Juan Carlos I, the Spanish King of Scandals who fled his country
He's 83 years old and he was supposed to be one of Spain's biggest heroes. But instead of enjoying his retirement in the Spanish sun and being remembered for his role in the nation's transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1975, the old king Juan Carlos I left the country in disgrace in August 2020.
The King of Scandals currently lives in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, because things were getting sticky for him in Spain. The reason? A financial scandal and a corruption investigation in which the former monarch plays a major part.
(Image: Juan Carlos with Sheik Mohammed Ben Zayed of Abu Dhabi - to his left - in 2010)
Juan Carlos got himself into so much trouble that even his own heir reprimanded him. King Philip, the country's current monarch, stopped his father's allowance in June 2020 and renounced his own inheritance. He did so amidst rising controversy about the questionable sources of Juan Carlos's wealth.
Juan Carlos I is under investigation for having secret funds in Switzerland and making an alleged, illegal deal with the Saudi-Arabian king in 2008. On top of that, the King Emeritus may get sued by a former lady friend for having threatened her. How did Juan Carlos I manage to disgrace his family so much?
Born in Rome on January 5 1939, Juan Carlos was crowned as King of Spain on November 22 1975. In the following 39 years, the king was - or tried to be - the country's popular, familiar frontman. Things turned out different, however, and he became the King of Scandals instead.
Juan Carlos (his full name Alfonso Victor Maria of Bourbon and Bourbon-Two Sicilies) was 37 years old when he became king of Spain. The Franquista dictatorial regime (whose leader Franco had just passed away) imagined the young king to become a puppet of the administration. In reality, however, Juan Carlos opened the way for the democratization for Spain.
Everyone agrees that Juan Carlos played a central part in the Transition of Spain towards a democratic government. He managed to truncate a coup in 1981 and actively tried to integrate Spain into the European Union. Chroniclers have praised him for these achievements. Yet, the king's biography also has its shadows.
A heartbreaking story marked the childhood of Juan Carlos. In March 1956, the Bourbon-Bourbon family lived in Estoril, and it was there that Alfonso of Bourbon, Juan Carlos's younger brother (r) tragically passed away. Chroniclers say that Juan Carlos caused his brother's death by shooting a small 22-caliber revolver in his face while they were playing. Alfonso, 14 years old, died instantly.
Another (far more innocent) scandal took place when the king was in his fifties. It was 1995 and Juan Carlos was at the peak of his popularity. He appeared to be so relaxed that one day in summer he got completely naked and threw himself onto the deck of a ship for photographers to see. Someone caught the naked king on camera. No one published the image in Spain, but in Italy they did. The repercussions in Spain itself were minimal, by the way.
A royal slip-up. At an Ibero-American summit in 2007, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez (then still a generally respected figure) called one of the Spanish attendants a "fascist" during a discussion. The Spanish president Zapatero politely intervened, but King Juan Carlos was not so formal and shouted: "Why don't you shut up?" While the Spanish loved his temperamental sneer, Latin Americans found it unacceptably arrogant.
In the 21st century, bad vibes became more structural for the Spanish Royal House. While the world was changing, the monarchs were not quite up to the task. Interviewed for the book 'The Queen up close,' Juan Carlos's wife Sofia claimed she respected gays but did not understand the whole Pride thing. She also favoured Catholic teachings in all schools and opposed abortion.
If there is one year that King Juan Carlos would like to forget, it is 2010. That year saw the start of the investigation into the Nòos case involving the king's youngest daughter Cristina and her husband Iñaki Urdangarín. They were accused of fraudulently cashing millions in public funds, tax fraud, money laundering, and corruption. The name of Juan Carlos appeared in the court files as well.
In the same year, his other daughter Elena announced that and her husband were "temporarily pausing their cohabitation" - or, in plain language, getting divorced. A big scandal for a devoutly Catholic family. While Juan Carlos stood behind his daughter, Sofia allegedly voiced her disgust about her family being not so elevated from the ordinary Spanish household after all.
The headlines about the Nòos case and Elena's divorce did not sit well with the king. He revealed his discontent in a press conference when he told the media: "The only thing you like is to kill me and put a pine tree in my stomach," a typical Spanish expression for hurtful behaviour.
In 2012, the New York Times revealed that the king's fortune amounted to 1.8 billion euros. It was a curious number, because by that year the Royal House received an allowance of 8 million euros per year. Multiplied by the 37 years he had been a monarch, Juan Carlos's worth should not have been much more than about 300 million euros. Where did those 1.5 billion euros come from? Was this information in the American press reliable?
And then came the trouble with the elephant. In April 2012, Juan Carlos underwent emergency surgery for a broken hip. What had happened? He had injured himself while hunting elephants, an endangered species, in Botswana. Apart from the obvious ethnical issues, the tour was also very expensive: 45,000 euros. The King's response? "I'm so sorry, I made a mistake, it won't happen again."
But there was more to the Botswana trip. Among his company was a lady friend, Corinna Larsen, who would become famous very soon.
All the king's popularity, built up over three decades, evaporated within two years. In January 2013, El Mundo published a Sigma Two survey in which only 50.1% of the Spanish population approved of the king. In just one year, the monarch had lost 26 points in popularity. An unplanned early retirement became a real possibility for Juan Carlos.
It was clear that Juan Carlos was tense in those days. In July 2013, he gave his assistant two scoldings in front of the press; something that had been unthinkable in previous years. First, he got angry because the staff did not bring his chair close enough to the table, and then because they forgot to hold his crutches. The monarch was on edge.
With his popularity ratings at a low point and citizens even calling for a referendum on the monarchy, Juan Carlos decided to step down and make way for his son, Philip VI. On June 19, 2014, he ended 39 of reign and was named King Emeritus.
Curiously, abdication did not bring peace to the King Emeritus. In 2017, a stunning book came out, detailing how unfaithful the monarch had been to his wife. 'Juan Carlos I, the man of 5,000 women,' by Amadeo Martínez, stated that the king had numerous lovers while he was with Queen Sofía. Among them were a couple of famous actresses and... that lady from the African hunting trip: Corinna Larsen.
With so many cheating rumours built up for years, it seemed only a matter of time for an amorous controversy to hit Juan Carlos in the head. A man and woman appeared in the media claiming to be the king's children. Albert Solá and Ingrid Sartiau even presented DNA tests showing a 91% certainty that they were siblings. Juan Carlos never agreed to take a paternity test, evading as a royal what Spanish courts could normally demand of a presumed father.
Another blast from Juan Carlos's past, haunting him after his abdication, was an interview he had given on Swiss television in 1970. Recovered and spreading virally on social media, the images show a young royal heir praising the figure of "General Franco" and saying that "he saved Spain" as "a living example" of patriotic service.
And finally, once again, the king's mysterious friend Corinna Larsen made the news. Vanity Fair called her his "special friend." And special she certainly was, as Juan Carlos reportedly gave her 65 million euros on an offshore account in 2007. The newspaper El País connected the mysterious donation in 2020 to a gift the king himself had received from the Saudi government, suggesting corruption, tax evasion, and white-washing.
Corinna Larsen, meanwhile, has changed from a friend into an enemy. Various recordings surfaced in the past years of Larsen disclosing offshore and under-the-table dealings involving the King. In March 2020, El Mundo reported that she was accusing the monarch of having threatened her.
As this all played out over the past years, it seems that the son is now paying for the sins of the father. King Philip VI is facing a Spanish government with a lot of republicans in it, and the word 'referendum' (about continuance of the monarchy) is already going around. Will Spain become a republic? For now, in breaking financial ties with his scandalous father, Philip seems to have won back the trust of his people.