How Communists Helped Establish Democracy in Spain

At 10:30 pm on the 24th January 1977 eight lawyers were working late at the offices of Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), one of Spain’s trade unions which was set up by the Spanish Communist Party. At the time Spain was in the middle of a temperamental transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy. Many people were tense due to the possible collision between right- and left-wing groups. They feared it would bring back another form of autocratic rule.

With a ring of the doorbell, two young men walked into the office block of the union with sub-machine guns, whilst a third person cut the office’s communications. They were searching for Joaquín Navarro, the general secretary of the CCOO’s Transport Union based in Madrid. He was the principle organiser of several strikes in the capital that had affected the remains of the Franco regime and its very own union Sindicato Vertical.

As they were searching for Navarro, an administration assistant, Ángel Rodríguez Leal, returned to the office for papers that he had left behind. They shot him there and then. Following this they found eight lawyers in an office, unable to find Navarro they lined up all eight people and shot them before leaving into the night.

Two lawyers died instantly, Luis Javier Benavides and Enrique Valdevira, and two more died later on in the hospital, Francisco Javier Sauquillo and student Serafín Holgado. Dolores González Ruíz, Sauquillo’s pregnant wife, survived along with Miguel Sarabia, Alejandro Ruiz-Huerta and Luis Ramos Pardo.

Police and ambulance staff outside the building in Madrid’s Atocha street January 24, 1977. FERNANDO MORENO/elpais

Madrid’s future Mayor, Manuela Carmena, was working for the same trade union at the time in another office close. Also, that very same night another trade union office, being used by the UGT, was also attacked. Thankfully, it was empty. The UGT were at the time and continue to be strongly linked to the PSOE, who were at the time working with Prime Minister, Adolfo Suarez, to make Spain’s transition to democracy as smooth as possible.

Capture and Trial

The gunmen were later found to have close links with far-right party Fuerza Nueva, and the Falange, Spain’s fascists. They did not try to escape Madrid as they were being protected by political connections. The Army police caught up with them quickly, and they were taken to trial.

The trial sentenced them collectively to 464 years in prison. José Fernández Cerrá, Fernando Lerdo de Tejada and Carlos Garcia Juliá and were the convicted gunmen. Fernando Lerdo de Tejada escaped before the trial was held as he was given leave for Easter. He has never been caught, many on the far right see this as an act of treason against them.

Carlos Garcia Juliá also escaped 14 years after the trial, again whilst on leave. In 2019 he was arrested in Brazil and returned to Madrid in 2020. José Fernández Cerrá was released in 1992 to work in a security company. Little information can be found on him. His partner, Gloria Herguedas, was also sentenced to a year in prison as an accomplice.

Francisco Albadalejo Corredera, was arrested as the main organiser, he worked for the Francoist transport union. Two soldiers from Franco’s blue division, a section in the Spanish army that numbered 42,000 volunteers and conscripts that fought against the USSR with the Nazis, were also involved. Leocadio Jiménez Caravaca and Simón Ramón Fernández were sentenced for supplying the guns.

A repeat of dark times past?

Statue at Anton Martin

Following the massacre, many were concerned about this episode escalating into a bigger conflict. It was clear for many that there was tension between the left and right and it could overspill into violence at any time.

During Franco’s rule, all political parties went into hiding. The Spanish Communist Party became the focal point for many who were against the regime, many have said since that it had more anti- Francoist supporters than actual communists. For many years they hid their members’ identities. They, along with some Roman Catholic groups, went on to set up the CCOO trade union. It is now Spain’s biggest trade union.

Every year they hold a tribute to the lawyers that were killed. A statue stands in their honour just outside the Anton Martin Metro station.

In the days following the massacre, 50,000 people attended the funerals of the victims. Adolfo Suarez, the man the king appointed to oversee the transition, had been put under pressure by both the PSOE and the forces of the right. He faced a decision that would make many hold their breath. He legalised the Communist Party. Many have said this was due to the peacefulness of the funeral processions, the biggest left-wing gatherings since Franco’s death.

