February 20, 2021


An interview with Felipe González

Felipe González was Prime Minister of Spain from 1982-1996.

Maya Adereth: Let’s start with your experience in the anti-Francoist resistance.

Felipe Gonzalez: In the final years of the Franco regime I spent a lot of time getting prosecuted and detained—in 1971 I was detained three times. But I was never tortured, like some of my cellmates whose condition I lament to this day. For me, this period was about understanding clearly that I wanted an end to the dictatorship, and that I did not want to replace one dictatorship with another. I joined the PSOE in the 1960s because of its history of struggle over civil rights, and its commitment to social democracy. And I’ve stayed there ever since.

Javier Padilla: Did you have any political or ideological mentors?

FG: There was a group of us in Sevilla, sometimes referred to as the “Tortilla Group” which included Alfonso Guerra, Luis Yáñez, and Manuel Chaves. We were committed to ending the dictatorship, but we didn’t have particular political mentors. We regularly read Nouvelle Observateur, and we learned about models of workers self management and cooperatives in Yugoslavia. These ideas interested me from both a political and theoretical point of view because of the ways in which they distanced themselves from Soviet planning.

JP: Tell us about your process of becoming leader of the party. What was your opinion of the party leaders who were in Toulouse?

FG: We had an interesting situation in Sevilla. Alfonso Fernández Torres was an old socialist militant from Jaén who clashed with the leadership in exile when we met him. We didn’t know why, and we didn’t even know that Rodolfo Llopis had expelled the Andalusian organization because he considered it too rebellious. We were just a group of young people who were agitating at the University. We used the faculty and graduate students at the Law Department in order to build contacts with the CCOO and the UGT. At a certain point, we met an Andalusian socialist who invited us to the national congress of the party in Baiona on July 16, 1969. At this congress, we realized that the vision of reality held by the exiled party leaders was entirely distorted. They had an irreconcilable hatred for Santiago José Carrillo, and they had no idea what was happening on the ground.

This was also true of the PCE—they spent year after year calling for a revolutionary national strike that was neither national nor a strike, and everything but revolutionary. These divisions between the changing political circumstances and the antiquated positions of the party leaders ultimately led to the split—in the first congress that I attended, Llopis experienced more or less what I would experience in 1980. He lost the party congress, but he remained the general secretary. I’ll always remember that when I asked him why he took this position he said: “By electing me general secretary, the public has appointed me high priest to interpret whatever political consensus follows.”

As a group we gained support from Ramón Rubial and Nicolás Redondo. We set up labor litigation offices in Asturias, Valladolid and Bilbao, and we used these as a platform to build relationships with the unions and workers. Llopis created what was known for a time as the “Historic Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party” and Suarez and Martín Villa legalized it before they legalized us, even though they had no base. So we held the Suresnes Congress with the party divided. At the Congress Yáñez strongly advocated for my candidacy, though Nicolás Redondo could have just as easily had it if he wanted it. He didn’t want it, so the candidacy fell on me without any clear purpose. At the time everyone thought that a transitional congress headed by a thirty-two- year-old Sevillian was not likely to last long. Things didn’t turn out that way, it seems.

MA: I wonder if you could tell us about the relationship that the Socialist Party had with other European parties, like the SPD.

FG: My relationship with the German SPD and the French PS was very important, as was my relationship with the Swedish and Austrian socialist parties. Willy Brandt had some doubts as to the legacy of Llopis, but he aligned with our movement during the Congress of Sureneses. This congress was also decisive because of Mitterrand’s participation. He was initially closer to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Santiago José Carrillo, because he wanted a unity of the left. In the Congress of Suresnes, Mitterrand expected to walk into a room with some old exiled socialists and saw instead a room of 30 year olds. He didn’t know where he was. He continued to insist that we needed a front with the communists, but his behavior towards the PSOE was totally transformed.

JP: And what about people from Nicaragua like Bayardo Arce?

