Spain sets out ambitious law to confront legacy of civil war

Spain’s minority leftwing government has set out an ambitious proposal to come to terms with the legacy of the country’s civil war eight decades ago — but opposition politicians are labelling the plans a distraction.

Draft legislation backed by the cabinet on Tuesday would condemn the 1936 coup attempt that triggered the three-year-long civil war and revoke criminal sentences imposed by the subsequent fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which endured for almost four decades.

The 66-article proposal would require the government to track down the remains of as many as 140,000 people who “disappeared” from 1936 on, create a national DNA bank to identify them and excavate some 2,500 mass graves.

It would also offer citizenship to the descendants of those foreigners — such as the writers George Orwell and André Malraux — who fought for the doomed Spanish republic in the so-called International Brigades. 

The law, which will have to be approved by parliament, would impose fines of up to €150,000 for non-compliance, close a foundation set up in Franco’s memory, repurpose a giant mausoleum from which the dictator’s body was disinterred only last year, and “update” history curriculums in school, which have traditionally been relatively silent on the civil war.

“We cannot be one more day without a law like this,” said Carmen Calvo, deputy prime minister, who unveiled the draft law at a press conference. “It is based on the principles of truth and justice . . . and seeks to pay Spanish democracy’s debt with its past.”

But more than 80 years on from the conclusion of the civil war, such proposals remain contentious in Spain, where politics has become increasingly polarised between left and right.

Critics of prime minister Pedro Sánchez warn against stirring up the conflicts of the past, emphasising that Spain’s 1970s transition to democracy was in large part based on an amnesty law that issued a blanket pardon to political exiles and Francoist officials alike.

Spain’s centre-right Popular party, which while in office largely defunded a previous law on historical memory, attacked the move as a diversion from the government’s travails in coping with the coronavirus pandemic, which is at present more widespread in Spain than in any other European country.

“Whenever Sánchez is in trouble, he brings out Franco,” said Javier Maroto, the PP’s spokesman in Spain’s Senate.

Protesters outside Spain’s Supreme Court in Madrid in September 2019, as the court gave the green light for the government to remove the remains of Francisco Franco from a state mausoleum © Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images
Remains of bodies exhumed from a civil-war era mass grave in Spain © Juan Medina/Reuters

The PP has previously called for an alternative “law of concord” that would “include all victims” — notably Franco supporters killed by Republican forces.

The government’s proposals are also fiercely opposed by Vox, the hard right party that is now the third biggest force in Spain’s chamber of deputies. Santiago Abascal, the party’s leader, last week denounced Mr Sánchez’s coalition as “the worst government in 80 years” — a period of time that includes almost all of Franco’s dictatorship.

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