Franco's last statue in Spain falls

Glorious, that’s how the last statue of the despot disappears from the Spanish streets. On Tuesday afternoon, workers come with concrete drills and demolition hammers to remove the pedestal from under the bronze cast. The cement appears to be solid, because it is only after two hours that the statue is placed in the truck with a crane. There is both applause and boos from the curious who have spontaneously gathered around the statue. “Franco saved our city,” a former soldier shouts, while local police keep everyone at a distance. A few try to get hold of a chunk of the pedestal. One of the workers gives Francisco Franco one last pat on the back, before he moves to a municipal warehouse wrapped in bubble wrap.

“Road to Full Democracy”

The removal of the statue was unexpected for the spectators. “Fearing protests from the far right, the government kept the action quiet,” analyst Ignacio Cembrero said. “Everyone was packed in speed.” The president of the autonomous city, Eduardo de Castro, insisted that the removal be done as quickly as possible. On Tuesday morning, De Castro said the move would “turn Melilla down the road to full democracy, after the statue had frozen the city in the past.”

In that past, Franco and Melilla are inextricably linked. Franco began his military career as a lieutenant commander stationed in Melilla, North Africa. Since the fifteenth century, the enclave was Spanish territory. When local Rif tribes resisted the Spanish occupation of North Africa in the 1920s, Franco defended the city with the Spanish Foreign Legion. The military successes made him a national hero, ready to make the crossing to the Spanish mainland and seize power.

Law of historical memory

The debate over the statues of Franco has been raging in Spain for quite some time. In 2007 the national parliament passed the Act of Historical Remembrance. The consequence of this was that all monuments disappeared from the public space and that the victims of the Francoist regime were compensated. But local authorities often had one last say in the matter.

With the Law of Democratic Remembrance, passed last year, Madrid has regained control. The estimated 112,000 victims of Franco’s regime will be identified through DNA testing. After all, they are still buried anonymously throughout Spain. The remains of Franco himself were taken from his immense crypt at the Valley of the Fallen and reburied near Madrid.

While Franco has fallen from his pedestal all over Spain in recent years, the city council of Melilla has stood his ground. According to them, the statue was not about glorifying the dictator, but rather “a reminder of the military Rif campaign”. Until the 2019 elections, the conservative party Partido Popular (PP) was in power, which claimed that removing such statues would open unnecessary wounds from the past. In Spain, the party is often accused of not taking a clear position with regard to Francoism.

However, the city’s new administration did not mince words and did what seemed impossible for decades: the bill was swiftly approved by the governing parties this week. The PP, the party that had held off the boat for so long, abstained. The far-right VOX, which voted against, said the law was illegal because the statue was erected in honor of Franco as commander, so the Law of Historical Remembrance does not apply. The party accuses the government of wanting to erase part of Spanish history and only proclaim a single historical truth.

‘Defenders of Franco’s legion’

The statue in Melilla has long been a thorn in the side of the national government in Madrid. Tourists from the mainland posed smiling with thumbs up at the effigy of the dictator. It even sparked a national riot after a horde of Spanish-flagged border guards gathered at the scene for a group photo with the stoic army commander behind them, looking out over the Mediterranean towards Europe. For many residents, Franco is simply part of the city. “It’s a shame you can’t take a picture with it anymore. Nobody has the balls to stand the statue,” says Javi Carretero from Melilla.

Since the removal of the statue, several residents of Melilla have been calling for protests. Social media posts and polls elicit hundreds of responses. Some consider themselves the “defenders of Franco’s legion.” “Support for fascism is still lurking in this city,” says Hafid Mohamed. “Even among the Muslims, Franco enjoys support, they believe that Melilla would not be what it is today without the man.” Mohand Tahtat agrees. “I am Muslim and Riffin. If it weren’t for this man, I don’t think I could live today as I do. I would be starving on the other side of the border.” Still, many residents do not agree with the call. ‘This is ridiculous! What are they going to do? Start another civil war?” mocks teacher Carmen Alonso.

Rabat is on the prowl

“The fact that this statue is now retiring does not solve our city’s problems,” said official Luis Garcia. “It’s fireworks that serve as pure distraction. We are economically depressed, young people are moving away to the peninsula. Infrastructure is lagging behind, houses are becoming unaffordable. Moreover, Morocco could be sending new waves of migrants to our city at any moment.” According to a local doctor, Yurena Beltrán, “Madrid is obscuring its symbolic control over the city. Removing the image is propaganda.”

Melilla, economically dependent on trade with Morocco, has been in turbulent waters since 2018. Then Morocco unilaterally closed the border, because the illegal trade from the enclave was not profitable for them. There was no production, nor was there any income from taxes. Africa’s busiest border crossing has come to a halt and some 10,000 cheap workers, who used to be able to earn a living on both sides of the border, are out of work. Since corona, the enclave has been hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Many Melillans feel let down by Madrid.

“The closing of the border with Melilla was a geopolitical maneuver,” analyst Ignacio Cembrero said. “In this way, Morocco wants to gain a margin at the negotiating table about the future of the city. The enclave is isolated and suffocated.” Morocco has never hidden its ambition for sovereignty over Melilla and has recently increasingly openly claimed possession of the city. At the end of December 2020, the Moroccan government leader El Othmani made a public claim to Melilla. However, Spain does not want to make any concessions, in the meantime bilateral talks between the countries have been postponed several times.

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