Sunday, January 29

Pepe Velo, the poet who wanted to overthrow two dictatorships aboard the transatlantic Santa María


John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s voice hesitates, even wavers. It is January 25, 1961 and his first press conference as President of the United States. A journalist has asked him about the hijacking of the transatlantic Santa Maria. “At this time the Navy has orders to continue accompanying the ship. Its position is approximately 600 miles from the mouth of the Amazon”, explains JFK, “it will be pursued by air until it is reached by the destroyers of our African troops” . On board, a Portuguese Galician command of the Iberian Revolutionary Directorate of Liberation has taken control. His intention was to go to the Portuguese colonies in Africa to incite the revolt against Salazar and denounce the Franco regime. The brain of the action is Xosé Velo, a Galician, a poet at heart and an anti-fascist militant by vocation, whose death marks half a century this January.

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Twenty-five men led by the dissident Portuguese soldier Henrique Galvão but with Velo as a strategic engine assaulted the ship on January 22, 1961. They did so when it was leaving Brazil in the direction of Puerto Rico, within the La Guaira crossing (Venezuela)– Vigo (Galicia, Spain). “Velo was the true ideologue of Operation Dulcinea, which was initially going to be called Operation Compostela,” explains filmmaker Aser Álvarez, whose production company is focusing on the character’s anniversary, “but he never told his version. Neither did his life, that it was a fire, always running away”. Álvarez and his team are trying it now from their archive, which they rescued in Brazil from the house of Velo’s son and which the Deputación de Pontevedra has recently acquired.

The plan was quixotic. It was not by chance that Velo was obsessed with the extremely free character of Cervantes and Álvarez only thinks of that name day to define him: a Quixote. The republican exile wandered defeated and the Communist Party, the main force of the clandestine opposition in Spain, had decreed years ago the cessation of the armed struggle against the dictatorship. But Velo, who came from the youth of Castelao’s Galician Party and had escaped in 1948 to Venezuela, was not resigned. In America he came into contact with elements of Portuguese anti-Salazarism and with them, in 1959, he formed the Iberian Revolutionary Directorate of Liberation (DRIL). The anti-fascist organization, without a clear ideological orientation, had two general secretaries, Velo himself and the Portuguese general Humberto Delgado. His first actions were against the Franco regime throughout 1960 and with explosives. They caused at least two victims: one, that of the militant José Ramón Pérez Jurado, who had an artifact explode in his hands; the other, that of the girl Begoña Urroz. The following year they embarked on the notorious seizure of the Santa Maria.

Rivers of ink have flowed about this episode, which occupied the covers of newspapers and magazines around the world. Commander Sotomayor, a military veteran of the Republic, also from Galicia and a former member of the PC, wrote I stole the Santa Maria (1972), one of the first monographs on the event in this case by one of its protagonists. Xavier Montanya gave the press one of the most documented: liberty pirates (original in Catalan from 2004, with translation into Galician in 2019). But there are also novels –Holy Liberty (1999), by Miguel Bayón– or films –the documentary holy liberty (2004), by Margarita Ledo. It was like this, holy liberty, how that reckless commando that had planned the propaganda kidnapping in the Caracas apartment where Xosé Velo lived renamed the ship. He and another Portuguese, Henrique Galvão, were placed at the head of an operation in which one person lost his life and another was injured.

“The curious thing is that the DRIL action appears in the history books of Portugal as one of the events that began the end of the Salazar dictatorship,” Aser Álvarez understands, “but in the Spanish, just as an anecdote.” With almost a thousand people on board, including passengers and crew, the holy liberty sailed for 11 days with the initials of DRIL painted on the bridge. Salazar effectively asked the governments of the United States – with JFK recently elected president – ​​and Great Britain for help in trying to recover the ship. He claimed it was an act of piracy. But its political motivation disproved it, according to international maritime law that Velo himself had carefully studied. “The original plan, targeting the Portuguese colonies and trying to encourage insurrectionary movements to spread to the metropolises, was not carried out. And yet, what happened won over international public opinion,” Álvarez believes.

DRIL members ended up landing in Brazil, where its president, Jânio Quadros, had offered them political asylum. His arrival at the port of Recife was triumphant. Velo settled in São Paulo and there he spent what Álvarez calls his second exile, after the Venezuelan years.

Bookseller and publisher

In that city he resumed his relationship with literature. Two of his sons had remained in Venezuela, but not Víctor, who at only 17 years old had also embarked with DRIL on the adventure of holy liberty. He was in charge of preserving the legacy of the revolutionary and Aser Álvarez and his team met him in São Paulo to discover that he kept letters, unpublished prose, poems, press clippings, photographs. From all this material, now guarded by the Deputación de Pontevedra, Álvarez has extracted a book, Xose Veil. stumbling texts, whose common thread is the autobiographical writing Long live Spain, long live Spain, and that will come to light soon. The volume reviews the life and miracles of this “humanist, a Galician nationalist and internationalist, libertarian, and radically independent.” “Perhaps because of that independence, no one claimed it with too much insistence,” adds Álvarez, who has been collecting the pieces of the puzzle.

Xosé Velo, Pepe Velo, was born in Celanova (Ourense) in 1916. During the Second Republic he joined the Galician Mocedades with what would become his close friend, Celso Emilio Ferreiro, the great political poet of 20th-century Galician literature. He also writes poetry. The fascist coup of 1936 caught him in Santiago de Compostela and, after being arrested, they enrolled him in the national side. In 1938 he returned to Celanova and fled to Guinea until the end of the Civil War. The postwar period is lived in Vigo as a private teacher but he is arrested in an operation against the anti-fascist guerrillas in 1945. He escapes during a conditional release and in 1948 he goes to Portugal. And then to Venezuela, where the Iberian Revolutionary Directorate of Liberation will be organized and the assault of the holy liberty.

During the last years of his life in Brazil he returned to writing. He opens a bookstore, named Nós –in homage to the Galician magazine of the same name in which Castelao drew and wrote– and a publishing house, Galicia Ceibe [Galicia Libre]. His intention was to also publish his own work, but in the end he would only manage to publish an anthology in Portuguese by Rosalía de Castro. He died on January 30, 1972 surrounded by his family in São Paulo. One of the last letters he writes is to Celso Emilio Ferreiro. Xosé Velo is buried in the São Paulo Getsemaní cemetery. In his native Celanova there is a street that, since the 90s, bears his name. It is a dead end street.

A web page, supported by the General Directorate of Democratic Memory of the central government, will collect all the materials generated throughout 2022 by Aser Álvarez’s production company in relation to Pepe Velo.



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