On this day in 1973, Basque separatists ETA assassinated far-right prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco. The action played an important role in ending Franco’s dictatorship — an inconvenient truth for the democratic Spain against which ETA then turned its fire.

Aftermath of the ETA assassination of Spanish prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco by car bomb, December 20, 1973. (Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

On December 20, 1973, Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) struck a potentially lethal blow against the Spanish dictatorship, assassinating Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco in Madrid. Carrero had long been Franco’s right-hand man, and the car bombing was a major logistical and ideological triumph for ETA. While up to that point it had concentrated its efforts in the Basque Country, this established its credentials as the most serious threat to the Franco regime. At the 2009 Hay Literature Festival in Segovia, British novelist Martin Amis argued that while there were few reasons to be grateful to ETA, this was one of them.

This was surely a controversial claim, but not a ridiculous one. Franco’s final passing in 1975 and the signing of the new democratic constitution in 1978 offer a comforting narrative of Spain’s transition to democracy. But we might better understand these events by looking at the successful bombing of a car carrying the only figure who had the political and intellectual clout that might plausibly have allowed Francoism to survive the death of its chief architect.

Luis Carrero Blanco was the only figure who had the political and intellectual clout that might plausibly have allowed Francoism to survive the death of its chief architect.

Franco died in his bed in 1975, and Spain embarked on a path to becoming a full-fledged democratic state. Fifty years on from Carrero’s death, Spain holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Spain, like all democratic states, has its conflicts: in November, fringe elements called for the army to take action after Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s controversial pardoning of Catalan separatists behind the illegal referendum of 2017, in exchange for them lending him support to form a government. Yet there is no danger of the country returning to the dark days of dictatorship or the Civil War. Establishment claims that this is due to the stability provided by the 1978 constitution neglect to mention that this document did little to protect democracy in the turbulent years between 1978 and 1981.

Fragile Young Democracy

The transition was a process, not a moment, and there were few guarantees that it was going to have a happy ending. Citizens of all regions of the Spanish nation-state (Catalonia included) approved the constitution by referendum, with the sole exception of the Basque Country. Shortly afterward, however, the turnout for the second post-Franco democratic elections in 1979 were low: a dire economic situation alongside an increase in violence and crime convinced many Spaniards that democracy was an experiment that simply hadn’t worked out. The armed forces, who continued to terrorize suspected terrorists with torture and intimidation tactics, as well as ETA, who killed more — not less — after the death of Franco, were liabilities, irresponsibly escalating tension. Government figures, opposition party MPs, and King Juan Carlos (Franco’s anointed successor as head of state) knew that a coup attempt was only a matter of time, and that there was no guarantee democracy would prevail. In the end, the coup attempt of February 1981 backfired, unwittingly consolidating the nascent democratic state. Televised images of Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero — a caricature of the Francoist figure of authority with his tricorn hat, hysterically firing his gun in Parliament — rendered democracy attractive by comparison. The king addressed the nation to denounce the insurrectionists. Felipe González’s youthful Socialist Party secured a safe absolute majority in the 1982 general elections with a punchy campaign slogan: “For change.”

Modernization and Spain’s incorporation into the European Union constituted a common goal across society, which cut through other political divides. That said, ETA, or more accurately hard-line factions within it, refused to play ball. They had to adapt, however, to radically different circumstances. ETA’s first targeted victim, policeman Melitón Manzanas, assassinated in 1968, was notorious for torturing suspects.

For as long as Franco was alive, the antidictatorship and proindependence struggle were easily conflated. The dictatorship’s inflexible and violent centralism had facilitated this connection. Beyond Spain’s borders, leading figures of the international left such as Jean-Paul Sartre championed ETA as being at the vanguard of the anti-colonial struggle. In the nascent years of Spanish democracy, a widespread gratitude to ETA in progressive circles was inextricably linked with the killing of Carrero Blanco. A staple of Basque festivities was the song “Yup lala,” a comic exaltation of the assassination with the following refrain: “We praise you ETA / because you are the staff of the people / and because the strength is great / The people are happy for you.” Outside the Basque Country, Catalan theater group Els Joglars often sought out streets named after Carrero Blanco (there were almost as many in Spain as there were dedicated to Franco) to stage dissident works. Their fate in 1977, being imprisoned and court marshalled, provided an emblematic example of the armed forces continuing to exercise their right of veto if democracy was seen to go too far.

