The Last Macho Rise and Fall of Spain’s Former King Juan Carlos

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After the end of the Franco era, King Juan Carlos I helped his country become wealthy and democratic. Today he is exiled, with his legacy clouded by possible connections to tax fraud. What happened?

By Helene Zuber

In Cuba, in November 1999, everyone loves the Spanish king. Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader, cordially receives him at the airport in Havana. Later, when Juan Carlos walks through the historic city center with his entourage, residents applaud from their windows and balconies. People chant, “Long live Spain!” and “Viva el Rey.” Construction workers shake his hand and a street cleaner gets a kiss on the cheek.

“Never in my life have I dreamed of anything so wonderful,” the worker later told the journalists accompanying the king, of which I was one. The Spanish king was there for the Ibero-American Summit of heads of state and government. He was 61 years old and at the apex of his international stature. People even liked him back home, regardless of whether they were on the left or the right of the political spectrum.

I found myself recalling that day this August, when a Spanish website posted an entirely different image of the king. It showed an old man, his face hidden behind a corona mask, leaning heavily on the railing as he descends the stairs from a private plane. The aircraft had carried him from the northwest corner of his kingdom to a different continent. Juan Carlos I, 82, who abdicated the throne in 2014, had turned his back on his country – weakened by illness, wounded by the scorn of many of his compatriots after various scandals, and mocked by half the world.

His destination was only confirmed two weeks later: He had flown to Abu Dhabi and would be staying for a time with his friend, Prince Mohamed bin Zayed.

He had made far too many missteps in recent years – to the point that had become a burden for his son, King Felipe VI, for the monarchy and for the stability of Spain’s political system. The rise and fall of Juan Carlos I illustrate the deep changes Spain has undergone in the 45 years since its former dictator, Francisco Franco, died in 1975.

The king, who is part of the Bourbon dynasty, helped the country develop from an almost medieval corporate state to a high-tech kingdom and the fourth-largest economy in the European Union. But in recent years, Juan Carlos no longer understood the degree to which Spaniards had also changed, and that if the monarchy was to survive, it would have to adapt to Spain’s new culture and relinquish some privileges.

Juan Carlos was proclaimed king by the two houses of Spanish parliament on Nov. 22, 1975 and crowned five days later in the Iglesia de San Jerónimo El Real in the heart of Madrid. For nearly four preceding decades, Franco had isolated his people in a backward regime that was strictly regimented by the Catholic Church. Even young women wore black at the time and they were not allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their father or husband. Only very few people had bank accounts. Villages were under the control of the priest and the military police force known as Guardia Civil. Only the most privileged owned a car.

Juan Carlos embodied the rebirth of an ossified country. Immediately after he was crowned, the young king traveled with his wife Sofía – a princess of Greece and Schleswig-Holstein and the great-granddaughter of the last German emperor – through the country, from Andalusia to Basque country. Sofía, who spoke Spanish with an accent, listened just as amiably to fieldworkers as she did to fishermen. There were only very few monarchists at the time, and it was partly thanks to Sofía that the “Reyes” – the royals installed by grace of the dictator – slowly achieved the acceptance of even those Spaniards who had believed in the republic.

“Like a Ping-Pong Ball”

That support was far from inevitable for Juan Carlos, who was born in exile in 1938 as the second child of an impoverished family in Rome. From very early on, it was impressed upon him that he must win back the throne that his grandfather, Alfonso XIII, had abdicated without resistance in April 1931, when the republic was proclaimed. His father negotiated with the dictator and sent his 10-year-old son back to Spain, entrusting his well-being to Franco. Later, in one of his rare interviews, Juan Carlos said he had felt “like a ping-pong ball” between the two.

His teachers encountered a shy, young prince with a mournful look. Later, during his university studies in Madrid, he was seen as a peculiar outsider who was accosted by both leftist students and followers of Franco. Even at the beginning of his reign, intellectuals mocked him as “El Breve,” meaning “the short-lived one,” in the belief that he would soon be gone.

But Juan Carlos surprised the country by distancing himself from the dictator after just a few months. In July 1976, he installed the young lawyer Adolfo Suárez as prime minister, a man for whom even the daughters of the Franco elite had a soft spot. With his connections to senior members of the previous regime, Suárez helped the king disempower Francoism and transform Spain into a democracy. He got rid of the Francoist parliament, announced an amnesty for political prisoners and legalized political parties. Even the Communist Party was allowed to take part in the first elections, held in 1977.

A commission, which included representatives from all parties who had won seats in parliament, drafted a new constitution. In that document, the king renounced the claim to absolute authority that Franco had envisioned for him. Juan Carlos wanted to be the king of all Spaniards. He understood that it was the only way to guarantee a future for the Spanish monarchy.

Today, all actions taken by the monarch must still be vouched for by a member of the elected government, since the king himself has no decision-making powers. Almost all parliamentarians approved the new constitution, and Spanish voters followed suit in a referendum.

