People queueing to vote People waiting to vote in the 1977 general election. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Bambery explains that Spanish repression of the Catalan independence movement, and the impending trial of its leaders, is rooted in the concessions made to right-wing nationalism in aftermath of Franco’s dictatorship

Catalonia awaits the verdict in the trial at the Spanish Supreme Court of 12 political and civic leaders charged with ‘rebellion’ and ‘sedition’ for their part in the 1 October 2017 referendum on Catalan independence. That verdict will be delivered before 17 October, the judges say. Brace yourself for a wave of non-violent direct action in response across Catalonia.

Meanwhile another mass trial, of 47 members of ETA prisoners’ support network, begins in Spain’s National Court tomorrow, more than a year after the dissolution of the armed Basque separatist group, and is expected to last nearly three months. They are charged with membership and financing of a terrorist organisation, and glorification of terrorism.

Yet there is no such organisation.

Spanish governments of the centre left and centre right have refused to respond to the dissolution of ETA and the destruction of its arsenal and are also vehement that there will be no Catalan referendum on independence.

Rappers, comedians, puppeteers and others find themselves in court, or having to flee in exile, after being charged with insulting the King, the church or glorying terrorism (one of the puppets held up a sign reading ‘Gora ETA’ [Long Live ETA]). In Catalonia hundreds of mayors and councillors face trial for crimes such as keeping council buildings open on Spanish holidays or not flying the Spanish flag on those days, while others face trial for ripping up pictures of the King.

However offensive or outrageous you find such things it is hard to imagine them reaching the courts in Germany, France, the UK or other Western European states. The UK is no paragon of liberty and its democracy is flawed but its handling of the Northern Ireland peace process stands out well in comparison to Spain’s dealings with ETA and the offer of peace. Why are things different in Spain? 

Concessions to Francoism 

To understand why Spain is different you must go back into history and the process of transition from the dictatorship of General Franco, the victor in the Spanish Civil War, from his death in November 1975 to parliamentary elections in 1977 and the approval of a new constitution the following year.

That vote of approval was seen as the culmination of the country’s transition from the vicious dictatorship of Franco to parliamentary democracy. A process presided over by the government of Adolfo Suarez, who had quickly shed his Francoist past when the dictator died in November 1975.

But this did not represent a complete break with the Francoist past, far from it.

In the first place the constitution confirmed Franco’s designated heir, King Juan Carlos, as head of state. The new King had been trained and educated under Franco. In the second place a whole range of Francoist institutions – the army, police, judiciary, state bureaucracy and prison system – were preserved as they were under the Caudillo.

The text that was voted through declared the army as the ‘defender of the constitution.’ The same document guaranteed the right of private property and the ‘indissoluble unity of the fatherland.’ The right of the Catholic Church to interfere in the education system and over matters of ‘morality’ was reinforced.

The second class position of women was also reinforced. The constitution discriminated against extra-marital relationships and against children deemed illegitimate. It did not grant the right to divorce, address decriminalising contraception, mention equal pay or equal rights at work and it attempted to prevent any attempt to legalise abortion.

The role of left parties

Yet this new Constitution was guaranteed a majority before voting began because of the support of the two main opposition parties, the Socialists (PSOE) and the Communists (PCE). The latter declared that the choice was ‘the constitution or fascism’ and warned any criticism would only benefit the Francoist right. Not only was it ‘the best possible in the circumstances’ but its passing ‘will open the door towards socialism.’

Regarding the police forces the PCE called demands for a purge of right wingers ‘provocative’ and, while admitting they needed restructuring, stated that they had to be supported as they were now ‘defending democracy.’

The rationale was that the police were opposing what the Communists saw as the main danger, ‘terrorism.’ In the build up to the referendum they organised rallies where they lumped together the Basque terror group ETA with fascist squads who targeted the left, ignoring the continuation of the repressive machinery put in place under Franco.

Overall, the transition, in the words of the distinguished sociologist Victor Pérez-Díaz, ‘required Francoists to pretend they had never been Francoists, and left-wing compromisers to pretend they were still committed to leftist principles’.

The political parties agreed on the consensus, after so polarised a past, which was very much the watchword between the reformist Pacto de Olvido (literally, a ‘pact of forgetting’), whereby they agreed to not raise the deep injustices of the Civil War and the repression which followed Franco’s victory. 

Violent amnesty

Underwriting this was the 1977 Amnesty Law which freed anyone involved in political crimes before that date from any prosecution. In other words, Franco’s torturers and executioners got to walk free. This contrasted with neighbouring Portugal where a right wing dictatorship had been overthrown in April 1974 and there was a popular backed purge of the old regime, above all its secret police.

