In the years since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1978, Juan Carlos tried to settle into a role similar to his fourth cousin Queen Elizabeth. He acted as a figurehead, met with Spanish citizens, and devoted his attention to causes that were important to him. But while this was going on, he also set his mind toward acquiring wealth in ways that would likely be considered untoward if pursued by the queen or her son Prince Charles.
Even after the more formal limitation of his powers, Juan Carlos continued to play an active role in managing some of the country’s economic affairs. “Whenever there are large deals for Spanish companies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Latin America, the person that politicians and the business community call is the King, and he makes the calls,” Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn told V.F.’s Bob Colacello in 2013.
The main difference between the Spanish royal family and the British comes in their financial relationship to the state. Because his grandfather King Alfonso XIII was exiled at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Juan Carlos has fewer jewels and heirlooms that Queen Elizabeth, for example, has turned into a modern nest egg. From the beginning of his reign, Juan Carlos paid taxes on his income and was never the personal owner of any of the royal art collection, regalia, or palaces. And still, he has built his fortune.
In 2013, V.F. estimated that his net worth was about $2 billion, all acquired in the years since he made his return to Spain in 1948. Alfonso and his son Juan left with little wealth, and the family would spend most of Juan Carlos’s childhood dependent on support from other Spanish aristocrats who had also found themselves in exile in Italy, where Juan Carlos was born. When he was educated in Spain as a child in the 1950s, some of his expenses were provided for by the dictator Franco, who wanted to groom him as a successor.
Ultimately that experience shaped his approach toward making money. “He wants to guarantee during his own lifetime that his children and his children’s children will never know the financial humiliations his parents and grandparents knew,” a person acquainted with Juan Carlos’s finances told V.F. in 1992.
Increasingly, offshore accounts are used by the world’s rich to drive a defensive tax strategy. (Even the queen reportedly has a few.) But using the connections from an official role to enrich yourself while building a system of foreign bank accounts doesn’t sound like the behavior of a democratic hero. It’s more reminiscent of Vladimir Putin or Robert Mugabe, rulers who became unimaginably wealthy on the backs of struggling nations.
Through the legend of Juan Carlos’s return, the Spanish royal family became a metonym for a changed Spain, but the 21st century has battered the myth’s appeal. Though Spain was able to join the European common market, the Great Recession caused a housing crisis that did extensive damage to the country’s economy and standard of living. In 2017, the province of Catalonia held an independence vote that was technically illegal, and the national police forces responded with violence. The democratic prosperity that the country hailed in the 1990s now appears to be less democratic and less prosperous than many believed.
At this point, it’s not clear exactly why Juan Carlos found it necessary to leave the country, but it seems possible that he no longer retains the same prosecutorial immunity he held as monarch. His son, the current king, has already rebuked him, stripped him of his annual government income of €194,000, and renounced any future inheritance from him. Currently, the larger threat is to the monarchy as an institution rather than to Juan Carlos as a person. A recent poll showed that 52% of citizens would prefer that Spain became a republic. Independence movements have already seized on the newest round of scandal, and one of the parties sharing power in the country’s coalition government is anti-monarchy.