Communist leader who aided Spain's transition to democracy

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

SANTIAGO CARRILLO: A KEY player in the transition to democracy in Spain, Santiago Carrillo Solares, who has died aged 97, was the longest-serving secretary general of the Partido Comunista de España (PCE).

However, the changes he was keen to promote in the country’s political system ultimately marginalised the party. He was left a commentator outside it, respected by some, hated by others, notably for his controversial involvement in the darkest episode of the republican defence of Madrid during the civil war.

While the dictatorship of Francisco Franco had governed unchallenged since the end of that conflict in 1939, its response to the social problems caused by the 1973 energy crisis proved inadequate. Carrillo, leader of the PCE since 1959, had been in exile, mostly in France, and during Franco’s illness of 1974 he attempted to ensure communist dominance of a broad opposition front.

He also published two works, Demain l’Espagne (Spain Tomorrow, interviews published in Paris in 1974, though banned in Spain until 1976) and Eurocomunismo y Estado (Eurocommunism and the State, 1977), aimed at proving his moderation. They established him as a leading theorist of Eurocommunism.

Franco died in November 1975, King Juan Carlos became head of state, and the following February a heavily disguised Carrillo returned secretly to Spain. By the time the police detained him for eight days in December 1976, he had already played a crucial role in pushing Adolfo Suárez’s interim government in the direction of reform.

The PCE was legalised in 1977, and that June Carrillo was able to lead his party into Spain’s first democratic elections since 1936. It won 9 per cent of the vote, coming third after Suárez’s Unión de Centro Democrático and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). Carrillo became a member of the congress of deputies.

This was a considerable achievement, but Carrillo had already passed his zenith. In October 1976 he had called a general strike in the hope of provoking what he called the “ruptura democrática” (democratic break) – a scenario resembling the one that had seen the collapse of the dictatorial regime in Portugal. The failure of the strike had opened the way to the more moderate scenario of the “ruptura pactada” (negotiated break), advocated by the socialist leader Felipe González.

In fact, the transition to democracy proceeded along the lines of negotiated consensus between the democratic opposition and the most progressive elements of the Franco regime. In response to proposals for the reincorporation of the reformists (known as “renovators”) whom he had previously expelled, Carrillo resigned as secretary general in summer 1982.

He formed a new workers-communist unity party, the Partido de los Trabajadores-Unidad Comunista, but it met with no success and in 1991 was incorporated into the PSOE. He did not go with it on the grounds that his long track record as a communist prevented him from playing an active role in the PSOE. However, his wife, Carmen Menéndez, did join.

Carrillo, who was born in Gijón, had in fact started his political life in the PSOE, in which his father, Wenceslao, was a prominent figure. The teenage Santiago was drafted into the party’s youth movement, the Federación de Juventudes Socialistas (FJS), and was a vocal advocate of ultra-revolutionary responses to right-wing obstruction of reform in Spain’s Second Republic. In 1934 he was elected FJS secretary general.

The most dramatic fruit of socialist radicalisation was the uprising by miners in Asturias in October 1934. After it was defeated, Carrillo was jailed. When he was released from prison after the victory of a new PSOE-PCE alliance known as the Popular Front in the February 1936 elections, Carrillo was invited to visit Moscow, where he was brought into the communist orbit.

On his return, after the civil war had broken out, Carrillo’s energy and organisational skills were at the service of the republican war effort. In early November 1936, with Franco’s African army at the gates of Madrid, the republican government was evacuated to Valencia. Carrillo, now 21, was made councillor for public order in the Defence Junta left behind. On the same day he announced that he had joined the PCE.

He immediately faced a terrible problem. The insurgent Gen Emilio Mola declared that the four rebel columns converging on Madrid would be joined by a “fifth column” of nationalist sympathisers, prompting official removals of right-wing and suspect army officers from Madrid’s prisons on a large and horrific scale. Carrillo was technically responsible for these prisoners. Russian advisers insisted that they be evacuated. Thus about 2,000 were taken by bus and shot at the villages of Paracuellos del Jarama and Torrejón de Ardoz.

It was the greatest single atrocity in republican territory during the war. Communist claims that the buses had been waylaid at anarchist control posts on the outskirts of Madrid were unconvincing. Francoist propaganda built on it, and lost no opportunity to saddle Carrillo with the blame. In fact, the evacuation was a deliberate military decision, taken collectively by various authorities of which Carrillo was only one. However, he was a crucial element in the organisation of the process and his protestations of ignorance were untruthful.

From September 1939, Carrillo spent six months in Moscow as secretary to the Communist Youth International. After working for the Comintern and with PCE exiles in Cuba, Mexico and Argentina, he returned to Europe to work for the reorganisation of the party within Spain.

Carrillo became de facto leader of the PCE in France. In 1944 he had separated from his first wife, Chon, in Cuba. He met Carmen Menéndez, a party militant, in 1947, and married her (or openly acknowledged her as his partner) in Moscow in 1949. Back in France, they lived as Mr and Mme Giscard, and had three sons.

His move over the years towards a more liberal position was accelerated dramatically by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. To maintain the PCE’s credibility as a moderate democratic segment of the anti-Franco opposition, he was forced to condemn the Russians. In 1970 he expelled those hardline Stalinists who opposed him.

After the upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s, Carrillo made a living as a writer. In 1993 he scored a huge commercial success with his lengthy but anodyne memoirs. He also became a regular interviewee on television and radio.

As Spaniards began to investigate the crimes of Franco, the consequent backlash made Carrillo the target of ultra-rightwing attacks. He shrugged it all off. In private, his affability and droll conversation belied his background as a party disciplinarian. He would recount anecdotes that showed that from the age of 15 until his death he was a cunning old fox, a thoroughly political animal.

His wife and sons survive him.

Santiago Carrillo Solares: born January 18th, 1915; died September 18th, 2012

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