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Autumn 1977, 40 years ago. Spain is trying to leave behind the dictatorship and by Royal Decree legalises the Catalan Generalitat Government, abolished after the occupation of Barcelona by General Franco’s troops in 1939.

Spain thus recognises Catalonia’s president, Josep Tarradellas-i-Joan, elected in Republican exile in Mexico in 1954, who is at the time residing at Clos de Mosny in Saint-Martin-le-Beau (Touraine, France).

Tarradellas, the Minister of Finance of the Generalitat during the Republic, responsible during the Spanish Civil War for the War Industries Commission coordinating the production and supply of weapons to the army of the Republic, is now a 78-year-old man. He has a dream and an obsession: to return to Catalonia as the President of the Generalitat. From one legality to another: the very legislation of the victors of that war, who ejected him, now made it possible for him to return with the corresponding adjustments.

Not two years had passed since General Francisco Franco had died, in bed. And hardly one year since King Juan Carlos I, his successor, and the most open sectors headed by President Adolfo Suárez had promoted the law of political reform which was to propel Spain towards democracy “from the law to the law.”

The first elections since the end of the 1936-39 war —the constituent elections— were held on June 15. In Catalonia, the leftists, the Socialists and the PSUC, win. Laureano López-Rodó, a former minister of the Franco regime, heads Alianza Popular, the party with which Manuel Fraga, another regime minister, has tried to regroup the Franco regime. They have only obtained one seat—López-Rodó’s. The provisional government of the Generalitat, presided over by Tarradellas, a cross party cabinet with members from all the Catalanist parties, is the first in Western Europe with Communist Party members since the end of World War II.

The Constitution will still take over a year to be approved, in 1978; two years for the Estatut or Basic Law of Autonomy of Catalonia, in 1979; and it is almost three before the Catalans can elect their Parliament again, in 1980. But the return of Tarradellas, on October 23, 1977, will unanimously be considered as the only act of “rupture” brought about within the framework of the Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy: the “legalisation” of an institution of the Spanish Republic, the only one. Moreover, the Generalitat had been founded in the fourteenth century—there had been 124 presidents before Tarradellas. The establishment of the Generalitat is prior to that of the Constitution, and even prior to the Republic. For this reason, the Royal Decree-Law that provided for its restoration as a result of the Tarradellas operation begins as follows:

“The Catalan Generalitat Government is a centuries-old institution which the Catalan people identify as a symbol and recognition of their historical personality, within the union of Spain.”


First issue of the reinstated Official Gazette of the Generalitat (DOGC), with the decrees of restoration of the Generalitat and the appointment of the President

The 40th anniversary of those events coincides with a new crucial moment in the history of Catalonia. Circumstances have changed. The laws have, too. But, why is democratic law now a parapet raised against the calls for a referendum on the political future of Catalonia, demanded by a majority of political forces and citizens —as shown in all recent surveys— whilst post-dictatorship law was not a barrier to the restoration of the Generalitat? Why is “the law” the main offensive weapon in the hands of the government of Spain to “illegalise” the pro-independence process, or to disbar its political promoters, while it was then the tool to fulfil the mandate of the people as expressed in the ballot?

The “legalisation” of the Generalitat at the beginning of the transition was almost a “revolutionary” act provided by the transition from post-Franco law through to pre-constitutional law. That is, between the law of political reform approved in November 1976 by the Cortes or Parliament—still under the dictatorship’s regime, and the Royal Decrees —two signed by the Head of State and two more by the Presidency of the Government— which materialised the restoration of the Generalitat and the recognition of Tarradellas as the President. All of these were published in the first issue of the Official Gazette (DOGC) of the provisional Generalitat.