Memory of the Struggle

On the one hand, a sentimental attachment to ETA for its opposition to the dictatorship resulted in sympathizers continuing to justify the unjustifiable into the democratic period. Conversely, however, the democratic establishment has never recognized the formative role ETA played in the dictatorship’s demise, fearful perhaps that contextualization would equate to justification. With the assassination of Carrero Blanco, ETA scored a political and a psychological victory. It removed a man who, had he survived, would not have resigned himself to Juan Carlos’s betrayal of the fundamental principles of Francoism while also demonstrating that the Spanish armed forces were not alone in being able to use violence as a form of coercive political control.

The democratic establishment has never recognized the formative role ETA played in the dictatorship’s demise.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, ETA constituted the single biggest threat to the Spanish state, while the government’s response of licensing GAL (an illegal paramilitary death squad active in a dirty war with ETA between 1983 and 1987 responsible for twenty-seven mortal casualties with over thirty more wounded) undermined the elected government’s democratic legitimacy. ETA’s increasingly hard-line actions — designed to bully citizens into submission and the Spanish state into negotiation regarding independence and treatment of prisoners — proved not only inhumane but also counterproductive. A 1987 car bomb in Barcelona’s Hipercor shopping center killed twenty-one civilians and led to the political wing of ETA, the Basque nationalist party Herri Batasuna, being punished at the polls. In 1997 a young councilor from the right-of-center People’s Party (PP), Miguel Ángel Blanco, was kidnapped. The Madrid central government, under PP control since José María Aznar (who, as leader of the opposition, had survived an assassination attempt when ETA placed a bomb under his car) defeated González in the 1996 general elections, refused to negotiate. Popular opinion was mobilized against ETA, which nevertheless shot the councilor in cold blood. With dwindling public support and a thriving economy boosting the Basque Country, ETA’s days were numbered.

ETA declared a cease-fire in 2011 and announced its complete and permanent dissolution in 2018. The disappearance of physical violence from the streets of the Basque Country is itself remarkable; indeed, the threat of violence is far less palpable than in present-day Northern Ireland. That is not to say that tensions have disappeared entirely. Paradoxically ETA registers its lowest-ever popularity ratings in the twenty-first century, yet political prisoners continue to be greeted with a warm welcome and celebrations of their release. A new Basque nationalist party, EH Bildu, incorporating many former members, has been elected to numerous municipal councils.

The ubiquity of graffiti in Basque with slogans such as “Memory of the struggle” in small towns and villages can be seen as a continuation of the campaign of intimidation by which victims and their families were rendered pariahs within their own communities. In 2014, on the third anniversary of ETA agreeing to stop killing, the PP interior minister in the national government signed a protocol with the PP mayor of Vitoria (the administrative capital of the Basque Country) to establish a space of memory with the explicit aim of preventing ETA from controlling the historical narrative. Historian Raúl López Romo traveled around Europe visiting Holocaust museums to seek inspiration: he concluded that witness testimony was good, but that it was too often framed with insufficient historical context. Taking Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as its principal point of reference, the Memorial Center for the Victims of Terrorism, housed in an emblematic building that was home to the Bank of Spain, was officially opened by King Felipe VI in June 2021.

A heavily subsidized venture with sophisticated multimedia displays and free entrance, visitors are encouraged to start their visit with an exhibition covering the 2004 Madrid Atocha train bombings. This choice is especially striking given the controversy that surrounded the attacks: right-wing prime minister Aznar, on the eve of a general election, deceptively attempted to palm this off to the media as an ETA attack, though all the evidence available to him pointed toward it being Islamist retribution for his government’s role in the Bush-Blair “war on terror.” In the museum, Aznar’s opportunistic but ultimately unsuccessful scapegoating of ETA is barely given a mention. Seeking to locate ETA within a more universal narrative, the main exhibition spaces ignore the obvious point of comparison — the Irish Republican Army — and instead establish repeated parallels with ISIS.

During the transition to democracy, the martyred Carrero Blanco became a touchstone of integrity for the most reactionary sections of society.

In August 2021, social media brimmed with indignation when the Memorial Center commemorated the anniversary of Manzanas, killed by ETA in 1968. The museum had referred to him as a simple policeman murdered by terrorists, with no indication that he had been a violent perpetrator of state violence. The fact that references to the PP councilor killed in 1997 are ubiquitous in Vitoria while ones to Carrero Blanco are minimal suggests that the narrative promoted by the Memorial Center is at least as tendentious as that attributed to ETA and its sympathizers. Star exhibits include a recreation of the cell in which ETA kept the PP councilor prisoner, with multiple photos of the young, good-looking family man. The one passing reference to Carrero Blanco in explanatory texts (in English and Spanish as well as Basque) is quickly followed with details of the 1974 Cafetería Rolando attack, also attributed to ETA. The Madrid site was targeted as a popular hangout for police officers, but almost all of the thirteen victims killed were civilians. No mention is made of the torture endured by ETA sympathizers rounded up by the police.

