Subscriber OnlyEurope

Che Guevara furore sees far right try to give Spaniards harsh history lesson

Madrid Letter: Vox victory with naming minor as Sánchez Bill tackles Franco-era abuse

A sleepy, tree-filled corner of Zaragoza hardly brings to mind the exploits of Che Guevara, but the Marxist icon is at the centre of a bitter dispute in the northeastern Spanish city.

In 2019, the city’s centre-right local government agreed to change the name of a park and street in the Margen Izquierda district of Zaragoza that had been named after the Argentine-born Guevara, after lobbying by the far-right Vox party. Now, following several delays, it looks as if Calle Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara and Parque Che Guevara will finally lose their revolutionary monikers, after Vox threatened to withdraw its support for the local government if the promised change was not implemented.

“I want to take this opportunity to highlight that nearly two years ago, a motion was approved, and remains unfulfilled, to remove the name of the murderer and psychopath Che Guevara from a street and a park,” said Carmen Rouco, a local councillor for Vox.

Vox has enough real power to force the more moderate parties on the right to follow its lead, accentuating the deep polarisation in Spanish politics

Guevara fought alongside Fidel Castro as one of the leaders of the guerrilla campaign that deposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. He was shot dead in Bolivia in 1967, enshrining him as a legendary man of action for the left and a brutal ideologue for many on the right.


‘A sickly obsession’

As the name change looms, the local neighbours’ association in Zaragoza accused those who want to carry it out of “seeking confrontation and eroding the peaceful coexistence that has always existed in this district on certain issues”. Fernando Rivarés, of the leftist Podemos, said Vox had “a sickly obsession with the Che Guevara street”.

The street and park have borne Guevara’s name for many years. However, it is only in recent years that the far right has had a formal presence in Spanish politics, propping up a number of town halls governed by the conservative Popular Party (PP) and self-styled liberals of Ciudadanos.

Vox has also set its sights on other historical figures.

In June, Vox pressured the PP-Ciudadanos government in the small town of Cadrete, just outside Zaragoza, to remove a bust of the medieval Arab leader Abd al-Rahman III, which had stood in the main square since 2016. Vox, which frequently faces charges of Islamophobia, said the bust was “not representative of present-day society or of our people”. The former councillor Fabio Pérez Buil described the withdrawal as “a display of intolerance and denial of history”.

While both the Che Guevara and the Abd al-Rahman III controversies have little bearing on broader national politics, they do show how Vox has enough real power to force the more moderate parties on the right to follow its lead, accentuating the deep polarisation in Spanish politics. It could also be argued that these incidents reflect a defensiveness on the part of the far right when it comes to interpreting history.

Historical memory law

Ever since a historical memory law was introduced in 2007, symbols associated with the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco have been targeted for removal, including street and square names and statues. In 2019, the government of Socialist Pedro Sánchez ordered Franco's remains to be exhumed from the vast Valley of the Fallen mausoleum and reburied in a more low-key cemetery. Vox described the exhumation as a "desecration" and "the digging-up of hatred".

On Tuesday, Sánchez’s coalition administration took another step towards tackling the legacy of the Franco era, and the 1936-1939 civil war that preceded it, by unveiling its long-awaited Democratic Memory Bill.

As Spain finally starts to get to grips with the legacy of its violent 20th century, Vox appears to be swimming against the tide

The legislation, which will now go to parliament, makes the state responsible for locating and exhuming the remains of victims of Franco who lie in unmarked graves and who number upwards of 100,000, according to historical memory activists. The Bill will also seek to eliminate aristocratic titles linked to the regime and create a special prosecutor to investigate, for the first time, the human rights abuses of the civil war and dictatorship.

“It’s a necessary law which makes us a better country,” said Félix Bolaños, the minister overseeing the legislation.

Perhaps its most significant ambition is to ensure that schools place more emphasis on the teaching of repression during the Franco era.

The right in general has been unhappy at Sánchez's policies in this area and, attacking the Bill the day before its presentation, Vox's spokesman Jorge Buxadé said that "neither governments nor parliaments can dictate history". Buxadé and his party may have had some success recently on a local level in deciding how history should be viewed. But, as Spain finally starts to get to grips with the legacy of its violent 20th century, they appear to be swimming against the tide.