As Spain suffers its worst crisis in 40 years, its once beloved monarchy is in turmoil. Will it survive?by Jonathan Blitzer / January 3, 2013 / Leave a comment
Juan Carlos’s story is that of modern Spain. When General Franco, his tutor, died, the king oversaw the transition to democracy (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
In April, King Juan Carlos I of Spain went hunting. Even at 74 years old, the sprightly king likes to keep up one of his favourite hobbies. This time he was off to Botswana. It was a private affair, and meant to stay under wraps. But after four days in Africa, Juan Carlos got up at dawn in search of a bathroom, tripped on a stair, and fell. His hip was broken in three places.
He flew back to Madrid for emergency surgery. As he lay in hospital, rumours spread in the press about the precise details of the trip. Queen Sofía, who was on holiday in her native Greece, did not return immediately to be with her husband. Word also got out that the hunting trip, though not on the public dime, had cost more than the average Spaniard’s annual salary.
In an unprecedented move, Juan Carlos issued an apology on national television. Scraping out on crutches to meet journalists at the hospital, Juan Carlos pronounced eleven words in Spanish: “I’m really sorry. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.” The statement reverberated as much for its symbolism as for its ambiguity. Was the king crestfallen, or down-to-earth? And what, exactly, wouldn’t happen again?
Public apologies are almost unheard of among Spanish politicians and royals. But the king had to say something. At the nadir of the country’s economic crisis, Juan Carlos was shooting elephants in Africa. “The contrast was stark,” said Fernando Jiménez, a professor of politics at the University of Murcia.
“The king has gone on thousands of hunting trips,” said Jaime Peñafiel, an 80-year-old monarchy watcher for the newspaper El Mundo. This is the same man, Peñafiel said, whom Spaniards have known and accepted for decades. “The king has always been this way; what has changed is the country.”
Juan Carlos embodies the history of modern Spain—and like the country itself, he and his dynasty are now in trouble. In the late 1970s, after the death of the longstanding dictator General Francisco Franco, the king presided over Spain’s fledgling democracy. His pivotal role in the transition from fascism to democracy made the Spanish monarchy into a treasured national institution, almost…