Assembly of Catalonia: 50th anniversary of anti-Franco awakening

"A society without memory is one that is in danger," says ombudsman and former member

The Assembly of Catalonia's four key demands
The Assembly of Catalonia's four key demands / Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

November 7, 2021 09:34 AM

On November 7, 1971, some 300 people held a clandestine meeting in Barcelona's Sant Agustí church in the Raval neighborhood. It started with five minutes of silence in honor of Antonio Ruiz Villalba, a trade unionist who had been murdered by police at the SEAT car factory strike only weeks earlier.

As Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship neared its end, it began to be met with a more emboldened opposition, and this secret gathering of a very diverse group of dissidents — many of whom became distinguished politicians, lawyers, and cultural figures years later — resulted in the creation of the Assemblea de Catalunya, the Assembly of Catalonia.

"It was very dangerous," Rafael Ribó, the ombudsman and a former member of the organization, told Catalan News. "But we were quite optimistic following what started with the May '68 movements throughout Europe and the world, and to see that the Franco dictatorship was getting old and had holes in it helped people overcome the fear of repression."

Made up of various trade unions and other political and cultural groups that were illegal at the time as well as civil society organizations, the Assembly of Catalonia had four key demands: social and political freedom; an amnesty for the dictatorship's political prisoners; the reimplementation of Catalonia's Second Republic autonomy statute, which restored self-rule for the first time in 200 years, as a means of achieving the right to self-determination; and to seek alliances with other clandestine pro-democracy organizations throughout Spain.

"There were mainly people protesting in the streets and 100 to 150 people would gather together, mainly in churches," Ribó explained.

Not only did some priests sympathize with the anti-Francoist movement, but a 1953 agreement between Spain and the Vatican provided that, in theory, police could not enter religious premises.

"I haven't been to church as much as I did during that period because different church organizations were protecting us," Ribó laughs.

But on October 28, 1973, they surrounded the Santa Maria Mitjancera church in Barcelona and 113 people were arrested and received hefty fines. The men were sent to La Model prison, notorious for torture and executions, while the women were sent to La Trinitat prison. A year later another 87 people were arrested.

Although the Assembly was still active following Franco's death in 1975 and continued to organize peaceful protests during the transition to democracy as well as promote the 'Entesa dels Catalans' electoral alliance and campaign for an autonomy statute, the group dissolved not long after Spain's first post-Franco democratic elections in 1977.

The Assembly of Catalonia is remembered for being one of the most prominent instances in recent history in which people of diverse ideologies came together to repudiate a common adversary: Francoism. Ribó believes it is precisely this sense of unity that needs to be recovered: "We need to recuperate grounds where different parties put together main goals that cannot be the property of anybody, like social justice, gender equality…"

Today there are streets and squares across Catalonia named after the Assembly. The 50th anniversary of its creation was commemorated by trade unionists and politicians at the Sant Agustí church as well as with a parliamentary event on Friday that Ribó himself attended alongside other former members and speaker Laura Borràs.

Yet, the ombudsman fears this might not be enough. Francoism and its legacy must be remembered, he argues, in order to prevent manipulation: "A society without memory is one that is in danger."