Seventeen thousand Spanish republicans who fled fascism, first from Franco and then from Hitler, owe part of their lives to a Galician: Alejandro Viana. A native of Ponteareas (Pontevedra), this deputy of the Popular Front, a member of the Republican Left, was a key player in the organization of more than 30 ships, including the famous Winnipeg bound for Chile, which served as an escape route for the Democrats defeated in the War of 1936. And although her image appeared in a photographic border alongside other famous Galician parliamentarians elected by the left-wing coalition in the last elections prior to the Francoist coup –Castelao, Casares Quiroga, Osorio Tafall, Suárez Picallo–, Viana was practically unknown. Roberto Mera Covas has remedied it with the book Alejandro Viana, a Galician at the front of the rescue of two republican refugees (Ediciones Belagua, 2022), in which Covas condenses more than twenty years of research on the biography of this Galician Schindler, politician and businessman. “It has been exciting to work on putting together the pieces of the puzzle of his life,” says Mera.
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The life of Alejandro Viana Esperón is a puzzle with many pieces to fit together. Born in 1877 in Ponteareas, into a family without resources, he was first an enterprising businessman and later a deputy in the Spanish Courts for the left-wing coalition of the Popular Front, victorious in the elections of 1936. The Civil War broke out and he fled to France, where he became the head of the Spanish Refugee Evacuation Service (SERE). And there he stands as the key person in the organization of more than thirty ships that leave for exile from Bordeaux. His role is key in the evacuation of more than 17,000 overcrowded Spanish Republicans. He, however, decides to be among the last to leave France. “Viana could have left whenever she wanted, but that she stayed shows the height of her moral dignity,” reflects the author of the book, who is a lawyer and is also a politician, as deputy mayor of the BNG government in Ponteareas.
Alejandro Viana’s attempt to flee to America, with World War II in the background and the Gestapo and the phalanx trying to boycott the trip, leads to a harrowing journey of more than a year along the coast of Africa. Along with him sailed more than 600 refugees, among them the now elderly ex-president of the Republic Niceto Alcalá-Zamora. “Viana was a man of almost 60 years when the war broke out, he belonged to a progressive Vigo bourgeoisie with a certain social commitment, and had an intense social life,” explains the author Roberto Mera, whose relationship with Alejandro Viana is his great-granduncle – led him into this exciting investigation.
Egg exporter and progressive bourgeois
Many years before Franco led the fascist rebellion against democracy in Spain, Viana had come to Vigo from Ponteareas at a very young age. His goal, to work and train at the home of wealthy relatives. There he prospers and becomes a daring businessman, setting up a pioneering company with which he enriches himself: the export of eggs throughout Europe. His subsequent marriage to Josefina Dotras related him to a family of canners and also introduced him to this business. “According to my calculations he could have a heritage equivalent to about three or four million euros today,” Mera calculates.
Mayor of Vigo for a few months, promoter of the newspaper The Galician People of his great friend Portela Valladares, promoter of the Balaídos stadium where Celta still plays today, his name became common in the society pages of the local press. His business also expanded to Portugal, where he forged a network of solid friendships, including Bernardino Machado, who would become president of Portugal and go into exile in A Guarda (Pontevedra) in the early 1930s. This epistolary relationship is preserved in thirty cards. In February 1936 he was elected deputy in the Spanish Courts of the Second Republic. They were the last democratic elections in Spain until 1977. “From that time [la II República] there are several letters between him and Alexandre Bóveda, who was a good friend of his”, explains Roberto Mera. Bóveda, general secretary of the Galeguista Party –also integrated into the Popular Front– would end up assassinated in August 1936.
On June 28, 1936, Alejandro Viana votes in Vigo in favor of the Statute of Autonomy. He could hardly imagine that it would be the last time in his life that he would set foot in the city.
