Obituary for Manuel Fraga [Left-Wing Newspaper]
Manuel Fraga: 60 Years of Passion for Power
El País: Muere Manuel Fraga, 60 años de pasión por el poder
Xosé Hermida reporting from Santiago de Compostela January 15, 2011
Manuel Fraga Iribarne in the Senate in 2006. Photo by Ricardo Gutiérrez.
An encyclopedic and enormous biography, covering 60 years of Spanish history, a compendium that spans the dictatorship, the transition, the democracy, and the growth of regional autonomy, has closed with the death of Manuel Fraga at 89 after he did not recover from a respiratory infection that dragged him down at the beginning of the year. With him disappears the last link that remotely united the current right wing with Francoism. No one else that occupied a relevant position other Franco, no more or less than minister of propaganda, was able to emerge unharmed from the collapse of the regime.
Fraga’s political career survived 36 more years; he was a senator until last November, and he died as founding president of the governing party of Spain. His legendary capacity for adaptation permitted all this and more, including a conversion into the grand champion of regional autonomy from his Galician pension just years after trying to put the brakes on regional autonomy in the new Constitution. As venerated as he is hated, with no opinions in between, he has departed with even his most ferocious enemies acknowledging his exceptional political ability. He will be buried next to his wife Tuesday in Perbes, A Coruña, where he passed summer vacations. The funeral chapel will be set up today, Monday and the wake will be held at 10:30 in his Madrid home.
With Fraga we say farewell, as well, to a kind of political ruler which will never return. He was the antithesis of politically correctness and prepared speeches. To a man capable of challenging protestors to fights, of reprimanding a collaborator in front of journalists, of saying of a female representative that “the only interesting thing this señorita has shown is her neckline”. To a volcanic type who published 90 books and enjoyed showing his erudition as much as feeding headlines to newspapers with the thickest words possible. To an animal of power, to which he dedicated his life “until his last meal”, as he’d always promised; no personal motivation could make him set aside this goal. He was addicted to excess; he often boasted of absurd exploits, like traveling more kilometers, shaking more hands, and holding more meetings than anyone. He recounted with pride that as ambassador to London, he was the only one of his peers to complete his diplomatic obligation to visit all the others, more than a hundred, “including,” he underlined, “[the ambassador from] the Island of Tonga.” All this action, with no sign of stopping, was to feed the myth of “The Lion of Vilalba,” who did not have one free minute from dawn to midnight, a sacred time barrier he never crossed.
His great frustration was to not attain what seemed his destiny, the presidency of the Government of Spain. He was inhibited by his Francoist past, which he never reneged, and he had to resign himself to a substitute, Galician autonomy. There he surrounded himself with all the insignia of a man of the state, and he could satiate his thirst to run a country. He did so for almost 16 years, and it took two catastrophes to throw him out: the Prestige and his old age. But he achieved an astonishing watermark, six complete decades of political life, beginning in 1951, when the dictatorship made him secretary general of the Institute of Hispanic Culture, in the times when the then-young university chair glossed with fervor the work of the pro-Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and ending in 2011 as a senator in democratic Spain.
One of his secrets was that he never totally abandoned his mentality as a man of the people. He was born November 23, 1922 in a rural Galician village, in Vilalba, Lugo, an administrative and service center for an agricultural region. His father was a farmer, as well, but he sought fortune in Cuba, where he married María Iribarne, a Basque-French of strict Catholic formation. Although their child was born in Galicia, he spent his early infancy in Cuba, and he was finally raised by two aunts in Vilalba. His family saved money through this emigration and was able to pay for his schooling as a youth, during which he revealed a prodigious memory and dedication to study. It was in the classrooms that he began to forge his legend. He swiftly completed his degrees in Law and Politics, and at 25 was number one in the competitive legal examinations of the Courts and the Diplomatic School; at 26, he became a university chair.