Solving the Coup

But while Juan Carlos was respected abroad, dissatisfaction from old Franco supporters was growing inside Spain. The officer corps and the military police, especially, were growing increasingly skeptical. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1981, the Guardia Civil took the lawmakers hostage in parliament while collaborators occupied the public broadcasting station. It was the first serious test for the king and the young democracy.

A television camera captured footage of the Guardia Civil commander firing shots into the air with his pistol as politicians sought cover on the floor among the benches. Juan Carlos was the only member of state leadership who was not apprehended, because his military trainer managed to convince the conspirators that they were acting in the king’s name.

Inside his residence in the Palace of Zarzuela, he spent hours on the phone with the commanders of the troops. He made it clear to them that he, as commander-in-chief of the military, did not support the putsch. He kept his son, the 13-year-old Felipe, at his side throughout to teach him how a king solves such crises.

Ultimately, Juan Carlos went on television to address the people of Spain and the country’s senior military officers, who still hadn’t thrown their support behind the putsch. The crown, the king said, “will not tolerate, in any degree whatsoever, the actions or behavior of anyone attempting through use of force to interrupt the democratic process of the Constitution, which the Spanish people approved by a vote in referendum.”

The putsch failed. And with his commitment to the Constitution, the king won over the hearts of the nation. They became passionate supporters of their king, Juan Carlos, if not of the monarchy.

Golden Years for Spain

It marked the beginning of several good years for Spain. The country became a member of NATO and joined the European Economic Community. The country’s military also learned the rules of democracy. Highways, airports, desalination facilities, windfarms and high-speed rail connections were built, all of it with billions in assistance from Brussels. Felipe González, who served as Spanish prime minister for many years as head of the Socialist Workers’ Party, still defends the king to this day, saying Juan Carlos “rendered fantastic service to Spain during a whole series of difficult situations” during those years. The king, says González, managed to reestablish Spain’s standing in the world.

He was also friendly with journalists. I can recall how he would always receive us foreign correspondents during trips and receptions and address us in English, French and sometimes even with a few words of German. The press refrained from publicly criticizing him – even if his lifestyle provided plenty of ammunition for gossip.

On the island of Mallorca, there were rumors of a liaison with an interior decorator. In Madrid, some said that the king would frequently speed through town at night on his motorcycle clad in leather, only to disappear in the garage of a former beauty queen. In summer, he would bob about on the Fortuna, a yacht given to him by a group of Balearic businessmen. When paparazzi offered papers nude photos taken aboard the vessel, none of them wanted to print the images. There was talk of dubious bankers and financiers, but most Spaniards were proud of their macho king who pursued women.

During these untroubled years, I frequently encountered the king and his family at receptions and conferences in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin and elsewhere. In 2004, shortly after her son’s wedding, Queen Sofía assisted his new wife Letizia with the difficult process of integrating into the Bourbon family. Prior to meeting the prince, Letizia worked an editor and presenter for the Spanish state broadcaster. So Sofía invited four Spanish male journalists and myself to the Royal Academy of History in Madrid so she could learn more about how the press works. Isn’t being a journalist the most wonderful job in the world? she asked me as we were both slurping paper cups of tea she had brought along in a thermos. It was an intimate moment, just the two of us. The men had stepped outside for a cigarette.

Sofía was educated in Greece and in Salem, a German boarding school, for life as a royal. She studied music and archeology, and understood something that her husband, who had grown up under Franco, refused to recognize: In the 21st century, it was vital for the king of a democratic society to avoid seeming pompous or like he was benefitting from the throne. His job was to serve the people, since voters could mandate their lawmakers to change the Constitution and get rid of the monarchy. But Juan Carlos continued to act as though he was invincible.

Corinna Scandal

The pact of silence ended in April 2012. During an elephant hunt in Botswana, Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to be flown to Madrid for surgery. For the first time, the Spanish media revealed the name of his companion: Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, née Larsen, a twice-divorced German businesswoman with two children and close ties to magnates in Saudi Arabia.

Juan Carlos had met her eight years earlier during a hunt. Now, Spaniards could read in the papers that the king’s “intimate friend” had organized Prince Felipe’s honeymoon and sometimes lived in the Zarzuela Palace compound with her son. But it wasn’t the affair that soured Spaniards on their king, it was the fact that he was galivanting around Africa with his apparent mistress even as Spain was facing insolvency.

At home, the conservative government was making increasingly deep cuts to social benefits and millions of jobs were being lost, particularly among young people. Meanwhile, the king’s favored son-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, a former professional handball player who had married Juan Carlos’ daughter Cristina, was facing charges for embezzling public funds through a charitable foundation.

Corruption had caught up to the Spanish royal family, for the entire world to see. And when Juan Carlos was released from hospital, he found it necessary to apologize to his people. “I am very sorry. I made a mistake and it won’t happen again,” he said to the gathered television cameras.

His wife, Queen Sofía, meanwhile, endured all of the escapades and maintained the appearance of an intact, dynastic marriage. Juan Carlos consistently praised her as a “real professional.” She stood by her philandering husband, performing her official duties impeccably. But inside the palace, they lived in separate wings.

