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To right past wrongs, Spaniards seek present change

By Geoff PingreeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 2005


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."

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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.

"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.