Spanish Funeral Ceremonies Commence for Ex-Premier Suarez

Spain began funeral ceremonies for Adolfo Suarez, the prime minister who in the 1970s led the nation into democracy from dictatorship. The government declared three days of mourning with state flags at half mast.

Suarez’s remains were carried through Madrid past thousands of onlookers to a chapel set up in Congress. Official acts of remembrance are being led by King Juan Carlos I, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attending along with current and former government officials, including ex-Premiers Jose Maria Aznar, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Felipe Gonzalez.

Gonzalez, who served from 1982 to 1996, has lauded Suarez for bringing dialog and compromise to a once-polarized nation.

“The move from a dictatorship to a pluralist democracy, so many times frustrated in our country, was possible through his labor,” Gonzalez said in remarks published today in El Mundo newspaper.

Suarez, who became a consensus figure, was 81 when he died yesterday at Madrid’s Cemtro Clinic hospital, family spokesman Fermin Urbiola said in televised comments. The actual state funeral for Spain’s first elected premier after the death of dictator Francisco Franco is scheduled for March 31.

“Adolfo Suarez was the first president of the Spanish government to be officially received in the White House, by Jimmy Carter in 1977,” said James Costos, current U.S. ambassador to Spain.

Rapprochement With U.S.

That opened the way for “the beginning of a continuous cooperation at the highest levels of government” between the two nations, Costos said in a statement yesterday.

The former prime minister had been suffering from a neurological disease for the past decade and his condition deteriorated over recent days, his son, Adolfo Suarez Illana, said in a televised statement on March 21. By 2005, he could no longer remember being prime minister, the younger Suarez told El Mundo in June of that year.

Adolfo Suarez, who served under Franco as a regional governor and director of state television, was chosen by his friend King Juan Carlos in 1976 to lead the country to democracy after the dictator’s death the previous year.

A lawyer by training, he pushed through sweeping political reforms including the legalization of the Communist Party and in 1977 called the first free elections in four decades. His Union of the Democratic Center won the vote.

‘Skillful Negotiator’

“Suarez was at the center of engineering the settlement which led to the 1978 constitution,” said Sebastian Balfour, professor emeritus of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics, who lived in Spain during the transition. “He was a pragmatist and an immensely skillful negotiator.”

Facing a surge in Basque separatist violence and seeking consensus between Francoists, leftists and regional leaders wanting autonomous power, Suarez put a new constitution to a referendum in 1978. His party went on to win the next general election in 1979, although he resigned in 1981 amid falling popularity.

“I tend to say that I have undertaken a boxing match in which I’m not willing to throw a single punch,” Suarez said in an interview with ABC newspaper in 1980 that was not published until 2007 because his advisers considered it too candid.

“One has to be willing to accept an enormous amount of unpopularity,” he said. “But I am prepared for that.”

Suarez’s wife, Maria del Amparo Illana, died of breast cancer in 2001 and a daughter, known as Mariam, died in 2004 of the same disease. He had four other children.

To observe the three days of mourning, the parliament of Spain’s southern region of Andalucia postponed all work sessions during these days.

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