MADRID, Spain (AP)—He became Western Europe's longest reigning dictator this century, ruling Spain with an iron fist after unleashing one of the continent's bitterest civil wars.
Twenty-five years after Gen. Francisco Franco's death, the small size of the gatherings at memorial ceremonies in and around Madrid this weekend was further testimony that the vast majority of Spaniards have no desire to cherish his memory.
“Praised to ridiculous lengths during four decades, today his name produces indifference or negative sentiments among 80 percent of the population, especially the young,” the leading daily El Pais wrote in an editorial Sunday.
The paper, like most others, published hefty supplements dealing with the anniversary, most centering on how better off the country is with Franco dead.
In an opinion survey of 1,000 people carried out for El Pais, more than 80 percent felt the country had improved in nearly all aspects, except citizens' security—a reflection of increasing fears of rising crime and political violence in recent years. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
But few as they may be, Franco still has his followers.
“If only we had another Franco and Spain could have that empire feeling again,” said one middle-aged man who joined some 5,000 people Saturday for a commemorative mass at the Valley of the Fallen, the awesome mausoleum Franco sculpted out of a mountainside near Madrid for his burial place.
On Sunday, less than 2,000 people turned up at central Madrid's Oriente Plaza for an annual gathering held on the Sunday closest to Franco's anniversary.
That rally went off without incident, but nearby, some 10 people were injured and five detained when police used batons and rubber bullets to break up an anti-Franco demonstration.
In the first few years after his death, the Franco rallies attracted tens of thousands of people. But as the years rolled by and Spain shrugged off the near 40-year dictatorship to fully embrace democracy and free-market capitalism, the crowds shrank rapidly.
This year, Spain seemed to take a different tack on the dictator's anniversary, seeing it more as a reason to celebrate the 25-year reign of King Juan Carlos, who was crowned two days after Franco's death on Nov. 20, 1975, launching the country's return to democracy.
In July 1936, Franco urged Spain's soldiers to revolt against the leftist democratic government, sparking the Spanish Civil War in which some 500,000 were killed.
“El Caudillo,” or `the Supreme Leader,’ as Franco liked to be called, followed up the victory in 1939 with 36 years of rigid authoritarianism and repression.
Workers and civil rights were greatly ignored while nationalist and cultural expression in the Basque, Catalan and Galician regions was brutally suppressed.
Resistance was limited to a communist underground that fought until the early 1960s. Later, the Basque armed separatist group ETA took up arms in 1968, targeting security force members.
Franco's defenders claim the economy prospered while he was in power. Rail connections, bridges, reservoirs and highways were built and tourism blossomed. But critics argue that all this would have happened anyway.
Within years of Franco's demise, independent labor unions were recognized, regional autonomies were granted, and even the Communist Party was legalized.