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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.’

The tour started in the cemetery car park as we huddled under umbrellas peering at pictures of the militias given to us by our guide, Amaya Caunedo Domínguez, a young historian at the University of Oviedo. We pointed at parts of the city below, as the miners must have done decades before, picking out the location of the vital Oviedo arms factory, which the workers seized on 6 October. The cemetery is located on the old road from Langreo, a constellation of mining villages 20 kilometres away over the hills. Two of the three columns of workers’ militias arrived that way. They assembled late at night, then waited for a pre-dawn signal from inside the city – a cut in the electricity – that never came. So they had to wait another day: a long time to think about what they were about to do. To seize control of their own villages and oust the local ruling bourgeoisie – the bosses, the soldiers and priests – was one thing, but to capture the capital, Oviedo, the centre of regional power, must have been unimaginable.

As we trooped down into the city, another walker, Emilio León, told me about contemporary activism in Asturias, the legacy of the indignados’ uprising of May 2011 – the housing movement, for example, that has stopped evictions by Spain’s failed and bailed-out banks, and the squatted social centre where I met Amaya. There is a long tradition of militancy in Asturias, even down to the tactics and weapons used by the workers. Dynamite, ‘the artillery of the revolution’, was crucial in 1934, in the Civil War of 1936-39 and in the strikes against Franco in 1962. In summer 2012 DIY guerrilla warfare returned to the villages of Asturias. Miners on strike in defence of the remaining mines put on balaclavas to move through the tree-lined hills, shooting fireworks through shoulder-mounted metal tubes at the police as they tried to remove the strikers’ barricades. These tactics are passed down from generation to generation, Amaya explained. ‘In the shipbuilding factories in Gijón, where there were very radical unions, they don’t use fireworks, they burn tyres on the roads or make Molotov cocktails. If you are a miner, and you have the advantage of being high up on a hill, you shoot fireworks, or fire metal bolts from catapults.’

On Calle Seminario, we compared the sleepy roundabout at Plaza San Miguel as it is today with a photo from 1934 that shows a four-storey building diagonally ripped open in Franco’s aerial bombardment. Most of Oviedo was destroyed in the 1930s, to be replaced in the Franco era by ugly towerblocks. Some traces remain: on Calle Magdalena, in the city’s old town, bullet holes were still visible in the walls of what is now a pharmacy, some of them filled in with cement.

A few days later, I went to meet Amaya again at the squat, a former local government building spanning several floors. We carried torches to explore the work spaces, crèches, clothes and toy exchanges, meeting rooms, the large library and the former boss’s office, now the place where the feminist working group meets. Down in the basement, two comrades were tweaking the electricity generator. The squat had hosted an anti-fascist punk gig to raise funds, and the stage was still hung with a hand-painted banner framed by two black sticks of dynamite.

We found some matches, sat down and lit a candle. Amaya’s work had focused on the excavation of the mass graves in which the fascists dumped their victims. The work was started in 2000 by volunteer groups such as the Association of Historical Memory; then in 2007 the Socialist government passed a Historical Memory Law, promising state funding for excavations and a national database of victims, memorials and so on. But the economic crisis and Rajoy’s election in 2011 put a stop to all that. Citing economic necessity, Rajoy abolished the Office of Victims of the Civil War and the Dictatorship, though economic necessity didn’t prevent him finding €280,000 to refurbish Franco’s tomb, the so-called Valley of the Fallen. What makes the historian’s task all the more difficult is Franco’s Official Secrets Law, untouched since 1968, according to which all classified documents from as far back as the Civil War remain under wraps.

One might have imagined that after Franco’s death in 1975 the new democracy would have wanted to bring the crimes of the previous regime to light, but a formal Pact of Forgetting was introduced instead. Consequently, there are hardly any memorials to Franco’s victims anywhere in Spain. It is common to find memorials to victims on the fascist side in churches, but not only in churches: in the old university in Oviedo, Amaya told me, they still have a frieze bearing the names of all the people who belonged to the university and were killed by ‘the reds’. ‘But only the reds … it’s as if we were still fighting the Civil War. If you want to follow up the imbalance, people react as if you wanted to kill priests all over again.’ Before the funding ran out, the University of Oviedo project Amaya worked on built an online map of unmarked mass graves in Asturias (there are more than five hundred of them), and a database of names of the disappeared, victims of Republicans and fascists alike, people whom the police, or the military, or the fascist paramilitary groups, would take from their house at night and kill in the road.’ The team had to piece together what they could from parish records and from speaking to local survivors and their children, tentatively going through local gatekeepers, or padrinos (‘godfathers’).

