The Pain in the Reign in Spain

The Pain in the Reign in Spain

When Spain’s King Juan Carlos verbally slapped down bad boy Hugo Chavez at the Ibero-American summit, it came, to say the least, as a surprise. For a man who normally is the very embodiment of decorum, Juan Carlos’ retort to the Venezuelan president — “Why don’t you shut up?” — seemed shockingly uncharacteristic. But a statement from the Palace on Tuesday may have offered a bit of context on the royal mood: the king’s eldest child, the infanta Elena, was separating “temporarily” from her aristocratic husband, Jaime de Marichalar. Could His Majesty — coolheaded impeder of military coups, tireless inaugurator of schools and hospitals, diplomatic booster of all things Spanish — be feeling a little family stress?

It hasn’t been the best year for the Spanish royals. During the summer, a satirical magazine published a risque cartoon of the heir to the throne, Prince Felipe, and his wife Letizia. The couple were already having a tough year: A few months earlier, Letizia’s sister had committed suicide. This fall, groups of Catalan nationalists publicly burned photos of the king and queen, and last week, Morocco’s monarch temporarily recalled his ambassador from Madrid to protest the Spanish monarch’s visit to the contested cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Through it all, Juan Carlos and his wife Sofia have maintained their habitual calm, confident, no doubt, of both of their high approval ratings and their own exquisite manners.

Perhaps, though, the latest news was too much, although the separation announcement wasn’t wholly unexpected: The gossip rags have been hinting for months that all was not well in the Bourbon-Marichalar household. Besides, Elena and Jaime have always made a strange pair. Married for 12 years and parents of two children, she has always been the loyal, stoic princess tirelessly fulfilling her royal duties, while he, an eccentrically dressed dandy, has become a regular presence at New York fashion shows. But whatever their differences, and although the Palace stressed that the separation was a “temporary cessation of their marriage” and had no legal implications, the separation is nonetheless an uncharacteristic admission of problems within the family. In fact, it is the first separation in the history of the Spanish royals.

By Saturday, the day of the Chavez smackdown, Elena and Jaime were in the process of moving into their separate homes. Politicial analysts on Wednesday’s morning talk shows insisted that one had nothing to do with the other, but it was hard to avoid speculation about the pressure the king must be feeling. Hard, too, to avoid the conclusion that 2007 has been a particularly rough year for the Spanish royals — or, as Britain’s Queen Elizabeth said of 1992, a year that she would not “look back with undiluted pleasure” because of the marital troubles of her own progeny, “it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”