Civil war communist chief transformed into noted architect of democratic Spain


SANTIAGO CARRILLO (97) died during his siesta in Madrid on Tuesday. But he had seemed, for many periods of his remarkable life, a man much more likely to die with his boots on.

Though he parted company from the imploding Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in 1985, the phrase “communist leader” is indelibly attached to his name. Only two years ago, he had to make a very hasty exit through the back door of a bookshop because a group of neo-fascists had launched a potentially lethal assault on his book-signing.

Carrillo became secretary general of the PCE in 1960, replacing the legendary civil war firebrand Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionaria”. Carrillo’s style was much less dogmatic than hers, but he was nonetheless long portrayed as the devil incarnate, more or less literally, by the right-wing and ultra-Catholic dictatorship of the civil war’s victor, Gen Francisco Franco.

Yet in 1978, three years after Franco’s death, I had an encounter that epitomised Carrillo’s striking transfiguration in the Spanish body politic. Visiting Leyre monastery in the Pyrenees, I met a talkative monk. “What amazes and delights me,” he said, “is that when I see Señor Carrillo debating on TV, I feel like I am listening to one of the fathers of the Christian Church.”

Carrillo’s doctrine of “national reconciliation” had persuaded his communist comrades to abandon revolutionary class struggle. Instead, they had agreed to build a Spain “for everyone”, alongside the heirs of the dictatorship that had imprisoned and executed so many of them. Carrillo became the darling of those who had so feared him in earlier years.

So it seems appropriate that one of the most touching – and telling – of the many tributes to Carrillo published yesterday was framed as a prayer. It asked God, wittily yet seriously, to make him mayor of a heavenly village.

The author was Rodolfo Martín Villa, a tough-minded former Francoist. As a minister, Villa had deployed the dictatorship’s police ruthlessly against pro-democracy activists, before experiencing a convenient conversion himself.

Carrillo’s own rather late conversion from Stalinist to democrat had a long and at times dark pre-history. As a teenager he had been a leader of the failed 1934 workers’ uprising in Asturias, inspired by the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia. After Franco’s right-wing insurrection sparked civil war in 1936, Carrillo led the very numerous youth section of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) over to the still tiny PCE. He was then made commissar of public order in a Madrid besieged by Franco’s armies.

On Carrillo’s watch, Francoist prisoners were evacuated and at least 2,000 of them were executed en route, mostly near Paracuellos. Carrillo remained unforthcoming about his responsibility in the massacre, so typical of this fratricidal war. He blamed “uncontrolled elements” for the killings. But he never investigated them, pleading that the war imposed other priorities.

After Franco’s victory, Carrillo spent decades in exile, mostly in Stalin’s Moscow. He embraced Khruschev’s less repressive version of communism in the late 1950s. Along with the Italian communist leader Enrique Berlinguer, he went further and formulated a “Eurocommunist” vision of “socialism in liberty”.

The abolition of capitalism, they argued, could be achieved peacefully in a democratic context, leading to a society based on the welfare of all citizens.

The PCE had always led the underground opposition to Franco, and it expanded rapidly as a clandestine Eurocommunist party in the 1960s. Ironically, it was completely overshadowed by the PSOE after democracy came to Spain in 1978, and the party had virtually disintegrated by the mid-1980s.

In the meantime, Carrillo had played a major part in ensuring a relatively peaceful transition from the dictatorship and in negotiating a democratic constitution. Thereafter he became a widely respected elder statesman and commentator.

Yesterday he received very warm and well-deserved plaudits from the entire spectrum of Spanish political leaders. Many also remembered his exceptional physical courage in the face of a rightist assault against parliament in 1981. Almost alone among MPs he had defied orders from armed Civil Guards to lie on the floor.

But he himself would have been acutely aware of the irony that he has died at a moment when both the Spanish welfare state and constitution are under pressure as never before from cutbacks and demands for independence from Catalonia and the Basque Country.