It isn’t just the surviving relatives who have a stake in finding the remains of the disappeared. In one Civil War battle in Asturias, a troop of Basque volunteer soldiers had come to join the Republican side, because they thought it was their best route to independence. Many of them died in battle and were buried where they fell. Twice since the turn of the century the Basques have sent representatives to Asturias with a view to finding the graves and taking the bodies back. But it isn’t easy: there were a lot of bodies, and it’s a big field. The left-wing Basque nationalists EHB wanted to dig for the bodies, but the owners of the field, minor aristocrats, wouldn’t give them access. Legally, however, they had to comply. Then the story spread that it was ETA who wanted to do the digging, and local villagers objected to this symbolic invasion of Spanish territory by the former terrorist group. In the end, sonic detection equipment was allowed into the field. ‘It was so difficult,’ Amaya recalled, ‘because it rained a lot, and the machines just don’t work properly when it’s so wet … Eventually they gave up – I don’t think the site will ever get excavated.’

Some argue that the graves shouldn’t be excavated at all: if you start moving the skeletons, you are destroying the proof of what the fascists did. And what will the relatives do with their ancestors’ remains? Many children whose parents were killed by fascist hit squads in the 1940s were placed in Catholic orphanages and raised by nuns. ‘You are rotten, and your ideas are rotten,’ was how the fascists thought, ‘so we have to put the next generation on the right path – and the right path is the Catholic path.’ Some of them, Amaya said, ‘now want to re-bury their parents with a Catholic priest and Catholic ritual. But then,’ she sighed, ‘if you give the dead that final burial, decades later, are you giving Franco the last victory over their souls? Who is more important, the dead person or their surviving relatives?’ Especially, as is usually the case, if the dead were communist atheists who fought the Spanish Church.

The following day I found a new marble monument ‘to the victims of terrorism, 1968-2007’ in Plaza Angel González, in the north-west of the city. The victims of ETA and Islamic extremism can be remembered, but not the victims of the Spanish government. Nearby, some anti-fascist graffiti had been daubed over with the legend ‘Crew 38’, a neo-Nazi sign in yellow and red, alongside a Spanish flag with a red swastika. On the climb up to the Estadio Municipal Carlos Tartiere, where a game was to take place between Real Oviedo and Racing Santander, a team from just over the border in Cantabria, I watched some home fans smash up a car with a Santander licence plate. Bored young men playing at being Nazis and ultras. ‘Ultras no política,’ declared one of the many murals inside the ground: an Italian hooligan slogan suggesting that club loyalty takes precedence over mere politics; but here in Oviedo it isn’t really true, the hardcore fans are political. Spanish flags are not allowed in the stadium; the Asturias flag is blue and the team plays in blue.

The previous week, six miners had died in the Pozo Emilio del Valle mine in León, an hour away from Oviedo. There was a poison gas leak and they died trapped where they worked: it was the worst mining disaster in Spain for 18 years. Real Oviedo were playing away at Cultural Leonesa a few days later, and the travelling Oviedo supporters sang the miners’ hymn, Santa Bárbara Bendita’, for their hosts. The words of the song are those of a miner returning home to his wife after a disaster at the María Luisa mine in Langreo: ‘I bring the red shirt… the blood of a comrade.’ ‘Everybody knows “Santa Bárbara Bendita”,’ Amaya told me, ‘everybody in Asturias. It’s like our anthem.’

