Red Holy Saturday: The Legalisation of the Spanish Communist Party

Saturday April 9th 1977

This sixth article in my series on Spain's Transition to Democracy covers the legalisation of the Communist Party on Red Holy Saturday in April 1977.

This followed a period of violence in January 1977 known as the Tragic Week the Transition or the Seven Days of January, which most notably left communist labour lawyers dead and four injured.

The government had already begun contact with various communist representatives and PCE leader Santiago Carrillo had already secretly entered Spain.

The Communist Party's peaceful reaction to the killing brought an outburst of public support and the Suárez government was forced to rethink the promise it had made to the Army of not legalising the party until after the first democratic elections planned for June 1th 1977.

Taking advantage of the fact that most people were out of Madrid for Easter, the government legalised the PCE on April 9th, which became known as Red Holy Saturday.

This was the most tense moment of the transition as it could have provoked a reaction from the Army and the etreme right, who ended up expressing their dissatisfaction but didn't take up arms.

The crisis of the last week of January 1977

The last week of January 1977, known as the Tragic Week of the Transition or the Seven Days of January, was the most delicate moment of the transition before the elections because the Francoists of the ultraconservative Bunker wanted to stop the process of change by creating a climate of panic that would justify the intervention of the Army.

The first provocation happened on January 23rd on the Gran Via of Madrid, when a student, Artur Ruíz, who was participating in a pro-amnesty demonstration was murdered by a goup of right-wing thugs from Fuerza Nueva. In the demonstration protesting against the crime, one of the participants, María Luz Nájera, died as result of a gas cannister thrown by a member of the riot police.

On the day after the murder of Arturo Ruiz, the most serious even happened. Gunmen belonging to ultra groups entered the offices of labour lawyers linked to Comisiones Obreras and the Partido Comunista, in the Calle de Atocha in Madrid. They put eight lawyers and the concierge up against the wall and shot them at point blank range. Five members of the law practice died and four were seriously injured.

But the Killing of Atocha of 1977 didn't manage to create an atmosphere that evoked the civil war. On the contrary, it caused a wave of solidarity with the Communist Party, which brought an ordered and silent multitude out onto the streets to attend the burials of the murdered communists.

As historian Santos Juliá points out "the conquest of legality which everybody, apart from themselves, had left for after the elections, advanced more that afternoon than it had in the two previous years: this burial destroyed the image of the communist as someone excluded from the nation, a foreigner, an enemy, that the dictatorship had constructed over years. That day, the symbolically achieved legitimacy was converted into the most solid support to achieve legality".

In full crisis, GRAPO erupted into action once again. Just like the far right, but for different reasons, they also wanted to stop the political transition. On the same day as the Killing of Atocha, the group, who were already holding Antonio María de Oriol, president of the Council of State, kidnapped the president of the Supreme Council of Military Justice, General Emilio Villaescusa Quilis, and also murdered three policemen.

Once again both the Suárez and the Army refused to be provoked. On February 11th, the two kidnapped men were freed after a police operation directed by a known Francoist commisary, Roberto Conesa.

The cisis of "the seven days of January" produced the opposite effect to destabiising the system and accelerated the process of negotiation between the government and the opposition over the legalisation of the political parties. On March 18th a decree-law was published, which regulate the elections.

The process of dismantling the Francoist institutions continued, with the regime's civil servants moving to other State bodies with the same category and salary. "The reform consisted of dismantling the regime whilst conserving the Administration," affirms Santos Juliá.

This is how the Francoist Cortes ended up being dissolved forever and successive decrees and laws put an end to the Tribunal of Public Order, the National Movement, and the Spanish Union Organisation etc. On April 1st, a decree established union freedom. In the net two months, the government ratified the international agreements on human rights and civil liberties.

Red Holy Saturday: The legalisation of the Spanish Communist Party

The PCE's show of order and discipline during the funeral of the five labour lawyers murdered in the Calle de Atocha attack in Madrid in the last week of January, showed that the political transition wouldn't be credible or real if the Spanish Communist Party was left out. This forced the government to rethink its position on leaving the legalisation of the PCE until after the elections, as Adolfo Suárez had promised to the military leadership on September 8th the previous year.

