Recovering Plundered Real Estate from the Franco Family

November 14, 2020
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From 1939 to 1975 a manor located in the province of La Coruña, Galicia, was used as a summer residence and office by the dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco. For the last fifteen years, a diverse group of activists has put the spotlight on the questionable claim of ownership by descendants of the dictator. In September, the regional judge Marta Canales ruled in favor of the State in a 370-page decision which now requires the grandchildren of Franco to relinquish the property called the “Pazo de Meirás.” Although legal representatives for the defendants have announced an appeal, the ruling is the first step towards putting an end to 82 years of Franco family presence in the manor.

The manor or “pazo,” the Galician term for this type of structure, was built between 1893 and 1900 for one of the region’s most renowned writers, Emilia Bardo Bazán, (1851-1921), whose book collection is still housed in its library.  The key point of contention concerning ownership of the property dates to the Spanish Civil War. In early 1938, a group of business leaders from La Coruña proposed a residence for the new “Caudillo” as a way to ingratiate the regional capital once the war ended. With his seasonal presence, the ensuing cabinet meetings and government activity would ensure an economic stimulus to the region. To this end, a subscription was launched, but given the meager funds obtained, voluntary donations were rapidly replaced with mandatory participation by affluent and poor alike. The Pazo de Meirás was then purchased from the nephew of the celebrated Galician writer and offered to the Head of State. The first to visit the property was Carmen Polo, the wife of Franco. The formal donation was orchestrated in December 1938 and the annual visits began in 1939 rapidly becoming a national event widely covered in the regime’s propaganda machine for the next 35 years.

The story could have ended there with a donation to the Head of State, but the plot thickened just two years later. The plan the local movers and shakers put in place worked even better than they imagined because Franco’s interest in the property intensified. In 1941, despite the fact that the property had already been purchased by the group of local notables prior to its donation, new papers were drawn up between the Pardo Bazán family and the dictator. The only explanation for this second “purchase,” at a much lower price than paid just three years earlier, was to simulate a private purchase of the estate by Franco himself and in this way, to register the property in his name. During his long reign, the fraudulent purchase was a moot point, but at Franco’s death in 1975, it was the base for the Pazo de Meirás to pass in inheritance to Franco’s widow.

The illegal manner by which the property landed in the hands of the Franco family was an open secret in the region as many had been forced to donate for its original purchase as well as poor neighbors whose property was systematically plundered to enlarge the grounds had passed down their stories. The first public demonstration to question ownership of the estate was organized in 2005 by the local Committee for the Recovery of Historical Memory of La Coruña (CRMHC) with the slogan of “Return the People’s property to the People.” Thus began a series of local protests that kept the issue in the public sphere for some fifteen years, patiently but persistently paving the way for the landmark decision that has recently been issued. One of the keys to success was that the CRMHC toiled to forge a wide consensus with associations as well as local, regional and national institutions, which also meant working across traditional political party lines, no small feat in the habitually conservative region. Parallel to public demonstrations, serious documentation work was taken up to study the history of the property. This led to the publication of the work by Manuel Pérez Lorenzo and Carlos Babío: Meirás: Un pazo, un caudillo, un espolio (Meirás: Manor, Dictator, Plunder) and later to the creation of a Historic and Legal committee in the Provincial Government of La Coruña.

In a sign that the tables were turning, in 2017 the Franco family was fined by the authorities for failing to hold public tours of the estate. When the widely contested Francisco Franco Foundation offered to take over planning public visits for the family, the public outcry was enormous, a fact that breathed greater life into the resistance movement. That year the essential participation of the Provincial government of La Coruña in the process to recover the property began in earnest.

On the record, the Franco family was deaf to popular protests, but in February 2018 they put the property on sale for eight million euros and the government rapidly interceded to halt any sale. Several months later, on August 8 the family decided to celebrate the wedding of one of Franco’s great-granddaughters on the disputed property, a step denounced as an outright provocation. Seizing the opportunity, the CRHMC answered by organizing a “Counter Wedding” in the town of Sada at the gates of the Pazo de Meirás complete with a mock Francisco Franco bedecked in a full dress Admiral’s uniform, a Cardinal, a wedding party and Moorish guards. Scenes of the light-hearted demonstration as Franco family guests arrived at the manor gates are still visible on internet.

National politics have also played a role. The conservative MP Mariano Rajoy was ousted by a vote of no confidence sponsored and carried by Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party. This reverse of the Popular Party on the national stage was an opportunity seized by the Galician Popular Party to distance itself from the Franco claims, one aspect of which was its support for recovering the Pazo de Meirás. From that point on there was no turning back. All local and regional institutions and parties were on board to reclaim the property from the Franco family. The verdict in favor of the State is the result of this long struggle. As Fernando Souto Suárez, president of the CRMHC stated: “There are no charismatic leaders in our movement. Everyone participates and each person is an equal protagonist. We call the broad participation and the wide consensus to guide actions ‘the Meirás Method’ and we hope it will be used as a model for future endeavors of this type.”

Robert S. Coale is Professor of Hispanic Studies at the Université de Rouen-Normandie in France and a member of the Board of ALBA. 

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