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INTERVIEW: MIGUEL NÚÑEZ, CAUGHT BETWEEN COMMITMENT AND DOUBT
by Núria Escur

He recalls a story that fascinates him. It happened in a ghetto in Warsaw. A small group of Jews see that they are about to be wiped out. At that moment, when there are no miracles left to happen, one of them says: "We have to do something, don’t we? We ought to do something." That is how Miguel Núñez (Madrid, 1920) understands life: a muddle of critical situations in which even when all is lost, it is essential to make a gesture, a symbol.

Head of the PSUC (1) until its legalization, Member of Parliament for Barcelona and founder of the NGO "Las Segovias", Miguel Núñez is a legend in his own lifetime. His long struggle against the Franco regime, his resistance to the torture he was subjected to, prison, exile... all this has given him a unique view of the world. In February, the Mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos, awarded him the city’s Medalla d’Or.

What really gives pleasure to Miguel Núñez – a flirt if ever there was one, hard from the knocks he’s taken, tolerant by choice, outraged by social selfishness, hero of past times, political kamikaze in court martials, loved even by some of enemies, lay, ingenious and ever full of hope – is poetry. Hanging behind his worktable in his house in Bellvitge – which is difficult to find if you’re not acquainted with the chaotic numbering of the district’s streets – there is a poster with a poem by Martí i Pol, "Ara és demà" ("Now is tomorrow"). Núñez points at it, singling it out as a summary of his life: "Yesterday’s fire warms no more, nor does today’s, and we shall have to make a new fire."

Here, read this; this one’s by Alberti. "Sad times, fierce times, times of death sentences / Times in which it is all but a crime to gaze at the flowers..." That Alberti is a conceited old devil, just like me.

• And full of hope, too. He may be ninety-odd, but he still has things he believes in. Do you?

Well, just one, which somebody once put like this: "I want everybody to have bread and roses"; material goods and spiritual goods.

• And do you talk about these things with your friend Alberti?

He’s great. A few years ago, we were out having a walk with a group of friends and I turned round and said "Are you getting tired, Rafael?" and he replied, "What are you asking me for, for Christ’s sake? Why don’t you ask these youngsters?" He’s got a unique intelligence and sensitivity...

It is impossible to delimit space or subject matter with such a volcano of experiences, a man you can talk to about anything, who has been through the divine and the human and who, to the despair of some unmotivated young people, still expects things of life. Miguel believes that we are, among other things, a product of our friendships. And he has a true wealth of friends, who he reels off amid smiles and anecdotes: Mario Benedetti; Tàpies (very impenetrable, but "when he wants to, he goes for it"); Ellacuría, who he worked with a great deal; José Luis Sanpedro; López Raimundo; Salvador, who got killed... and all those who fell anonymously by the wayside and to whom he dedicated the Medalla d’Or presented to him in February by the Mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos. (...)

• I’ve heard it said that your father, who loved reading, passed his Voltairian spirit on to you. Did you inherit your obsession for democracy from him?

We lived in a working-class district and my father was the son of a republican soldier. Just think! – not much of a prospect; it didn’t last long. My father was a very cultured man, with an impressive humanistic background. And although our life was difficult, all the efforts he made for me (I was an only child, and therefore clueless, like all only children) were so that I should learn.

• And you studied Economics as it was studied in those days: to be a chartered accountant. And war came when you were just fifteen.

When I was fifteen I was already a member of the FUE (Federación Universitaria Escolar), together with Tuñón de Lara. And the Socialist Youth. Plenty of young people were aware, but not many of us were organized. The Republic released our energy; groups of boys and girls went around together (that had never happened before), we played the guitar, we went to republican schools. It was great... (...)

• What was it like to be a Cultural Militiaman?

Ah, that was the best thing I ever did. People like Alberti and Miguel Hernández belonged to the section... It was our mission to be on the front not so much as fighters – although that too; we all had a rifle – as to teach the peasants and workers to read. (...)

After the Civil War you were taken to Yeserías.

There I met fantastic people – republican intellectuals, writers, journalists, artists...

• You were sentenced to death, weren’t you?

That’s right, but it was commuted to 30 years. It’s funny, because they told me as if I’d won the lottery. I still remember that friend of mine who came running and said: "Miguel, congratulations! You’ve got 30 years!" Of course, you can see what he meant...

