Among the many trinkets adorning the Madrid office suite are an ornate cigar box, a personal gift from, of all people, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, plus a color photo of an elderly man in waders fishing for salmon. The inscription reads, “To my nephew, Nicolás, with love, from his Uncle Paco.” Uncle Paco is ailing Generalissimo Francisco Franco, 82, who has ruled Spain with a repressive hand for 36 years. The occupant of the office is Nicolás Franco Pascual del Pobil, a self-styled “heretic,” who might well be in jail or exile were he not Franco’s only nephew and sort of surrogate son. “My family name hasn’t done me any harm,” admits Nicolás.
Calling Nicolás outspoken is like describing Rudolf Nureyev as “light on his feet.” In any of six languages, including nearly impeccable English, the urbane, 37-year-old Don Nicolás is a fluent and fearless advocate of reform in Spain. He is a radical social democrat who believes and proclaims his belief in universal franchise; the separation of church and state; minimum and maximum incomes; the right of workers to a voice in management; and socialization of all basic industry, including utilities and even, “if credit is not flexible enough,” banks—like the one he heads. He was a major stockholder in the contentious newspaper, Madrid, shut down three years ago by the government. Still, as a lifelong friend and political adviser to Prince Juan Carlos de Borbon, the designated heir to Franco, Don Nicolás is destined for considerable clout in Spain’s succession regime—unless the military pulls a Portugal.
In his style as well as politics, Nicolás is the polar opposite of his uncle. The nephew is cosmopolitan and has traveled to 70 countries; the uncle is parochial, speaks only Spanish, and has left Spanish soil just three times in his life, for brief trips to Portugal and the French frontier. Nicolás was educated in Spain, Portugal, England and Switzerland; the Generalissimo attended only the rigidly conservative military academy of Spain.
A blue-eyed six-footer (the Caudillo is 5’3″) with the catlike stare and high forehead that otherwise are unmistakably Franco, Nicolás probably is the closest thing to a Renaissance man in Spain, a country the Renaissance almost managed to miss altogether. Like his uncle, he was born in La Coruña, Spain’s northwesternmost province. But Nicolás was raised in Portugal. His father, a carousing admiral and Franco’s older brother, was put in safekeeping as Spanish ambassador to Lisbon. After completing his education at Geneva’s Centre d’Etudes Industrielles, where he collected a doctorate in economics, Nicolás quickly made his million in plastics and laundromats.
His midtown Madrid suite of offices reflects the multiplicity of his interests. Flanking a white marble fireplace are a pair of six-foot ivory tusks from an elephant he shot in Tanzania in 1966. There are model airplanes (he is a licensed pilot) and cars (he drives his Rolls like a mad matador) and old prints of African animals (he is a conservationist). On his shelves, near photos of his wife and four children, there are volumes on economics, art, music and history, including some books which are blacklisted in Spain. Yet, says Nicolás, “I have great respect for the General. If he were 37 years old, his political thinking might be the same as mine.” Still, it is hard to imagine Franco insisting, as Nicolás does:
•”We must rid ourselves of all abuses of power. I am in favor of democracy and equality, without special privileges for any class.”
•”We must give a legal voice and vote to the left as well as to the right. How else do we find a center?”
•”There is no excuse for political prisoners. To have a different opinion from somebody else is not a crime.”
This fall, Nicolás is planning a trip to China. He is looking forward to a chat with Chou En-lai. In the meantime, in his rare spare moments, he pounds away awkwardly at a typewriter. He is working on a book, tentatively entitled The Saga of the Francos. It is a good guess that the last chapters are a long way from being written.