The “legalisation” of the Generalitat at the beginning of the transition was an almost “revolutionary” act provided by the transition from post-Franco law through to pre-constitutional law

As simple as that: “From law to law.” Spanish law, when the transition was still taking its first steps, was adapted to the demands of the “Catalan people” —referred to in Royal Decree-Law 41/1977 of September 29 on the provisional reinstatement of the Generalitat of Catalonia— and those of “the vast majority of political forces” who competed “in Catalonia” in the elections of June 15, 1977. The Royal Decree-Law thus incorporated a clearly plebiscitary reading —which was binding— of the result of those elections in the constituent Cortes, in which “the vast majority” of the political forces defended “the need to restore the Generalitat.” It should be underlined that the reading by Madrid of the result in Catalonia of the general elections as a plebiscite would legitimise politically —and now democratically— the reinstatement of the Generalitat.

So why then and not now? Historian Jaume Sobrequés who was a Senator for Girona with the Entesa dels Catalans coalition, consisting of almost all the left-wing and nationalist parties taking part in the elections of June 15 1977, and a spokesman for the PSC Catalan Socialists years later, believes there are two fundamental reasons: the “unanimous feeling that without solving the Catalan problem it was not possible to consolidate democracy in Spain” and the fact that then, from Catalonia it was “only home rule being claimed, not self-determination.”

In the opinion of Sobrequés, it was Spain’s Prime Minister Suárez who made the operation for the return of Tarradellas possible “from law to law,” in post-Franco Spain in the very process of abandoning “a fierce dictatorship” and without a Constitution, he emphasises. Political and legal engineering gave it statutory coverage. The events were rushed in record time: between June 27 —the first interview, with no result, between Tarradellas and Suárez in Madrid— and July 1—the second meeting, with agreement. And with the “One-Million People” demonstration on the Catalan National Day of the Eleventh of September as a factor that further accelerated the process.


Spanish Prime Minister Suárez (L) and Catalan President Tarradellas on September 22, 1977

At that time, Madrid reacted very differently to the cries of “Freedom, Amnesty, Estatut d’Autonomia” than it has done since 2012 before the much more massive demonstrations for independence. Sobrequés recalls in the book El triomf de la memòria. La manifestació de l’onze de setembre de 1977 (The Triumph of Memory. The Demonstration of September 11, 1977), which he wrote together with David Ballester and Manel Risques, that the demonstration in the Passeig de Gràcia, one of the main thoroughfares in Barcelona, bolstered the parliamentarians who had called it and Tarradellas himself, who could demonstrate the popular support they had for their proposals before Madrid. But it also helped the Suárez government itself to enlighten the reactionary factions “when it comes to making them understand the need to find a controlled exit strategy with acceptable limits to the claims for home rule of the Catalan people.”

Sobrequés: “Those who felt weak after the death of Franco now feel brave”

And the balance of power was also different. “Those who felt weak in 1977 after the death of Franco now feel brave. And not only in the governing Partido Popular, but also in the environs of the PSOE socialist opposition,” Sobrequés explains to El Nacional. Here is one of the keys to understanding yesterday and today. In 1977, the predominant narrative of Spanish politics, the media and amongst the intellectuals was, at least at face value, different: although Suarez’s Union del Centro Democratico —at heart a post-Franco party— governed, the left imposed its rhetoric in favour of democracy and rights, as well as the right to home rule for the “nationalities”—the PSOE at that time even admitted the right to self-determination. And the press —the “free” press after 40 years of censorship— and the “progressive” intellectuals made it their own.


Front page of Diario 16, September 12, 1977, the day after the “Diada del milió”, the “One-Million People” demonstration on Catalonia’s National Day.


Front page of El País on September 13, 1977, sets the figure for the “Diada” demonstration at 1.5 million.

Madrid was very different then. In the interim, something has changed. The absolute indifference of most of the Spanish political class towards events like the assault in 2014 on the Blanquerna bookshop —the Delegation of the Generalitat in Madrid— or the “reception committee” of the same inspiration that former Catalan President Artur Mas was met with last Tuesday at the door of the Ateneo de Madrid, where he took part in a debate on the Catalan process with former Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, are clear proof of that disregard.


Front page of El País on September 12, 2016 on the day after the last pro-independence demonstration on the Diada.

