Madrid, Spain – It’s still only late January but already Cristina Cabanas has visited El Valle de los Caidos – the Valley of the Fallen – three times this year. On this occasion, a cold Tuesday morning, she has brought friends to see the site just outside Madrid where former dictator Francisco Franco is buried.
“I like coming here, it makes me feel peaceful,” she says. “I love this place – I’ve always been pro-Franco.”
Cabanas, a 56-year-old owner of a leg-waxing clinic in Madrid, is standing outside the massive basilica where Franco was buried in 1975. It is drilled into the side of a mountain and looks down across a vast valley of trees, with the snow-capped Guadarrama mountains visible to the east.
Rising above Franco’s resting place is a 150m stone cross – the largest in the world.
“My ‘grandfather’ is buried here – that’s what I call Franco,” Cabanas says.
“Now, you can’t walk the streets at night, because you get attacked and mugged. Under Franco that didn’t happen.”
The Valley of the Fallen is the largest monument associated with the right-wing dictator who ruled Spain for 36 years after rebelling against the leftist republican government and defeating it in the 1936-39 civil war.
Built by republican prisoners, it is also the biggest cemetery site of that conflict, with an estimated 30,000 soldiers from both sides buried in unmarked graves nearby.
Reconverting to serve historical memory
The monument is by far the most controversial reminder of that era, with its overtly religious imagery and austere aesthetic reflecting the regime’s repressive “National-Catholicism” ideology.
With 2015 marking the 40th anniversary of Franco’s death and 75 years since the beginning of the Valley of the Fallen’s construction, pressure is building for it to be transformed into something less divisive and more historical.
A socialist member of Congress, Odon Elorza, has campaigned for the site to be “reconverted”.
He believes the remains of Franco should be removed and that the mausoleum should be turned into an educational centre on the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.
“It should be a place of reflection and respect for the memory of all the victims of the civil war and the victims of Franco – and right now it’s not,” Elorza told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that Franco, the dictator, presides over the mausoleum is a blow to democratic principles, it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. That man should not be there.”
Last year, Pablo de Greiff, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, urged the Spanish authorities to remove Franco’s body from the site as part of a wide-ranging series of measures related to the country’s historical memory, including lifting an amnesty law that protects those who may have committed human rights violations.
However, the governing Popular Party (PP) has taken no such steps.
Nor has it acted on a report commissioned in 2011 by the Socialist Party and written by a panel of experts on the future of the Valley of the Fallen, which also recommended turning the site into an educational and historical centre.
In December 2014, the conservative PP, which has a parliamentary majority, rejected Elorza’s request for Congress to consider his proposals.
Franco’s resting place, Elorza says, “is a pending issue of Spanish democracy which we haven’t wanted to tackle due to fear, or due to an unjustified cautiousness”.
That caution is a remnant of the spirit that drove Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s.
After Franco’s death, moderates from his regime and the left-wing opposition worked together to build a new parliamentary system in a process that was lauded around the world.
In order to make “la transicion” a success, both sides agreed not to use the civil war or the dictatorship as political weapons.
But in recent years, as the historical memory issue has started to emerge again in political debate, it has divided the political left and right, whose predecessors had worked together to make the democratic transition a success.
In 2007, the Socialist administration of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero introduced a Historical Memory Law, which sought to give “moral reparation” to victims of the war and Franco’s regime, as well as removing the many statues of Franco and his generals and other reminders of that era.
The more time that passes since the Franco dictatorship, the easier it becomes to take sensible measures. Now, enough time has gone by for these issues to be looked at in a much deeper way.
It also offered support for those who are trying to locate what are believed to be more than 100,000 Franco victims still buried in unmarked graves across the country.
A place for reconciliation?
That law failed to satisfy many on the left, who deemed it tepid and a failure in tackling obvious issues such as the Valley of the Fallen.
However, it also angered the right, which argued it needlessly raked over the past.
The Association for the Defence of the Valley of the Fallen, which campaigns for the site’s maintenance and promotion of its history, believes its true purpose has been misinterpreted, and even distorted in recent years.
“It’s a place of peace and reconciliation,” says Pablo Linares, the organisation’s president.
“Converting it into something else would be a mistake and so we would oppose that on all fronts, including legally.”
However, few historians seem to share the view that the Valley of the Fallen represents both sides of the civil war.
“It’s a huge great monument to National-Catholic fascism – that is, the Spanish version of fascism,” says Jose Alvarez Junco, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, who was invited to take part in the 2011 commission on the future of the Valley of the Fallen.
He declined, due to his insistence that the site can never become a place of reconciliation. However, removing Franco’s body and offering historical information there would make sense, he believes.
Under the PP administration of Mariano Rajoy, any such move is highly unlikely.
“The current government doesn’t want to hear anything about the civil war or the Franco dictatorship,” says Alvarez Junco. “It’s a right-wing government and it believes that these issues have already been resolved, that these things don’t interest Spaniards and that it’s all over.”
However, a general election is due by January 2016 which could see a new party in power. The Socialists’ young leader, Pedro Sanchez, has identified the country’s historical memory as “a just cause”.
Also vying for power will be Podemos, a new, leftist party whose policies and success in the polls echo those of Syriza in Greece. Its leaders have criticised the spirit of the democratic transition and Francoist symbols such as the Valley of the Fallen would appear to be obvious targets for their regeneration-driven platform.
“The more time that passes since the Franco dictatorship, the easier it becomes to take sensible measures,” says Alvarez Junco.
“Now, enough time has gone by for these issues to be looked at in a much deeper way.”
Follow Guy Hedgecoe on Twitter: @hedgecoe