Pepe Beunza, Spain's first conscientious objector

Cèlia Cernadas

Pepe Beunza was the first person to introduce a new way of fighting against the army to Spain. In 1971, when the country was still under Franco's dictatorship, he decided to use civil disobedience, and was imprisoned for his refusal to join the army. He soon became an internationally known figure, beginning what would later become the movement against military service which would finally succeed in bringing it to an end. This interview looks back at those events and his story in recent years.

Pepe Beunza

Pepe Beunza

You were the first antimilitarist and pacifist conscientious objector in Spain, during general Franco's dictatorship, and you paved the way for thousands of young men who subsequently refused to do military service. Was the decision very carefully prepared?
Yes, a lot of thought and action went into it. It took me two years to make the decision, and another two years to prepare the action. After participating in the struggle at university, I came across the subject of conscientious objection in 1967. Despite the predominant nature of the struggle by the Communist party, I came from a left-wing Christian background, and I was thinking in other terms. Some summer I went to the Arca Community in France, and I met Lanza del Vasto. He talked to me about Gandhi, conscientious objection, ecological agriculture, the fight against the war in Algeria, occupying nuclear power stations ... That opened my mind up. Obviously, the problem arose when I went back to Spain. There was freedom there, but there wasn't any here. After a lot of thought, I decided to be an objector. And that meant I had to be ready to go to prison. And how do you do that? I had to prepare myself mentally and physically, with two things in mind: to resist, because I wanted to do other things when I came out of prison, and to obtain a law recognising conscientious objection. So I had a personal objective and a political objective in mind. I did yoga, I learned handicrafts, how to play the flute... Once a week I fasted, and I gave myself a psychiatric examination, to find out how I could withstand very strong pressure. On a political level, we prepared support groups in Valencia, Madrid and the Basque Country, and we travelled around Europe, because I didn't want to suffer for nothing. That campaign was very successful, because at that time Europe was still shocked that Franco was still around. That was after May '68, this was in 1970. Franco was an affront to European democrats. When the European pacifists found out about a Spanish pacifist, they were happy to get involved.

But how did you reach that conviction and that decision? We're talking about a situation with a dictatorship, there was no pacifist tradition, and the concept of nonviolence was relatively new and unheard of in Spain. Did you have any ideological background in your family?
I was one of nine siblings, my father did military service, he was a Carlist, and my grandfather had been shot by the Republicans... There was no family history in my case. My father was simply an honest Catholic. But it was mainly the entire Arca community in France, which ran courses every year in Castellterçol. I was very interested in nonviolent action. And I gradually met people who became my teachers. They were very brave people in France, who opposed the war in Algeria in 1963. It was a very strong group, they took me in, they taught me, they gave me the theoretical and practical tools and they gave me the momentum. I travelled a great deal around Europe, and I met other objectors who had been to prison. Conscientious objection was completely unheard of in Spain. There has only been an article about it in El Ciervo and El Mundo Social, a Jesuit magazine. The only ones here were the Jehovah's Witnesses. There were 150 of them in prison for refusing to do military service, but they were not trying to achieve any political objective.

Were you scared?
I was terribly scared. The fear was physical, of being hurt, and moral, of not being able to go through with it and letting people down. But as soon as I said no, and I went into the cell, I had a feeling of intense joy: I felt caged like a lion, but at the same time I was happy because I had done it, because I have succeeded. It was a very moving moment. And from that point on, it was a question of waiting and coping.

What was the left's opinion of your decision? Did they support the nonviolent struggle in the way that you advocated it?
It was very difficult, because the feeling of solitude was very strong. In Valencia, I was relatively well-known because I had been involved in the struggle at university for years. The left respected me, but they thought I was crazy. They thought going to prison was ridiculous, and that escape was the right tactic. They also said that it was necessary to do military service to learn how to use weapons and advocated violent revolution. It was the era of Che Guevara, the Vietnam war..., but it was also the time of Martin Luther King. So we weren't completely defenceless.

Here is a phrase of yours that appears in the book "The rebellious utopia of Pepe Beunza," by Pedro Oliver: "The strength of nonviolence and civil disobedience is marvellous. I was telling the police that I was going to commit a crime and that they could do nothing to prevent it".
The police in Valencia already knew me. A few days before I refused to do military service, they called me, saying they wanted to talk to me. I went to the police station, and they asked me what was all this about, that I wasn't going to do military service. I said that was what I wasa going to do and that's where the sentence comes from: I was going to commit a crime and the police had no way of preventing it. It was then that I understood the strength and wisdom of nonviolence. One of the conditions is that nonviolence cannot be clandestine, although you have to choose the time and place to publicise your action very carefully. And at that time, the police were not allowed to use arms. The police were very well-trained for violent action, but they didn't know what to do when dealing with nonviolent action.

