LAKE MACBRIDE— King Juan Carlos I of Spain announced this morning he would abdicate the throne in favor of his son, Crown Prince Felipe. Having visited the country during the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Juan Carlos made a favorable impression on me from the first days of his reign. Until recently, he held the favor of a large majority of Spaniards. There are not many countries where this type of transition of power holds a place in personal memory.
What makes Spain stand out is my encounters with the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force. Under Franco, they had a reputation for brutality among the populace. As a foreign visitor, I was aware of this and came under their scrutiny several times. That the Guardia operated in mostly rural and isolated parts of the country increased the risk of police violations of individual civil rights through lack of supervision and accountability. I did whatever I was asked by them without commentary.
My most significant encounter with Franco’s regime was on a train trip leaving Madrid for France. Basque separatists had set off a bomb in what I now know was the Cafetería Rolando bombing on Sept. 13, 1974. I arrived in Madrid shortly after the blast and was staying at an inexpensive hotel with a number of other international travelers. I had come all that way to see the Prado and was determined to continue my itinerary. I didn’t understand what the attack meant, and after a couple of days, decided to cut short my stay.
The Guardia Civil inspected my rail car. Every passenger was closely scrutinized and questioned. It seemed they spent a long time with me, a long haired, supposed student with a U.S. passport and a Eurail pass. It was probably no more time than with anyone else. It was a visceral experience of a police state, something we talk about but rarely experience. It seems like yesterday.
Whatever troubles King Juan Carlos may have today, I wish him well and the same for his son. An unusual wish coming from the Iowa cornbelt this rainy spring day.