Juan Carlos never managed to win back his compatriots. Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn suddenly departed Spain that summer and has complained ever since that she was removed from the country by Spanish secret service. Nevertheless, a 2014 survey found that only less than half of respondents still supported the monarchy. Juan Carlos saw no other choice than to abdicate in favor of his son – and last year stepped back from all functions.

A Pared-Down Monarchy

Immediately after his father’s abdication, Felipe VI introduced stricter regulations governing the use of public money and increased transparency for how the royal family spends what it is allotted from the national budget. He even pays 42 percent tax on his own annual income, currently set at 242,769 euros ($288,034), far less than that drawn by other kings in Europe.

Felipe immediately removed his two older sisters from the inner circle of the “Familia Real” so they no longer draw an allowance. He has also banned all his relatives from engaging in business dealings or accepting gifts. The royal family now only consists of his wife, their daughters Leonor (the heir to the throne) and Sofía, and his parents.

This spring, King Felipe eliminated his father’s annual allowance of almost 200,000 euros, leaving him only with the honorary title of “Rey emérito.” Pressured by the leftist coalition government, he also prepared for Juan Carlos’ departure from the Palace of Zarzuela.

The reason? In March, while the entire country was stuck at home during the lockdown, the scope of the Corinna affair came to light. His former lover has been charged with money laundering in Switzerland, and her defense is nothing short of an indictment of Juan Carlos. The former Spanish king has been exposed.

The most recent revelations about the king come from 2015, when Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn confided in a former criminal investigator who had worked for years as a private detective to the rich. “He is obsessed by money,” she said about Juan Carlos, adding that he had brought suitcases full of cash into Spain. “Sometimes, it was 5 million,” she said.

Corinna apparently didn’t know that the man was recording their conversations. The recordings later ended up in the hands of corruption investigators in Geneva. The former criminal investigator, who has been in pre-trial detention since November 2017, apparently also leaked the recordings to the press in an apparent attempt to force his release.

The Swiss investigators are primarily interested in a generous gift of $100 million from the House of Saud, the equivalent at the time of around 65 million euros. In 2008, it landed in an account at a private Swiss bank that belonged to a foundation based in Panama whose beneficiaries were Juan Carlos, his son and his daughter Elena.

When Felipe VI. learned of the account last year, he renounced his inheritance and informed the Spanish government. It turned out that two months after the ill-advised safari in Botswana, 65 million euros landed in a Bahamas account belonging to Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn. She claimed Juan Carlos had given her the money “out of gratitude and love.”

According to her testimony, the money was paid to Juan Carlos as a kickback for the role he played in the construction of the high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina. A majority Spanish consortium won the contract years after Juan Carlos made a state visit to Riyadh in 2006. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn had been in his delegation.

Friends of Juan Carlos say that he had always feared not having any money at his disposal following his abdication. They say he even proposed to Corinna at one point, but she declined. His biographer, Paul Preston, has shown understanding for his antics. Juan Carlos, he wrote, was robbed of his childhood and youth, and endured a dangerous time after he ascended to the throne. He argues that this likely led the king to think he finally had a right to a bit of pleasure and indulgence.

Prosecutors in Madrid have since launched their own investigation and Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn is set to provide video testimony in late September – no doubt a source of some concern in the royal family.

Juan Carlos enjoys immunity, at least up until his abdication — though some constitutional lawyers believe it is granted for life. Still, the transfers of bribe money among tax shelters has destroyed his reputation with younger Spaniards.

A Precarious Royal Family

The king is recently said to have admitted to friends that, for Spaniards under the age of 40, he will likely be remembered “as the guy with Corinna, the elephants and the suitcases.” In Spain, the country’s highest court is now examining whether there is sufficient evidence to put the former head of state on trial.

Juan Carlos has left behind a wounded country, with one of the highest numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths in Europe. Given that Spain’s economy relies heavily on tourism, many people are worried about yet another economic crisis.

The political stability of the Juan Carlos era, which saw conservative governments alternating their hold on power with center-left governments, is a thing of the past. Disillusioned by the cronyism and corruption in the traditional political parties, Spanish voters in recent years have turned elsewhere – to the liberals, the far right and the left-wing protest party Podemos.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez currently leads a weak, leftist coalition. They are still using the budget passed by the conservatives in 2015 because they haven’t even managed to pass a budget of their own. In Catalonia, meanwhile, support has grown for parties demanding secession from Spain.

Felipe VI must now prove to the younger generation how advantageous it is for Spain not to have to choose a head of state from among bickering political parties, and to explain to his country why a royal family is necessary at all.

Following his departure, Juan Carlos I released a statement saying he would continue to cooperate with the public prosecutor’s investigation. The young king, meanwhile, traveled to Mallorca for the summer holidays with Letizia and their daughters. His mother Sofía was waiting for them there in the Marivent Palace. She opted not to accompany her husband out of the country. Her place, she always said, was at the side of the king. And the king is now named Felipe.

Der Spiegel

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