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, dont 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 citys Medalla
What really gives pleasure to Miguel Núñez a flirt if ever there was one, hard
from the knocks hes 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 youre not acquainted with
the chaotic numbering of the districts 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: "Yesterdays fire warms no
more, nor does todays, and we shall have to make a new fire."
Here, read this; this ones 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?
Hes 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 Christs sake? Why dont you ask these
youngsters?" Hes 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 dOr presented to him in February by the Mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos. (...)
Ive 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 didnt 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,
You were sentenced to death, werent you?
Thats right, but it was commuted to 30 years. Its funny, because they told
me as if Id won the lottery. I still remember that friend of mine who came running
and said: "Miguel, congratulations! Youve got 30 years!" Of course, you
can see what he meant...
That youd 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?
Theres 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 everybodys
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
Yes, she didnt spare poor Miguel any suffering. There were mothers, sisters,
girlfriends, who were dying and still gave encouragement to their menfolk
("Dont worry, dont 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 hed just got a letter from her.
His own death was also a long, hard one.
Well, I dont know if I ought to say this, but he did something he shouldnt
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 cant have been very
Because they knew theyd 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?
Lets see... There was Antonio Caballero Vaquero; I didnt mind using that
name because it belonged to somebody I studied with, a fascist, and I thought if they
caught him it wouldnt 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.
Ive 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
Is it true that when you set up paramilitary groups, as you didnt have any
material, you took whatever you could get your hands on?
Even the night watchmens 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, youve had
it. And then just at that moment the Russians, whove done plenty of bad things in
their time, did a good one for a change: they took Berlin. And the bastard of a judge
You see how providence exists?
Yes, providence... and the commandant who was confronted with all my papers and
didnt 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 youve got to do is put us on probation; you call us and well come
and see you."
What powers of persuasion! I suppose he never saw hide or hair of any of you
Quite. When I went back to the cell and told the others they couldnt 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 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. Thats why
I have less breathing capacity.
So youve got something rather like the silicosis that miners get?
Thats 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 "Thats 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 youre 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. Thats how you got sent to Burgos Prison, wasnt it?
Yes, in the middle of being court-martialled, I urged the military to abandon the
Was that brave or kamikaze?
Kamikaze, no doubt about it. Youre 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, youve 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 wasnt allowed to carry on with
his practice, was he?
Thats 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.
Its a shame we havent 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
Those who know Miguel Núñezs life say that he never informed on anyone,
even in the worst sessions of torture. He was given him "the bathtub" (in which
ones head is held underwater until one can no longer hold ones 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 "Im so-and-so and
nobodys going to get a word out of me." For better or for worse, I cant
do that. I arrived, and that torturer Creix say to me: "Miguel, weve caught
you, and now youve 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?
Its a matter of conviction. Ive seen burly great blokes cave in at a mere
threat, or at the first punch. And Ive seen little slips of women even ill
ones take everything. Its moral resistance. I felt very superior to the
people who tortured me.
And does that help when youre being beaten black and blue?
Yes. Torture degrades the torturer as well as the tortured. I dont 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 pains 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, youve 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 hes on your side?
Werent you afraid it was a set-up and he was just being the "good
cop" so that youd talk?
Thats what I thought, but then I said to him: "Take down the address of my
lawyer in France and tell him whats 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 dont think that out of all your people I havent got some of my own?"
He wheeled round in hate and stared at them. That was another style.
After that I dont suppose you can believe in Rousseaus maxim about
us being good from birth. What is the true human condition?
Pretty lamentable. For example, when somebodys tortured and then talks, we
cant attack them on top of that. Humans arent gods. And that person who breaks
down at that moment has a whole story leading up to that fear that we cant 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 dont
know where Miguel is, but I wish I did. This time Id like to know where he is, so
that I could never tell you." (...)
And now, looking back on it, what wouldnt you do again?
If I was convinced enough, Id do the same again. Although Ive changed;
Ive thought a lot about all that and I see it differently now. For instance,
Im sure that the party structure we had wasnt ideal. That the rawness
of the struggle, like the IRA, like ETA that was wrong. You think you cant
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 thats a universal phenomenon, isnt 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: "Its better to be wrong with the Party than to be right against
it"! Thats a terrible thing! What theyre saying is "dont
Do you know any party that doesnt annihilate ideologically in one way or
I had a wonderful Soviet friend who said "The dictatorship of the proletariat is
already limiting to start with, because were not all workers; its the
dictatorship of the Party. But not all the Party, because really the Party means the
Central Committee, but then the Central Committee isnt the whole Committee
its the Politburo. And the Politburo, in the end, is the Secretary General."
All forms of work that limits a persons criteria is bad; it hinders the enrichment
of an idea, and an idea can only arise out of a contrast.
Now that were being critical, tell me something critical about Iniciativa per
I feel that political parties today are pure reminiscence of the past. Not even those
on the left are truly democratic; they dont work as such. And they dont 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 arent
Its all weve got, isnt it?
Exactly. We cant throw out what weve 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?
Its a disgusting sort of globalization. But Im not against globalization
when it means "everybody look after everybody else."
Which of todays buzz-words annoys you most?
"Competitiveness". It means getting ahead by doing the dirty on somebody
else. Why dont we trade it in for "solidarity"? (...)
1. The official Catalan communist party.
2. Catalan leftist political party.