The origin of the word “estraperla”

Halfway through Historia de España en el Siglo XX by Julián Casanova and Carlos Gil Andrés, I came across the fascinating etymology of the Spanish word “estraperla”. Although it quickly came to mean black marketeering, estraperla was originally coined in 1935 to describe a case of political bribery and corruption that not only derailed Alejandro Leroux’s Radical Republican Party but also seriously undermined the credibility of the Second Republic.

Estraperla is a combination of the names of the men behind the scandal: Daniel Strauss, a shady businessman interested in introducing an electric roulette machine that could be controlled to favor the house when the stakes were high, and his financial backer Perle. After their invention was banned in the Netherlands, these gentlemen bribed a number of people in or close to then President Alejandro Leroux, including his adopted son Aurelio, to secure a license to install their machines in casinos in Spain. Although an undetermined amount in cash and a number of gold watches changed hands, the promised license did not materialize and Strauss and Perle plotted their revenge. They presented a  confessional dossier that identified all the players implicated in the scheme and detailed the entire history of the bribes they had paid and the promises that had been made to them to Leroux’s successor, Alcalá Zamora. Leroux unwisely dismissed the accusations when questioned by Zamora and in October 1935 a judicial investigation was undertaken that would end in the resignation of all government ministers who were members of Leroux’s party.  The fall of the Radical Republican  party precipitated political realignments that would soon harden into the divisions that sparked the Spanish civil war.

Franco instituted the rationing of food and other basic goods as soon as he gained power, a policy that he doggedly followed until 1952. As Spain lacked the infrastructure to provide the basic necessities for the entire population, black marketeering was rife. As Michael Richards notes in his book A Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco’s Spain 1936-1945,  work permits and ration cards were doled out to members of the Falangist movement and individuals who cooperated with the new regime. Those unaligned with the dictatorship had to find their own novel ways of getting by and even the lucky holders of a ration card sought methods of supplementing the meager daily ration that was provided by the state. Fascist state intervention at all levels of agriculture and industry provided as many, if not more, opportunities for graft and corruption than those of the Republican governments that had preceded the dictatorship. It was in this new game of roulette where the losers faced prison sentences for selling a few chickens in the black market and winners amassed fortunes through corrupt practices that the word estraperla found a permanent place in the Continental Spanish vocabulary.