RELIVING THE PAST

The aftershocks of the Madrid bombings continue to roil Spanish society. Just recently Spain's former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, charged the current government with having "lied and engaged in manipulation" to bring down his administration after terrorists blew up four trains last March, killing 191 people. The new prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, quickly fired back and accused his predecessor of deliberately wiping out official computer records pertaining to the government's handling of the crisis. The venue was a parliamentary inquiry that over the past months has become a bitter political circus, used by political enemies to justify themselves and vilify rivals. But as the hearings were wrapping up late in December, a scathing voice cut through the blame game. Dressed in black, the grieving mother of a 20-year-old man killed in the attacks bore witness on the tribunal itself. Vain and empty "schoolyard" theatrics accomplishing nothing, she called the proceedings. "Do not ever again use the pain of victims for partisan ends!"

Pilar Manjon's dramatic "J'accuse," televised live, captured the emotions of the nation. Members of the commission apologized, some with tears in their eyes. But if the politicians were stunned into momentary silence, the lull is likely to be brief. Rather than uniting Spaniards, the Madrid bombings have ripped open wounds that have festered since the Civil War of the 1930s--shattering the civility that has characterized Spanish political life since the death of the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco nearly 30 years ago. Suddenly the country's moderate center no longer holds. The newly governing Socialists and the now opposition Popular Party, founded by Franco loyalists, have retreated to the left and right. "Three or four years ago, I thought I was living in a modern country, a new Spain," says a former senior adviser to Aznar. "Today our politicians are refighting the Civil War."

That history is always just round the corner in Spain. Sometimes literally: a massive equestrian statue of Franco lords over the Plaza San Juan de la Cruz in Madrid. His name and those of his henchmen adorn plaques and, by one count, 167 streets in Madrid alone. Even in Barcelona, the heart of the anti-Franco resistance, a street commemorates the dictator's brother Ramon, a pilot who bombed anti-Fascist forces during the Civil War. All across Spain, pro- and anti-Franco factions are engaged in legal battles to erase, or protect, statues, street signs and other symbols of the past. "It's clear that franquismo was a black and dark time in Spanish history," says Jose Luis Ayllon, a Popular Party spokesman. "But we will not get over it by removing statues."

Zapatero, on the other hand, seems quite happy to revisit history. His Socialist forerunner, Felipe Gonzalez, governed until 1996 by playing the role of a centrist unifier. "We are all children of Felipe," Zapatero has said, but he has adopted a more confrontational style. It's partly personal. Zapatero's grandfather, Juan Rodriguez Lozano, was executed by Fascist troops as Franco's forces rose up. In his will, Lozano called on family members to clear his name "when the time is right."

In part, too, Zapatero's approach is a natural reaction to Aznar, a somber figure who came across as arrogant and even, to some, authoritarian. Aznar has his own links to the Franco years. His paternal grandfather was a pro-Franco journalist, and many of his closest political allies are descendants of prominent Franco-era figures. Nobody would seriously argue that Aznar is a crypto-fascist, or that Zapatero disowns the Gonzalez-inspired modernization of the Socialist Party. But given the volatile mix of personalities at the apex of mainstream Spanish politics today, it's not surprising that historical enmity should reassert itself in Spain more strongly than in other Southern European countries that lived under Fascist dictatorships. Rightist elements exist today in Italy and Portugal. But they are not viewed with the same alarm as in Spain, where the transition to democracy "has left a lot of loose ends," says Emilio Silva of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (a group that raises money to exhume the bodies of Civil War victims buried in mass graves).

Ironically, Spain has toppled into dissension at what looked to be a time of real solidarity. In the first hours after the March bombings, vast and peaceful antiterror demonstrations suggested a nation united. But with an election just three days away, rancor quickly took over as Aznar's government was caught trying to gain political advantage by fixing blame on domestic terrorists--ETA, the Basque separatist group--rather than the radical Qaeda-linked cells that were in fact responsible. For its part, the Aznar government believed at the time that Zapatero's Socialists manipulated street protests to foment an electoral backlash against the government. Already weakened by its support for the war in Iraq, the Popular Party lost the election and sank into bitter recrimination against Zapatero and his party.

The ill will was plain to see in Zapatero's and Aznar's appearances before the parliamentary inquiry. Aznar, the survivor of an ETA assassination attempt in 1995, darkly accused the Zapatero government of failing to investigate fully connections between ETA and the Islamic militants blamed for the March massacre. Zapatero accused Aznar of destroying government records that would prove he not only mishandled the crisis but deliberately lied to voters. "Rubbish," responds the former Aznar aide, maintaining that technicians erased only "personal computer files."

Whatever the case, as Manjon's outburst made clear, Spain has tired of tit-for-tat sniping. "Nobody is innocent here," says Aznar's former aide. Politicians who want Spain to relive the divisions of the Civil War should forget it, he adds. "It's been 70 years. This fire won't burn." Pilar Manjon understands what the country's leaders seem to have forgotten: Spain's future as a modern European state does not lie in the past.

RELIVING THE PAST | News