Europe

Spain’s King Juan Carlos ‘essentially sold into slavery’ by father in bid to return throne

Juan Carlos: Journalist discusses 'exile' of Spain’s former King

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King Juan Carlos I spent a few days with his family last week as he marked two years since he decided to leave the country he once ruled. He spent the actual anniversary of his self-imposed exile — August 3 — with his youngest daughter, Infanta Cristina, who arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a couple of days earlier. Cristina and her older sister, Infanta Elena, are frequent visitors to the UAE where their father has resided since leaving Spain after the controversy surrounding his financial affairs intensified.

Since then, all investigations into allegations of financial impropriety have been dropped without any charges being brought.

The 84-year-old returned to Spain earlier this year where he spent several days in Sanxenxo in the northwest of the country, receiving a warm response from locals as he attended a sailing regatta. 

King Juan Carlos ruled Spain from 1975 until 2014 when he abdicated in favour of his son King Felipe VI. 

He is widely credited with helping restore democracy to Spain after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. 

Juan Carlos acceded to the throne two days after Franco, making him the first reigning monarch since 1931. 

His grandfather Alfonso XIII was the last king of Spain before the abolition of the monarchy and the subsequent declaration of the Second Spanish Republic.  

While Juan Carlos’ family were in exile in Rome, Franco took over the government of Spain after his victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1939. 

But in 1947 Spain’s status as a monarchy was affirmed and a law was passed allowing Franco to choose his successor. In 1969, Franco declared Juan Carlos his successor as head of state. 

However, a historian has claimed that Juan Carlos was “essentially sold into slavery” in order for his family to regain their royal status. 

Professor Paul Preston of the London School of Economics is a specialist in Spanish history and has written biographies on both Francisco Franco and King Juan Carlos I. 

Speaking to the BBC’s Crossing Continents programme in 2020, Prof Preston said: “At no point is a royal childhood likely to be warm and cuddly.  

“And because of this obsession of his [Juan Carlos] father with trying to get the family back on the throne, in 1948, he essentially sold his son into slavery. 

“He agreed with Franco to send 10-year-old Juan Carlos to be brought up in Franco’s Spain.”

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Prof Preston added: “It is worth remembering that at this time, Juan Carlos barely spoke Spanish and of course, he was then taken to Spain and brought up in really dire circumstances for a 10-year-old. 

“He was given a series of aristocratic and ultra-right wing tutors and he was brought up in the basic tenet of the dictatorship.” 

It was not until 20 years later that Franco finally named Juan Carlos as his successor. 

Six years later, in 1975, Franco died and Juan Carlos became the new head of state. 

From then on, Juan Carlos led the change that the people of Spain had desperately wanted throughout Franco’s dictatorship. 

He legalised political parties and established a constitutional monarchy. 

Prof Preston said: “He’s actually been what I’ve called the fireman of democracy — putting out the flames of military conspiracy which is so constant during these years. 

“The upper reaches of the Spanish armed forces have not been changed with the death of Franco and a potential very violent push towards the return of dictatorship is very strong, helped by the fact that this is the period of Basque terrorism.

“He [Juan Carlos] plays an amazingly important role during this time and then most decisively when stomping on the military coup on 23rd February 1981.” 

The military coup saw 200 armed Civil Guard officers enter the Congress of Deputies during the vote to elect a President of the Government. 

The officers held the parliamentarians and ministers hostage for 18 hours, during which time Juan Carlos denounced the coup in a televised address, calling for rule of law and the democratic government to continue. 

Though shots were fired, the hostage-takers surrendered the next morning without killing anyone.

Juan Carlos was hailed a saviour and the Spanish monarchy emerged from the failed coup with overwhelming legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the political class. 

Prof Preston said: “A neutral head of state is something that the country needed very, very much, and he [Juan Carlos] plays that role very, very well — very firm — he is absolutely even-handed between the right and the left.” 

The Spanish public felt an immense sense of gratitude for the king at that time, but it can now be seen as the high point of Juan Carlos’ reign as the royal has since found himself engulfed in scandal. 

Since he abdicated in June 2014, his son Felipe, wife Queen Sofía and daughter-in-law Queen Letizia have been working to better the tarnished reputation of their family. 

His visit to Spain earlier this year marked the first time Felipe and Sofia had seen Juan Carlos since he left for UAE. 

The trip was “part of His Majesty King Juan Carlos’ desire to travel frequently to Spain to visit family and friends, organise his personal life and his place of residence in areas of a private nature, as expressed in the letter addressed to His Majesty the King on March 5,” according to a statement on the Palace’s website at the time. 

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