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Carrillo’s legacy

The former leader of the PCE played a crucial role in Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy

Santiago Carrillo witnessed, and played a role in, almost a century of the history of Spain. But his legacy is particularly deserving of honor in that he was one of the chief protagonists of the intense historical period now known as the Transition: that is, Spain’s transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. It was a time that called for politicians of great stature, in the moments of greatest pressure. Without Carrillo’s participation, insurmountable obstacles would probably have frustrated the operation headed by the king and Adolfo Suárez, to untie the knot that Franco had left behind him, “tied and well tied” for the perpetuation of his authoritarian system. It was untied thanks to a succession of steps, audacious and well thought-out, in which Carrillo’s position was decisive. This legacy has remained, because the essence of the democracy thus founded has survived.

From his first political engagement as a young revolutionary during the Second Republic until his resignation as secretary general of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) in 1982, Carrillo’s life was that of a full-time politician. He saw the failed revolution of 1934, the Civil War, a lengthy period of exile, and the PCE’s evolution from Leninism to Euro-communism. He led the Communist Party in the fight against Franco, and shaped several organizations with which the opposition of the time, necessarily clandestine, attempted to steer a way toward Spain’s eventual break with dictatorship. But in all this process, the outstanding constant was the firm line Carrillo maintained throughout the years of exile and secrecy, his commitment to “national reconciliation” and to a break with fascism by means of a pact with the moderate right and the forces of opposition to the regime.

Here Carrillo found his chance to render his principal service to Spain, committing himself to a negotiation with Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister appointed by the king, and with other political forces, which made possible a peaceful transition from dictatorship until the first democratic national elections, and then toward the Constitution which has been the framework of Spanish politics since 1978.

Beating the backlash

In this process he did not mind sacrificing some of his party’s deep-rooted traits, recognizing the monarchy embodied by Don Juan Carlos (for whom he had initially predicted a brief reign) and moderating his words, acts and gestures, so as not to expose the fragile democracy to the backlash of those who had tried to prevent its birth. One such backlash was the attempted military uprising that followed Adolfo Suárez’s decision to legalize the Communist Party in the spring of 1977 before the first elections. All this failed to bear the political fruits he hoped for: when the first elections came, Carrillo and the PCE were disappointed to find that left-wing voters preferred the Socialist Party (PSOE) led by Felipe González.

Setting aside the controversy about his activities and responsibilities during the Civil War, and his intense participation in internecine struggles within the PCE and the international communist movement, Carrillo put the interests of the Spanish people as a whole before those of his own party, at a historic moment. Nor can we forget his gallant conduct during the attempted coup on February 23, 1981, when Civil Guard Colonel Antonio Tejero, accompanied by a squad of armed men, walked into the Congress chamber and, firing several shots into the ceiling, ordered the deputies to drop to the floor, which they did. Only Suárez and Carrillo remained seated. We shall not see his like again.

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