Madrid — From the outside, the Ministry of Transportation, Tourism, and Communications stands huge, square, and forbidding; on the inside, it is cavernous and bleak. Portraits of King Juan Carlos dominate the offices. There is a crucifix on most desks. Now meet the minister, Enrique Baron. A small and soft-spoken man, he doesn't seem to fit in this monument to the country's recent fascist past. Mr. Baron is a Socialist -- a member of the traditionally antimonarchical, anticleri-cal party that only nine years ago was banned as ``anti-Spanish.'' At that time Baron, like other Socialists, was in hiding from Gen. Francisco Franco's police.
``At first, it was hard to believe I was really here,'' the minister says, settling into a large chair. ``Now it's starting to feel normal.''
Then why do the crucifixes and portraits of the King remain two years after the Socialists came to power?
``I accept the King, I accept the [Roman Catholic] church,'' he says. ``We cannot make the same mistakes. We must be tolerant.''
Tolerance is the extraordinary achievement of democratic Spain. Since the death of the dictator in 1975, the blood enemies of the civil war have come to agree: Spain must be a modern, pluralist society.
Opposition leader Manuel Fraga praises his ``decent dialogue'' with the ruling Socialists and restricts his criticisms to such ordinary issues as plant closures, law and order, and NATO membership. Mr. Fraga, the former Francoist minister in charge of censorship, concludes the interview emphasizing his preference for ``the new democratic Spain we are building.''
The Socialists also avoid dogma. Under Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez, they have dropped Marxism from their lexicon. Their catchwords now are holding inflation down, making industry internationally competitive, and, of course, strengthening democracy.
Although many Spaniards don't appreciate the tough economic policies, only a few renegades have resisted the democratic call.
Some Army men continue to suggest that their duty is to save ``la patria,'' and some regionalists, particularly the Basque terrorists, continue to talk of destroying this sacred ``patria.''
But in today's Spain, they are exceptions. Much more representative is the youthful transportation minister. Precise and serious, Mr. Baron is a man who could fit well in the highest circles in London or Paris. He is not at all the stereotypical emotional, impractical, prideful Spaniard.
With the rise of his generation to power -- none of the ruling Socialists seem to be much more than 40 years old -- Spain has ceased being different from the rest of Europe.
If all goes well with the proposed referendum to settle Spain's uncertain NATO status and with its application to enter the European Community, any remaining uncertainty about Spain's role should vanish.
``We're regaining our place in the world,'' says a confident Mr. Baron. ``We're a young, dynamic country -- with a long history.'' A conscious break with the past
While democratic, tolerant Spain does feel young, it marks a conscious break with that past.
This, after all, is the country of El Cid and the conquistadores, those stalwarts of romance who carved out the greatest empire since the Romans. In that 16th century, Spain was the supreme power and the universal champion of Roman Catholicism. Whoever attempted to defy its ever-expanding power was forcibly baptized -- or forced to leave.
The moment of glory, as Don Quixote exposed it, soon turned into a mirage, and Spain started out on a long descent. Its empire lost, the country limped into the 20th century torn by conflicts between traditionalists and liberals, landowners and working classes, centralists and federalists, and tortured by dogmas of monarchy, theocracy, democracy, socialism, anarchism, communism. The simmering passions finally exploded in the 1936-39 civil war.
Emerging victorious from the blood bath, Franco clamped the country into the vice of conformity. His stated goal was to keep Spain the rigidly Roman Catholic, semifeudal state of the past, and the Army and the Catholic Church supported that goal. Political control was achieved by banning free parties, trade unions, and newspapers.
But social control proved impossible. Foreign tourists brought bikinis and other subversive cultural elements to an increasingly educated and receptive population.
At the same time, the anchor of Francoist morality, the Catholic Church, was beginning to liberalize. Young priests realized they had to take account of the changes in society, and, aided by Vatican II, they carried the day. In 1971, Spain's bishops publicly admitted that they had made a mistake in taking sides during the civil war. When the democratic Constitution came into effect in 1978, the church was ready to bless it.
Behind these changes was the transformation of the country from an austere agricultural society into an urbanized one with economic ties to the rest of Europe. In 1939, nearly half Spain's active population worked the land: By 1977 less than one-quarter did. During the 1960s, Japan was the only capitalist nation whose economic growth rate exceeded that of Spain -- and gross national product rose from a paltry $435 per capita to more than $4,000 here.
The growing industrialization, Spaniards agree, laid the groundwork for the smooth transition to democracy. It eroded the power of conservative landowners and bishops in favor of a large, educated, secularized middle class.
After Franco died, Spain moved quickly and peacefully to democracy. Eager to avoid the schisms of the civil war, communists shook hands with Francoists. There was no hunt for collaborators. Statues of Franco remained standing. Everyone compromised -- until the night of Feb. 23, 1981, when a group of right-wing military officers stormed parliament.
At that perilous moment, the future of Spain's democracy rested with one man, King Juan Carlos. Once considered shy and dull, the King showed unexpected forcefulness. He donned a full-dress military uniform and went on television to assure the Spanish people he would oppose an insurrection.
All night, he telephoned generals to warn them that he would regard a revolt against the government as a revolt against himself. By dawn, the generals had backed down -- and Juan Carlos had united a country that had once been bitterly divided on the value of monarchy.
The King continues to play a larger political role than do other monarchs in Western Europe. He frequently consults with Prime Minister Gonz'alez about the armed forces and the troubled Basque provinces. Recently, Mr. Gonz'alez even revived the ancient practice of having the King preside over occasional Cabinet meetings.
