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The watchman of Spain's transition signs off

Writer, publisher and EL PAÍS columnist Javier Pradera has died at the age of 77

The anti-Franco activist, publisher, political analyst and EL PAÍS journalist Javier Pradera died on Sunday in Madrid at the age of 77. He was a leading figure of Spain's democratic left, albeit one who always preferred to stay out of the limelight.

It is not easy to determine which of Pradera's occupations was more relevant. As a publisher, he was one of the founders of Siglo XXI and director of Alianza Editorial. In 1976 he joined EL PAÍS as an editorial writer and head of the opinion desk, jobs that he held until 1986, when he remained with the newspaper as an analyst, columnist and member of the editorial board. He also sat on the board of Grupo Prisa, the parent company of EL PAÍS. In 1990, he and fellow Basque philosopher Fernando Savater launched Claves de Razón Práctica, a magazine that reflected on the times in which we live.

A politically committed man, he participated in the student demonstrations against the Franco regime in the 1950s and was a card-carrying member of the Spanish Communist Party between 1954 and 1964, only to walk away in protest when the politician Fernando Claudín and the writer Jorge Semprún were expelled from its ranks for questioning the ruling orthodoxy.

Tall and lank and permanently disheveled, Pradera cut a somewhat ungainly figure as his bony hands flicked through the pages of a pile of newspapers, as though on the lookout for any suspicious idea that he might refute with an elaborate set of arguments. A smile was always tugging at the corner of his lips, ready to appreciate any clever thought or wicked remark. He was not always well understood, even if he made himself crystal clear when he was defending his opinions.

His first pieces for this newspaper appeared in print on May 16, 1976. One was a book review that contained his reflections on events in the Soviet Union in the post-Lenin era. His lucid thoughts on the rules of democracy and his reviews were a staple of EL PAÍS until very recently. In his writings, there was always an element of irony, even though his obsession was rigor and forcefulness. To him, every day was a battle of ideas that ultimately symbolized a fight for liberty.

Pradera's last column for EL PAÍS came out on the day of his death, November 20, election day; titled Al borde del abismo (On the brink of the abyss). It was a warning of what could happen if the economic situation in Europe takes a sudden turn for the worse with Spain temporarily ruled by an interim government.

Born in San Sebastián on April 28, 1934, Javier Pradera graduated cum laude from Madrid's Complutense University with a law degree, and soon became a civil servant in the air force's legal department. He was arrested in February 1956 because of his involvement with student unrest on campus. Víctor Pradera, his grandfather, had co-founded a conservative party called Bloque Nacional. and was assassinated by a group of anarchists shortly after the uprising against the Second Republic in 1936. His father, Javier Pradera, suffered the same fate just one day later. If he had remained faithful to his family's conservative ideas, the young Javier would never have questioned the dictatorship. But he did.

His commitment to the anti-Franco cause was strong, even if it cost him his permanent position at the air force. By then, he was already part of the clandestine Spanish Communist Party, although his personal integrity made him question the party purge of Claudín and Semprún in March 1964. Spain was changing, and what those intellectuals were proposing was to seek support from other regime opponents in order to overturn the dictator, rather than remain fixed in Communist orthodoxy.

Pradera faced up to the apparatus and noted that for democracy to really take hold in Spain, it was necessary to count on the middle classes.

As a publisher and editorial writer, Pradera also played a fundamental role in Spain's modern history. When Franco died, the country had to learn to live in democracy. From the opinion pages of EL PAÍS, Pradera analyzed the decisions made by politicians, judges and military men among others, and offered readers his interpretation of events. When everything is falling apart around you, it is easy to fall into demagoguery and ideological excess. But Pradera was able to question every accepted idea and every argument posited in the new public arena. His own moral integrity, the intelligence with which he explored a society in upheaval, his generosity and his refusal to fall into simplification were hallmarks of his life and work.