Tension at state funeral for Spain’s first democratic prime minister

Attacks against Catalan self-rule and the presence of a dictator cast shadow over display of unity

Teodoro Obiang arrives at Almudena cathedral.
Teodoro Obiang arrives at Almudena cathedral.paco campos (EFE)

The display of political unity at the state funeral for Alfonso Suárez, the man who steered Spain’s democratic transition in the late 1970s, could barely conceal the underlying tension at Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral on Monday.

Current and former leaders of every color, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP) and ex-prime ministers Felipe González (Socialist), José María Aznar (PP) and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Socialist) sat on the pews as the archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, delivered a homily that was loaded with political meaning.

Rouco, a controversial figure within the Catholic Church because of his highly conservative views and fiery temper, asked the gathering of mourners to pray for the deceased “and, why not, also for Spain.”

Making use of an unusual choice of expressions for a Mass, Rouco noted that “harmony was possible with [Suárez]. Why shouldn’t it be, now and forever, in the lives of Spaniards, their families and Spain’s historical communities?”

The archbishop brought up the Civil War to criticize  the Catalan independence drive

The message was aimed squarely at Catalan premier Artur Mas, who also sat before the archbishop, and who is spearheading a nationalist bid for independence in the northeastern region.

The archbishop went further in his criticism of the sovereignty drive by bringing up the ghosts of the Civil War.

“[Suárez] sought and tenaciously, generously practiced reconciliation in the most delicate aspects of political and social life in a Spain that wanted to overcome the Civil War forever, to overcome the events and the attitudes that caused it, and which can cause it,” he said.

The event was made even more uncomfortable by the fact that the only head of state who showed up, besides King Juan Carlos himself, was Teodoro Obiang, the longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea.

From l-r: Queen Sofía, Prince Felipe, Princess Letizia, King Juan Carlos and Archbishop Antonio María Rouco Varela at Monday's funeral for Adolfo Suárez.
From l-r: Queen Sofía, Prince Felipe, Princess Letizia, King Juan Carlos and Archbishop Antonio María Rouco Varela at Monday's funeral for Adolfo Suárez.Ballesteros (EFE)

The government and the royal household tried to conceal Obiang’s presence as much as possible by keeping the press away from the area where foreign representatives were formally greeted by Spanish dignitaries. This ceremony took place in a remote corner of the cathedral, with no media presence to capture the moment. Later, Obiang was asked to sit on a pew far removed from the monarch and the prime minister.

The opposition decried the presence of a man who has been in power since 1979, after he ousted his own uncle in a coup, and whose regime is routinely criticized by international organizations for its gross violation of human rights and civil liberties.

“To the funeral of Suárez, the great democrat, comes the great dictator,” said Irene Lozano, a deputy for the opposition party Unión Progreso y Democracia (UPyD). Gaspar Llamazares, of the United Left group, said that Obiang’s presence was “a stain on the figure of Adolfo Suárez; the government should have said no.”

“To the funeral of Suárez, the great democrat, comes the great dictator”

The Socialist spokeswoman in Congress, Soraya Rodríguez, said that “the government’s invitation and the dictator’s presence are surprising.” However, the previous Socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero also received Obiang in an official visit to Madrid in November 2006.

Vetoeing his presence, then as now, would have meant causing serious offense to the leader of a major oil producer and former Spanish colony where Madrid has many economic interests at stake.

Other foreign representatives who attended the funeral included Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose wife Miriam González is a Spaniard; US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus; Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, Argentina’s Vice-President Amado Boudou; former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe; Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno; Portuguese Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas; and the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Durao Barroso.

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