To right past wrongs, Spaniards seek present change

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It was painful for Ana Viéitez Gómez to read the file the Spanish dictatorship had kept on her father. In a single folder, she says, she saw "the destruction of a life."

There were letters from the mayor, the police, even the local priest, denouncing him as a communist, an anarchist, and a mason. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Ms. Viéitez's father, a schoolteacher, escaped Spain after several years in jail for exile in Mexico where, she says, he died at age 46, a broken man.

Viéitez's father was denounced in 1937 - while Spain was mired in civil war - but it wasn't until last year that his daughter finally saw his file. The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, to be followed by nearly 40 years of authoritarian rule by General Francisco Franco, during which his government imprisoned or executed hundreds of thousands for alleged political crimes.

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"Franco kept signing death warrants until his last day," says Aida Lorenzo y Rosa, whose father was executed in Gerona in 1939 after an hour-long trial in which his lawyer, one of Franco's officers, failed to clear him of charges that he was a "danger to the new Spain."

For Viéitez, Lorenzo y Rosa, and others like them, the justice they seek for their family members has been deferred for more than a half a century, and they are willing to wait no more.

For nearly three decades after the dictator's death in 1975, his government's injustices were not mentioned in public, as virtually all political parties - in the name of a peaceful transition to democracy - embraced a "pact of silence."

But today, the silence has begun to erode, and the wish to address Spain's past is growing.

Public memory is being resurrected in a tide of recent books and documentary films about Spaniards' suffering under the dictatorship; volunteers have unearthed mass graves where Republican supporters, after swift execution, were buried; and last month the Socialist government voted to return to Catalonia - a Republican stronghold during the war - all documents that had been taken from the region by Franco's police forces.

The current administration even has proposed renaming the Avenidas del Generalísimo and other public sites that still celebrate Franco's regime.

But no attempt to confront the dictatorship's actions is more daring, or carries more serious repercussions, than the legal efforts being mounted by a collection of victims' groups.

Motivated by outrage over the inability of the Spanish courts to clear the names of those prosecuted by the dictatorship, this coalition - which includes Viéitez's Association of Relatives and Friends of the Second Republic Victims of Reprisals by the Franco Regime - began to take shape in December. At that time organizations across Spain met in Madrid and decided they must work together to effectively confront a legal system that had remained largely unchanged for over 60 years.

Gregorio Díonis, who heads the Nizkor Group, a human rights organization, and who has pursued former dictators in South America, was asked to draft formal legislation.

Among other things, the document would declare illegitimate Franco's 1936 military uprising and subsequent seizure of power, end impunity for living members of Franco's government, classify Franco's actions as crimes against humanity in accordance with the Nuremberg Doctrine - a cornerstone for international agreement about crimes against humanity - and establish all Spaniards' right to know the fate of their ancestors.

Díonis believes that Spain must replace what he calls a longstanding "model of impunity" with a juridical framework explicitly designed to protect civil rights. Such a tradition existed before the civil war, he says, but Franco replaced it with a "legal base that violated international law."

But transforming a decades-old legal system anchored in fear is no small task. And the drive to end impunity for surviving functionaries of Franco's regime is an especially bold gambit, for it may implicate current political leaders.

But citizens like Viéitez, Díonis, and those they represent, are still profoundly angry that no member of Franco's regime has ever been tried or punished. "Justice doesn't ruin a state; lies and repression do," says Díonis, who compares Franco with Hitler and Mussolini. "You can't try the dead. But you can restore the rights of the victims."

The country's legal system can be repaired if it implements "a proper law to deal with Spain's crimes against humanity," insists Lopez Garcia, and establishes a "process - like the Germans and French have had - to deal with the past."

Others, like Juan Gallego Sanz, who heads Living Memory, a group dedicated to Spaniards deported and exiled by Franco, are less optimistic.

Convinced that Spain today is caught in polarized political conflicts like those of the civil war era, Mr. Gallego, whose father, grandfather, and great uncle were imprisoned by Franco, fears that "we won't be able to talk about the civil war until my generation has disappeared completely."

Resistance to a formal acknowledgement of the crimes of the past has, until recently, come from Spaniards on all political sides. A proposal to recognize Franco's victims came before the Congress of Deputies two years ago but was voted down by a conservative coalition.

The actions of the current government, however, have encouraged many who support such initiatives.

A government commission has been formed to investigate the plight of Franco's victims, and when it concludes its work in March, the administration will likely introduce legislation that will fulfill many if not all of the objectives set out by the victims' groups.

"Spain still has a wound," says López García, "and the government-sponsored commission is a golden opportunity."

Díonis also looks to the commission with hope. "Change will happen," he says. "Once the truth is known, it can't be buried again. It's like reading - once you learn, you can't unlearn. And the truth is on our side."

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