• That you’d managed to cheat death at the age of 18.

We had to wear a badge for identification. Red meant death or 30 years. Green was 20 years. Yellow was 12, and white 6. Once we were on parade and the head of the prison, who was a nasty piece of work, asked me: "How old are you?" "Eighteen." "What were you in the War?" "Political commissar," I said proudly. And he sneered back: "Well, that was a nice career you had till we came along and nipped it in the bud..." I was pretty upset, I can tell you.

• And then they moved you to Ocaña Penal Colony and you met Miguel Hernández. Was he as special as they say he was?

There’s a tradition of presenting the great figures according to the old communist formula: special men of special mettle. Not a bit of it! They had their virtues and, fortunately, their defects. I always remember Miguel very fondly; he was everybody’s comrade, and friendly especially with the young ones, because he gave classes in the galleries. He did a drawing for us at the end of the 20 lines were we allowed to write in each letter – just 20 lines, no more...

• And he got letters from Josefina, the woman who inspired his "Lullabies of the Onion"?

Yes, she didn’t spare poor Miguel any suffering. There were mothers, sisters, girlfriends, who were dying and still gave encouragement to their menfolk ("Don’t worry, don’t worry"), but Josefina told Miguel Hernández all about the hunger she was going through and a load more for good measure. And he was so in love with that woman "of high towers, of high moons", it was a terrible shame. When you saw him wandering about on his own you knew he’d just got a letter from her.

• His own death was also a long, hard one.

Well, I don’t know if I ought to say this, but he did something he shouldn’t have done. We got things ready for him to escape, and Pablo Neruda, who was then the ambassador in Paris, arranged to have him picked up. We got him false papers (we walked into the offices as if we had every right to; we did whatever we wanted) and he escaped. And instead of hiding, he went straight to see Josefina. And there they caught him, of course. In Orihuela Prison he died a unpleasant death, of tuberculosis. (...)

I see that the Fascist system was very whimsical; they passed sentence and then they set up a revision committee that gave a different sentence. They can’t have been very convinced.

Because they knew they’d done so many atrocities. They cut mine down to 12 years, and then 6. But in just the same way they could have you killed, for no reason.

• In the underground you used several noms de guerre. Do you remember them?

Let’s see... There was Antonio Caballero Vaquero; I didn’t mind using that name because it belonged to somebody I studied with, a fascist, and I thought if they caught him it wouldn’t matter. Then I called myself Bruc, Saltor (after the writer Octavio Saltor), Vicens (after Vicens Vives); after all, if you can choose... (...)

• It took you no time at all to fit in here in Catalonia. How did you earn your living in the forties?

I felt at home here straight away. Janés, the publisher at Plaza & Janés, gave work to all us young reds. And for me – I worked as a style corrector – he kept my employment card in a false name.

So he was fully aware that he was risking his neck.

Yes, he did a lot for me. And I can say the same for Carlos Barral and Castellet. I’ve never had any trouble understanding the rights of the Catalan people; their idiosyncrasy. Sometimes I reckon one of the things that helped me is that I loved Catalan literature.

• Is it true that when you set up paramilitary groups, as you didn’t have any material, you took whatever you could get your hands on?

Even the night watchmen’s revolvers! Some of the Spaniards went over to France, and those of us who stayed here and "played" joined up. I was in the same group as Aymerich and Bruc, and as ever I was in charge of the political side. We published a little newspaper that even then still defended the Soviet system. (...)

In the Model Prison, —continues Miguel— they took four or five of us aside for a summary court martial. Basically, that means that after 72 hours, you’ve had it. And then just at that moment the Russians, who’ve done plenty of bad things in their time, did a good one for a change: they took Berlin. And the bastard of a judge disappeared.

• You see how providence exists?

Yes, providence... and the commandant who was confronted with all my papers and didn’t know what to do with me. Of course, the judge had made himself scarce, and the one who took his place (who was excluded from the army because he was a freemason) said he was a military judge (although he was actually just a two-bit fascist). I said to him: "What you’ve got to do is put us on probation; you call us and we’ll come and see you."

• What powers of persuasion! I suppose he never saw hide or hair of any of you again.