FG: I knew Bayardo Arce through the Ortega brothers. I knew the group of those who went after the nine commanders with Sergio Ramírez even before Anastasio Somoza’s fall from power. I was the first outsider who came to Nicaragua to bring Somoza down. I saw a small airplane leave from Panama, dropping bombs on the Somoza palace. I was present during some incredible conversations—ones in which they purposefully spoke nonsense through channels which they knew were controlled by American intelligence agencies. They did it so well that Carter once called Torrijos and Carlos Andrés Pérez to tell them that Somoza was going to fall. And sure enough, Somoza fell soon after.

I traveled to Panama through Nicaragua five days after Somoza’s fall. Sandinista leaders were welcome at the Spanish Embassy. When I arrived there I had dinner with the nine leaders, the commanders, the Ortega brothers, and Bayardo Arce. Of the three groups behind the Nicaraguan revolution, he was in the GPP—the Permanent Popular War. There were also the communists like Borge, who constituted the core of the movement. Daniel Ortega was a member of the social democratic group. I spoke to them to figure out what they needed. They said: we need paper, pens, and radio batteries. That was the most urgent thing for them. The public was discouraged because they couldn’t listen to the radio. They couldn’t circulate a decree because they didn’t have any paper. This was two or three days before the week the Sandinistas came to power. Afterwards I maintained a very active, if frustrated, relationship with them, despite the corruption and so-called piñata. I maintained a relationship with Bayardo despite the fact that he didn’t remain in government. He was the great mediator with the business world, he would say things like, “we’re very clear on our approach to business interests: live and let live.” It hurt me to hear him take that approach.

MA: When you were elected in 1982, Thatcher and Reagan were already in office. What was it like to enter as a socialist in this context? What were your primary objectives upon being elected?

FG: Henry Kissinger came to visit me in 1982. He wanted to see me because they had forecasted that we may win the general elections. Before that I had only seen him once at a meeting, and we never spoke. This time we spoke for two or three hours. He never explicitly said it, but he was coordinating with the intelligence department. He wanted to get to know me, understand my principles and political purposes. At one moment the conversation felt like a satirical interrogation; he asked me: “Mitterrand nationalized the bank. Are you planning to nationalize the banks?” And I answered: “That’s not very precise. De Gaulle nationalized the bank, and despite the fact that he wasn’t pro-American, you could hardly call him a Red.” At that point he started to smile.

He told me what, in his view, a socialist should do upon entering government. Mitterrand had nationalized some technologies, under the theory of “controlled progress.” But technology can’t be controlled, once you bureaucratize it it stops working. I assured Kissinger that despite his expectations, being a socialist does not always necessitate being a fool. Though he didn’t believe me, I thought that nationalizing the banks was imprudent. Actually, in the government I proposed denationalizing or privatizing all of the businesses which were not successful in the National Institute of Industry, where the failures of the private sector, apart from the Francoist autarky, were transferred into the public sector. Already in 1982 I campaigned on the platform that the public sector should build roads and the private sector should build the cars that you use to drive on those roads. After that conversation Kissinger and I worked together in a group called the International Bipartisan Foundation, formed to analyze the threat of international terrorism which began in the previous October with the invasion of Iraq.

JP: Did you talk to Kissinger about NATO?

FG: Of course. Kissinger had the common sense to think that holding a referendum on NATO was nonsense. The United States was terrified that a referendum on NATO would further destabilize Southern Europe. The United States was terrified that a referendum on NATO would further destabilize Southern Europe. They were especially worried about Papandreou, who had promised to hold a referendum on NATO as well as Greece’s member- ship in the EU. With Spain, the US proposal conditioned everything on bilateral agreements. These were all agreements I wanted to revise in order to regain sovereignty. Their approach was always the same: we’re doing you a favor by being here. At the 1983 CSE NATO conference in Madrid, Lord Carrington and Secretary Shultz spoke about the “hunting down” of Manuel Noriega. They asked me if I knew him, and I told them I knew him well. This is before they intervened in Panama to bring him down. They asked me if I had an opinion on him. I told them I did, but that it was different from theirs, and it would age differently over the course of history.