Reactionaries’ Icon

That attack took place when the regime was still reeling from the psychological and political fallout of Carrero Blanco’s violent death. At his funeral, the anthem of the fascist Falange party, “Cara al sol,” was sung, while he was posthumously named duke, a hereditary title that his heirs were allowed to inherit until a revised Law of Democratic Memory was introduced in 2022. This legislation also prompted the removal of Franco’s remains from his resting place in the “Valley of the Fallen” mausoleum (largely built by slave labor during the dictatorship). The dictator is now buried alongside his family and elite members of the regime, Carrero Blanco included, in a cemetery near El Pardo, the principal residency of Franco and his family throughout the dictatorship.

During the transition, the martyred Carrero Blanco became a touchstone for the most reactionary sections of society. In lieu of an official ceremony, the leader of the fascist Fuerza Nueva party, Blas Piñar (who would later become a mentor to Jean-Marie Le Pen) unveiled a statue to Carrero Blanco in the admiral’s hometown in front of six thousand people with the claim that it was impossible “to officially inaugurate a monument to a martyr of Marxism because Marxism now runs the government.” Decades later, Aznar, Felipe VI, and Juan Carlos have all politely turned down invitations for a belated official ceremony, claiming scheduling conflicts. In spite of the original 2007 Law of Historical Memory, there were in 2020 still eleven streets in Spain named in honor of Carrero Blanco. The Casa Eladio bar in Ávila (one of a number of nostalgic shrines to Francoism that continue to be open for business) pays tribute, with a photo of the admiral in full military attire alongside the date that he was assassinated by “the Terrorist organization ETA.” The blind eye paid to establishments like Casa Eladio contrasts with legal action taken in 2017 against Cassandra Vera Paz, a twenty-one-year old student, for tweets making the kind of cheap jibes about the explosive nature of Carrero Blanco’s death that had circulated widely throughout the 1970s among progressive circles.

Victims of both terrorism and the dictatorship were left to suffer in silence for far too long. In recent years, a non sequitur has become ingrained, claiming that even to say that the Spanish state is more inclined to pay homage to those who suffered at the hands of violent Basque nationalism than the Francoist dictatorship is an index of sympathy for ETA and disregard for its victims. There is no possible defense for the cold-blooded murder of Miguel Ángel Blanco; this ought not ever be forgotten. Accepting this underlying premise does not, however, preclude reasonable objections to the co-option of his martyred figure for conservative political agendas. In the exclusive Viso neighborhood (originally designed as a colony for artists and intellectuals in the democratic Spanish Second Republic and then expropriated by the elites of Francoism) a statue and garden in his honor was opened in 2014 by Ana Botella, Aznar’s wife and the then mayor of Madrid. The inscription below his name describes the councilor for the PP (a party in many but not all respects born out of the ashes of Francoism) as a “symbol of freedom.” That same year, a plaque adorned with the Spanish national flag was unveiled at 104 Claudio Coello Street, the site of Carrero Blanco’s death, in honor of his chauffeur, José Luis Pérez Mogena, and police bodyguard, Juan Antonio Buneo, who also died in the attack.

Carrero Blanco was perhaps the first casualty of a transition that he would have violently opposed.

A commendable desire to extend recognition of victimhood beyond elite participants of history would be a more genuinely democratic gesture had it been accompanied by the replacement of the original 1974 plaque dedicated to Carrero Blanco. This expresses gratitude from the people of Madrid to a man who reputedly paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country, vowing “to honor his death and keep his memory alive.”

Carrero Blanco was perhaps the first casualty of a transition which he would have violently opposed. This process turned out to be far more peaceful that it might have been but was hardly devoid of victims or violence. The awkwardness of this significant anniversary resides in the fact that either commiserating or celebrating the admiral’s assassination have since become so indelibly entwined with antidemocratic sentiment. That a successful terrorist attack perhaps did more to establish democracy in Spain than the 1978 constitution is an inconvenient truth — just one of the many silences on which this modern, twenty-first-century European state relies.

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