Although the Asturian miners made headlines with their last-ditch militancy in 2012, the wider war, everyone agrees, had already been lost. Most of the mines were closed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The miners were paid off, and handsomely: 45,000 were given early retirement in 1992, with a deal worth as much as if they had continued working. Since then, thousands of mining families have survived on those payments alone. ‘The greater part of the working-class solidarity to be found in the mines was destroyed in 1992,’ Amaya remarked. ‘Now everyone depends on that retirement money.’ The money is managed by the trade unions, but the local mining union, the SOMA-FIA-UGT, soon won’t have any money left to manage. Rajoy announced last July that subsidies will be gradually reduced and the remaining five thousand miners pensioned off. ‘People still have a lot of solidarity in the valleys,’ Amaya said, ‘but each year that passes, that solidarity diminishes a little more. The young people are leaving the villages now – those villages are much quieter than they used to be.’

I left Oviedo for the port city of Gijón. A journalist in his fifties, Luis Antonio Alías, a miner’s son and former Trotskyist militant who looked, in his own words, ‘like a fat Santa Claus’, took me on a drive into Las Cuencas, as the coalfields are known, on his day off from writing the local newspaper’s ‘on this day in history’ column. In The Spanish Holocaust Paul Preston quotes the socialist Juan-Simeón Vidarte’s contemporary description of the repression that followed the October 1934 uprising in Las Cuencas. In Sama de Langreo, Franco’s soldiers took 27 workers from the jail to be executed without trial: ‘They shot only three or four because, as the shots echoed in the mountains, they were afraid that guerrillas would appear. So, to avoid the danger, they acted even more cruelly, decapitating or hanging the prisoners. They cut off their feet, their hands, their ears, their tongues, even their genitals.’ The silence was disturbed again in 1937, when the Nazi planes supporting Franco practised for the Second World War ‘with forays along the mountain valleys, using a combination of incendiary bombs and gasoline to create an early form of napalm’.

Driving in the valleys among the birches and yews, we saw eucalyptus trees, which are good for propping up tunnels in mines. ‘The advantage is you hear them creaking before they break,’ Luis Antonio told me. Eventually we reached the network of mining villages, including the mine where in the 1950s Luis Antonio’s mother worked in the office until he was born. The conversation turned to the same issues that preoccupied the people I had met in Oviedo. ‘If you don’t see the poverty in Asturias yet,’ Luis Antonio said, ‘it’s because of the miners’ pensions.’ But what will happen next? ‘They’ll die. And then it’s over.’ The miners were awarded substantial salaries after Franco nationalised the industry: ‘He knew how important it was not to antagonise the miners,’ Luis Antonio explained. ‘He gave free education to miners’ children. And it was in the Francoist universities where I learned everything important,’ he smirked. ‘All my teachers were communists, of course.’

We stopped for lunch in La Veguiña, a tiny valley town of 450 inhabitants, with its own boarded-up mine, the San José Well, which was closed in 1992. It had been worked for 35 years, during which time 34 miners had died there. Nearly a million euros have been spent attempting to refurbish it, to no clear end; there was talk in the local papers of creating a cultural centre, but the money disappeared amid political squabbling. The towering diagonal gallows frame at the pithead had been painted a bold shade of red. We ate at a family restaurant belonging to a former miner who had used his pension to open it a few years before, then took back to the road.

For forty minutes we didn’t pass another car, as we crept up and up, ears popping, through wet farming hamlets with their hórreos, grain houses raised up on stilts, then zig-zagged down into the valley below. In El Entrego, a town of seven thousand people, what was once a working mine is now the Mining Museum of Asturias; like everywhere else in Las Cuencas, there were a lot of boarded-up houses and closed-down shops with windows painted white. Further on, we passed another closed mine: Pozo de María Luisa, the subject of ‘Santa Bárbara Bendita’. ‘They make all the aspirin in the world here,’ Luis Antonio observed. ‘It helps deal with the pain.’ The factory in Langreo makes all of the aspirin for Bayer, the company that discovered and trademarked it. ‘Para tu futuro – vota SOMA-FIA-UGT,’ I read on a union poster clinging to the wall of another closed mine as we left the Langreo villages at dusk. Luis Antonio scoffed from the front seat. ‘The only future we have,’ he replied, ‘is to build another Armada and invade England again.’

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