The task of drawing up the new post-Franco constitution was undertaken, after the Constitutional Committee of the Spanish Parliament elected a group from all seven parties. By early 1978 this group had been handed over to the 36 members of the Constitutional Committee.

Despite differences over issues such as autonomy, abortion, private education and the death penalty all seemed to be proceeding smoothly. But in May of that year a crisis erupted when it was revealed that major clauses of the new constitution were being agreed beforehand between two representatives of the ruling Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD) and the largest opposition party the Socialists, meeting at night in private apartments and at a highly fashionable Madrid restaurant.

This revelation provoked the withdrawal of the representatives of the Popular Alliance (AP – the forerunner of the current People’s Party) and the Basque National Party (PNV). The former soon returned and a final text was ratified in October by both houses of the Spanish Parliament. But it did not satisfy the PNV. In the summer and autumn of 1978, the Spanish security forces in the Basque Country were either operating outside of government control or with the covert approval of it. The Francoist past of the Interior Minister, Martin Villa, encouraged the latter view. In January 1978, after a policeman and two ETA members were killed in a shoot out, he replied to journalists’ questions saying ‘2-1 to us.’

In the contested province of Navarre, the security forces seemed especially out of control. On 1 May 1978 they attacked the trade union march in Pamplona with rubber bullets and riot gas. Ten days later off-duty Civil Guards ran amok in the city.

Tension built up as the traditional festival of running the bulls through the city streets was due to be held in July. Despite orders to the contrary the local Civil Guard commander unleashed riot squads on a small protest demanding amnesty for ETA prisoners in the bull ring. One civilian was killed and 40 wounded in the subsequent police rampage. 

Protest strikes began to spread across the Basque Country. In San Sebastian police opened fire on a march by striking bank employees, killing one and wounding several others. Subsequently, in the Renteria suburb of the city armed police went on the rampage looting shops and smashing up apartment blocks. 

In August, after two policemen were shot dead by ETA, the Civil Governor of Vizcaya province, the Director General of Security and the head of police attended the funeral the next day. They had to barricade themselves in the police barracks after being surrounded by police officers chanting insults against the Madrid government and democracy. 

Attempted coup

In November a planned military coup was uncovered and foiled. But the government largely swept it under the carpet. One of the key plotters, a Civil Guard Colonel, Antonio Tejero, was held in detention but then given a desk job in Madrid and continued his plotting, ultimately leading an actual coup in February 1981 when he led Civil Guards in occupying the Spanish Parliament and taking deputies prisoner.

After several hours, during which martial law was declared in Valencia and tanks sent onto the streets, the King broadcast on TV, as head of the armed forces, denouncing the coup which collapsed. He was hailed as a champion of democracy.

Since then it has been revealed he sympathised with the grievances of those behind the coup, particularly in regards to the threats posed to national unity by giving autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country and had used the hours before the broadcast in consultation with senior officers before determining that the coup was not succeeding – key units refused to join it.

But the result of the failed coup was that successive Spanish governments accepted that in future autonomy had to be limited to what had been granted, and even rowed back. The military had put a marker down.

When the King received leaders of Spain’s political parties shortly after the coup collapsed he warned them that ‘an open and tough reaction by the political parties against those who committed acts of subversion in the last few hours would be most unadvisable and it wound be even more counter-productive to extend such a reaction to the entire Armed Forces’. He continued by urging them to act in the interests of the unity and concord of the country and added he could not repeat what he had just done.

The Basque Country and the 1978 Referendum

To return to 1978, police actions in the Basque Country fuelled support for ETA which intensified its campaign against the security forces. Many Basques who did not support ETA believed that little had changed since the demise of the dictatorship. 

In December 1978 the voters of Spain were asked in a referendum ‘Do you approve of the Constitution Bill?’ Nationally 91.81 percent said Yes (although 33 percent did not vote). But in the Basque Country 51.1 percent did not vote. Of those who did 23.54 percent said No.

Across Europe political leaders hailed Spain’s achievements. But amidst that clamour there was a degree of unease in the media.

‘Good morning, Spain, but the concern is still there’, wrote veteran correspondent in Madrid Tim Brown for the Daily Telegraph, who also recalled that the constitution had been approved with ‘less enthusiasm than expected’ because of the high abstention.  

