“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
– Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara
Last month marked the 45th anniversary of the death of Francisco Franco, Western Europe’s last dictator. Afterwards Spain finally transitioned into a democratic state; something it had tried when it elected a new government in 1931. During the “Second Republic”, Spaniards deposed King Alfonso XIII and reduced the powers of the military, the Roman Catholic Church and property-owning elites. But, just two years later, a center-right coalition won a majority in the elections and they brought in Franco. Franco had gained some notoriety for fighting against an insurgency in Spanish-controlled Morocco amidst World War I. In 1926, at the age of 33, he became the youngest general in all of Europe. But, as the “Second Republic” proceeded, Franco grew critical of the new government and was subsequently banned to a military outpost in the Canary Islands. By 1936 right-wing extremists had fomented plans for a military coup. Apparently Franco was initially opposed, but joined the effort as it took shape.
The 1936-39 Spanish Civil War actually began in Morocco, as right-wing activists launched concerted efforts to regain control. By 1939 they had won – at the cost of 1 million lives – and Franco became Spain’s eminent ruler. Spain’s “White Terror” induced a culture of repression and execution; a persecution of democratic supporters of a truly tolerant government. Civil wars in any country are brutal and destructive, and Spain’s conflict was no different. During Franco’s reign, an estimated 150,000 people were executed or mysteriously vanished. That’s a modest assessment. Personally, as with the Nazi Holocaust or the Cambodian massacre, I believe the official estimates are politically polite.
Early last month a friend posted a photo (a formal portrait) of Franco on his Facebook page. One of his friends replied by declaring that Franco would have never let Spain become the socialist state it is now. I responded by noting that Franco was a dictator who opposed free speech and freedom of religion. Franco imprisoned and executed thousands of political opponents, while thousands more disappeared. Like Argentina, Guatemala and other Latin American nations, Spain emerged as a totalitarian state, where anyone who dared criticize the leadership was deemed a rebel and summarily prosecuted. No one among the Spanish populace ostensibly was brave enough to stand up to such totalitarian shenanigans, until Franco died. But it is what it is. Calls for revolution are always easier than actually revolting.
I don’t believe either my friend or his friend responded to my comment. I guess I should have been shocked by the aforementioned Facebook posts. But ultimately it didn’t surprise me, since my friend is a devotee of Donald Trump. He once posted photos of himself and Spanish dignitaries at a diplomatic function in Houston. But seeing his post about Franco angered me.
I’ve noticed some conservatives hold a certain degree of sentimentality for dictators and autocrats. Hence Trump’s conciliatory behavior towards the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Both Putin and Jong Un live in relative luxury, while essentially holding an iron grip on power. North Korea is particularly egregious in this dichotomy. They still won’t acknowledge the brutal severity of a 1990s-era famine in which up to 3.5 million people perished.
Trump is also in line with Brazil’s Jair Bolsarano who openly longed for the period of the nation’s military rule; a time when – like many other nations in Latin America – thousands disappeared, were imprisoned or turned up dead. Bolsarano has often been dubbed as “Trump of the Tropics”.
I’m sure the analogy flattered Bolsarano, and it sounds appropriate. Like Trump Bolsarano denounced COVID-19 as a “little flu” and downplayed it, even when he contracted the virus. As with any European-style colonialist, Bolsarano lamented that Brazil didn’t succeed in eliminating the nation’s indigenous populations. He doesn’t seem to realize North America’s indigenous peoples were NOT completely obliterated from the continent. Yet, Bolsarano ultimately will go to his grave knowing his sanguineous ideals failed. And I couldn’t be happier.
I also couldn’t be happier knowing Donald Trump will NOT be President of the United States after noon (EST) on January 20, 2021. Fortunately, our beloved democratic process functioned as designed last month. The United States isn’t like Franco’s Spain or Latin America of the past; where military dictatorships commanded every aspect of people’s lives, or like Putin’s Russia where one person can hold the reins of power for infinite years, or Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea where a single clan of dynastic brutes can cripple the minds and bodies of their subjects.
I feel Donald Trump came as close to an autocrat as we’ve ever had. It was a frightening prospect, especially knowing he actually wanted to delay the November 3 elections.
But American democracy prevailed over Trump’s fascist tendencies. That’s how all civilized societies should operate.