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Spanish frontier 300 days closed 1959

Panic – They closed the frontier!

(Translated from the French by Peter Parkinson. Original version appeared March 2001 in “L’Echo des Vallées”, published by the Andorran chapter of the Union des Français de l’ Etranger, to whom we are grateful for permission to publish)

At the end of the 50s Andorra began to convert itself into a vast shopping centre. All sorts of merchandise, many of French origin, attracted a crowd of Spanish buyers, especially at week-ends. These goods were a rare commodity, tax-free too. So, on Saturdays and Sundays, the shops of Andorra la Vella and Escaldes filled up with customers eager to obtain things lacking in their country. They spent a lot, and there were many of them. Each week-end day 30,000 Spaniards crossed the frontier at Seu d’ Urgell.

In the region, everyone knew what was going on. Less so in Madrid, where however there were rumours of this rush Spanish buyers towards Andorra. Finally these rumours got to ministerial offices, and reached the ears of Alberto Ullastres, Minister of Commerce and Finance. This man of rigour had recently based his policy the defence of the national currency and on the strike prohibition of allowing pesetas to circulate abroad. Now, according to report reaching Señor Ullastres, there was a significant leak of pesetas into Andorra.

The Minister was obliged to react.

Thus on 23rd of January 1959, the frontier police at Seu d’ Urgell received definite instructions to close the barriers and to turn back all the Spanish citizens wanting to enter Andorra. What a disagreeable surprise! Many people still recall this event – all the more because the frontier stayed closed, not just for a few days as certain Andorrans hoped, but for more than nine months.

Very quickly panic seized shopkeepers, owners of hotels and restaurants. Before the closure, when free-spending Spaniards came in, Andorran commerce flourished. An, not knowing what was about to happen, shop-owners and merchants had passed big orders to their suppliers – all, as usual, on credit.

The frontier had been closed for several weeks when the bills started to come in, but the money to pay them was no longer available. For many shop and hotel keepers the spectre of bankruptcy appeared. They implored their authorities to… do something.

The most illustrious Syndic General, Francisco Carat, decided to go to Madrid. The Co-Price Bishop, Monseigneur Iglesias Navarri also went, expecting to use this considerable influence. In the Civil Was he had been the Chaplain of the Francoist Army. During this time in Andorra, there was despair  – a lot of hotel closed, and those that remained open had to dismiss many of their personnel. Many residents of the Valleys left the country. A few suicides were reported in a Spanish newspaper. French newspapers kept their readers informed of this tragic and unexpected crisis, and their Madrid correspondents passed on their understanding, the frontier would not be re-opened earlier than the 1st of January 1960. The same declaration was made to the Syndic-General and to the Co-Prince Bishop. Confronted by the gravity of the economic situation in Andorra, these two authorities again took the road to the capital of the kingdom. This time, Minister Ullastresheard them and ended by being sensitive to their despair. He agreed, sympathetically, that the frontier should be re-opened and the Spaniards would be allowed to pass. andorra, almost 300 days after the beginning of this affair, emerged from an economic crisis, such as it had never experienced before or since.

Perhaps it was in connection with this event and in order to forget this time of stress, that a few months later, on 20st May 1960, Lady Carmen Polo de Franco, wife of the Spanish dictator, crossed the frontier at Seu d ‘ Urgell. Without apparent rancour, the Syndic-General Señor Carat, welcomed this illustrious lady, and conducted her around Andorra. We are assured, that on the day, Lady Carmen did not delay to visit several shops selling jewellery and perfumes.

Maurice Vincent

Translated from French by Peter Parkinson, published in the Inter-Comm summer 2002