Christopher Hitchens: The state of Spain

Madrid, 1976: Hitchens files a report following the death of Franco.

New Statesman
1975: A newspaper reports General Francisco Franco's worsening illness outside El Pardo Palace, near Madrid. (Photo: Getty Images)

The death of Francisco Franco on 20 November 1975 was a pivotal moment for Spain - the dictator had been in power since the 1930s. His successor was Prince Juan Carlos, who oversaw the transition to democracy. On 9 January 1976, Hitchens filed a report from Madrid.

According to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee cannot fly. According to such crude political laws as we possess, the Spanish regime should fall apart. But nothing has really changed in Spain except the consciousness of the population. There have been false dawns before, notably after the climb-down over the Burgos executions in 1970; but Franco's demise has opened a Pandora's box of expectations. The villages of Don Benito and Fregenal de la Serena are agricultural communities close to the Portuguese border. In 1972 there were mass arrests there on charges of illegal association and propaganda. A month ago, after last November's indulto (pardon) which Spaniards refer to as the insulto, all charges were dropped. Villagers interviewed by the foreign press were jubilant and unabashed. 'Now they must pardon everybody' was the refrain. And after? 'we must have political freedom and political parties'. Amnesty touches almost everybody in Spain, because the demand for it comprises prisoners, exiles, blacklisted workers and dismissed academics. It is simple, obvious and popular: the regime will not grant it. As Camacho said to me, pardons have come several times before (as when, for instance, a Pope dies) but there has been no general amnesty, and liberal ministers have appeared before without inaugurating change. 'Franco could have done all this in 1959', he says, 'but now you can smell freedom in the streets even if you cannot hold it in your hand.'

Whether or not the Spanish spring will fester and die in the womb or kick and break the waters remains to be seen. Forty years of the prison-house and death which can still not be counted have made the Left almost 'stir-happy'; too optimistic at any prospect of concessions. The present cabinet is to Franco was Caetano was to Salazar - a tentative and fumbling effort at a manipulated democracy, which will end up pleasing nobody. Manuel Fraga, the new Minister of the Interior (and former ambassador to London) simply wants to have the opposition where he can see them. As a pragmatist he realised that the ultra-right 'bunker' of extremist clerical, military and fascist groups cannot be allowed to last. But as an old Falangist himself he dare not legalise the communists nor concede to the nationalist renaissance among Basques and Catalans. Men more intelligent than Fraga - which is extravagant claim - have literally come apart trying to ride these two horses before. The following is an account of how various groups in Spain reckon his chances of success.

For economists, the situation is very grave indeed. Spain is dangerously dependent on the vagaries of the international marker, with a threatening recession and a probable 5 per cent unemployment, excluding the million or so driven abroad to stoke the boilers of the Common Market. With the new mood of confidence demonstrated in several strikes, the Spanish worker mat not take easily to reduced standards and Spanish business is fed up being snubbed by the EEC for its fascist connections. Returning migrant workers are unlikely to revert to passivity either.

For left socialists like Dr Tierno Galvan the position is one of opportunity. 'There are perhaps 10,000 people who control capital in this country', he told me, 'and this permits a very broad alliance of white- and blue-collar workers against the oligarchy.' His own Popular Socialist Party is outside the Socialist International and, as he says, 'the new rulers want democracy to save their own class interest; we want it in order to be able to destroy them'.

For the social democrats, the new situation revives memories of their previous power among workers and intellectuals. A member of the central committee of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party), recently released from detention, told me that they thought the could repeat the electoral success of Mario Soares, but would refuse legislation of their party unless the same rights were extended to everybody else.

For nationalists all talk of reform is meaningless unless Basques and Catalans and Galicians are given back at least the autonomous right which they could claim before the fascist victory. In Barcelona last week a football victory against Madrid flooded the Ramblas with Catalan flags and subversive slogans. An illegal press conference that previous night had announced that a Catalan Assembly and Council could between them now claim the support of almost every political party and social group in the region (or 'nation' as its partisans remind one). All the opposition parties, whether in Madrid or in exile, now recognise the strength of this movement and incorporate its demands into their own programmes. The communists, who are always organisationally ahead of everybody else, even operate under different party names in the three areas concerned.