On June 28, 1936, Alejandro Viana votes in Vigo in favor of the Statute of Autonomy. He could hardly imagine that it would be the last time in his life that he would set foot in the city. On July 18, the Francoist coup puts republican legality in check and Viana goes into exile in Paris. The Government of the Republic in exile appoints him as head of the Spanish Refugee Evacuation Service (SERE) and from his office in Paris he begins to manage the departure of dozens of ships from Bordeaux to America. Thousands of Republican refugees beg for passage. “According to the documentation that exists, there would be some 17,000 people, all on ships chartered by Viana, but there is also a large number of people who managed visas and passage on regular lines, with which the number would be much higher,” Roberto calculates. Mere. All paid with the financing network of the funds that the Republican Government guards. “It is amazing how a defeated government sends subsidies to mutilated or widows in exile, payments to doctors in concentration camps, locates dispersed relatives or finances the SERE device,” says the author of the book.
Viana is at the center of the operations that enable the escape route of the defeated. They are ships whose names evoke the conquest of a horizon in freedom: Ipanema, Mexican, Sinai or Winnipeg. In the latter, 2,000 refugees left for Chile huddled together, in what was the largest displacement of passengers from the Republican exile and in which Pablo Neruda, Chilean consul in Madrid, participated. Mera has documented that Viana also met the poet. On board these ships, a multitude of artists and intellectuals, from León Felipe to Luis Buñuel, from Max Aub to Luis Cernuda or María Zambrano. Also Galicians like the politician Luís Soto, the painter Arturo Souto or the filmmaker Carlos Velo. They would all continue their lives in Mexico, a country that would never recognize the Franco Government, only the Government of the Republic in exile.
With the SERE running at full capacity, the Nazis take Paris and, harassed by collaborationist France, Viana and her support network flee to Bordeaux, preparing their own exit to America. But Viana decides that there are still many people that he must first get ready to board. The ships set sail, the Gestapo is on their heels and prevents Viana from boarding. He then begins a clandestine life throughout France, taking refuge near Switzerland. Until finally the opportunity arises on a ship that will leave Marseilles for America: the alsine. He embarks on it, but not before avoiding numerous obstacles. So does former Republican President Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, a widower with his seven children.
What seemed like it was going to be the definitive journey was not. In the midst of the Second World War, the Atlantic was a hornet’s nest: submarines, defiant aviation and expectant warships. The alsine, flying the French flag, anchors in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, but cannot continue because it needs the Navicert, the British document that certifies that the ship is neutral and does not transport war material. The stay ends up lasting five painful months, in terrible conditions, stuck in the anchored ship. Until they are forced to return to Casablanca, in Morocco. The fleeing Republicans are then left to their fate.
The Gestapo and the Francoist police are on the lookout and try by all means to prevent them from getting another boat. Once again Viana’s management capacity emerges, from his contacts with Portugal and from the structure of the republican government in exile. “They manage to relocate the passengers in the Quanza, a ship that does have the Navicert and that comes from Lisbon. Loaded with Jews from all over Europe, they escape from Nazism to America”, explains Roberto Mera. How do they get the money in Africa to pay for another ship? “There is a letter in which Viana thanks the 100,000 francs she asked for and they sent her. I don’t know how that money could be in Dakar in a short time, but I’m amazed at his network and his ability to finance himself,” says Mera. Quanza manages to cross the Atlantic and finally arrives in Mexico in November 1941.
Alejandro Viana will be reunited there with his wife Josefina, after several convulsive years without being able to see each other. The tenacious Viana does not throw in the towel. He participates in the Government of the Republic in exile and, at the age of 64, he starts again from scratch. He manages a pharmacy and obtains the representation of several medicines throughout the country. In 1952, at the age of 75, he died in Mexico City, his memory and his legacy had been lost. “It was diluted in two ways, politics and family. He had no offspring and belonged to the Republican Left, a party that became extinct and had no continuity in democracy,” concludes his nephew-great-grandson Roberto Mera, who now seeks to rehabilitate Alejandro Viana .