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Spain’s Far-Right Vox Is Fighting a Culture War Against the Victims of Francoism

From exhuming Francisco Franco to funding efforts to identify his victims, Spain’s incumbent left-wing government has sought a reckoning with the country’s fascist past. But in the southern Andalusia region, the far-right Vox is driving a nationalist backlash.

Spainards hold banners with pictures of people who went missing during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. (John Milner / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On July 29, a prominent politician from the far-right Vox party waved a Spanish flag at the country’s border with Gibraltar, calling for the territory to be “suffocated.” British since 1704, the tiny peninsula today counts a mixed European and Moroccan community of just over thirty thousand people. Its economy is closely linked to the populations on Spain’s southern tip: official statistics estimate that between ten and fifteen thousand workers cross the border every day to work in industries such as construction and hospitality in neighboring towns.

Despite these close ties, the Spanish far right’s agitation at the border seeks to pour fuel on a long-standing “culture war” — and exploit the alleged weakness of the country’s center-left government over the Gibraltar issue. While this administration, uniting Pedro Sánchez’s socialist PSOE with the leftist Unidas Podemos, prioritizes European cooperation, the Right uses Gibraltar as a whack-a-mole for energizing a nationalist audience.

This has been a long-standing grievance of the Spanish far right. Dictator Francisco Franco’s closure of the border from 1969 to 1982 in a bid to blockade Gibraltar into submitting to Spanish rule was arguably one of the regime’s most embarrassing failures. The gates, though now guarding a relatively fluid border, still stand as they did then.

The Vox provocation at the border is closely bound to Spain’s fight over the legacy of Francoism. As Vox held court with members of the press, eighty-five years after Franco and his allies plunged the country into three years of war, the Secretary of State for Democratic Memory allocated just over half a million euros to civil war commemoration in the Andalusia region just to the north of Gibraltar. This follows the distribution of €3 million, approved earlier in the year for “activities to search and identify disappeared persons during the Civil War or the subsequent political repression.”

The funds from the national government in Madrid are dedicated to the “investigation, location, exhumation and dignification of common graves of reprisals during the Civil War and the Franco regime that Andalusia must execute in 2021.” But with the Right in electoral ascendance in many parts of the region, there may be attempts to stymie the policy at the local level.

Most citizens on either side of the Spain-Gibraltar border have relatives who were involved on one side or the other of the civil war (and sometimes both). Not all have a similar awareness of their murdered or imprisoned relatives and where their bodies were buried. The mass graves (fosas comunes in Spanish) in La Línea de la Concepción, just over the Spanish side of the border, were commonly thought to be Arab burial grounds. Yet, former PSOE councilwoman Susi Barranco recalls being told a different story by older generations: “My grandfather told me that those shot were republicans” — the victims of Franco’s coup. She added that “no more was ever heard of those bodies, nor of any investigations” into the mass graves.

She’s confident that they’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg: “Some twenty years ago, bodies were discovered behind the old Town Hall,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll find more.”

Ascendant Far Right

The current PSOE-Podemos administration at the national level is the product of Spain’s November 2019 general election, which broke a four-year political deadlock. Enjoying only a thin majority, it inherited several terms of governing neglect on economic and social issues, from stagnation and unemployment, to national separatism and domestic gendered violence.

For this Southern European nation, only a short ferry journey from North Africa, systemic injustices lie far deeper than the current neoliberal period. As well as being haunted by the crises of postindustrial capitalism that other Western nations suffer, Spain is yet to exorcise the ghosts of Francoism.

Under Pedro Sánchez’s spell as leader, including in the current coalition with Unidas Podemos, PSOE has apparently been somewhat revived from its downfall earlier in the 2010s. For all its limitations, the government uniting the two parties has done more than most to deal with Spain’s twentieth-century history, breaking with the usual pattern of ignoring the fissures that divide Spanish society.

Since its inception, the coalition government has prioritized the exhumation of Franco’s body away from its earlier resting place in the Valley of the Fallen — a pilgrimage site glorifying the fascist dictator. Through the newly created Secretary of State for Democratic Memory, prime minister Sánchez has approved projects to remove statues that deify fascist leaders, both in mainland Spain as well as colonial enclaves in Morocco like Ceuta and Melilla.

In the context of Vox’s rise, this reckoning by the center-left provides a blueprint for a proactive anti-fascist approach to the “culture war.” At once nostalgic for a golden imperialist past, yet effectively targeting communities left behind by neoliberalism, Vox has in many ways copied the playbook of other post-crash populist phenomena, from Trump to Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

Vox has enjoyed notable success in Andalusia, the region which borders on Gibraltar. The last regional elections three years ago resulted in an absolute majority for the right-wing parties. The president of the current regional government, Juan Manuel Moreno, comes from the establishment center-right Partido Popular (PP), itself initially created by former Franco allies after the end of the regime. Following years of high unemployment in the region, in 2018 the once-hegemonic PSOE was finally ejected from office, with the far-right nationalists in Vox backing a government led by the PP and the more “progressive” right-wingers of Ciudadanos.

