A dissident voice that was quieted by self-interest

October 15, 2004

Franco's campaign to silence opposition in Spain had surprising support - from a Nobel laureate who was himself a dissident. Jason Garner meets the man who tracked the twists and turns

There has been a growing interest in the final years of the Franco regime in Spain since the mid-1990s. That it should take 20 or so years for the subject to be given the attention it deserves is not particularly surprising.

During the transition and its aftermath, the priority was to dismantle the structures of the old regime, provide a secure basis for the nascent democracy and avoid provoking those who were still loyal to Francoism, especially in the armed forces. But as time has passed, some sections of Spanish society - particularly the young and the veterans of the anti-Franco movements and their relatives - have shown an increasing desire to know what happened. According to historian Pere Ysàs, an expert on the Franco dictatorship, these groups are simply demanding that the efforts of those who fought for democracy should not be forgotten.

Traditional interpretations have presented the last years of El Caudillo (the chief) as a period of economic growth and relative social harmony - an idea reinforced by the saccharine nostalgia of the popular Televisión Española series Cuéntame como Pasó" (Tell me How it Happened). It presents an image of the period that reflects the influence that the former Popular Party government, led by ex-Falangist youth member José Maria Aznar, wielded over the state TV network. But such simplistic interpretations fail to stand up to rigorous historical analysis, as is amply proven by Ysàs in his new book, Disidencia y Subversión: La Lucha del Régimen Franquista por su Supervivencia, 1960-1975 (Dissidence and Subversion: the Franco Regime's Struggle for Survival 1960-1975).

According to Ysàs, who is based at the Universitat Aut"nome de Barcelona, his aim is "to look at the impact that dissident movements had on the dictatorship and its institutions". He devotes a chapter each to the five sectors of society through which dissent against the regime was expressed: the church, the subversives, the labour movement, the students and the intellectuals. Backing his arguments with a welter of documentation, Ysàs concludes that the regime took dissent very seriously, as is proved by the "extraordinary and extensive" attention it paid to the dissident groups.

Before 1960, there had been little domestic dissent for the simple reason that people were terrified of speaking out (a phenomenon labelled "internal exile"). They had good reason: tens of thousands of opponents of the regime were murdered during the Forties and early Fifties. Serious attempts to excavate the mass graves that bear witness to the brutality of post-Civil War Spain have begun only recently.

However, from the early Sixties onwards, Spanish society began to undergo profound economic, social and cultural changes that, coupled with the need to create a better image abroad, required a less visibly repressive approach from the authorities. Moderates within the regime spoke of reform, flexibility and openness. Dissidents could now speak out without facing the drastic consequences they had before. In this climate, protests from the different groups Ysas studied grew rapidly.

Some of the most critical voices came from within the intelligentsia. From 1962 onwards, intellectuals who opposed the policies of the regime made public their complaints on a variety of issues, sending open letters to the authorities. The first letter in the spring of 1962 was directed to Manuel Fraga, director of the Institute of Political Studies, and complained about the authorities' actions during the miners' strike in Asturias that spring.

Among the signatories was Camilo José Cela, the Galician writer and 1989 Nobel literature laureate. However, the following year, while discussions were under way about sending a further letter, Cela voluntarily contacted the authorities and provided them with information about those who were likely to sign the proposed letter and suggested ways of dissuading them from dissenting in the future. He said most of them could be "recuperated" for the dictatorship by bribes, either by publishing their works or by creating a publisher that would help them. He also identified 42 of the 102 signatories as members of the Communist Party.

It is this information, contained in a Ministry of Information report, that has raised greatest interest in Ysàs's book, especially outside Spain. Ysàs notes that although the revelation has created "a certain commotion" in Spain, it had caused greater surprise abroad, where Cela is known "more for his literature than for his lifestyle". His works are renowned for portraying the brutal reality of Francoist Spain. Less is known about his political activities.

Born to a large middle-class family, Cela was a corporal in Franco's army during the Civil War, and in the Forties worked as a censor for the regime. He was a member of the social and political classes that were the victors in the Civil War. Ysàs believes that Cela's views started to change when he began his career as a writer. His first novel, The Family of Pascal Duarte (1942), was banned in Spain for a number of years, as was his most famous work, The Hive . The violent reality and anguish of Spanish life portrayed in his works were considered subversive by the regime's censors.

"Paradoxically," Ysàs comments, "the censor was now censored." Cela also came into contact with writers and intellectuals who were critical of the Francoist regime. This explains why his name appeared on the first letter.

Between the first letter and his approach to the authorities, a government reshuffle occurred. The new government - in which fellow Galician Manuel Fraga was named Minister of Information (heading the department responsible for, among other things, censorship) - promised to initiate a period of reform. In his memoirs, Fraga claims Cela "frequently" wrote to him. For Ysàs, Cela's change of heart "should be seen within the framework of these contacts between Cela and Fraga" and that it "could also have something to do with Cela's attempts to gain better treatment from the authorities" - that is, fewer problems with the censors. Fraga recalls that Cela was interested in being decorated by the Spanish state with the Gran Cruz de Isabela la Católica, an award for literature and services to Spanish language. Rather than politics, it appears more probable that Cela was inspired by simple self-interest, Ysàs says.

But perhaps more important than what one writer did - Ysàs says he found no evidence that other intellectuals informed on comrades - was the reaction of the authorities in the Ministry of Information to his proposals.

The departmental report that cites Cela's suggestions states that a total of 40 million pesetas (£240,000) could be set aside to buy the works of some of the dissenters and to support more publications by young and dissident writers. The lack of subsequent information on this suggests that the advice was not followed but, Ysàs notes, if there was any action of this kind to "recuperate intellectuals", it failed completely. The letters continued, and most of the names that appeared on the first letter were on the letters that followed. A total of 30 were published between 1962 and 1969.

The growth in intellectual dissent occurred against a backdrop of increasing social protest as Spanish society underwent social, economic and cultural changes to which the regime, trapped by the constraints of its own dogma, was unable to adapt. Ysàs argues that the authorities were not blind to the changes taking place and that there was general agreement that reforms were needed. However, any reform could not be allowed to pervert the "essential nature of the regime" or, in the term used by the government, "denaturalise" it. But, "without denaturalisation... without changing the essential aspects of the dictatorshipI, all the attempts to recuperate (the dissidents) were condemned to failure", Ysàs says. The dissenters wanted democratic freedoms that the regime could not allow without undermining not only its raison d'etre in the present but also its existence in the past.

Franco died in his bed in 1975, but the Spain he left behind was not the depoliticised and passive country often portrayed by politicians and the media, Ysàs says. Executions continued until the very end of his regime, and the different groups of dissenters continued to grow, with their opposition taking an increasingly violent turn. By 1975, the various attempts to "recuperate" the dissidents had proved largely ineffective - Ysàs concludes that, in the end, the Government discovered that "the only instrument it could use against the dissidents was containment by repression".

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