A plan to exhume the body of General Francisco Franco – the military dictator who ruled for more than four decades – has opened up old wounds in Spain.
The country’s new centre-left government wants to remove Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial site found 30 miles outside Madrid.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who won power from conservative Mariano Rajoy after a no-confidence vote in June, believes the symbolic gesture is needed to help the country come to terms with its troubled past.
Fernando Martinez, the official appointed to oversee Spain’s new Directorate General for Historic Memory, said the move would “consolidate” the democracy forged after Franco’s death in 1975.
Not everyone is happy about it, however. Franco’s descendants are refusing to take his remains to the family sepulchral vault in Galicia, and are now preparing a legal challenge against plans to shift the former leader from his grandiose mausoleum.
Hundreds of people still nostalgic for the Franco era have even staged protests at the Valley of the Fallen, despite a 2007 ban on public events supporting the old regime.
Fresh flowers are always on display at his imposing tomb and it remains a popular pilgrimage destination for those in Spain who cling to a sympathetic view of the dictatorship.
Unswayed by the opposition, Mr Sanchez’s government has wider plans to establish a “Truth Commission” similar to the body set up in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid.
It wants to unearth and identify the 114,000 victims of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the four decades of dictatorship that followed under Franco.
There will be an up-to-date census of anonymous burials in ditches across Spain, and a new system for reparation payments for victims’ relatives.
There are also plans to transform the Valley of the Fallen – which contains 34,000 people from both sides of the war – into a monument for reconciliation and create a museum against fascism.
“Exhuming the body of the dictator will begin healing the wounds of this country,” Mr Martinez told The Associated Press. “But that task will only be completed when the last ditch with a mass grave in this country has been opened.”
A panel of UN rights experts recently praised the Spanish authorities’ move for “placing the right to truth at the top of the political agenda” by leading efforts to search for those disappeared and investigate crimes that occurred under Franco up until his death.
Mr Sanchez’s government also faces the politically sensitive task of banning the National Francisco Franco Foundation, a group glorifying the former leader which was still receiving public funding up until 2003.
“Every foundation justifying Francoism has no space in democracy, the same way it wouldn’t by supporting fascism or a Nazi ideology, because these are ideologies that go against democratic values and liberties,” said Mr Martinez.
“Those of us in favour of democracy have a mandate to defend democracy.”
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