MADRID — Even in his grave, the 20th-century dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist keeps dividing the country.
Spain's new center-left government says removing the embalmed body of Gen. Francisco Franco from a glorifying mausoleum will be the first among many symbolic moves aimed at coming to terms with the country's troubled history.
Critics of the government and Franco's descendants are pushing back, vowing to preserve the memory of a regime they claim should be credited for "modernizing Spain."
Banning the foundation that preserves the legacy of Franco is precisely what should be done instead, says Fernando Martinez, the official appointed to oversee the government's efforts to unearth and identify the 114,000-or-so victims of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the four decades of dictatorship that followed under Franco, who died in 1975.
"Exhuming the body of the dictator will begin healing the wounds of this country. But that task will only be completed when the last ditch with a mass grave in this country has been opened," Martinez told The Associated Press, speaking at the Ministry of Justice in Madrid, where his new Directorate General for Historic Memory is being formed.
Martinez says creating an up-to-date census of anonymous burials in ditches across the country will be among the most pressing tasks for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's new government. Other moves include re-opening an office to help victims' relatives — an office closed under Spain's previous conservative government — setting up a new system for reparation payments and turning Franco's current burial place into a museum against fascism.
"We are going to accelerate and make up for lost time, it's a question of democratic dignity," says Martinez, who was appointed in July after Sanchez ousted conservative Mariano Rajoy with a no-confidence vote in June.
Three U.N-sponsored missions to Spain since 2013 had criticized authorities for lacking a national plan to search for missing people, for poor coordination on exhumations and for outdated maps of graves. They also raised concerns about the inaction of Spanish courts in prosecuting some of the period's darkest crimes.
But a panel of U.N. rights experts just recently praised the authorities' move for "placing the right to truth at the top of the political agenda" by leading the efforts to search for those disappeared as well as for vowing to create a Truth Commission to investigate crimes that occurred under Franco up until his death.
"This decision represents a fundamental step toward the realization of the right to truth for all victims of serious human rights violations," the rapporteurs wrote.
The government wants to adopt the changes by amending the 2007 Historic Memory Law, which fell short of addressing the demands of survivors and victims' relatives when Rajoy's conservative government eliminated its budgets for exhumations and reparations.
Emilio Silva, president of the Association for the Recovery of Historic Memory, or ARMH, says the new government should use its executive powers to remove Franco from the Valley of the Fallen — a macabre mausoleum 50 kilometers (31 miles) northwest of Madrid. He also wants the government to dig up all the graves of Franco's victims, rather than kicking off a grand political showdown between conservative and progressive voices in parliament.
"They fear a legal backlash," Silva said of the government. But he called digging up unmarked graves and compensating the relatives of identified victims "very basic, human things. There shouldn't be any need to discuss them."
With a towering 150-meter (500-foot) tall cross that can be seen from miles away, the somber neoclassic-style mausoleum and basilica of the Valley of the Fallen were built by Franco as a tribute to the dead during his so-called "glorious crusade" in overthrowing Spain's democratic government.
Some 34,000 people from both sides of the fratricidal war are buried at the site, most of them never identified, along with the remains of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Spanish Falange party. Franco's tomb, a simple granite slate with only his name engraved, presides over the altar of the basilica. Fresh flowers are always on display.
Public events supporting the Franco regime were outlawed in 2007, but the grandiose site remains a popular pilgrimage destination for those nostalgic for the dictatorship.
Activists say the whole place exudes a totalitarian air and is an insult to the memory of the victims. They are also angry at the decrepit state of the remains, with water leaks that have turned the crypts into "piles of bones," according to an expert's assessment in 2011.
Martinez says the projected revision of the law will include a proposal to remove symbols celebrating the dictatorship and will rebrand the Valley into a monument for reconciliation and a museum that tells about the abuses during its construction, including the use of political prisoners as forced laborers.
But the government, which failed to exhume Franco by July as promised, is facing a myriad of obstacles, including its weak position in parliament.
Hundreds of people nostalgic for Francoism have staged protests at the Valley, and conservative parties are accusing Sanchez's administration of reopening a chapter they consider closed instead of focusing on 21st-century problems.
Meanwhile, descendants of Franco's family are refusing to cooperate with authorities, mounting a legal case against plans to exhume the dictator and refusing to take his remains to the family sepulchral vault in Galicia. With their refusal, authorities are faced with the dilemma of what to do with Franco's remains.
Digging Franco up, Martinez said, aims to "consolidate our democracy," which was peacefully instituted in the late 70s upon the death of the dictator.
Martinez refused to venture a date for the Franco exhumation. But even if it succeeds, Sanchez's government will face the politically sensitive task of outlawing the National Francisco Franco Foundation, which up to 2003 was receiving public funding for safeguarding documents from the 1939-1975 regime.
The Franco Foundation did not respond to AP's requests for comment, but in recent statements online, officials said any attempt to ban them would be against Spain's Constitution, which protects freedom of speech. Its president, retired Gen. Juan Chicharro, wrote that the foundation must defend itself from "the staggered outlawing of everyone who doesn't bend to the totalitarian demands" of the Spanish left.
ARMH's Silva said "banning the foundation does not limit their freedom to express their ideas," it just restricts their access to public funding.
Martinez believes the issue is not about free speech but about protecting Spain's democracy.
"Every foundation justifying Francoism has no space in democracy, the same way it wouldn't by supporting fascism or a Nazi ideology, because these are ideologies that go against democratic values and liberties," he said. "Those of us in favor of democracy have a mandate to defend democracy."