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Former Spanish king returns to Spain, for a long weekend

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Spain's former king, Juan Carlos I, returned home this weekend for the first time in two years. He fled his country for the United Arab Emirates in the midst of multiple fraud investigations involving hundreds of millions of dollars. But that didn't stop many citizens from welcoming and cheering him upon his arrival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

PFEIFFER: The former monarch was reunited today with his son, Spain's current monarch, King Felipe VI. He also saw his wife of more than 60 years, Queen Sofia. It's the first time either his wife or son have met with him since he left for the UAE. Alan Ruiz Terol is a journalist in Barcelona and has been following this palace intrigue closely. Alan, welcome.

ALAN RUIZ TEROL: Hi. Thanks for having me.

PFEIFFER: We heard in that intro how some Spaniards at least welcomed the former king after his absence of two years. Are you able to characterize his - how he was received overall by the country?

RUIZ TEROL: I think Juan Carlos is leaving Spain with the sense that his former subjects still love him. He spent the weekend in Sanxenxo, a seaside town in the northwestern region of Galicia, to attend a sailing competition. Dozens of people gathered there to cheer him. They chanted long live the king. And public authorities received him with honors. He was accompanied by friends and his daughter, Princess Elena. And on Monday, he finally traveled to Madrid, where he met with his son, King Felipe, his wife and former Queen Sofia and other relatives. They all had lunch together at the Zarzuela Royal Palace privately, before Juan Carlos was bound to return to Abu Dhabi. But it's important to note that there are - has also been protests in Sanxenxo, and also in Madrid, with people waving Republican flags and calling for his attention.

PFEIFFER: Would you lay out some of the reasons he fled? What specifically is he being investigated for?

RUIZ TEROL: Yeah. So he vanished in the summer of 2020 after prosecutors in Spain, and also in Switzerland, started investigating his finances. Most notably, he was accused of receiving $100 million in kickbacks after a Spanish consortium was awarded a contract to build a high-speed rail in Saudi Arabia. So far, most cases have been dropped - some due to lack of evidence, others because the Constitution granted him immunity during his reign, so he cannot be prosecuted. He also paid more than $5 million in back taxes. However, there's still a sense that he has abused his power as king, and many Spaniards expect an explanation or even an apology. But so far he's offered neither.

PFEIFFER: As you just mentioned, the former king's son is now king. How has the father's problems affected the son's popularity, the current king's popularity?

RUIZ TEROL: So Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014. And since then, Felipe has struggled to distance himself and the institution of the crown from his father. There are some scandals that remain ingrained in people's memories - for instance, when Juan Carlos went on a secret elephant hunting trip to Botswana with his lover in the midst of the economic crisis. So Felipe has cut his father's institutional role, also his income, and he even renounced any inheritance he may receive. So in summary, I would say that Felipe is viewed more favorably than his father, but I can only guess because right after he was sworn as Spanish King, the public pollster stopped asking people for their opinion on the monarchy.

PFEIFFER: Interesting. But at least the son has tried to distance himself from the father, in a sense. Alan, you know well that the Spanish monarchy has a history that spans centuries. When you take that full line of time, what would you say is Juan Carlos' place on that timeline?

RUIZ TEROL: From a historical perspective, I think he is kind of a larger-than-life figure. He was born in exile. His grandfather left Spain in the 1930s with the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. And the monarchy was only reinstated decades later when dictator Francisco Franco chose Juan Carlos to be his successor. Franco died in the '70s. Juan Carlos was sworn in as the new head of state. And betraying Franco's will, he's credited with putting Spain on the path to become a modern European democracy.

PFEIFFER: That's Alan Ruiz Terol, a journalist in Barcelona. Thank you very much.

RUIZ TEROL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.