Quite. When I went back to the cell and told the others they couldn’t believe it. Then in 1947 there was that business with Pedro Valverde, and I got away by sheer luck. Pedro came to my house, picked up a note from me, went out, and 300 yards down the street, at the petrol station in Muntaner Street, he was arrested; he was tortured, beaten, blinded. He was going to be godfather to my daughter Estrella. (...)

Pedro never betrayed me, he never told them where I was. My daughter was born, and before he was shot we had time to go and show her to him. Sometimes I think that the War brought lots of mistakes, but at the same time it brought proof of eternal human qualities.

• Qualities that you lived in exile in France from 1949 on.

There I worked in a silica quarry. Later, in Mexico, after a check-up, the doctors deduced that the silica back then had calcified all the tips of my lungs. That’s why I have less breathing capacity.

• So you’ve got something rather like the silicosis that miners get?

That’s right. That fine dust I must have been breathing in from 8 in the morning to 6 or 7 in the evening. Then I used to go and visit friends. Once, they started to give their opinion about the situation in Spain. Cautiously, I said "That’s got nothing to do with reality," and they replied, "Who do you think you are? Because if you were a communist up till now, from now on you’re not, I can tell you." I told them that neither they nor even La Pasionaria could stop me from being a communist; "you can take away my party card but not my ideology." (...)

Reports from that time say Miguel Núñez was a specialist in challenging the Franco regime in mid trial. That’s how you got sent to Burgos Prison, wasn’t it?

Yes, in the middle of being court-martialled, I urged the military to abandon the dictator.

• Was that brave or kamikaze?

Kamikaze, no doubt about it. You’re committed to a struggle and you feel you have to give an example. During the recess one of the younger members of the bench came up to me and said "Miguel, for goodness sake, you’ve jumped the gun by at least 10 years." Of course, asking that lot to abandon the dictator – what an idea!

• But you had help from Josep Solé Barberà, the first Catalan lawyer to defend a crime of opinion in the Courts of Public Order. He wasn’t allowed to carry on with his practice, was he?

That’s right. He had been sentenced to death. A great bloke.

• The foreign press published the whole dialogue. Now Miguel Núñez has photocopies of it here on his desk in front of him. He looks at it and says it was like flying. He says they wanted to throw the book at him, and yet the court martial was a sensation, showing sympathies with even the monarchists and going against the dictatorship; 27 questions and 27 answers. Those in charge of the trial were so exhausted that the next day they changed the members of the bench. Then Solé Barberà took it into his head to say: "What can I add to the words of this great revolutionary?" He dug in his pocket and fished out an issue of an underground magazine about national reconciliation and read practically the whole thing to the bench.

It’s a shame we haven’t got a video of the hearing.

It was tremendous. They were up to the back teeth with both of us. They gave me 55 years. After that I was in Burgos from ’58 to ’67. And Solé was struck off the list.

• Those who know Miguel Núñez’s life say that he never informed on anyone, even in the worst sessions of torture. He was given him "the bathtub" (in which one’s head is held underwater until one can no longer hold one’s breath) and he was beaten senseless, but they never got one name out of him. For many years, his integrity even earned him respect within the underworld of the police force. So the legend goes, when the police were interrogating some youngster who failed to come up with the goods, the policemen, in the face of such determination to hang on and not "squeal", would bark "Who do you think you are, Miguel Núñez?

I think I changed the style. Some people said "I’m so-and-so and nobody’s going to get a word out of me." For better or for worse, I can’t do that. I arrived, and that torturer Creix say to me: "Miguel, we’ve caught you, and now you’ve got to talk." And I asked him "How much do you earn?" After one hell of a talking to, while he was laying into me, he told me – about 45,000 pesetas, I think it was – and I said to him: "Do you realize what the Bank of Bilbao made last year? And you get that for doing what you do?"

• How do you endure the beatings physically? How do you manage not to betray anyone when the torture is unbearable and any human being must feel so vulnerable?

It’s a matter of conviction. I’ve seen burly great blokes cave in at a mere threat, or at the first punch. And I’ve seen little slips of women – even ill ones – take everything. It’s moral resistance. I felt very superior to the people who tortured me.

• And does that help when you’re being beaten black and blue?