The Communist party were controversial in Spain. They were one of the main forces behind the Popular Front; the name given to the government during the Spanish civil war. They also obtained Russia’s help when France and the UK both refused to support the Spanish government against the nationalists. Mussolini’s fascists and Hitlers Nazi’s supported Franco. Because of the nature of the party a good deal felt it would be tough for Suarez to legalise the Communist party too soon.

Communism and Democracy

Suarez took advantage of the Easter weekend in 1977, hoping this would avoid resistance, and declared the Communist party a legal and democratic force in Spain once again. In recent years many have criticised Spain’s transition to democracy, but they also forget that it was similar levels of violence to this that kick started the civil war in the same very city. Suarez is now honoured for overseeing the transition and they have named Madrid’s international airport after him.

The Communist Party worked with other political parties to help restore democracy in the country, this was in the form of the Moncloa pacts, when democracy had been installed it stood in elections. Apparently there was a great personal understanding between Adolfo Suárez and the Communist party leader, Santiago Carrillo. They even discussed the idea of a coalition government.

Adolfo Suárez and Santiago Carrillo (PCE)

Please note, the transition was and remains a controversial but also key time in Spanish history. There are various versions and criticisms which I will include in a future post.

Many thought that due to its popularity during the Franco years and their cooperation in the transition that the Communists would win numerous seats at the first elections in 1977. However, this was not to be. Adolfo Suarez’s Union of the Democratic Centre won the most seats but 11 seats short of a full majority. The PSOE, supported by the German Socialist Party, swept up the left-wing votes from the Communists who only won 20 seats against the PSOE’s 118. The People’s Alliance also only gained 16 seats, initially this was a small coalition of the far-right and conservatives however they later moved to the political centre and rebranded as today’s Popular Party.

The Communist had some electoral success on a local level, in 1979 winning overall control of the town halls in Cordoba and Algeciras near Gibraltar. With 3,725 councillors they were the third biggest party.

However, the 1980s were not kind to the Communist Party. Following internal fights between different groups about the direction of the party, fragmentation followed. In 1982 they only got 4% of the national vote. The remnants of the group followed Eurocommunism after seeing what Stalin had done with the USSR. This path tries to achieve socialism via democratic means whilst also working with other groups who may not identify as communists. Izquierda Unida, a collation of various left groups, was born from this idea.

A Part of the Past and the Future

Whilst electorally the Communist party is not big in Spain, its legacy lives on. It is remembered for being part of the wider national narrative, in both dark and bright times. The Popular Front, which the communists were a big part of, continues to be controversial due to the killings in the civil war, in particular the murders of priests, monks and nuns as the church supported Franco. It is estimated that 30,000 were killed. Churches were also set on firm. Anarchists also oppose the communists as they supported the killing of some anarchist groups during the civil war, Orwell’s account Homage to Catalonia tells this story better than I ever could.

Dolores Ibárruri, better known as the La Pasionaria, is also a popular figure in modern Spanish society. She was a communist member of parliament before the Civil war and was famous for her passionate speeches and famous interventions into the war effort. She made the infamous saying No Pasaran (They Shall Not Pass) famous. She later become head of the Communist party whilst she was in exile after the civil war. She didn’t return to Spain until 1977, the same year she became a member of parliament again. She remains famous as a revolutionary and feminist figure. There are statues and dedications to her all around the world.

Despite their patchy past, they remain a small yet important part of Spanish society. They continue to have links with CCOO and turn out at large protests in huge numbers. Every Labour day, 1st May, you can witness a sea of people holding red flags celebrating and singing the International in the square outside the Renia Sofia Museum.

Today Izquierda Unida are part of the bigger coalition with Podemos, Unidas Podemos. In 2019 they won 659 seats at local level. It has overall control of two councils Rivas-Vaciamadrid and Zamora.Alberto Garzon, current leader of the Communist party, is currently Minister for Consumer Affairs. He is their first minister since the fall of the second republic.

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