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The Franco family millions

Thirty-six years after his death, the wealth of the ex-dictator's clan shows that democracy has treated El Caudillo far better than he ever treated democracy

On November 20, 1975, the Francos lost their hold on power but held on to something even more important: their wealth. Following the death of the dictator and the dismantling of the system he built, his once-sought-after relatives became social lepers. It was the worst thing that could happen to one in a country that favored social arrivistes. Struck hard by the sudden loss of privileges, some members of the Franco clan felt victimized; others faded discreetly into the background, and a few individuals took on the role of provocateurs, unable to admit to themselves that democracy was treating them infinitely better than Franco had ever treated democracy.

Until the day she died, Franco's widow Carmen Polo received a pension that was higher than the salaries of the Spanish prime ministers Adolfo Suárez and Felipe González. Her only daughter and her son-in-law were able to use their diplomatic passport until it expired in 1986. King Juan Carlos I awarded them with a new title of nobility: the duchy of Franco. The tax agency never investigated their accounts. They were not forced into exile, nor was their fortune seized, as it was in the case of the Dominican dictator Leónidas Trujillo after his assassination in 1961. Not even the assets that Franco had received as a head of state and, in good faith, should have reverted to the state, were ever claimed by Spain's new rulers. In contrast to the fate of Pinochet's descendants, who were prosecuted for misappropriation of funds in 2007, nobody ever bothered the Francos - not even when they toyed with the extreme right and headed public acts of nostalgia every November 20. The Francos slipped through one of the cracks left open by the desire for national reconciliation that defined Spain's transition to democracy.

Franco's widow received a pension higher than the salary of Spain's PMs

This was the first year his death was not observed with acts of hero worship

This year was the first in which the anniversary of Franco's death was not observed with acts of hero worship. They were forbidden so as not to interfere with election day. Yet the traditional memorial mass was held, as usual, at the Valley of the Fallen, though without the presence of his daughter, who was reportedly too ill to attend. Carmen Franco Polo is the head of a major real-estate empire originally woven by what was once Spain's leading family. It would be hard to make a complete list of her assets - opacity is a key trait of the wealthy. Carmen Franco presides several companies officially headquartered in her own home, on Madrid's Calle Hermanos Bécquer; these firms manage apartment rentals and parking lots, and carry out diverse financial and property transactions; some were created in democratic times, others are survivors of the Franco regime.

In the 36 years that have elapsed since Francisco Franco's death, his descendants have failed to stand out as entrepreneurs or business tycoons. In fact, until the property boom came along and lined their accounts - when the land that comprises their Valdefuentes estate was reclassified in 2003 as fit for erecting residential buildings and shopping malls - the Francos had had to gradually sell off their assets to keep up with their own lifestyle. The Marquis of Villaverde described it well in 1989: "A time comes when a cow stops giving milk, and you have to eat the cow."

There were memorable scandals involving Franco's family in the first decades of democracy. His grandson Francisco Franco was arrested for poaching and investigated in Chile for fraud; his other grandson, José Cristóbal, tried his hand at various trades without feeling comfortable anywhere (he is remembered for a famous statement during his stint in the army: "The uniform makes me look like a dickhead"). Meanwhile, his widow was caught at Barajas airport trying to take gold coins and various insignia out of the country to deposit in a Swiss bank. In a press conference, she swore she meant to have them all incorporated into a watch. A court acquitted her of having to pay a fine for smuggling of 6.8 million pesetas (over 40,000 euros).

The eldest grandchild, Carmen Martínez-Bordiú, led a highly public life marked by scandal that fed the gossip magazines for years: she abandoned her first husband and her two children to move in with the Parisian antiques dealer Jean-Marie Rossi, with whom she had another child. She eventually remarried a Spaniard, and continues to sell exclusives to the press. In contrast, her sisters Mariola, Mery and Arancha positively shun the spotlight. The youngest sibling, Jaime, has become a staple of trash TV, where he delights audiences with his constant involvement in public acts of violence and addiction to cocaine.

Mariano Sánchez Soler, the journalist who is most familiar with the Franco family businesses (he wrote a book, Los Franco S. A., or Franco Inc., a must-read for anyone with an interest in the matter), holds that the Francos had assets worth well over a billion pesetas in 1975, the year of the dictator's death. In the following decades, they ate up "a few bits of the cow," including the palace of Canto del Pico or the villa that Carmen Martínez-Bordiú sold to the ambassadors of Venezuela for 150 million pesetas (over 900,000 euros).

The confusion between the private and public spheres was complete during the regime. While Franco himself behaved with all the austerity of a Rif War campaigner, his wife bought up properties in the choicest areas of Madrid, with the goal of giving one to each of her grandchildren as presents. Franco's son-in-law, the Marquis of Villaverde, had a stake in dozens of companies just because of his relation to the dictator. Meanwhile, Spaniards flooded their leader with gifts reflecting all walks of life, from a herd of sheep to a palace in Torrelodones.

Francisco Franco apparently worried about the fate of his fortune after his own death. Mariano Sánchez Soler says he left each of his grandchildren two million pesetas (12,000 euros), his income as a military man. As it turns out, that was just peanuts.