Spain Struggles to Shake Its Authoritarian Past

This past month, the last remaining statue of Spain’s former dictator Francisco Franco was removed in the small Spanish exclave of Melilla. This move followed the provisions of Spain’s Historical Memory Law, which was enacted in 2007 to acknowledge the victims of the Spanish Civil War and to formally condemn Franco’s regime. Since the caudillo’s death in 1975, Spain has embarked on a daunting yet remarkably smooth transition to become a modern democratic nation. But despite the efforts of the Spanish government to forge a new identity and leave its authoritarian past behind, echoes of the Franco era can still be heard to this day.

One recent event that brought these simmering tensions to light was the arrest and imprisonment of popular rapper and activist Pablo Hasél. The Spanish government justified Hasél’s detainment by claiming that he incited violence and insulted the monarchy. While the charges against him were certainly exaggerated, it must be noted that Hasél is not quite the harmless citizen that some of his supporters portray him as. The rapper’s politically charged lyrics can easily be considered insensitive and one can plainly see how his behavior naturally ruffles some feathers, especially among right-wing Spaniards and supporters of traditional institutions in the country. Hasél also has a history of praising controversial militant groups and occasionally using violence against political foes. But despite his checkered past, Hasél’s song lyrics alone do not warrant the nine-month prison sentence that was just handed down to him by the Spanish judiciary, a decision that highlights the fragility of free speech in Spain.

Immediately after Hasél was arrested on February 16, a series of protests and riots erupted in several cities across Spain. The violence led to over a hundred injuries and arrests and caused damage worth over a million euros. As the unrest unfolded, the Twitter account of Podemos, a left-wing populist political party in Spain, wrote that “every time that people denounce a democratic irregularity in the streets, the media powers put the focus on the unrest so that we stop debating the root problem, and nothing changes.” They certainly have a point in that the optics of destructive riots may not serve a constructive purpose because such events tend to diminish the public perception of the protester’s demands. But although the violence is certainly unfortunate, it did capture the attention of international onlookers in ways that a calmer response likely would not have. The question moving forward now becomes how to harness this attention into something that will produce meaningful change in the Spanish legal system.  

It is also crucial to acknowledge Pablo Hasél’s Catalan roots and to view his detainment in the context of the larger Catalan independence movement that has intensified within Spain over the last several years. Hasél has firmly declared his support for the movement, which seeks to establish the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia as an independent country. The recent drive for separation reached a climax in 2017, when a referendum appeared to overwhelmingly confirm Catalans’ desire for independence, only to be deemed illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain shortly afterwards. The subsequent trial and imprisonment of several key organizers of the referendum led to fierce protests in 2019, which reflected a strong feeling of resentment and distrust by Catalans towards the central Spanish government. The episode served as a clear indicator that Spain is unwilling to respect its citizen’s rights to self-determination and grant them the same level of democratic freedom as other Western countries.  

As any reasonable observer can deduce, Pablo Hasél is nothing less than a political prisoner. He has suffered the unfortunate fate of being the latest casualty of a Spanish government that has shown little hesitation in silencing prominent opposition voices who threaten its authority. Although Spain has made impressive strides towards achieving full democracy in the last few decades, recent events have shown that the government is fully prepared to take actions to bolster state power at the expense of basic democratic ideals. If Madrid truly desires respect in the international community, it is imperative that it release both Pablo Hasél and the Catalan independence leaders immediately. It is the least that can be done to show that Spain is on the path of justice and not drifting back into its authoritarian past.

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