiarised large chunks of Danielle Steele verbatim. The guest was Iñigo Errejón, the campaign manager for Podemos, who was invited to explain what Podemos was about, and its recent success in the European elections. The other panelists made repeated references to what a Partido Popular strategist had called the ‘friki’ dimension, a word -originating from ‘freak’ in English- carrying all kinds of connotations of smelly hippies, drug-addled airheads, the scum of society: the typical mating call of authoritarians and fascists the world over.

Well, as it turned out, Errejón was by far the most sober, composed and even strait-laced contributor, explaining the Podemos phenomenon whilst his bouffant and blow-dried co-panelists sought to cast Podemos as mad-eyed reds, focusing, of course, on the links to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela, and the Bolivarian Revolution, as if it were still 2007. As Guillem Martínez notes, surveying such scenes on the whole, ‘the media Goliath was so unable to explain the Podemos phenomenon that it used the word Venezuela so much it would come as a surprise if the next Miss Venezuela did not turn out to be a sympathiser of Podemos’.

But 2007 is, in certain senses, a very long time ago. That was back before the imposition of brutal austerity measures, back before the explosion of the 15M, and the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, before the Mareas, and before the monarchy could be confident of walking around in public without the sound of boos. And it before Podemos, whose spokespersons, drawing on the example of Hugo Chávez in audacious, confrontational public oratory that drew a sharp contrast between a they– the caste of kleptocrats whose figurehead and inspiration was the billionaire King- and a we -the decent majority compelled to work for a living and who, as former Chávez adviser and Podemos strategist Juan Carlos Monedero puts it, do not wish to escape being a victim of neoliberalism by becoming its executioner. It was before the moment when the penny dropped for so many that it was time for this criminal caste to go.

Spain’s real elites are a lot more attuned to what is happening in the streets and squares and bars and homes than your average pseudo-journalist, whose job is to present business as normal, might suggest. That is why they have made the move to replace Juan Carlos the elephant slayer with his scarcely less obnoxious son, as a means of maintaining continuity and restoring stability. This Bourbon is not exiting the scene out of monarchical magnanimity, but because the people have left the writing on the wall.

Well, look who’s shutting up now. And it isn’t Hugo Chávez. Goodbye!