Sixty years of passion for power

Manuel Fraga, the Franco-era minister who went on to found the Popular Party and govern in his native Galicia, died without fulfilling his ultimate ambition

Santiago de Compostela - 16 ene 2012 - 18:27 UTC

A long chapter in Spanish history has ended with the death of Manuel Fraga. His incommensurately long and eventful career spans 60 years of active politics encompassing Franco's dictatorship, the democratic transition and the creation of semi-autonomous regions with devolved powers.

Fraga, who died on Sunday at age 89 in Madrid of respiratory complications, represented the last direct link between the Franco regime and today's conservatives. Nobody else who held a relevant post under the dictatorship- and he was minister of propaganda, no less- managed to escape unscathed the way that he did. On the contrary, Fraga managed to remain in politics for another 36 years; he held on to his senator's seat until last November, and died as the founding president of the Popular Party (PP), which now rules Spain once more following the general elections of November 20.

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His legendary ability to adapt allowed him all that and more: Fraga, a native of Galicia, later became a champion of greater self-rule for the northwestern region just a few years after attempting to curtail regional powers in the new Constitution.

Revered and despised in equal doses, this man who never did things in half measures departs from this world with a final victory under his belt: even his fiercest detractors now grant that he was an exceptionally able politician. With him, a whole breed of public leader is being buried as well. Always an enemy of political correctness and prefabricated speeches, Fraga could (and did) challenge street demonstrators to a fight, upbraid a personal aide in front of the press, or say about a congresswoman that "the most interesting thing this señorita has shown us is her cleavage."

He was a volcanic character who published 90 books and was equally happy showing off his erudition or feeding racy headlines to the media. But above all he was addicted to power, and to this he devoted his entire life- "until my last breath," as he had always promised, without letting himself be derailed by personal motives of any nature.

His work rate led him down the road of excess and Fraga often boasted about absurd feats such as having covered more kilometers, shaken more hands or given more speeches than any other politician. He proudly recounted how, when he was the Spanish ambassador in London, he was the only diplomat who fulfilled his obligation of visiting all of his colleagues from other countries, which added up to over 100, "including the island of Tonga." Anything to fuel his own legend and keep himself busy from dawn to midnight ? a sacred time barrier he never crossed.

His one great frustration in life was failing to fulfill his apparent destiny: becoming prime minister of Spain. But he was barred from that because of his Francoist past- which he never repudiated - and had to make do with the next best thing, the position of Galician premier. As such, he surrounded himself with all the trappings of power and was able to quench his thirst for nation-leading. He did so for nearly 16 years, and it took two catastrophes to oust him: the Prestige oil spill and old age. By then, he had already completed six full decades in politics that began in 1951, when Franco made him secretary general of the Hispanic Culture Institute, back when the young Fraga waxed eloquent about the works of pro-Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt.

One of the secrets of his success was the fact that he never completely shed his small-town mentality. He was born on November 23, 1922 in Vilalba, a farming town in rural Galicia that served as the administrative and services center for the county. His father was a peasant who sought fortune in Cuba, where he married María Iribarne, a French-Basque woman with a strict Catholic upbringing. Although baby Manuel was born in Galicia, he spent his early childhood in Cuba and was later raised by two aunts back in Vilalba. The émigrés sent money back home to pay for his education, and Manuel turned out to be a student prodigy with an astounding memory. He graduated in law and politics simultaneously, and at age 25 he ranked number one in public competitions for attorney of the Cortes (the legislative body) and diplomatic school. By age 26, he'd earned a university chair.

Fraga was a rising meteorite, and the path of his ambition necessarily had to pass through the dictatorship. He climbed rungs on ministerial ladders until, at age 40, he was finally appointed minister of information and tourism. It was under his watch, incidentally, that the popular advertising slogan "Spain is different" was coined.

The Franco regime was now caught up in a wave of development, and Fraga, while undoubtedly espousing the regime's principles, did display a certain penchant for modernity. His tourism campaigns attracted droves of Swedish women (who were celebrated in movies of the era), as well as the first hippies. He eliminated prior restraint (but not the option of confiscating published material) and toned down the sanctimoniousness that prevailed in the press.

Fraga understood very early on the importance of public gestures in the media society, as demonstrated by his oft-cited dip in the waters off Palomares to prove the lack of radiation after a US plane accidentally released four hydrogen bombs in the area in 1966. He also organized the regime's propaganda campaigns and defended hardly justifiable episodes, such as the execution of the Communist Julián Grimau. Yet to many Spaniards, Fraga symbolized the desire for reform.

In what would become a recurring theme in his life, he was led astray by ambition, and the technocrats of Opus Dei who ran the country managed to oust him from power in 1969. He became a critic of sorts within the Franco regime, an image he took care to cultivate after 1973, when he was appointed ambassador to London. Franco's health was in decline, and the promise of change was in the air. While in the British capital, Fraga embarked on a frantic networking campaign, contacting people in Spain and all over the world in order to pave the way for his own bid to direct the transitional period. Under the first administration of Arias Navarro, right after Franco's death, he was minister of governance, the equivalent of today's interior minister.