The Americans were also, of course, involved with the formation of the EU. We had to decide about NATO, and we had to decide about our diplomatic relationship to Israel. Despite conventional wisdom, neither of these things were related to the entry in the EU. Actually, I did not finish either of these negotiations until I was sure that Spain was a member of the EU. In June of 1985 we signed the treaty, and on January 1, 1986, we fully joined the EU. After that, I signed the relationship with Israel with Shimon Peres in late January at the Hague, and we voted on NATO in March. We didn’t really acknowledge the condition that without joining NATO we wouldn’t enter the EU.

JP: What made you change your mind about NATO?

FG: It was very clearly related to changing public opinion. Our program was very nuanced, the campaign against NATO was intended to prevent Calvo Sotelo from making a majoritarian decision in a transitional government. The campaign was about entry, and once entry took place, our program called for a referendum on permanence. Then there was a question regarding the “ethics of responsibility,” about the approach we should take.

José María Maravall: You said something very telling, “Never getting married is not the same as getting divorced.”

FG: Not entering is not the same as leaving. The consequences of never entering were different than those of leaving. People reproached me for saying I would bear the consequences. I knew that it was just advisory—if I lost the referendum, someone else would have to manage the rejection by the citizens.

MA: I’m interested in the long term relationship between the UGT and the PSOE. How did your relationship change with the 1988 general strike?

FG: Our relationship with the UGT changed the moment we entered government. They believed they had the right to decide who was going to be in charge of employment and social affairs. Similarly, the bank thought that they had the right to make decisions about industry and finance. I operated according to the notion that the government should act in a manner which preserves the general interest and advances the autonomy of the public; that it could encourage discussion between the two parties but it could not depend on the interests of any group, no matter how open the dialogue was. I also thought, and this I made clear the month I entered government, that things were governed “in Moncloa and not in Ferraz,” which was the party headquarters. That was the place to discuss party strategy, have debates, and so on. But the government ought to take decisions in Moncloa.

From the beginning, the UGT didn’t understand this. Everyone looks at the general strike of 1988, but the UGT had already called for a general strike in 1985, which CCOO did not join, when we adopted pension reforms. I wanted to make sure that the pension system was sustainable in the long run, we introduced universal pensions that were available to those who weren’t eligible for a pension through their job. We turned it into a right, not a gift, and because there was so much tension around it they called a general strike. It was also the first time that there was a vote against a law we had put forward from one of our deputies in the congress, Nicolás Redondo. The law included a temporary provision which gave workers who were about to retire the option of switching to the new system. And of course, no one chose to stay in the old system, including those who had called for the strike.

The 1988 strike was the only real general strike that ever took place in Spain, and it paralyzed the country. It was highly politicized, but interestingly the workers unions and the employer federations agreed. Employers had other reasons to resist the government after six years, related especially to the increased tax burden. It wasn’t necessarily what we did, but our ability to make independent decisions that irritated the UGT. They had good reasons to constrain the power of the government, and the general strike was one avenue to do this.

Last year, we witnessed massive mobilizations in Chile and in Brazil. In both cases, the trigger was the increased cost of public transportation. There’s no direct correlation between the triggering issue and the magnitude of the mobilizations. It was the same with the general strike; it electrified the issue of vocational training and the reforms to the system that we were attempting. A contractual system of vocational training through employers, this is the system which I advocated and which the unions, and, paradoxically, the employers associations, rejected. This was despite the fact that both the employers and the unions agreed afterwards that our vocational training system is one of the weakest aspects of our economy. But at that moment they decided
to attack my proposal.

JP: I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the universalization of public education.

FG: In politics there are two levels of power. Democratic politics, as democratic as they may be, always act like an iceberg, with some undemocratic forces operating underneath the surface. That is to say, that there is a layer of political relations that we can readily see, and a layer which is always hidden. So, what happened in Spain? It’s pretty easy to analyze on the surface. But today when we see a crisis in liberal democracy around the world, it is hard to get to the root.

