Michael Mullan - Emilio Barbón Martínez


(The Guardian, 24 June 2003)


Heroism is no longer an indispensable quality in the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) - outside the Basque Country, at any rate - and Emilio Barbón, who has died aged 73, was one of the last of a generation of heroes. Under the Franco regime, when the party had to meet in the strictest clandestinity, a simple security measure involved a curtain in front of the dais so that speakers could be heard without revealing their faces. But when one speaker hobbled up, supported by two sturdy walking sticks to deliver a message of passionate commitment, intellectual rigour and political courage in a distinctive Asturian brogue, no curtain could conceal Barbón.

Born at Rebolloso in the Pola de Laviana mining belt, Barbón was steeped in the region’s socialist tradition from birth and became one of its most respected standard-bearers under dictatorship and in democracy. The infantile paralysis that left him reliant on sticks, and latterly a wheelchair, delayed his schooling but accentuated his determination to overcome obstacles in life. He made it into Oviedo University, graduating in 1957 and setting up a labour law practice in Laviana, covering his political activities in the PSOE and the General Workers’ Union (UGT).

Late in 1958, the entire Asturias PSOE committee was detained and a new leadership had to be cobbled together, with Barbón at the core. He was prominent in the historic Asturian miners’ strike in the spring of 1962, which shook the Franco regime by exposing fissures in the Catholic Church and inviting critical attention from Spain’s European neighbours. By the late 1960s, Barbón was raising eyebrows at the PSOE’s exiled headquarters in Toulouse by ordering supplies of 2,000 party cards at a time. He regularly crossed the border to brief the party leadership. Arrested on numerous occasions, he was jailed in 1967 for illegal propaganda and unlawful association, charges that were later dropped, and was again held at the secret police (DGS) headquarters in Madrid after a demonstration at the tomb of PSOE founder Pablo Iglesias in 1975.

When peasant farms were being expropriated for the controversial Rioseco reservoir project in the early 1970s, Barbón acted for many of the families facing eviction; instead of charging professional fees, he billed them at cost for the paper used. Trade unionists or demonstrators under arrest would request “the red lawyer from Laviana” and Barbón would be summoned.

As the post-Franco transition got under way, Barbón was a keen advocate of casting aside the trappings of clandestinity. He emerged openly in 1975 as general secretary of the Asturian UGT and was elected to the first democratic parliament in 1977. As autonomous government developed in his native principality, he held a succession of regional ministries of labour and social security, until 1989 when he was named a magistrate of the Asturias High Court. In 1998, a year before ill health forced his retirement, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Civil Merit to add to several other Spanish and Asturian decorations.

Even Barbón’s political adversaries recognised his moral and physical courage as well as his profound sense of political ethics, an increasingly rare commodity in contemporary Spain. Francisco Álvarez-Cascos, industry minister in the Aznar government, described him as “a lovely man” and a point of reference in Asturian democracy. Regional leaders of the right-wing Popular Party politely stood by as Barbón’s coffin, draped in the red flag, was carried through streets lined with clenched-fist salutes and laid to rest, as he had instructed, to the rousing chorus of the Internationale.

He is survived by his wife, Manuela (Manolita) Castañón. The inseparable couple’s eyes first met across a Francoist courtroom, where the young lawyer Barbón was defending Manolita’s father on charges of subversive trade unionism.


Emilio Barbón Martínez, socialist lawyer, born May 26 1930; died June 14 2003.


Michael Mullan - Obituaries...

Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo (pending)...