Fraga's project was undoubtedly liberalizing, but rather than liquidate the regime, his plan was to reform it without altering its foundations. For one thing, he never had the slightest intention of incorporating the communists into political life. His authoritarian style and a series of highly controversial moves by his ministry- including the assassination of blue-collar workers in Vitoria and left-wing Carlists in Montejurra (Navarre)- eventually turned him into an ogre for the democratic opposition.

The great disappointment of his life came when King Juan Carlos chose Adolfo Suárez over him as the new prime minister in July 1976. Fraga went to see the monarch about it, but resisted pressure to accept a portfolio in the new executive. That was when he founded Alianza Popular (AP), meant as a democratic conservative party although it was headed by the so-called "magnificent seven," essentially a collection of Franco-era old-timers. Fraga grudgingly accepted the Constitution, performed no heroic actions during the failed coup of February 23, 1981, and was left alone to stem the Socialist tide after the breakup of the ruling UCD party.

The new prime minister, the Socialist Felipe González, showered him with honors, making him opposition chief and proclaiming that "the entire state fits inside his head." Those were the years that produced Fraga's famous congressional speeches about the price of a kilo of chickpeas, evidencing how the former Francoist was unable to turn himself into a convincing democratic alternative. After several agitated years at the helm of AP, he stepped down and attempted to name Isabel Tocino as his successor, but aides convinced him to instead appoint José María Aznar, who would go on to govern Spain between 1996 and 2004.

It was finally back home in Galicia that Fraga managed to run his own little state. Surrounded by a personality cult that reached delirious levels (his sympathizers referred to him as the Great Helmsman) he traveled the world, even visiting Castro's Cuba, Gaddafi's Libya and the Iran of the ayatollahs. He kept his adversaries at bay with strict control over regional politics and information. His chameleonic nature ("politics makes for strange bedfellows," he used to say) enabled him to morph into a hardcore Galician nationalist whose demands for self-rule occasionally proved too much for even his own party to stomach.

It never occurred to him to retire. It was only after the social unrest that followed the Prestige oil tanker spill off the Galician coast in 2002, and his clearly declining health, that voters stopped putting their faith in Fraga. By then, his career had absorbed him to such an extent that he was forced to rebuild his personal relations, even those with his own family. It was his daughters who convinced him to move to Madrid, where he slowly faded away, his voice increasingly feeble, hanging on until the last minute to a walking stick, a seat in parliament and the honorary presidency of a party he founded back when he was sure that he was destined to lead the country.

The affable manner of a political animal

The Galician bagpipers will be gathered to send him off, as they greeted him countless times as regional premier. Manuel Fraga Iribarne has departed from our midst, but not before seeing a new victory for the conservative party he founded.

The Fragas were not gentry: poor (but rightwing) Galicians who went to Cuba for some years, made money there, and returned to Galicia in 1928, where Fraga's father became mayor of the village of Vilalba, near Lugo. Manuel Fraga, who got up early and worked hard, and possessed a photographic memory and a monstrous ability for passing civil service exams, exemplified the meritocratic facet cultivated by Franco's regime, or at least touted in its propaganda.

His first political step up, in the mid-1950s, came from the Education minister Joaquín Ruiz-Jiménez, an ultramontane Catholic who, however, put Fraga to work seeking tentative compromise with the progressives. And when Ruiz-Jiménez suddenly (as was Franco's habit) got the boot, Fraga deftly sidestepped to another post, and then another; and then, in 1962, to director of Information and Tourism.

His affable manner (a "political animal") and habits of hard work took him far in the promotion of tourism, where he greatly expanded the network of Paradores (state-run hotels). But his Information brief, which made him the country's chief censor, is what he is best known for.

For example, he kept the Spanish public in the dark about the nature and consequences of the USAF nuclear accident over the coastal town of Palomares in 1966, until reports in the US media forced his hand. Then he staged a publicity stunt, in which he and the American ambassador took a swim at the Palomares beach. Yet the US cleanup of plutonium in the soil around the town left much to be desired, and high radiation levels remain.

In the same year the so-called Fraga Law on the media was passed. In theory it somewhat relaxed the iron control that had existed since the Civil War, in which journalists were directly told what to write, but in practice reserved a panoply of carrots and sticks, so that the margin for criticism was narrow indeed. For example, when in May 1968 the daily Madrid titled an article "No to General De Gaulle," Fraga saw in this an allusion to general Franco, and had the newspaper shut down for two months, later extended to four.

One feature of the later Franco regime was the rise of technocrats belonging to the ascetic Catholic communion of Opus Dei, who were new competitors in the ongoing squabble between different clans of the Spanish right: soldiers, fascists, watered-down Carlists and lackadaisical monarchists. Fraga disliked and picked a quarrel with them. And then suddenly in 1969 a new Cabinet was announced, without Fraga.

Fraga was not out of politics for long. Once again a minister in the first government after Franco's death in 1975, he soon saw that hardline fascism was on the way out, and decided to create a right-wing political party, Alianza Popular (AP), to run in the first democratic elections in 1977. But the AP was too far to the right for most voters, and did poorly in those and subsequent elections; until in 1989, its rightism greatly watered down, it was reconstituted as the Popular Party (PP).