With respect to education, everything was in plain sight: where we were, and what could we do. But to explain what happened I’ll tell you about the concept, rather than the background. Modern, free, public education was established in France in the nineteenth century. In Spain, the right to education was established only in 1984. We had a fragile public system alongside a private system which was controlled by the Catholic Church, which was difficult to finance for more than a small portion of the population. With universalization, we established a public system and a coordinated private one, and outside of this, there was the actually private system, which wanted to remain entirely independent. In the coordinated private schools (concertada), we established rules. The moment they agreed to public money they also agreed that they could no longer pick their students.

If the public education system had been implemented strictly according to our design, it would not have resulted in a discriminatory system. But in practice, all who defend their rights exclusively do so at the expense of the others. Today, I see certain tendencies in the school system which exaggerate these contradictions—differences, for example, between the school systems on the peripheries of wealthy cities which cater to immigrants, and those who cater to people with higher incomes in the center. The geographical concentration of people of different demographic backgrounds creates completely distinct systems. The discrimination is compounded by the sorts of services and occupations that immigrants enter. Moreover, some schools have started to charge some of the activities that should be free, leading to unfair discriminations.

It didn’t have to be like this. Apart from the Catholic Church, which was hugely important and shaping the education system, there were other organizations which didn’t have the bias that is usually associated with the concertada. But nearly everyone ultimately complied with the decisions which made the coordinated private system a privileged one. In a place like Madrid, for example, they give far more funding to the coordinated private system than the public one; they’ve completely neglected the public system.

JP: During this period of centralization, was there ever a moment within the PSOE in which you foresaw problems arising from the Basque country or from Catalonia? I’m especially interested in the debates within the left on the Economic Agreement of 1981. What were the different positions?

FG: It was contradictory to be in favor of self determination and separatism while remaining on the left in the name of solidarity and redistribution. I am in favor of political decentralization and against the centrifugation of power. Decentralization without guaranteeing institutional loyalty is subjecting the country to the rule of Taifas. The constitutional pact recognized “nationalities and regions,” and guaranteed the right to pluralistic ideas. This is frequently lost in public discussion; when politicians say that Spain is a “pluralist country,” they mean that it is a diverse country, but they forget the ideological significance of pluralism. Ideological pluralism is fundamental to democracy and the diversity in feelings of belonging. We planned the constitution to foster this, but much of the country was not worried about material inequality between regions.

Ultimately, they developed some kind of regulated autonomy over basic taxes. Whether we like it or not, this system creates tax competition, and it produces pseudo tax havens within our own country. I would have never allowed this system for the following reason: I am not concerned with decentralizing power, but with ensuring a consistent citizenship package to people across the territory. And when people who say they are far to the left of me defend this idea, it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s impossible to support social democratic policies and, at the same time, argue against democracy when it comes to regional inequality.

JP: If you had to define yourself politically today, what kind of identity would you choose?

FG: Indalecio Prieto, during a debate with Fernando de los Ríos a century ago, said “I’m a socialist through liberalism. I want to see progress in equality through the foundations of democracy.” Which is to say, I’ve never been a radical but a moderate. The only issue which turns me into a radical is the defense of representative democracy. In the face of a right-wing government, I am a companion to communists. But the moment in which the left leans into authoritarianism, I become a social traitor.

This is what I believe in: a market economy and not a market society. Because I think human beings are not merchandise, and for that reason we need to regulate and constrain the market economy. I believe in redistribution through direct and indirect taxes, to fight against inequality. Social democracy’s major innovation was not about improving salaries, it was about redistributing wealth and creating the institutions required for social mobility. It was a complete system, with education, health, and pensions; with genuine redistributive mechanisms. Society changed because of the technological revolution, which produced new social structures and new forms of stratification. There has not been an adjustment of social democracy to suit the realities of today. For example, we think many income inequalities are due to gender. But implicit in gender inequalities are the 70 percent of single parent households in which a mother has to feed two children on her own and meets a thousand difficulties on the way.

The movements for social democracy today resemble what Fernando Henrique so accurately termed “regressive utopianism.” We want to go back to the moment in which we were happiest. But how can the past be the future? What worries me is that to some degree social democracy died of success. It died because it couldn’t understand that the society that it had helped create was not the society which existed when it started.

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