Madrid on Friday passed a decree allowing the exhumation of the remains of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from his vast mausoleum, a decision that divides Spaniards and has opened old wounds.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who came to power in June, has made removing the late dictator’s remains from the monument in the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) near Madrid one of his priorities.
“A country looking to the future must be at peace with its past,” he tweeted after his Cabinet passed the decree, saying the exhumation was needed to “restore dignity to the victims of Francoism.”
Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said the exhumation, which is fiercely opposed by Franco’s descendants, could take place at the end of the year.
“We can’t lose a single minute,” she told a news conference, although the decree must still be approved by the legislature. “We are celebrating 40 years of a democratic Spain, of a stable and mature constitutional order ... and this is not compatible with a public tomb where we continue to glorify Franco.”
Sanchez’s Socialists say they want to convert the site into a place of “reconciliation” and memory for all Spaniards.
Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist from the end of the nation’s 1936-1939 civil war until his death in 1975, is buried in an imposing basilica carved into a mountain face just 50km outside Madrid with a 150m cross towering over it.
Built by Franco’s regime between 1940 and 1959 — in part by the forced labor of about 20,000 political prisoners — the monument holds the remains of about 37,000 dead from both sides of the civil war, which was triggered by Franco’s rebellion against an elected Republican government.
It was long used as a place to pay tribute to Franco on the anniversary of his death, but that was stopped by a 2007 law.
Franco, whose Nationalist forces defeated the Republicans in the war, dedicated the site to “all the fallen” of the conflict in an attempt at reconciliation, but critics say it is unacceptable to give such ostentatious recognition to a brutal dictator.
They also say that the families of the Republicans were never told about their transfer to the valley.
Critics compare the situation with neighboring Portugal — where dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar is buried in a municipal cemetery — or Italy, where former prime minister Benito Mussolini lies in a family crypt.
Visitor numbers to the site have soared since the government announced its plans. Spain’s Board of Directors of National Heritage said that more than 38,000 people visited last month, compared with more than 23,000 in June.
The decree is expected to pass in the legislature, as it is supported by far-left party Podemos, as well as Catalan separatist parties and a Basque nationalist party.
However, it is fiercely opposed by Franco’s descendants, who are refusing to take his remains to the family sepulchral vault, and the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP), which has vowed to challenge the decree in court.
“It is more important [to Sanchez] to revive the ghosts of the past than to try to seduce people with the future,” PP leader Pablo Casado told reporters on Thursday.
Calvo said if Franco’s family refuses to transfer the remains to the family vault, the government would pick a spot to bury him.
The government last month also announced that it wanted to establish a truth commission on wrongdoings during the civil war and dictatorship, and annul politically motivated Franco-era court decisions.
About 41 percent of Spaniards approve of removing Franco from his mausoleum, compared with 38.5 percent who oppose the move, according to an opinion poll published last month in center-right newspaper El Mundo.
However, even though a slim majority are in favor of the move, 54 percent of those surveyed said they did not think now was the right time to do it.
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