``Before the coup nobody was sure where the King stood,'' explains Rafael Lopez Pintor, a sociology professor at the University of Madrid. ``Afterwards, he became the great unifier.''
The next problem was proving that democracy could provide solid government. Franco believed elected governments led to chaos, and one of the main reasons the rebelling Army officers gave in 1981 for their actions was that Spain's civilian governments were too weak.
They had a point. The first democratic governments following the 1977 elections vacillated. Tough economic measures were not taken, and the economy floundered. Regional autonomy was proposed, but rising terrorism threatened to sabotage its implementation.
The 1982 election was a watershed. Gonz'alez's Socialists won an absolute majority, and the centrists collapsed, having won only 7 percent. So did both extremes. The Communists' share of the vote was only 4 percent, down from 16 percent in 1977. The Francoist party was turned into a ``cultural group,'' its remnants absorbed by Fraga's Popular Alliance.
``What you're left with is a healthy democracy, two parties leaning toward the center,'' an analyst comments. ``Before the election, everyone was looking over the shoulder at the Army, the church. Today, the coup talk has disappeared.''
An adviser to Prime Minister Gonz'alez adds: ``The vote was `yes' to democracy.''
Nonetheless, the Socialists are haunted by ghosts of the past, most prominently regional grievances.
Since Philip II made Madrid the capital in the 16th century, rulers have tried to concentrate power in Castille, the geographical heartland of the country. Franco, a Galician himself, was the sternest proponent of central government of all. He even banned the use of the Basque and Catalan languages.
The first democratic governments gave greater respect to regional grievances. They legalized the local languages, extended amnesty to Basque terrorists, and created 17 autonomous regions.
In Catalonia, tensions eased. In the Basque country, though, terrorism continues. Recently, the violence has been escalating. A shadowy right-wing group assassinated a nationalist leader in November and the separatist organization Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA) responded by machine-gunning a general. Violent demonstrations once again shut down the region.
More violence risks Army intervention to ``restore order.'' The threat has moved Gonz'alez to preempt the issue. The new defender of centralism
He has strengthened police antiter-rorism units and permitted internment without trial and the use of press gags. And he has persuaded French President Franois Mitterrand, a fellow Socialist, to treat Basque terrorists in France as suspects, not political refugees.
The ironic result is that the Army now considers the Socialists, whom it once considered to be criminally regionalist, the only viable defender of centralism.
``We have reassured the Army,'' says Julio Perez of the Ministry of Territorial Administration. ``We have shown them we won't give in and break up Spain.''
Still, the Army provokes nervousness. In many ways, it remains rooted in the old, bygone Spain. It is commanded by aging generals who led the Nationalists during the civil war, and its ranks are filled with reluctant conscripts.
``Elements in the Army still are skeptical about democracy,'' Mr. Perez admits. ``We have to act firmly and give them no pretext to take over.''
The government is asserting civilian control. The general staff has been placed formally under the civilian defense minister -- young, bearded Narcis Serra. When a well-known officer, Gen. Fernando Soteras, voiced antidemo-cratic sentiments, Mr. Serra quickly fired him.
The Socialists also plan to modernize the Army. Serra wants to cut the officer corps by one-quarter and reduce the force's total size from 250,000 to 160,000. Outdated weapons systems are to be replaced. But these are goals with no firm deadlines.
``We can't move too fast,'' an adviser to Gonz'alez admits. Tightening ties with Europe
Spain's move to maturity in world affairs is slow. Back in 1982, when they came to power, many Socialists were eager for Spain to retreat to its traditional isolation. Today, though, Gonz'alez wants to tighten ties with both Europe and the Western alliance.
The task is difficult. Spain applied for membership in the European Community in 1977. The negotiations have dragged on over wine, fishing, and citrus fruit quotas. The target entry date remains Jan. 1, 1986.
Although the Community reached agreement on wine production at its meeting in Dublin in December, the 1986 entry date for Spain will not be easy to meet. The delays aggravate the country's economic problems -- and Gonz'alez's political problems concerning NATO. Spain managed to keep out of both World War I and World War II, and some 50 percent of the Spanish public remains against any alliance attachment that could drag the country into the larger East-West conflict.
The prime minister proposes keeping Spain in NATO while making a slight reduction in the number of American troops, now totaling some 12,000, that are based here. A referendum on these proposals is scheduled to be held in early 1986.
Gonz'alez's goal doesn't seem to weaken Spain's strong American ties substantially -- that, explains one American diplomat, would be the most divisive action possible -- but to emphasize the country's independent role within the alliance. To win the referendum, advisers to the prime minister say, they will also need a successful conclusion to the Common Market negotiations.
With entry set for the same time as the referendum, the advisers explain that Gonz'alez could ask for a joint blessing of NATO and EC membership -- and almost surely win.
This scenario may involve some wishful thinking. But Spain has accomplished much more than was thought possible in the nine short years since Franco died.
Madrid, modern and bustling, exudes the giddy feeling of a child beginning to taste the fruits of adulthood. Freedom retains an excitement that countries with long democratic traditions take for granted.
Spaniards such as minister Baron in his Francoist office, with the paintings of the King on the wall and the crucifixes on the desk, no longer believe that dreaming the impossible dream means setting out on Don Quixote's quixotic crusade against windmills.
``In these years we have regained our place in the world,'' Baron repeats. He says this softly, without any of the emotionalism and fanaticism once common to Spanish leaders. The message rings true.
``We're finally ready to play a positive role again,'' he concludes, ``as part of Europe and as part of the free world.''