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Assemblea de Catalunya demonstration, Tarragona 1976

Assemblea de Catalunya demonstration, Tarragona 1976. Photo: University of Barcelona / Public Domain

Chris Bambery looks back at the Catalonian resistance movement against Spain's fascist dictator in the 1970s

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Assemblea de Catalunya (Assembly of Catalonia), the umbrella organisation which brought together political groups, trade union, cultural organisations and civic groups in opposition to the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, the victor of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.

Under his regime all of those organisations were illegal, the public use of the Catalan language was banned and opponents of Franco were regularly tortured.

Along with the Basque Country, Catalonia had become a centre of anti-Francoist resistance with trade unions and students leading protests against the dictatorship and having savage repression meted out to them by the security forces.

On November 7, 1971, some 300 people held a meeting in Barcelona's Sant Agustí church in the Raval neighbourhood. They went in with those attending early morning mass and left with those attending the last mass of the day.

The Catholic Church had supported Franco in the Civil War blessing his “crusade” against communists, freemasons and separatists. But the outlawing of Catalan made it difficult to communicate with parishioners. The clergy began defying the law, also to provide cover for supposedly religious publications in Catalan which were, actually, about keeping Catalan culture and the language alive. Under a Concordat reached between Franco and the Vatican, the security forces were supposed to be barred from entering churches or other religious buildings.

But a few months earlier a similar attempt in another Barcelona church had been broken up by police. This date had been carefully chosen because it coincided with a visit to Barcelona of Prince Juan Carlos, the future Spanish king and Franco’s designated successor as head of state. The prince was attending a regatta and the organisers, rightly, believed the security forces would be concentrating on ensuring the visit met with no trouble.

The 7 November meeting commenced with five minutes of silence in honour of Antonio Ruiz Villalba, a trade unionist who had been murdered by police at the SEAT car factory strike only weeks earlier. The plant was one of the most militant in Spain.

"It was very dangerous," Rafael Ribó, the ombudsman and a former member of the organisation, told Catalan News. "But we were quite optimistic following what started with the May '68 movements throughout Europe and the world, and to see that the Franco dictatorship was getting old and had holes in it helped people overcome the fear of repression."

The platform of the new body had been thrashed out the previous summer in meetings held in the working-class neighbourhood of Sant Andreu. The initiative was taken by the Communist PSUC but it quickly broadened to include the majority of Catalan political parties, trades unions and civic organisations. Its slogan was Llibertat! Amnistia! Estatut d’Autonomia! – Liberty! Amnesty! Statute of Autonomy! Amnesty for all political prisoners, liberty meaning an end to the dictatorship and autonomy, the restoration of Catalan self-government destroyed by Franco when he captured Barcelona in early 1939.

"There were mainly people protesting in the streets and 100 to 150 people would gather together, mainly in churches. I haven't been to church as much as I did during that period because different church organizations were protecting us," Ribó laughs.

But another meeting of the Assembly on 28 October 1973 saw police surround the Santa Maria Mitjancera church in Barcelona and arrest 113 people. The men were sent to La Model prison, notorious for torture and executions, while the women were sent to La Trinitat prison. A year later another 87 people were arrested.

Central to the Assemblea and to the wider resistance were the communist-led unions, the Workers’ Commissions. The Catalan working class were no longer cowed. In 1974, inflation was running at 25 per cent while wages were held down. Strikes spread like wildfire. In Barcelona, there was a huge strike by workers at the SEAT car plant, demanding higher pay and the reinstatement of those victimised earlier. One report described the scenes in the city: ‘In those weeks there were demonstrations in Barcelona with people chanting “End the Dictatorship” and “SEAT will win”’.

The strike did not end in a complete victory, but it did transform the atmosphere in the city, which was becoming the bulwark of the resistance to Franco. In the final days of Franco’s regime supporters of the Commissions were actually declaring strikes from the headquarters of the regime’s own trade union, a toothless body run by the fascist Falange) in the Baix Llobregat area of Barcelona.

Franco died in November 1975 after his family finally agreed to turn off the life support machine keeping him from dying. The government of Carlos Arias Navarro tried to maintain the regime. Arias was known as the “Butcher of Malaga” when he was military governor of that city when it fell to the Francoists.

With nothing seeming to change, the Assembly decided to call a march in February 1976 through Barcelona in defiance of the security forces. Permission to march had been requested and refused.

A statue commemorating Franco's victory was draped with red‐and‐yellow striped flags of Catalonia by a teen‐age demonstrator as hundreds cheered.

The New York Times reported: “’We are covering their victory with ours,’ one demonstrator remarked with a satisfied smile. When the police came charging into the square, their first act was to take down the flags.”

The original plan was for a peaceful march to Ciutadella Park where the old Catalan parliamentary building stood, but entry to the park was blocked by police on foot, on horses and in armoured vehicles. So protesters simply broke up into small groups who held protests at different points across the city centre while cars filled the streets honking their horns in support. The police were chasing after them and becoming exasperated. They began attacking drivers with their truncheons, grabbing protesters who’d become isolated, beating them and many people too who had nothing to do with the protest. Riot gas and rubber bullets were fired.

There was a sit-in on the Passeig de Sant Joan, at the corner of Carrer de Provença. But the Civil Guard and riot police police-threw smoke bombs at the seated protesters and charged them. Later, numerous groups marched through the streets of the Eixample to reach the Modelo prison, where they sought the release of political prisoners.

A famous picture shows protesters sitting down on the road but being beaten. The man facing the camera was a Catholic priest.

In July 1976 Arias was sacked by King Juan Carlos who appointed Adolfo Suárez prime minister. He had been a minister under Franco but now the growing anti-fascist resistance convinced him that the old regime could not survive and a negotiated settlement was necessary.

Suárez succeeded in brokering a transition to parliamentary democracy with the two main opposition parties, the Socialists and the Communists, who in turn were legalised. But the Transition was negotiated at the top, excluding the popular forces of the resistance, was rushed and seriously flawed, creating problems evident today, not least in relation to Spain’s troubled relationship with Catalonia.

Later that year, the Assemblea de Catalunya called for five separate marches, starting from different towns, to converge on 11 September 1976 (Catalan National Day) at the Monastery of Poblet, a Cistercian foundation located at the foot of the Prades Mountains. Police and the Guardia Civil attacked the marchers as they set out. One hundred and fifty people were arrested, and many received jail sentences. Despite everything, 300 people managed to meet at Poblet.

Meanwhile the main Diada demonstration was taking place in Sant Boi de Llobregat, near Barcelona, the burial place of the Catalan patriot Rafael Casanova. Some 80,000 people attended.

The Assembly dissolved not long after Spain's first post-Franco democratic elections in 1977.

Rafeal Ribó believes it is precisely this sense of unity that needs to be recovered: "We need to recuperate grounds where different parties put together main goals that cannot be the property of anybody, like social justice, gender equality…" He stresses that Francoism and its legacy must be remembered: "A society without memory is one that is in danger."

Further reading

Chris Bambery and George Kerevan, Catalonia Reborn: How Catalonia took on the corrupt Spanish state and the legacy of Franco, Luath Press, 2018

Chris Bambery

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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