surinenglish

The Euro zone

Digging deep

Last Friday, the Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez approved a decree to exhume the remains of Francisco Franco from the controversial mausoleum near Madrid where he is buried. Franco - fascist ruler of Spain from the end of the Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975 - is currently interred in the Valley of the Fallen, underneath a granite crucifix 150 metres high.

According to the new mandate, the former dictator's remains will be removed from this site and given to his family to bury elsewhere. It's a move imbued with great symbolism for many Spaniards, but what will it actually achieve?

The objections to Franco's colossal resting place are understandable. Franco ordered and oversaw construction of the Valley of the Fallen, using political prisoners as labourers, between 1940 and 1959. It is the burial site of around 33,000 victims of the conflict - from both Republican and Nationalist sides - of the "generalissimo" himself and of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who founded the fascist Spanish Falange in 1933 (his father Miguel Primo de Rivera, Spain's military dictator between 1923 and 1930, is remembered by a grand statue in the centre of Jerez de la Frontera).

Franco's and Rivera's graves are the only ones visible in the Valley of the Fallen; the rest are packed away in unnamed, decaying tombs. Every November, on the closest Saturday to the 20th (the date of Franco's death in 1975), groups of "nostálgicos" - admirers of Franco - congregate to pay tribute to the military leader, who sparked off a conflict in which an estimated half a million Spaniards lost their lives. The widely-felt hatred of this site was summed up by Spain's deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo last week, when she said that a monument glorifying Franco is "totally unacceptable for a democracy like ours".

Yet it is precisely the nature of Spain's democracy that makes her government's decision controversial. It's a democracy that was founded on an agreement made between supporters and enemies of Franco after his death - the so-called "Pact of Forgetting". This attempted to erase from collective memory crimes committed during the Civil War and ensuing dictatorship.

For this reason, Sánchez's opponents accuse him of divisively raking up the past; indeed, Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado says that exhuming Franco will do nothing except "re-open old wounds" (unsurprising, given that the PP was founded in 1989 by a former member of Franco's regime).

Digging up Franco is the necessary first stage of a much more challenging task - namely, deciding what to do with the Valley of the Fallen once the dictator's remains are gone. The best suggestion, made by Spain's last Socialist government, was to turn it into a museum and education centre focused on the Civil War. Only if Sánchez can achieve something like that will Franco's exhumation prove worthwhile.