LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
With Spain's economy in tatters, the country is doing lots of finger-pointing at who is responsible for squandering the nation's prosperity. The latest suspect, a once untouchable institution: the Spanish royal family.
Lauren Frayer reports from Madrid.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The reputation of the current Spanish king, Juan Carlos, was cemented one day 32 years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
FRAYER: Armed civil guard officers stormed the Spanish Parliament, holding lawmakers hostage in an attempted coup.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
FRAYER: The king went on live TV, denouncing the officers.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)
KING JUAN CARLOS: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: The crown cannot tolerate any action that interrupts the strength of the democratic process, he said.
The coup fell apart, and Juan Carlos was credited with keeping this country a democracy. All that goodwill lasted until very recently, when Spain's economy fell apart. Suddenly, the royal lifestyle feels like an insult to some Spaniards.
SANDRA HUANG: So I'm totally against it, totally. Because why I should pay their food or their clothes, their jewelry? I don't want to pay them.
FRAYER: Sandra Huang lingers in a park with her boyfriend before work. She earns about $950 a month, and resents any of her taxes going to the royals. The palace has picked on up this growing anger, and announced that the king will give up his $27 million yacht, which costs $30,000 just to refuel. All this after Juan Carlos was discovered elephant-hunting last year in Africa. That safari cost many times the average Spaniard's annual salary.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
CARLOS: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: I'm very sorry, the king told reporters outside his hotel room last spring. I made a mistake, and it won't happen again.
The king's poll numbers have hit record lows, something Spanish media are reporting on for the first time. Royal watchers like Hugh O'Donnell, who wrote a book about Juan Carlos, can scarcely believe how quickly public deference has evaporated. I reached him via Skype in Scotland.
HUGH O'DONNELL: I was in Catalonia in the early '90s, when he was coming to open one of the stadiums for the Barcelona Olympics. And he arrived late, and it was an open secret that he was held up due to a dalliance with his then-mistress in Mallorca. But all of this was an open secret. The media certainly didn't cover it.
FRAYER: But now they do. The king's latest headache comes from his youngest daughter, Infanta Cristina. Judges are investigating whether her husband embezzled millions of dollars from charities he ran. And they're probing the princess' tax returns, as well, for any evidence of money laundering on her part.
Even the editor of the monarchist newspaper ABC, Bieito Rubido, acknowledges that the Spanish royal family wants an outsider to take the heat.
BIEITO RUBIDO: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: The problem with the princess is her husband, he says. Inaki Urdangarin took advantage of his relations with the royals to benefit himself.
The king has cut his son-in-law out of the royal budget. The island of Mallorca even changed signs on a street named after Urdangarin. Some Spaniards are ashamed. Others roll their eyes and fret more about the economy. Thousands of protesters hit Madrid's streets every weekend.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)
FRAYER: At this anti-corruption rally, someone makes a wisecrack about the royal family, and the crowd launches into a fiery debate over how much the princess, Infanta Cristina, was involved in her husband's dealings.
ROBERTO NOGUERES: You are under the same roof, sleeping in the same bed.
NOGUERES: So it's impossible not to know anything about his activities.
FRAYER: Roberto Nogueres is a community activist here.
NOGUERES: Direct democracy, demonstrations in the street, OK, yes, they are contradiction with the monarchy, OK. And I think most of us really want a referendum, want to be - to decide, OK, if we want to have a king or not.
FRAYER: He's unlikely to get that vote. Spain is a constitutional monarchy. When the 75-year-old king dies, his son will take over. But as time passes and memory fades of that attempted coup in 1981, the role of Spain's monarchy may change for good.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer, in Madrid.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.