In the army, there is a cruel and unusual division. One part of it, and the senior part at that, is of course loyal to the bloody traditions of Franco and the aggrandisement of the armed forces that he was always careful to insist upon. Liberal voices at this level - such as Diez Alegria, the former chief of staff dismissed after a visit to Romania - are very muted. Most of the Left prefer not to think about it, but Ruiz Jimenez, a former Franco minister and now Spain's leading limousine liberal, speculated to me that an army intervention could be provoked by any move to grant nationalist demands, any move to precipitate changes in the law, or any attempt to legalise the Communist Party.

The machismo of the officer class is very sensitive indeed - in wartime the Spanish army runs away and in peacetime it shoots the troublesome elements in the population. This is why the opposition forces in the machine have to concentrate on what they call 'active neutrality'. At a recent clandestine meeting, spokesmen for the highly illegal and much prosecuted UDM (Military Democratic Union) claimed to have helped stop an army contingency plan to round up opposition leaders after Franco died. They also claim 1,000 members, and most of these are obviously young officers with university backgrounds or university wives. Nine of their suspected sympathisers face trail by military court, and it is noticeable that five of them are captains on the general staff, and all of them have impeccable military records - in one case a father who volunteered for Nazi service on the bitter Russian front. Like very many Spaniards, the UDM protests are the sell-out by el rey cretino of the defenceless people of the Spanish Sahara. 'We promised these people food and supplies,' said their spokesman, 'but abandoned them to King Hassan'. Juan Carlos may regret this clever betrayal even more than the ones he plans for the future. But, for now the army is the great unknown in Spanish politics. For instance, the five militants executed in November were convicted by a military court but shot my a police firing squad. The general opinion was that the army did not want the odium of the task, but had to fulfil the legal duties laid upon it by the anti-terrorist legislation, which is being used to fill up the prisons as quickly as they are emptying.

Bargaining Counters

The liberals and the communists, both of whom need each other desperately and both of whom spend a large portion of the time reassuring each other that they are not as liberal/communist as they are painted, are playing a waiting game. Waiting games are what they are both good at, and they are the best organised forces in Spain. They already have an embryonic political world in which to operate; a world composed of chain-smoking radical professors and journalists, highly motivated members of the professions, self-educated workers and, as everywhere else in Iberia, shoals of eager reformist lawyers. Madrid must be the world capital of opportunism today - with everybody establishing credentials for the morrow. The liberals and Christian Democrats (who have renamed themselves the Democratic Left) use the potential power of communism as a bargaining counter with the regime Ruiz Jimenez was extremely frank about arguing 'If not us, them'.

The communists, too, are able to make their views known through intermediaries. During a recent visit to Paris, the Count of Motrico as Foreign Minister of Spain made a speech in which he said that if Santiago Carillo wanted his passport back he could apply for it like any other Spaniard, and the fact the he was general secretary of the CP would make no difference to the outcome. On his return Motrico was howled down and pilloried in the 'Parliament', his protestations that he was against legalising communists going unheard.

In an interview with the Italian leftist paper Il Manifesto some weeks ago, Carillo spoke of re-opening Communist Party offices in major town and daring the regime to do anything about it. No more had been heard of this plan since. But the Party does propose to begin work within the government sponsored trade unions, and establish a base from which they can strike when the opportunity presents itself. Camacho and the other worker organisers are in disagreement with this plan, preferring to revive the illegal commissions. The difference is an important one, because as Camacho told me, the Portuguese Left began its period of error by insisting on a unified and centralised trade union federation. He did not actually say 'under the control of the Communist Party' but everybody with any experience known that to be true of Lisbon trade unions, and knows that the behaviour of the Stalinists in Portugal has been a grave embarrassment to their allegedly more liberal Spanish brothers (who received a visit from Alvaro Cunhal in 1968 to tell them that the Kremlin expected more loyalty to the Moscow line over Czechoslovakia). There are other reasons, too, for the communists to bank on a liberal-democratic opening in Spain, and one of these is that the less turbulent the process the less trouble and challenge they can expect from the extreme Left, who put Carillo and others to the trouble of shooting them last time things got out of control under the Republic.

