Manuel Fraga, a veteran Spanish politician and founder of the ruling conservative Popular Party, died at his home in Madrid, his family told Efe. He was 89.
Fraga was the last surviving major figure in the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco and he played a key role in the country’s transition to democracy as one of the drafters of the country’s current constitution, which was passed in 1978.
He had been suffering from a serious respiratory infection since the start of the year triggered by a bad cold and was accompanied by his closest family members - including his doctor and daughter, Isabel - at the time of his death of heart failure late Sunday.
Fraga, who was born in 1922 in the town of Vilalba, in the Galician region, began his political career at the age of 29 as secretary-general of the Institute of Hispanic Culture and occupied a number of important political positions throughout his career.
He was an information and tourism minister under Franco, a position in which he is remembered for promulgating a law that provided greater press freedom.
Fraga also served as Spain’s ambassador to Britain; interior minister under Carlos Arias Navarro, the last prime minister appointed under Franco; head of the Galician autonomous community from 1990 to 2005; and finally as a senator.
He also was a founder and chairman of the Popular Alliance, forerunner of the now-ruling Popular Party, and was later named honorary chairman of the PP.
During his stint as interior minister in the 1970s, he allegedly exclaimed in the face of union protests that “the streets are mine!” Fraga, however, repeatedly denied ever uttering those words.
The most enduring image of Fraga for many older Spaniards is when in 1966 - as information and tourism minister - he swam off the beach of the southern fishing village of Palomares with the then-U.S. ambassador to show the waters were not contaminated with radiation.
The swim was broadcast around the world and came days after a U.S. B-52 bomber’s mid-air collision with its refueling tanker caused four hydrogen bombs to fall in and around Palomares, including one that landed in the Mediterranean Sea.
No warheads detonated, but two of the bombs released plutonium into the atmosphere.
Official reactions to Fraga’s death quickly poured in.
Spain’s King Juan Carlos praised Fraga as a “great servant of the state” and hailed his contributions to the country’s transition to democracy, while Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called Fraga “a key man in the Spanish transition” to democracy and one of the great politicians of the 20th century.
Rajoy’s predecessor, Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, also hailed the important role Fraga played in the “consolidation of Spanish democracy.”