Pedro Oliver, the author of the book and himself an objector, says that you gave him a contemporary context for the Christian commandment "thou shall not kill". Is your ideological decision linked to social Catholicism or social pacifisms?
My Christian background was very important to me, because that's how I had been brought up, including the commandment "thou shall not kill" which is hardly ever put into practice. A few years ago, there was a roundtable debate organised about Gandhi, featuring various people, and each one had 5 minutes. And I spend the 5 minutes saying: "Thou shalt not kill". And I said to those attending: " I don't know if you'll remember what the others said, but I'm sure you'll remember what I said". The message is so obvious... The idea was given to me by a French anarchist, called Marie Laffranque, who was wheelchair-bound and came to Spain to demonstrate. She was an anarchist, and advocated "thou shall not kill", a nonbeliever, and she had to remind me, a Catholic! It's about having a culture of life.

Anyway, I reached a point where I saw through all the deceit and the structural set-up surrounding the Church. The bishops in Spain had military ranks, they blessed cannons and participated in military parades - there was a contradiction there. The mass in prison, which was compulsory, was unbelievable, completely fascist. I was outraged and I turned against the official church.

In the end, you spent two years in prison and fifteen months in a disciplinary battalion in the Sahara. You faced two court-martials. Was it worth it?
When you spend time in prison that is time that has been stolen from you. I went in when I was 23 years old, and I came out when I was 27. When I went in, I was finishing my education, and when I came out my classmates had jobs, and had got married and had children. But on the whole, I think our results have been marvellous. Not even in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that military service would have disappeared 30 years later. It was inconceivable. Almost a million young men declared themselves objectors, 40 thousand refused to do it and were willing to go to prison ... and military service ended in 2001. So it has been very difficult, but the results have been very positive. There were difficult moments, but there were also some very funny times, which must be said as well. I think it is the most exciting adventure you can offer a young person: to get involved in the nonviolent struggle to transform society, for justice, for human rights. They will have very strong emotions, they will suffer, but they will also have extraordinary joy. You want to climb Everest, you have to prepare for it; the same is true of this struggle. And you don't start with Everest, you start with Tibidabo, a little bit at a time, don't you?

Because you could also have said: I don't want to do military service, so I am leaving and going to live abroad...
Yes, of course, but what I wanted was to change society, I wanted to be a revolutionary, I wasn't interested in spending my life as a vegetable, like a pretty flower.

What did you do when you came out of prison? How did you continue the fight?
When I came back from the Sahara I worked with Justice and Peace, on a campaign for conscientious objection and the establishment of community service, and we collected signatures. We collected around 900, and we presented them to the Church and to the government. I also gave talks all over Spain, and I was able to get in touch with a lot of people. That is how we created a group which began the Can Serra campaign, in l'Hospitalet. When Franco died, all sorts of people started to be conscientious objectors. Those support groups were the seedbed for the rejection movement. I squatted for two years at Gallecs, a rural area threatened by urban development, and then I became a teacher in Caldes de Montbui, where I settled down a bit. But I carried on giving talks and providing support to the conscientous objection movement: I visited them in prison and picked them up when they came out, I wrote to them... And I did that until 2002, when compulsory military service ended. But we didn't have any time to celebrate it, because the Iraq war led to the Aturem La Guerra (Stop The War) campaign, demonstrations for disarmament ... I've participated in everything that I can.

So nonviolence is still a tool for change and pressure...
Of course. A short time ago, for example, I read an article by Manuel Castells, which said that in order to achieve independence in Catalonia, civil disobedience was the only alternative left.

And what form would that disobedience take in order to be effective?
A general strike; as well as not paying taxes, creating parallel structures for self-government... You would have to think about it very carefully. They are long term struggles. But look what happened in Tunisia. It's like the existence of the army. Armies are useless, because they can't defend us from anything. But there is no parliamentary political party advocating the abolition of armies. Some day, someone will realise that all this military spending is ridiculous. With a quarter of what the world spends on arms, we could solve hunger, poverty, housing ... People will see the light one day, but it won't happen just like that. Here in Catalonia, [Joan] Carretero's party has proposed creating a Catalan army and that made my hair stand on end. All military ideology is based on deceit. That we have to protect the southern frontier; but the Spanish Government is giving arms to Morocco!

What would be the alternative to armies?
When we talk about abolishing armies, it sounds like a negative idea. The positive proposal would be to create a nonviolent Civilian Service or peace force. In a conflict, we only have the Army that can get involved, and that makes the conflict worse. We need people who are trained in mediation, negotiation and arbitration. Obviously, we need to continue the debate: we know a lot about violence, but we're all learning about nonviolence. Violence is highly mythologised, and violence leads to nothing more than destruction, your own and that of the others. Just look at the atomic bomb. Catalonia could be a pioneer in this area: why don't we create a parallel diplomatic corps, for mediation, like Norway and Sweden have?