Following the decision to exhume Franco’s remains from the Valle de los Caídos, a debate has now arisen regarding the assets belonging to the dictator’s heirs. Last week Spain’s Justice Minister announced plans to recover property dating from the time of the dictatorship. Now the issue has been raised, something which even proponents of historical memory policies had forgotten, we ought to ask ourselves how it is possible that Franco’s estate has continued to enjoy privileges up until the present day and to search for mechanisms to bring an end to this injustice.
Little information is publicly available regarding the net worth of the dictator’s heirs, with estimates to its value varying wildly. As a consequence, a thorough investigation must be carried out into all the assets involved, to uncover their current status and their origin.
Despite this lack of information, we can examine the history of the money and property up to the present day. It is reasonable to assume that the proximity of the family to the Spanish government and administrative structures, both during the dictatorship, and in times of democracy, means that by now all of it has been declared to the relevant taxation authorities, thereby shielding it from any question as to the lawfulness of its origin.
If for any reason part of the property had not been declared during the Franco era or the first Transition, the numerous tax amnesties which have been declared, virtually up to the present, would have allowed it to subsequently become legalised. Unfortunately, it appears to be yet another case of assets with dubious origins having become regulated through the process of tax amnesty, something which various suspects in cases of corruption are known to have done.
In the event that any part of the assets weren’t declared, or hadn’t been at the time of certain operations, whenever one of the heirs wished to transfer funds initially linked to the dictator, there would have been reasonable doubt as to their legality. Banks, investment entities, public notaries and other professionals are governed by money laundering regulations to ensure that their clients’ funds do not originate from criminal activity and, if in doubt, they are obliged to contact the government's financial intelligence body, which in Spain is Sepblac, the office responsible for such investigations that can take matters to court if it deems it appropriate.
In this regard, a 2004 report by the United States Senate concluded that the US bank, Riggs, had failed to exercise due diligence in verifying the origin of funds ostensibly belonging to Augusto Pinochet. The information triggered an investigation which culminated last August, when the Supreme Court of Chile definitively ordered the seizure of $1.6 million from the dictator’s heirs.
In other words, legal mechanisms do exist which allow the legality of the Franco family’s assets to be questioned, not only those relating to the prevention of money laundering previously mentioned, but probably also civil actions, depending on the individual case. The fact that these legal mechanisms haven’t been successful may be due to the fact that the authorities, both during the dictatorship and during democracy, collaborated in the legalisation of the assets. Likewise, it may be due to reluctance on behalf of politicians, officials, bankers, notaries and other professionals who may have encountered undeclared assets and have failed to initiate or continue legal actions when they see the surname of their illegitimate owners.
Nonetheless, it is time to demand that historical memory policies also restore to their rightful owners, where possible, or to the state —and, thereby, to the public as a whole— a heritage which was unjustly usurped by the dictatorship.
Doing so in a comprehensive way requires a law that will initiate an in-depth investigation into the fortune accumulated by the dictator and which will order the restitution of all goods obtained by illegal means. Needless to say, the task will be a complex one, some forty years after Franco’s death, but there are cases which can’t be ignored due to their obvious merits, such as the return of the Pazo de Meirás in Galicia, a gift to Franco from local strongmen paid for by means of compulsory donations. If we seek to be a mature democracy, we cannot allow the dictator’s family to continue to enjoy wealth which was accumulated as the spoils of a bloody dictatorship.