For those of you who don’t speak Spanish ¿Por qué no te callas? means Why don’t you shut up? It will be the lasting legacy of Spanish King Juan Carlos of the House of Bourbon, who announced his abdication today. It was the closest thing to a catch-phrase that he had, the Hispanic equivalent of ‘We are not amused’.
Juan Carlos uttered the words to Hugo Chávez during an international conference of Spanish speaking nations, when the late Venezuelan president had embarked on one of his speechathons. The event was held shortly after the Spanish government had supported a coup attempt against him, so Hugo wasn’t best pleased with the Spanish delegation. Juan Carlos is always uncomfortable when involvement in coups is discussed, and wanted to go and do something more interesting, like shooting endangered species in Botswana. For a while ¿Por qué no te callas? became the most popular ring-tone in Spain, and across the land mobile phones went off to the sound of the King saying “Gaunnie jist shut it?”
The King used the familiar pronoun tu in addressing Chávez, which in Latin America is normally reserved for speaking to small children and social inferiors. The inappropriate use of tu can be considered deeply insulting. In the Spanish of Spain people are more likely to call one another tu, but whatever variety of Spanish you speak when you address the president of a country during an official summit as tu instead of the polite and formal usted, it’s going to be interpreted as an insult. Chávez had words to say in reply, you can read more about it here, in an article that’s helpfully in English.
Today Juan Carlos has shut up. He’s announced his abdication, citing health issues and his age. The truth of course is that Juan Carlos resigned before he was pushed, as the Spanish royal family is mired up to its well upholstered neck in the morass of corruption scandals which have stripped the Spanish establishment of what little credibility it had left.
The official mythology about Juan Carlos was looking tired and tattered long before his daughter the Princess Christina was implicated in the corruption charges being faced by her husband Iñako Urdangarín. According to the story, Juan Carlos was instrumental in ending the attempted coup in 1981 and so is personally responsible for keeping Spain a democracy. The tale is about as believable as the claims in the UK media that Willnkate are an ordinary young married couple, because ordinary young married couples always live surrounded by sycophants in a palace with a staff of flunkies that your taxes paid for.
In 1981 when Spanish democracy had only recently been re-established after decades of military dictatorship, members of the paramilitary Guardia Civil attempted to take over the Spanish Parliament and reinstate military rule. As it became clear that the plotters had failed to gain the backing of the majority of the armed forces, the king appeared on national television and appealed for a return to democracy. He was then credited with saving the nation. However the truth is rather more murky.
In 2012 the German newspaper Der Speigel published a report claiming that during conversations with a German diplomat, Juan Carlos revealed that he had considerable sympathy with the plotters. Although few seriously believe that the King had an active role in planning the coup attempt, allegations continue to circulate that he knew about the plans beforehand and guarded his silence until he was sure the coup had failed. The allegations were fuelled by the widespread public knowledge that Juan Carlos was besties with some of the more senior and shadowy plotters from when they attended military college together.
After the economic crisis struck Spain, leaving thousands jobless and facing dispossession and eviction, the King naturally wanted his subjects to know that he felt their pain. He demonstrated this pain by falling downstairs and breaking his hip in a luxury safari resort in Botswana where he’d buggered off on a freebie so he could go and shoot elephants. He’d declared just a few days before that he spent all his time worrying about the fate of the 55% of young Spaniards who were unemployed due to the financial crisis.
Juan Carlos likes shooting things, in 2006 he was subject of controversy after shooting a drunk bear while on a junket to Russia. The tame bear had reportedly been drugged with alcohol laced honey and released in front of the royal party’s guns. A later official Spanish investigation claimed that the bear had not been shot by the King himself, but rather by some other member of his party, so that made it all OK then.
However by and large Spaniards were prepared to overlook Juan Carlos’s affection for killing things, hunting with guns is a hobby which does not have quite the same upper class image in Spain as it does in Scotland. They were even prepared to overlook the numerous allegations of serial wick-dipping, one common nickname for the King was el Rey de Suiza ‘the King of Switzerland’ because it was rumoured that he spent more time there in the company of assorted actresses and female members of the minor German aristocracy than he spent in his official residence in Madrid. It is well known that relations between the King and his wife Queen Sofia have been strained for decades. There are persistent rumours that he has a number of offspring who are not officially recognised. The King is facing two paternity suits, which until now the Spanish courts have refused to look at since the King is above the law. It’s unclear what will happen now he’s abdicated and is no longer King, and presumably no longer above the law.
People in Spain overlooked a lot, but what they were not prepared to overlook was the King’s hypocrisy. He made a big play of suffering with the Spanish people in their time of economic crisis, but there he was going off on luxury freebies with German princesses. And at the same time members of his own family appear to be up to their necks in the financial sleaze that’s a characteristic of the Spanish political establishment. Public revulsion was reaching a pitch, and so the King decided to abdicate before he was pushed. It’s the only way he was able to secure the succession for his son Prince Felipe, who will now become King Felipe VI.
Meanwhile Catalonia continues on its path to a referendum and independence. As one Catalan commentator noted, the first Spanish Bourbon monarch to rule Catalonia was Felipe V, and the last will be Felipe VI. Catalans are still determined that the Spanish monarchy will shut up for good.
El rei ha mort, visca la república catalana!