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Francoism on Trial

A human rights case brought against key Franco-era politician Rodolfo Martín Villa in Argentina has united Spanish and European elites – in opposition to justice for fascism's historic crimes.

After an epic ten year legal battle to investigate the crimes against humanity committed by the Franco regime in Spain, Rodolfo Martín Villa became the first Francoist official to give testimony before the Argentinean judge María Servini last Thursday. A former Labour and Interior Minister in the final years of the dictatorship, as well as during the democratic transition, Martín Villa is accused of aggravated homicide in relation to a series of killings committed by state security forces under his direction during the 1970s. These include the slaughter of five striking workers in the Basque city of Vitoria in 1976 in an incident which saw police open fire on a trade union assembly.

His testimony – which was heard via video conference from the Argentinean consulate in Madrid – forms part of a much broader legal case that is examining atrocities carried out by the dictatorship between 1936 and 1977. Blocked from seeking justice at home due to a sweeping 1977 Amnesty Law, 330 survivors and family members of the regime’s victims initiated legal proceedings in Argentina in 2010 under the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious human rights crimes. “Crimes against humanity have no statute of limitation,” explains Judge Servini, “no amnesty can cover them up or prevent their investigation.”

Yet controversy broke out in the run up to Martín Villa’s testimony last week as Spain’s political old guard closed ranks around him – with four former Prime Ministers signing letters of support for the man nicknamed “the cudgel of the transition.” These included two former Socialist Party (PSOE) PMs Felipe Gonzalez and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who backed him despite the fact that many of the victims of police brutality during this period were PSOE activists. “Shameful” was how current deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias described the letters while in a statement the plaintiffs characterised them as “a desperate attempt to influence the judge.”

Such intent is most evident in the letter written by the current High Representative for Foreign Affairs for the European Union Josep Borrell when he was Spain’s foreign minister in 2019. Addressed to the Argentinean ambassador in Madrid and then subsequently submitted to the Buenos Aires court as a reference for Martín Villa, Borrell’s letter claims the Francoist minister was a “key political figure that made democracy in Spain possible.” The letter continues by warning the Argentinean ambassador that the case “has very notable political aspects, both internally for Spain and within the framework of our bilateral relations, which we must manage.”

Speaking to Tribune, left-wing Member of the European Parliament Miguel Urbán wondered what conception of democracy Borrell “has that allows him to positively evaluate the contribution of a politician responsible for shootings, torture and systemic repression of those struggling against a fascist dictatorship” – and whether “this same perspective is now informing EU foreign policy.”

Martín Villa’s Dirty War

Part of why the charges against Martín Villa are so politically explosive is that they bring into focus the organised campaign of state violence which accompanied the country’s democratic transition (1975-’83). Unlike Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, where an army mutiny against the dictatorship swung the balance of forces in favour of the democratic opposition, in Spain the coercive apparatus of the Francoist state remained intact throughout the transition period. Amidst a wave of trade union militancy and mass social unrest, “public order was a determining factor” in how the reform process played out, claims writer Mariano Sánchez, and in particular “served to halt the left.”

In 1977, the year of Spain’s first democratic elections, the police (under the direction of Martín Villa) broke up 788 demonstrations with violence. As Sánchez argues in his book La Transición Sangrienta “Every time a decisive moment for political change arrived, political violence in the street also escalated. The goal was to ensure the street was not in the hands of the left and the [reform] process could be controlled [from above] without inflicting losses on the Francoists or capitalist class.” 

Indeed on various occasions in the key years between 1976 and 1978, the police resorted to using live ammunition against anti-Francoist demonstrations and strikes. In the case of the 1976 Vitoria massacre, police surrounded a local church at the height of the general strike in the city and tear-gassed the approximately 4,000 trade unionists who were meeting inside. As the workers were forced out of the church’s exits to escape the fumes, the police opened fire. Besides the five people who were killed, 50 more received bullet wounds. 

“It was premediated,” asserts José Luis Martínez, one of the survivors. “The police knew the time of the assembly and could have cordoned off the church and blocked people from entering. But instead they let everyone in so as to set an example.”

As Labour Relations Minister at the time, Martín Villa was one of the officials overseeing security operations in the city that day. After taking up the interior portfolio the following year, a series of further deadly police engagements occurred on his watch – centred primarily in the Basque Country and Navarra. 

Probably the most notorious of these incidents occurred during the Sanfermines festival in Pamplona in 1978 when police attacked protesters within the bullring after a banner in favour of an amnesty for Basque prisoners was displayed. More than a 150 were injured, including seven with gunshot wounds, and one student died as a result of a bullet to the head. A recording of the radio order issued to the police has survived: “Load your firearms and shoot with full force – as hard as you can. It does not matter if you kill.”