Yes. Torture degrades the torturer as well as the tortured. I don’t know if it would be the same if the police came for me again. Every time was a different experience.

• Is it true that they hung you from the hot water pipes at police headquarters with a pair of handcuffs and left you there for hours?

Yes. You bear up through a sheer psychological reaction. I went in on the offensive, and convinced. Then there was an added circumstance. They had me hanging there, and they drew a chair up so I could rest the tips of my toes on it. But I knew that plays havoc with your spine, and the pain’s unbearable, so I kicked the chair away and preferred to hang. And then something important happened. The police went on torturing me, but they got tired. They did shifts. The first lot left, and two armed policemen came in to stand guard. And one of them said to me: "Bear up, Miguel, you’ve got them beaten. Can I do something for you?" Can you imagine what you feel when one of them says that, when you see that he’s on your side?

• Weren’t you afraid it was a set-up and he was just being the "good cop" so that you’d talk?

That’s what I thought, but then I said to him: "Take down the address of my lawyer in France and tell him what’s going on." Two days later Creix came in shouting "How do you manage it, you bastard? Have you got a transmitter or what?" It was true, that policeman was on my side! And I said to Creix: "Surely you don’t think that out of all your people I haven’t got some of my own?" He wheeled round in hate and stared at them. That was another style.

• After that I don’t suppose you can believe in Rousseau’s maxim about us being good from birth. What is the true human condition?

Pretty lamentable. For example, when somebody’s tortured and then talks, we can’t attack them on top of that. Humans aren’t gods. And that person who breaks down at that moment has a whole story leading up to that fear that we can’t neglect. The comrade who informed against me, after being brutally tortured, said to Creix years later (we became very good friends; it could have happened to anybody): "I don’t know where Miguel is, but I wish I did. This time I’d like to know where he is, so that I could never tell you." (...)

• And now, looking back on it, what wouldn’t you do again?

If I was convinced enough, I’d do the same again. Although I’ve changed; I’ve thought a lot about all that and I see it differently now. For instance, I’m sure that the party structure we had wasn’t ideal. That – the rawness of the struggle, like the IRA, like ETA – that was wrong. You think you can’t fight without violence, and so you use the same instruments and you end up organizing yourselves almost militarily. It was a right dictatorship. It was useful against Fascism but it was no solution.

• But that’s a universal phenomenon, isn’t it?

Of course. The party of the Sandinista Front has a military structure, and when you want to be critical and they see you might harm the organization, they give you a really terrible maxim: "It’s better to be wrong with the Party than to be right against it"! That’s a terrible thing! What they’re saying is "don’t think".

• Do you know any party that doesn’t annihilate ideologically in one way or another?

I had a wonderful Soviet friend who said "The dictatorship of the proletariat is already limiting to start with, because we’re not all workers; it’s the dictatorship of the Party. But not all the Party, because really the Party means the Central Committee, but then the Central Committee isn’t the whole Committee – it’s the Politburo. And the Politburo, in the end, is the Secretary General." All forms of work that limits a person’s criteria is bad; it hinders the enrichment of an idea, and an idea can only arise out of a contrast.

Now that we’re being critical, tell me something critical about Iniciativa per Catalunya (2).

I feel that political parties today are pure reminiscence of the past. Not even those on the left are truly democratic; they don’t work as such. And they don’t fit well into society, which is so immensely complex nowadays. World financial capital moves a trillion dollars a day without producing a thing – not so much as a slipper! Just by speculating. And when we read that a dog has killed a baby here, two million children have died of hunger somewhere else. With a system like this, these parties we have aren’t valid, but...

• It’s all we’ve got, isn’t it?

Exactly. We can’t throw out what we’ve got. But we urgently need a different form of participation. Fortunately, something really worthwhile along those lines is starting up among young people. (...)

• Are you afraid of the globalization that capitalism is bringing?

It’s a disgusting sort of globalization. But I’m not against globalization when it means "everybody look after everybody else."

• Which of today’s buzz-words annoys you most?

"Competitiveness". It means getting ahead by doing the dirty on somebody else. Why don’t we trade it in for "solidarity"? (...)

 

Notes
1. The official Catalan communist party.
2. Catalan leftist political party.