Moreover, the PCE had been trying to force to force the government to take a decision. After the presentation in Rome of the party's Central Committee, until then clandestine, its secretary general Santiago Carrillo entered Spain and began to move freely around the streets of Madrid. He gave a press conference surrounded by the PCE leadership and was finally arrested at the end of December 1976 along with other members of the executive committee.

The government ended up releasing Carrillo a few days later and also considered expelling him from the country. At that time, the PCE didn't manage to become legal but its secretary general no longer had to remain in hiding and he called a press conference together with two other Eurocommunist leaders, the Frenchman Georges Marchais and the Italian Enrico Berlinguer.

On February 7th Suárez and Carrillo met in secret at the home of the journalist José Maria Armero, who had often acted as intermediary between the president and the PCE general secretary. During the meeting, the two men reached an understanding that would last for the rest of the transition.

The PCE agreed that it would stop the street demonstrations in return for its future legalisation. Incidentally, the King was also in favour of the legalisation and previously had sent a representative to Bucharest to talk to Ceaucescu, a good friend of Carrillo's, in order to discuss a possible agreement.

The government put the PCE's possible legalisation in the hands of the Supreme Court, which would have to decide if the party's statutes defined it as a "totalitarian" party, which would mean it wouldn't be able to register as a political party. However, the court returned the file saying that the government should take the decision itself. At the time, opinion polls showed 45% of the population in favour of legalising the PCE with only 17% against.

Finally, on April 9th, taking advantage that most of the country was on Easter vacation, President Suárez took the riskiest decision of the transition and legalised the PCE. This day, Holy Saturday, the communists came out onto the streets with red flags to celebrate the legalisation of the PCE after 38 years.

The reactions weren't long in coming. Manuel Fraga described Suárez's decision as "an authentic coup d'etat", although he retracted a little later. The worst reaction came from the Armed Forces. The Minister of the Navy, Admiral Gabriel Pita da Veiga, resigned and the government had to call on an admiral from the reserves to cover his position, as no active officers wanted to substitute him. The Supreme Council of the Army expressed its acceptance "in consideration of the national interests of a higher order", although it made cear it disagreed with the decision. Some higher officers said that the thought that Suárez had "lied" to them in the meeting on September 8th and that he had "betrayed" them.

According to Santos Juliá, the legalisation of the PCE became "the crucial moment of the transition" because "it was the first important political decision taken in Spain since the Civil War that didn't count on the support of the army and actually went against it". The Communist Party, on the other hand, had to accept the monarchy as the form of government along with the Spanish rojigualda flag and as a result the republican flags disappeared from PCE meetings.

On April 28th, the trades unions were legalised, including Comisiones Obreras, which had close ties with the Spanish Communist Party. The Francoist Organización Sindical Española (OSE) was transformed into the Administración Institucional de Servicios Socio-Profesionales (AISS), which didn't disappear until 1986. The patrimony of the OSE along with that of the Movimiento Nacional, which was also abolished, was transferred to the State, including its media assets: 39 newspapers, 40 radio stations, 10 magazines and a press agency. A few months earlier the Tribunal de Orden Público (TOP) or Court of Public Order, a much hated instrument of Francoist repression throughout the dictatorship, had already been replaced by the Audiencia Nacional as the court which judged terrorist cases and others of national importance.

On May 13th, a plane from Moscow brought Dolores Ibárruri, la Pasionaria, back to Spain after 38 years in exile. The next day Juan de Borbón ceded his rights to the Spanish Crown to his son, King Juan Carlos I. At the end of May, Torcuato Fernández Miranda "important artifice of the transition as president of the Cortes" handed in his resignation, which "seemed to indicate the start of a new political stage".

The Basque Country remained in political tension during this period. Calls for political amnesty, especially pro-amnesty week from May 8th to 15th in which seven people were killed, obliged Adolfo Suárez to make concessions until totally amnesty was approved by the first democratic Cortes in October 1977.

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