Santiago Carrillo, emblematic Communist leader, dies aged 97

Leftist who led defense of Madrid during Civil War also played key part in Transition

Santiago Carrillo.

Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Spanish Communist Party between 1960 and 1982, died in Madrid on Tuesday afternoon at the age of 97, his family has confirmed. Carrillo had been admitted to hospital in July due to blood circulation problems but was later discharged.

A revolutionary from a young age, Carrillo began working for left-wing newspaper El Socialista in 1930 and at just 19 years of age he was elected secretary general of the Socialist Youth. That same year, 1934, Carrillo formed part of the National Revolutionary Committee that attempted an insurrection against the Catholic conservative Spanish Federation of the Autonomous Right, which had come to power in the November elections of 1933. The workers’ uprising was led by Francisco Largo Caballero, the future Civil War prime minister who would become the foil for Carrillo’s early political life. Both men were jailed for their involvement and while in prison Carrillo distanced himself from the increasingly moderate Largo Caballero. On his release in 1936 after the Popular Front assumed power, Carrillo traveled to the USSR on the invitation of the Communist International to participate in the unification of Socialist youth organizations, which led to the formation of the Unified Socialist Youth.

After the outbreak of the Civil War, Carrillo left the Socialists and affiliated himself with the Communist Party when the Republican government fled Madrid as Franco’s Nationalist forces advanced on the capital. By his own admission, Carrillo and his colleagues had “no idea” that the 1936 military coup was imminent.

When Largo Caballero’s government decamped to Valencia on November 9, leaving behind it an ad hoc administration of labor unions and political groupings, Carrillo was named councilor for Public Order in the hastily assembled Defense Council of Madrid. One of his tasks was to weed out Nationalist General Mola’s so-called fifth columnists, an undertaking that would dog Carrillo’s reputation for the rest of his life.

With the Nationalist columns 200 meters from the gates of the Modelo prison, the council decided to remove some 2,000 military personnel considered sympathetic to the uprising. What followed became known as the Paracuellos massacre, the single bloodiest execution on the Republican side during the Civil War. The Franco regime always maintained Carrillo had ordered the shootings, which the Communist Party man attributed to “uncontrollable groups.” In his memoirs, Carrillo wrote that no investigation was carried out because “the defense of the capital had us all by the throat.”

“I don’t try to justify myself or seek mitigating factors. In November 1936 myself, [General] Miaja and the Defense Council found ourselves in a situation that was difficult to control and that we failed to control in many aspects.”

Carrillo left the Defense Council that December and concentrated his efforts on directing the Unified Socialist Youth, which provided some 200,000 troops for the Republican side. When Madrid finally fell in 1939, Carrillo was forced into exile in France and the USSR. From afar, Carrillo turned the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) into a formidable enemy of the Francoist state, eventually taking over the reins from legendary Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri in 1960.

Upon the death of the dictator, Carrillo returned to Spain and lived clandestinely for most of 1976 while badgering the government of Adolfo Suárez to legalize the PCE. After challenging the Socialist prime minister in a press conference, third-party contacts were established that eventually led to a meeting of the two politicians and the rubber-stamp of the PCE’s legitimacy in 1977. At this time, Carrillo cut a more moderate figure, recognizing the monarchy and the Spanish flag. These concessions, part of his attempt to forge the PCE into a political party able to flourish in its own right in a democracy, made Carrillo one of the key figures of the Transition. However, the PCE suffered a mauling from the Socialists at the polls in 1977 and again 1979, leading many to question Carrillo’s leadership. In the 1982 elections the leftist vote gave 202 seats to the PSOE and just four to the PCE.

However, Carrillo will perhaps be best remembered for his final confrontation with the Francoist right during the attempted coup in 1981. In an iconic moment of sang-froid, the Communist leader refused to lie on the floor of Congress when Civil Guard officer Antonio Tejero burst in and fired his pistol into the ceiling.

Carrillo resigned as PCE secretary general in 1985 and was later expelled from the party. He spent the ensuing years as an acerbic commentator on Spanish politics, reserving particular vitriol for the Popular Party’s dealings with the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and penning various historical, political and personal volumes.


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