On the extreme Right, there is a period of phoney war. They still have an untried reserve strength which nobody much wants to calculate. It includes the Brigada Politico-Social (BPS) of the security forces, which covers secret police operations. It includes most of the leaders of Guardia Civil and several leading generals in the army (who had the opportunity to talk to General Pinochet when he became the only head of state to attend Franco's funeral.) It includes a certain section of the Church, spoken for chiefly by Bishop Guerra Campos. And it disposes of scatter of para-military and para-police terrorist groups, who operate with almost total immunity. Fraga was even compelled to make a speech just before Christmas in which he publicly warned the police to stay out of politics. But not one prosecution has been brought against any of these groups, although they have thousands of acts of violence to their credit. The only action ever taken against the fascists was when the squadirsti of Cruz Iberica made the civil blunder of robbing a bank. Otherwise, the police just fold their arms or put on civilian clothes and join in the fun.

Political Violence

In an open election the extreme Right would certainly be humiliated. And their current strategy is an embarrassment to the Spanish Establishment. Blas Pinar, the head of Fuerza Nueva and most prominent rightist spokesman, coined the slogan, 'Communists are like barbarians - they always need somebody to open the gate'. This commits him and his friends to denouncing every liberal bishop, every foreign influence and every reformist minister.

So the potential for violence on the Right is ignored by almost everybody, because it would upset everybody's plans. The Left parties in their manifestos do not even go so far as to demand the disbanding of the political police, though the call for amnesty is an empty one otherwise. And the political police are still bust about their tasks - they tortured Ricardo Tellez so badly in Barcelona the other day (for his trade union activities) that he is not expected to recover. And during the curfew and clampdown in the Basque provinces last autumn, they ran a riot of arbitrary arrest, physical brutality and general intimidation. At one point, even the French government had to protest that Spanish policemen were coming over the border as 'hit-men' for Basque political activists living in France. For the so-called 'civilised Right' this kind of activity, with its attendant marching songs, salutes, symbols and slogans is deeply alarming in more than one way. It serves, above all, to remind people what are the real historical origins of this regime, and that is one file which they would rather remained shut.

The Other Spain

'Few Spaniards,' wrote Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, 'possess the damnable consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs.' So while the right is puking up the undigested fascism of the last generation, the new-look Establishment ponders the problem of how to be a little bit democratic. Because the appetite for change notoriously increased with the eating, and because the new galère have few of the semi-religious beliefs and superstitions about the Spanish 'crusade' which their predecessors displayed, nobody is betting heavily on their chances. The current crew simply exhibit a holy concern for their own skins. (And those, by the way, who keep saying 'look what Franco did for Spain' must now explain why it is that the minute he expired his heirs looked around for the safest and quickest way to dismantle his legacy.)

The leader of the Christian Democrats in Catalonia, Anton Canellas, said to me as we parted that 'three forces lost the Civil War - the working class, the Basques and the Catalans'. His own party was among them, and its leader executed without trial. It does not take a very long memory for that to stick, or any great political acumen to see that the three forces mentioned are now potentially strongest in Spain, with between them most of the industry, most of the modern ideas, most of the political skill and the support of the best among intellectuals and middle-class dissenters. Basques and Catalans are now 'allowed' to use their own languages again (thought not for official purposes) and workers have been 'permitted' to hold open meetings and marches without being truncheoned and shot. But nobody forgets the truth of Eugene V. Debs's remark that the man who can let you out of prison is the man who has the power to put you back again. In their demented fashion the Right wing are perfectly correct. Liberalisation and relaxation are the curtain-raisers for more profound and revolutionary changes, and once the Francoist system starts to unravel it will be impossible to prevent those who bore the heat and burden of the day - the other Spain - from claiming what is theirs. 1975 was the centenary of Antonio Machado, who died in wretched exile in 1939. Newspapers recall that he wrote:

Espanolito que vienes
al mundo, te guarde Dios
una de las dos Espanas
ha de colarte el corazon

'Young Spaniard who comes into the world, may God protect you. One of the two Spains will chill your heart'. The Right may find out just as quickly as the Left that there is nothing so bad as a weak king.