Tortured under Franco, forgetting is not an option for Carles Vallejo
Former political prisoner reflects on his arrest and exile as well as historical memory
“The best way of preventing what happened under Franco from happening again is to know the past,” Carles Vallejo contends. As the president of the Barcelona-based Association of Former Political Prisoners of Francoism, Vallejo is well placed to understand the weight of that statement.
Vallejo was only in his mid-twenties and had already been living in exile for a few years when Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died an old man in his bed on November 20, 1975.
The ensuing transition to democracy, however, was secured at the expense of questioning Franco’s legacy with what is known as the ‘Pact of Forgetting’: on the one hand, political prisoners were released and those who had fled abroad, including Vallejo, were allowed to return home, but on the other, it also guaranteed impunity for those who had committed crimes against humanity during the war and the dictatorship.
45 years after Franco’s death, not many of those who suffered the harshest repression are still alive, and many Francoist oppressors—without ever having been brought to justice—have too since passed away. But despite Spain’s longstanding policy of amnesia, a handful of people still vividly remember some of the worst days—Vallejo is one of them.
From an office tucked away inside a majestic old building in the center of Barcelona, Vallejo candidly tells Catalan News his story. Aided by old newspaper clippings and other documents including clandestine anti-regime trade union propaganda, photographs, and letters, his descriptions of them are punctuated by sporadic memories as they arise: “The bastards at La Model made me subscribe to the weekly prison newspaper, Redención, to reduce my sentence!” he exclaims, holding up a piece of paper. “9 pesetas, què collons!”
Vallejo owes his outlook to his parents, whom he describes as “losers of the Spanish Civil War.” Thanks to their stories—his father, for example, who hailed from Madrid, was part of the unsuccessful attempt to keep the Nationalists from entering the Spanish capital and spent time in concentration camps after the Republican loss—he was aware of Franco’s suppression of dissent, as well as of his family’s status under the regime.
By the time he was 20, he had begun working for SEAT, Spain’s largest car manufacturer, where he rapidly became involved in a clandestine trade union. At the time, all unions were illegal, and he was detained in December 1970, not even a year on the job.
“I started running as fast as possible,” he recalls. “As they forced me into the unmarked police car, they started to beat me, to humiliate me, to kick me and to hit me… that was all before arriving at the Via Laietana, where I was interrogated and tortured.”
After being tortured for 20 days straight at the police station, which to the dismay of historical memory activists still exists to this day, Vallejo was sent to the infamous La Model prison. Despite being sent to solitary confinement for a month for participating in a hunger strike with other political prisoners, he says being there was a relief because there was no “direct torture.”
Released 6 months later before being arrested and then released again, Vallejo decided to flee first to France and then to Italy rather than risk spending 20 years behind bars, as the prosecutor was requesting for him, and was only able to safely return a year after Franco’s death thanks to a partial amnesty.
Yet Spain’s official policy of amnesia means nobody has ever been brought to justice for the war and dictatorship’s crimes—the man who tortured Carles, Genuino Navales, was even promoted during the transition to democracy, and was in charge of the Pope’s security during his visit to Spain in 1982 and safety at the Football World Cup held that same year.
The 2007 Historical Memory Law, Catalonia’s 2017 symbolic annulment of Franco-era convictions or Franco’s 2019 exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen, for example, are some of the more recent attempts to deal with the past, and the Spanish government also presented a Democratic Memory draft bill just last September. But some worry this is all too little, too late, as remaining survivors and perpetrators of violence continue to age.
As fate would have it, the association Vallejo presides over is located on the same street he was tortured on 50 years earlier. In line with its demands, he is firm in his conviction that the past must be remembered: “We need to break this silence.”