Veteran Spanish politician Fraga dies at age 89

  • Sun Jan 15th, 2012 6:13pm
  • News

Associated Press

MADRID — Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a blunt-talking politician who founded Spain’s ruling conservative party and ignited divisive reactions as the last surviving minister from Gen. Francisco Franco’s right-wing regime, has died. He was 89.

Spanish news agency Europa Press said Fraga died late Sunday of heart failure at his Madrid home, citing a family member.

In a career spanning 60 years, Fraga served as Franco’s information and tourism minister and as Spain’s interior minister after the dictator died in 1975. But the job he coveted most — being Spain’s prime minister — always eluded him.

Still, his influence on the country remained lasting.

Most Franco ministers quickly faded into obscurity after democracy was restored in 1978, but Fraga soldiered on. He helped write the country’s post-Franco, democratic Constitution that was passed in 1978.

Although he repeatedly failed to be elected prime minister, he nudged Franco loyalists toward the political center, founded what is now the Popular Party and groomed Jose Maria Aznar to replace him as leader of the Spanish right in 1989.

In the post-Franco years, he ran his native Galicia region with a tight grip for 15 years and then settled into a seat in the Spanish Senate.

To the Spanish left, Fraga was a reviled and outspoken reminder of a right-wing regime that kept Spain isolated from Europe and the rest of the world for decades. In Galicia, critics say, he ruled despotically, manipulating a conservative political culture based on patronage to stay in power.

Defenders, however, note that Fraga promulgated a Franco-era law that did away with media censorship — seen as a hint of change in the hardline regime. As tourism minister, Fraga worked to open up Spain to the outside world and bring in cash-laden visitors. A famous tourism slogan — “Spain is different” — which morphed into a popular Spanish saying was coined under Fraga’s watch.

He is also credited with transforming northwestern Galicia — traditionally one of Spain’s poorest, most backward regions — by building modern roads, bridges and other infrastructure, much of it paid for with EU funds. He boosted tourism and promoted Galicia’s separate language and culture during his reign as president there from 1990 to 2005.

In a 2001 press luncheon, Fraga offered no apologies for his part in Spain’s four decades of dictatorship.

“One cannot choose the period of history in which one lives,” Fraga said, before quickly changing the subject.

Fraga was born Nov. 23, 1922, in the northwestern town of Villalba. He married Carmen Estevez in 1948 and they had five children. She died in 1996.

After distinguishing himself in academics and earning a law degree, Fraga held several midlevel positions in the Franco regime until he was promoted to minister of information and tourism in 1962.

In September 2011, 60 years after beginning his career, Fraga announced his retirement from politics, saying he would not seek another term in the Senate.

Fraga was noted for his rapid-fire yet mumbling style of speech and an impetuous streak, exemplified when he once snipped the cord of telephone in his office when it would not stop ringing.

Contemporary Spanish history is full of images of Fraga as well as his famed one-liners.

As interior minister in the first post-Franco government, but prior to the restoration of democracy, Spanish media reported that Fraga blurted out “La calle es mia!” — “The streets are mine!” — as he put down street demonstrations by labor unions, communists and others. Fraga later denied having said this.

In 1966, Fraga engaged in a famous effort at damage control when four American hydrogen bombs fell on the southern Spanish village of Palomares after a mid-air collision between a B-52 bomber and a refueling plane.

None of them exploded, but radiation was strewn when the plutonium-containing detonators on two of the bombs exploded. These two and a third bomb that had also hit the ground were found within a day.

But the fourth bomb had fallen into the sea and eluded recovery for 75 days.

While crews were frantically searching for it, Fraga — a portly man in baggy swim trunks — joined U.S. Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke in taking a much-publicized swim off Palomares’ beach to show it was safe to go into the water.