In 1977, it was possible to bring in the President of the Generalitat to Madrid from his French exile and, if necessary, as was the case with Tarradellas, getting his passport issued at Barajas Madrid airport on arrival. Now the President is disbarred —as with Artur Mas— for making some cardboard ballot boxes available. Manuel Milián-Mestre, a journalist and a consultant to Catalan employers’ association Foment del Treball, as well as a former leading member of Spanish nationalist right wing parties Alianza Popular and Partido Popular, now in government, was from the very beginning in the seventies one of former Franco minister Manuel Fraga’s men in Catalonia, and was involved or close to all the back room deals of the transition, including the return of Tarradellas, whom he visited in exile and took messages to and fro between them. He believes that the operation was possible, fundamentally, because there was the “political will.” In his opinion, this framework allowed Suárez, in line with the path set by Torcuato Fernández-Miranda —one of dictator Franco’s last Prime Ministers— and assisted by people such as the jurist and Minister José-Manuel Otero-Novas, to “make a loose interpretation of the law,” and enabled them to “stretch the laws of the Franco regime.” “At that time, people were very adaptive, because they were looking for bridges for the future.” And Tarradellas’ attitude was fundamental, he explains, “with a tough but flexible position on its enactment.”

Milián-Mestre: “There was a political will to interpret the laws of the Franco regime loosely”

“Actually, the leap then was greater than [what is being proposed] now,” says Milián, for whom "all the bridges are broken” —inspiring his latest book Els ponts trencats–The Broken Bridges— partly because of the “obdurate position” he attributes to Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. “His offer of infrastructures —which the Spanish PM means to announce in Barcelona next Tuesday— comes late and badly,” he warns.

On September 1, 1975, shortly before Franco’s death, historian Joan B. Culla interviewed Tarradellas in Saint-Martin-le-Beau. Culla wrote his thesis —and then his first book— on the Nationalist Republican Left Party (PNRE) —which broke away from what is today’s leading pro-independence party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya in 1933— constituted around the Opinió group of which Tarradellas himself was a member. Why was flexibility possible then, shortly after that first meeting of Culla’s with the exiled President, and now seems impossible? Culla’s diagnosis is that “it was a moment of transition, of fluid legality, liquid. The government was not subject to any constitutional framework and the law of political reform was a ‘fix’ that gave Suárez leeway to just go for it.” “Nobody could say that the decree for the restoration of the Generalitat was unconstitutional. What Constitution?” Here lies the great paradox of the moment. “The Constitution has now become an iron cage,” he underlines.

Joan B. Culla: “In 1977 nobody could say that the decree for the restoration of the Generalitat was unconstitutional. What Constitution?”

Solutions? Culla recalls proposals for the constitution of a consultation process in Catalonia, like that formulated by the late jurist Francisco Rubio Llorente, a former president of Spain’s Council of State and one of the men who knew the innards of the Spanish Constitution well. The historian believes that a consultative referendum would be possible throughout Spain with the proviso that the result in Catalonia should be “determining.” But that, he warns, would require the leadership of the transition. Like that of Suárez and Tarradellas. The historian renewed his relationship with the President after 1980, when he was relieved by Jordi Pujol after the first elections to Parliament, and continued until Tarradellas died in 1988.

Montserrat Catalán: “The tone was different. There was the willingness to dialogue, to sit down and talk”

Someone else who was very close to Tarradellas after his return to Catalonia was his secretary, Montserrat Catalán, the former director of the Montserrat Tarradellas i Macià Archive —named after the President’s daughter— and now the Commissioner for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Tarradellas’ return, organised by the Government. Catalán believes that the personal chemistry between Tarradellas and Suárez made the return possible. And a certain climate that is now nowhere to be seen: “The tone was different. There was a willingness to dialogue, to sit down and talk. Tarradellas knew how to put himself in the place of others. There was receptivity in Madrid. Now the bridges are broken,” she regrets. But above all, Catalán says it was Tarradellas’ character, it was his “high human quality.” “He always said he had lost a war.” Law —the laws— and those who make and interpret them.


Tarradellas in the Lincoln convertible in whioch he arrived at the Generalitat on October 23, 1977

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