With a similar caution, another British paper, The Guardian, warned of the ‘shadows’ that still hung over the constitution, which they considered an ‘impressively progressive’ document but that to succeed it should still overcome important challenges, such as the Basque conflict, the ‘growing sense of disillusion’ prevalent in part of a population that ‘is still waiting for the expectations aroused by the death of Franco to be fulfilled’, and the coincidence of the Transition with ‘a period of economic recession and ideological doubts.’ 

Political repression in the courts

Concerns should have arisen with the actions of the Spanish courts.

In December 1977 the actor, playwright and director, Albert Boadella, staged a play, La Torna, in Barcelona. It was a satire about the execution by garrotting of the Catalan anarchist, Salvador Puig Antich, in 1974. For this crime Boadella was summoned before a military court martial and charged with insulting the army. The day before the hearing he staged a spectacular escape from prison and took refuge in France.

The same month the radical left magazine Saida published an edition devoted to the topic of ‘the Republic.’ It was openly opposed to monarchies, and to the Spanish one in particular and explained that Juan Carlos ‘did not win the country in a raffle,’ while alluding to Pantomime stories that ‘this king might turn into a frog.’

The editor was immediately summoned before the State Prosecutor and charged with ‘insulting the head of state.’ When the leaders of four left wing parties which backed Saida claimed joint responsibility for the edition they too were put in the dock. When the five refused to pay a surety of €400 they were then jailed. 

They were only released after a week of campaigning by the left and the trade unions.

In March 1979 during a referendum in Andalucía, which narrowly voted for autonomy, the UCD Government, which opposed the measure, responded that all eight Andaulician provinces had to vote in favour, and because one, the smallest, had not, they insisted the vote was void. In elections for the new Basque Parliament, 60 members of the far left Movimento Comunista were arrested in Andalucía charged with ‘insulting the Prime Minister’ and 90 in the Basque Country with criticising the security forces actions there.

The stage had been set for the Spanish Courts to become involved in dealing with obviously political matters and setting clear limits on free speech.

European Union

The European Union is very proud of Spain’s Transition and held it up as a model, for instance in the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. That in part explains its silence on what Spain has done in Catalonia, even its moves to stop three Catalan prisoners and exiles being able to take their seats in the European Parliament after they were elected this year. 

When Franco died in 1975 a mass movement of anti-fascist resistance had grown up, strongest in the Basque Country, Catalonia and Madrid. The May events of 1968 had set in motion a chain of events where the left seemed to be in the ascendant.

In ruling circles in Bonn, Paris, London and Washington there was concern that Franco’s death might unleash a mass movement moving in a revolutionary direction. Many on the revolutionary left confidently predicted that the regime could not be reformed but must be toppled.

In Portugal that is precisely what had happened. 

But the dominant grouping within Franco’s regime looked towards modernising the Spanish economy and entry to the European Union and NATO. Led by Adolfo Suarez, who had been General Secretary of Franco’s party, the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement), they began looking to shift towards parliamentary democracy, realising that was necessary to join the EU. At first they hoped to exclude the Communists but realised it was better to have them inside the tent and that the party’s leadership would compromise.

The West German SPD spent many Marks and much effort building up the PSOE and its young leader, Felipe Gonzalez, so they could out match the Communists, who had been central to the anti-fascist resistance. In that they succeeded.

But Spanish employers, their European counterparts and European politicians worked hard to get both parties to ditch their pledge of a democratic break with Francoism. Moscow urged that too on the Communists. So, both parties dropped their established position of supporting a federal Spain. They were told such a thing was unacceptable to the army. 

The Communists and their union affiliates ending up agreeing a social contract with the employers and state which introduced austerity measures to deal with an economy in recession. That was crucial in undermining its popular support.

The Constitution today

Today the Spanish Constitution has assumed a totemic position in the official life of the country. Catalans demanding an independence referendum are told this is not allowed under the Constitution and that it cannot be changed – it can, as when the EU demanded fresh austerity measures as the price of a bail out following the 2008 financial crash and the deep recession that followed.

Above all the current Socialist Government and its rivals on the right, the Popular Party, Ciudadanos and the fascist Vox all take a stand against Catalan aspirations based on a Castilian or Spanish nationalism on which the Franco regime was based and which has always seen Spain defined against others; for instance Muslims and Jews at the very moment of its creation in 1492 when, following the conquest of the last Muslim kingdom, they were both told to convert or leave.

It is very clear that the limits imposed on Spanish democracy during the Transition of the late 1970s need to be addressed. But that is something which is near impossible in the current atmosphere in Spain. A conviction for the Catalan 12 will only increase the alienation of that nation from the Spanish state.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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