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Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón: 1938—: King of Spain

Faced Challenges To Prosperous Reign

In 1978 Spain's new constitution was formally sanctioned on December 27 after a national referendum. It granted Juan Carlos little political power, save for the right to appoint the prime minister, but even this was subject to the approval of the Cortes. "This Constitution is in many respects one of the most advanced in Europe, particularly concerning regional political freedoms and the defence of the rights of cultural minorities," noted Acuña in the UNESCO Courier article. Both the Basque region and Catalonia were made autonomous regions in an attempt to eradicate longstanding cultural hostilities.

Juan Carlos' new Spain faced its greatest challenge on February 23, 1981, when the Cortes was stormed by military units during a vote for a new prime minister. The politicians were held hostage, and martial law was declared. The coup was fomented by some of the army's top generals, still loyal to the Franco ideal, and its leaders mistakenly believed that the king would either give his support or tacitly remain silent. Instead, Juan Carlos summoned a television crew to the Zarzuela Palace, put on his formal military uniform as commander-in-chief of all Spain's armed forces, and told the nation that the move against a constitutional government was an assault on the crown, and that the coup would succeed only in the event of his death. Privately, Juan Carlos personally appealed to the generals who had instigated it, as well as others who had not yet sent in their regiments, for he knew many of them from his years at Spain's military academies in the late 1950s. Within hours, democracy was restored and the coup leaders were arrested.

The 1981 crisis would remain Juan Carlos' finest hour. Just five years later, Spain was able to enter the European Economic Community, and in 1992 welcomed the world to Barcelona for a festive Summer Olympics. The king consistently polls as the most respected political figure in the country, and earns high marks for eschewing any pomp and pageantry due him and his family. Nobel laureate Camilo Jose Cela remarked to Europe journalist Latona, "We have a better King than we deserve." Juan Carlos and the Reina Sofía still live at Zarzuela, with Madrid's far more opulent Palacio Royal the haunt of tourists. He receives an annual household budget of $5 million, but must pay taxes on it. He has also won praise for his role in forging ties to Latin America; relations across the Atlantic had disintegrated considerably after the end of Spain's once-mighty colonial empire. His role as a goodwill ambassador has had so much success that he is sometimes affectionately referred to by some South Americans as "the king."

Juan Carlos is an avid sailor, as is his wife. Their children are the Infantas Elena and Christina, and Felipe, Prince of Asturias and heir to his father's throne. Felipe was 13 years old when the 1981 coup erupted, and at the time Juan Carlos kept him near his side. He reportedly told him, according to the Europe article by Latona, "Watch closely. Nobody ever said this king business was easy, and someday it will be your turn."



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, 17 vols., Gale, 1998.


Economist, September 21, 1996, p. 54.

Europe, October 1993, p. 18; October 2000, p. 39.

Life, December 1985, p. 4, 46.

New Leader, October 6, 1997, p. 8.

UNESCO Courier, November 1995, p. 33.

U.S. News & World Report, April 27, 1992, p. 54.

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, February 28, 2000, p. 362.

—Carol Brennan

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