I hadn’t been in Oviedo for long before I saw the anarchists’ red and black flags. Fifty people stood outside the train station in the midday sun, protesting against the imminent privatisation of the railway. ‘The future holds no security,’ a man in his sixties told me, bothering his bushy white moustache. ‘We will lose our jobs, ticket prices will rise. Only the rich will benefit from this.’ Passers-by were mostly unmoved; another day, another protest in Mariano Rajoy’s Spain. I was handed a leaflet in Spanish (Asturias also has its own language, Bable), and read the opening sentence: ‘The government has announced its intention to dismantle and privatise the Renfe, copying the failed and ruinous model of British railway privatisation.’
Government statistics give some sense of how far Asturias has tumbled during the financial crisis. In autumn 2007, unemployment was 7 per cent (lower than the national average); six years later, it has more than tripled, to 24 per cent. Youth unemployment has risen from 16 per cent to 53 per cent. The night I arrived, I watched a 26-year-old woman talking on television about her generation, the juventud sin futuro (‘youth without a future’). ‘It’s not just an economic crisis,’ she said, ‘it’s an existential crisis.’ There is coal beneath the hills of the Costa Verde, and for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, mining and steel production made Asturias one of Spain’s richest regions. The mines have been as vital to popular identity as they are in South Wales, but now only a handful remain and the rest of the miners have been pensioned off.
Anarchists aside, it was quiet on the cold, grey streets. It was All Saints Day, a national holiday on which people do very little besides visiting the local cemetery. Commemoration of the dead is a difficult subject in Spain. A few weeks before my visit, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances issued a report calling on the government to repeal the 1977 Amnesty Law which prevents crimes from the Franco era being formally investigated. The report also calls for funding to be restored to the short-lived Historical Memory Project, which some 12 or 15 years ago had begun to document and excavate Franco’s mass graves, and to bring to court no fewer than 114,000 counts of forced disappearance – secret abduction and imprisonment – from the fascist period. The government will not be doing either of these things. The post-Franco amnesties ‘will not be revisited’, Spain’s representative in Geneva, Ana Menéndez Pérez, explained to the UN committee in November, accusing it of ‘excessive focus on the past’.
The next day, a Saturday, I walked up the hill out of Oviedo to the city’s cemetery as rain poured down the mountain road – the average rainfall in November is twice what it is in Wales. There I joined nine Asturians in their twenties and thirties for a tour of sites associated with the October 1934 revolution. The tour was organised by the local indignados – Spain’s massive protest movement, now nearly three years old. In October 1934, in the build-up to the Civil War, a workers’ alliance of socialists, anarchists and communists overcame their usually fractious divisions to oppose the entry of three members of the quasi-fascist CEDA into the government. Workers’ militias marched from the mining villages towards Oviedo, which was defended by a thousand-strong garrison, and after fierce fighting, seized the city. Communism was declared throughout Asturias, money was abolished and replaced by coupons, and factories and government property were occupied; workers’ committees issued weapons and determined the distribution of groceries. The army, commanded by Franco and supported by the navy and air force, responded immediately and in force. After 15 days of fighting, none of the expected support having arrived from simultaneous uprisings in Madrid and Barcelona, the revolt in Asturias was crushed. Between two and three thousand people lost their lives, only a few hundred of them on the army’s side. Many of the rebels were tortured and summarily executed, and tens of thousands of workers were imprisoned. Years later, the CEDA leader, Gil-Robles, would describe the events of October 1934 as a necessary strike: ‘To wait two or three months would have been suicide. Spain would have become one vast Asturias and we would have had soviets in Spain today.’