A Monumental Fissure

On Tuesday August 10, a monument to a Republican leader was erected in the region’s capital, Seville. Blas Infante, known as the “father of Andalusia,” was murdered by the fascists this same date in 1936, in the early weeks of the civil war. He was a political talisman of the region at the time, leading the Junta Liberalista during the Second Spanish Republic. Infante (who I am proud to call a relative) played a firsthand role in writing the Andalusian “national hymn” and designing the symbols of its flag.

The monument, standing just yards from where he fell to a firing squad, has been derided by the Right. Ahead of a mooted snap election, the three parties vying for the reactionary vote took aim at Blas Infante and at Andalusia.

An official from the conservative PP, historically the largest of these parties, connected the “disunity” promoted by “Andalucismo” (regional identity) with the separatist movements today dominating the Spanish political agenda. A spokesman from Ciudadanos — a party which once advertised itself as liberal and cosmopolitan — criticized the “multi-level” Spain the government is allegedly promoting by honoring symbols of Andalucismo like Infante.

The far-right Vox refused to show up to the unveiling at all. Spreading false rumors that Infante converted to Islam (Andalusia’s history and identity is tied closely with the Al-Andalus period of Islamic rule), they believe that “Andalucismo” encourages their perceived confrontation between Arabs and Spaniards.

This followed similar scenes upon last year’s anniversary of Infante’s death, which the far-right party also refused to attend. It rejected participation “together with socialists and communists in the festival of Andalusian nationalism to praise the figure of the ‘muladi’ Blas Infante.” “Muladi” is a derogatory term used to describe a Spaniard who converted to Islam — and in this case, the slur is also a lie. They added that “only Vox stands up to the regional nationalism that seeks to break the unity of Spain.”

Yes, Let’s Dig Up the Past

Gareth Stockey is a historian of contemporary Spain at the University of Nottingham. In 2016, he was featured in a symposium on the Spanish Civil War organized by Unite the union’s Gibraltar branch. Stockey is buoyed by the left-wing coalition’s policies on “democratic memory,” commenting that “it is extremely good news, particularly for the relatives of victims still looking for some form of closure over what happened to their loved ones and including some who actually survived those traumatic years of the civil war.”

Indeed, the murders and repression didn’t begin and end with the civil war. Throughout Franco’s rule, dissidents were imprisoned or killed in the “white terror.” The social cleansing claimed an estimated two hundred thousand lives, including republicans, Jews, Romanis, and sexual and gender minorities. Stockey clarifies that Andalusia in particular “remains largely ignored by historians, perhaps mirroring a general neglect of the region by politicians and the media.”

For the historian, the violence and repression against groups deemed to be to the left of the dictatorship was “fiercest in the South,” especially in rural areas and smaller towns. In more recent decades, grassroots “memory associations” have campaigned for recognition of the Francoist killings and the generational trauma attached to them. In the four municipalities closest to the Gibraltar border (La Línea, Algeciras, San Roque, and Los Barrios), a minimum of 411 victims has been estimated in the first eight months of the civil war alone.

“It is highly likely that the true death toll is much, much higher, and we can hope that the archaeologists will be able to shed further light,” Stockey suggests.

The argument that the eradication of the Left by the fascist regime was a reaction to earlier violence by the antifascist republicans is false, Stockey stresses. “These killings can hardly be thought of as ‘reprisals’ for republican violence. For example, in the municipality of San Roque, only six people were killed by leftists [even] according to the Franco government’s own investigations.”

Stockey also points out that cross-border solidarity was key for republican refugees. While many in the British elite were cozying up to Franco and his officials, working-class families in the southern border towns gave support, risking their families’ lives in the process. He adds that “thousands of people managed to find safety by crossing into Gibraltar, or fleeing north towards Málaga.” He reckons that “those most likely to flee were those most likely to fear reprisals from the Francoist forces, so we are left with the chilling speculation as to how much worse the death toll in the region might have been had it not been for the timely escape of so many.”

The cross-border solidarity was also a result of the cross-border suffering and trauma. Once-strong social and family ties were challenged by the civil war and, by the time Franco closed the border during the blockade policy, many of those ties were broken. Despite this, the movements for historical memory, finally with some support from a left-wing national government, have encouraged locals to find some truth about their family’s stories.

“I was contacted out of the blue by a Gibraltarian man who had been living in London for many years,” recounts Stockey, “who told me the story of his Spanish grandfather from La Línea who was executed in August 1936 by the military rebels.” “He will probably never know” where he was buried — “but at least an intervention in the mass graves might give some peace to many others who are still wondering what happened to their loved ones.”