Fraga was like a meteor, and the trajectory of his ambition forced him into the guts of the dictatorship. He earned merits for his work in the secondary levels of the ministries until, at age 40, he was given the department of Information and Tourism. Francoism was undertaking a total developmental effort, and Fraga, because of his undoubted adhesion to the principles of the regime, became an emblem of a certain kind of modernity in that Spain replete with dandruff. His tourism campaigns featured legendary Swedes and the first hippies. He abolished preliminary censorship – but not the right to sequester publications – and relaxed the prudish regulations of that era’s media, leading to the popular phrase Con Fraga, hasta la braga: “with Fraga down to the knickers”. He understood very early the importance of gestures in a media-driven society, as he proved with the images, showed a thousand times over, of his dip in the ocean with the American ambassador in Palomares, where a plane with nuclear cargo had crashed. And at that time, he organized the regime’s propaganda campaigns and showed his face to defend episodes as indefensible as the death of militant communist Julián Grimau by firing squad. But for many Spaniards, he symbolized the regime’s desire to reform.
As would occur more times in his life, his ambition was disappointed. The Opus Dei technocrats that then dominated the government threw him out of power in 1969. He converted into a kind of critic from inside Francoism, an image he especially cultivated after 1973, when he was named ambassador to London. Franco’s health had declined, and Fraga intuited the proximity of a profound change. In the English capital, he frenetically developed a diary of contacts, with people of Spain and the entire world, to prepare his candidacy to pilot the Transition. In the first government of Arias Navarro, after Franco’s death, he was Minister of Governance (which is now the Ministry of the Interior).
Fraga’s project was undoubtedly progressive, but rather than liquidate the regime, he proposed to remodel it without altering its foundations. He never had the least intention, for example, of incorporating the communists into public life. His authoritarianism mixed with very controversial actions by his ministry – the assassination of workers in Vitoria and Carlist leftist militants in Montejurra, Navarra – which turned him into an ogre for the democratic opposition, which attributed him with a phrase he always denied saying: “the road is mine.” The worst quarrel of his life came when the King selected Suárez as the new President. Fraga stood before the monarch and rejected his pressure to take a post in the new administration.
He then created the Popular Alliance, which tried to be a conservative democratic party, but which was headed by the so-called Magnificent Seven, a collection of old crocks from the regime. He accepted the Constitution reluctantly and passed through the night of 23-F (the failed coup d’etat) and the fall of the UDF (Suárez’s center-right party) with more sorrow than glory; these events left him alone before the socialist tide. [Socialist President] Felipe González lavished him with attention, making him chief of the opposition and proclaiming that “his mind is stuffed with statecraft”. The lasting memories of him from those years are his famous speeches reciting to congress the price of a kilo of chickpeas and the old Francoist’s inability to become a true democratic alternative. After several convulsive years, he ceded the witness stand. He intended to nominate Isabel Tocino to succeed him at the head of the Popular Alliance, but he was convinced to choose José María Aznar.
In Galicia, he constructed his little country. Surrounded by a cult of personality that reached delirious levels – “Gran Timonel (The Great Helmsman)”, his supporters called him – he traveled all around the world, including Castro’s Cuba, the ayatollahs’ Iran, and Gaddhafi’s Libya, and he kept a tight rein on his adversaries with iron political and informational control. His chameleonic character (“politics makes for strange bedfellows”, he used to say) permitted him to transmute into a change into a ultra-Galicianist whose autonomist proposals made his own party uncomfortable on more than one occasion. He never thought to retire or name a dauphin. After the social revolt that followed the black tide of the Prestige, combined with an evident deterioration in his health – he fainted in public many times – he was retired by the voters.
So absorbed was he with power during his career, so much had he sacrificed insignificant human affairs, that he had to reconstruct his personal relationships, including those with his own family members. It was his daughters who convinced him to leave for Madrid, where, waning little by little, with an ever weaker and more tremulous voice, clinging to a rod until the last moment, he held a parliamentary seat and an honorific presidency of a party he founded when he was sure his destiny was to rule Spain.