Martín Villa is also under investigation for the murder Arturo Ruiz who was shot dead by a right-wing vigilante working alongside the police at a protest in Madrid in January 1978. Though not forming part of the Argentinian case, suspicions still also hang over his involvement in the fire at the Scala theatre in Barcelona in 1978 that killed four people and was used as cover to crack down on the anarchist CNT union. The attack was most likely orchestrated by the notorious Franco-era torturer Roberto Conesa, head of the Interior Ministry’s Political Brigade. 

The Spanish Anomaly

Judge Servini now has a ten day period to decide whether the case against Martín Villa should proceed to trial. Such a ruling would represent a major victory for Spain’s historical memory movement and, in particular, the group of lawyers and activists who spearheaded the legal action ten years ago. These included the tireless campaigner Chato Galante, who died of coronavirus earlier this year, and the late Argentinean human rights lawyer, and torture victim, Carlos Slepoy – who often noted with irony how Spain’s Supreme Court was willing to investigate the crimes of South American dictatorships but not those of the Franco regime.

This was a sentiment echoed by the group of Spanish, Basque and Catalan MEPs that make up the Historical Memory Group in the European Parliament. In their statement released in response to Borrell’s intervention they underlined Spain’s exceptionalism on historical justice:

Different European countries that suffered authoritarian and fascist regimes comparable to Spain’s have been able to prosecute their respective dictatorships and those officials responsible for its crimes, alongside developing an active policy of recognition for victims. This is true of all countries except the Spanish State – an anomaly that has contributed to Spain remaining one of the countries in the world with the highest number of disappeared people.

There are various reasons for this anomaly. First, the continuity of class power secured during the transition – which saw no significant expropriations, nationalisations or legal inquiries into the past. In a process of democratisation led from above primarily by members of the former dictatorial regime “even those oligarchs and families closest to the dictatorship landed in the new democracy with total normality,” writes journalist Alberto Lardiés, “not losing one of their privileges.” In subsequent decades, a zero-tolerance policy has ultimately been necessary for such Francoist elites because any move towards historical redress – such as the Argentinian lawsuit – has the potential to develop into a broader threat to its wealth and power. 

Martín Villa is a prime example of such class continuity. After being incorporated into the Partido Popular in the 1980s and serving on its national executive, he went on to become the director of semi-state energy company Endesa in 1997 where he oversaw its full privatisation. From there he took up a role heading the television arm of the Prisa media group before being named President of the state’s “bad bank” Sareb in 2012.

A second factor informing such resistance is the broader political culture of the Spanish right, which unlike in Germany was never subject to a process of “denazification.” With historical denialism around the crimes of the fascist regime remaining unchecked in the mainstream right, even minimal moves, such as the removal of street names associated with Francoism or public funds to exhume Republican mass graves, are met with hostility. 

Third, and crucial for securing broader political consensus, is the degree to which the PSOE leadership was incorporated into the dominant circuits of power and patronage in the wake Felipe Gonzalez’s electoral victory in 1983. As sociologist Ruben Juste explains in his book IBEX 35, PSOE and sectors of the old Francoist elites converged in the 1980s around a project of “modernisation” for the Spanish economy – which saw a wave of privatisations, mergers and the liberalisation of markets – in anticipation of the country’s incorporation into the European single market. 

In this context there was little incentive for the PSOE leadership to look backwards and revisit the amnesty law and the wider “pact of forgetting” it had signed up to during the transition.

A Tainted Democratic System

Yet as Miguel Urbán insists, this was never simply a question of looking back and “opening up old wounds” but rather the impunity of the Francoist elites has impacted on the quality of contemporary Spanish democracy. Spain is the country which self-identifies as further to the Left than any other in Europe and has a clear progressive social majority but its democratic institutions were infected from the beginning with the corruption and cronyism of the old dictatorship. Ex-King Juan Carlos I’s decision to flee the country last month rather than face his legal difficulties is just the latest example of this. 

But more than that, the quality of Spanish democracy has been tainted by the fact that more than 115,000 victims of genocide remain lying in unmarked graves and roadside ditches across the country while, at the same time, the final members of the regime which committed such crimes are left to retire with dignity. 

The current left-wing coalition has promised a new historical memory law, which will likely outlaw the Francisco Franco foundation, see some form of symbolic reparations and include a major program for the recovery of remains of the disappeared. Yet repealing the amnesty law remains off the table. In this respect the judgement on whether to bring Martín Villa to trial, and the reaction of the PSOE-Unidas Podemos coalition to this ruling, will be the next step in the ongoing struggle for justice and historical recognition in Spain.