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Rotary History

Rotary in Spain survives challenges

After successfully establishing a presence in Great Britain and Ireland, Rotary expanded its reach to mainland Europe with the chartering of a club in Madrid, Spain, on New Year’s Day 1921.

To get the club started, the secretariat had contacted Rotarians in Havana, Cuba, for a recommendation of someone who might be well suited to organize it in Spain. The Havana members suggested Angel Cuesta, a cigar magnate originally from Spain who had also helped organize clubs in Cuba. Now living in Tampa, Florida, USA, he was assigned as special representative in 1920. Cuesta traveled to Spain, and working with Ely Palmer, the American consul in the Spanish capital, led an organizational meeting in October 1920.

With so many highly qualified potential members in Madrid, the organizing group wanted to grow the clubs quickly and asked the secretariat to exempt them from the slow-growth policy that previous countries and regions employed. But the secretariat felt strongly that to reach the region’s full potential, a more moderate approach to growth was best.

Beyond Madrid

Cuesta believed that once the Madrid club was well-established and the Rotary concept of service became better known in Spain, it would be easy to organize in Barcelona. The club there received its charter in April 1922. The Zaragoza club followed in December 1925, then the San Sebastián club in February 1926.

The appetite for Rotary in Spain continued to grow. The Rotary clubs of Spain held their first conference in Barcelona in 1928. In the late 1920s, the Barcelona club promoted international understanding by hosting its first youth exchange, an activity that was emerging throughout the Rotary world at the time and continues today. The Barcelona members hosted the sons of London Rotarians for a weeklong stay in Spain’s Catalonia region, where they witnessed the industry, cultural activities, and home life of typical Spanish families.

In 1929-30, the Rotary International Board of Directors included its first Spanish member. Another Spaniard sat on the board in 1935-36.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and Francisco Franco’s rise to power quickly halted Rotary’s expansion in the country. The Franco regime persecuted perceived “enemies of the state,” and anti-Rotary rhetoric was pervasive. In 1936, Rotary was banned. Because clubs were unable to function, the 28 clubs in the country had their membership in Rotary formally terminated in 1940.

Rotary reemerges in Spain

With the death of Franco in 1975 and a return to democracy in the late 1970s, Rotary clubs began to re-emerge throughout Spain, starting in Madrid.

In 1976, a group in Madrid dedicated themselves to restarting Rotary and began meeting unofficially as a Rotary club. At the time, it was necessary to work with the Spanish government before affiliating with Rotary International. In May of that year, RI President Ernesto Imbassahy de Mello and Vice President Bernardo Guzmán traveled to Spain. Together with Jaime Enseñat, president of the newly formed Madrid club, and other Spanish Rotarians, they had the honor of being received by King Juan Carlos de Borbón.

The next year, Guzmán served as Rotary’s special representative to organize the Madrid club. It was officially chartered on 6 June 1977, but in consideration of why it had closed, was later granted the retroactive charter date of 1921. Rotary celebrated its return with a charter signing and presentation at the 1977 Rotary International Convention.

Across the continent

While Rotary was growing in prewar Spain, members also worked with Rotary International’s leaders to start clubs elsewhere in Europe.

In April 1920, Rotarian E.J. Felt of Tacoma, Washington, USA, went to Paris, France, to lay the foundation for a strong club there. He identified potential members locally and in consultation with J.E. Lloyd Barnes, a member of the Rotary Club of Liverpool, England, and president of the British Association of Rotary Clubs (now RIBI). After Felt’s death, Rotary designated John Bain Taylor of London to assist business leaders in Paris to complete the organization of the club. The Rotary Club of Paris received its charter on 1 April 1921.

Other early European firsts include these Rotary clubs, listed with their RI charter dates:

  • København, Denmark — 3 August 1922
  • Oostende, Belgium — 29 August 1923
  • Milano, Italy — 19 December 1923
  • Zürich, Switzerland — 23 May 1924
  • Praha, Czech Republic — 19 October 1925
  • Wien, Austria — 19 October 1925
  • Lisboa, Portugal — 23 January 1926
  • Hamburg, Germany — 8 October 1927

World War II forced many clubs in Europe to close. As with the Spanish clubs, these clubs made a proud return after the war.

  1. Certificate authorizing Rotarian Angel Cuesta of Tampa, Florida, USA, to organize a Rotary club in Madrid, Spain.

  2. Organizational meeting of the Rotary Club of Toledo, Spain, attended by members of clubs in Madrid, Alicante, Aranjuez, and Zaragosa, in 1932.

  3. An early meeting of the Rotary Club of Lyon, France, which received its charter in October 1923. Club founder Etienne Fougère is in the center of the first row, with his arms folded. The meeting was attended by members of the Rotary Clubs of Barcelona, Spain, and Paris, France.

  4. Members of the Rotary Club of Bilbao, Spain, and their spouses in 1932.