Today marks the occasion when, like every year, we dedicate an entry to a historical event which, as of 2022, happened 80 years ago: the gira americana del Lehendakari Aguirre. In the last article, just published, we discussed the strategic importance this tour had for the defense of the Cause of the Basque People in their struggle against fascism at such a complicated time for them. We must never forget that in 1942, it seems that the totalitarianism defended by Axis forces was going to take over the world.
And we come back to this topic now thanks to an article kindly shared with us by Alberto Irigoyen Artetxe and Xabier Irujo Ametzaga about the Lehendakari’s visit to Uruguay during that trip, and regarding the conclusions that were reached afterwards, and then laid out in the “Aguirre Report.”
The Aguirre “Report”
Alberto Irigoyen Artetxe*
Xabier Irujo Ametzaga*
(This article is part of the work La hora vasca del Uruguay: génesis y desarrollo del nacionalismo vasco en Uruguay, 1825-1960)
OnAugust 15, 1842, exactly eight decades ago, one year after his Hollywood-worthy escape from the Gestapo brought him to the New World, where he abandoned his false identity as José Andrés Álvares Lastra, his false glasses, and mustache, Lehendakari Aguirre started a long journey that would take him to Mexico, Panama, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Cuba, pursuing two fundamental goals: starting up an administrative network of Basques to act and collaborate abroad, whose pillars would be the delegations of the Basque Government in New World capitals, and the activation of the Basque Information Service. As Andoni Astigarraga recalled years later, Eduardo Díaz de Mendibil fulfilled that role in Peru, where he maintained close contact with the Basque merchant marines who docked in Callao.
All this was aimed at allowing for the political and economic survival of the Basque Government in Exile, and to direct the flow of the fight against Francoism and, in general, against the totalitarian ideologies so rampant in Europe into a diplomatic struggle which by 1942 was already international in scope. The Atlantic Charter, the fruit of a meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Placentia Bay in August 1947 and the possible conclusions of the Arcadia Conference, as well as the first contacts between the Basque General Council in London and the British and French secret services, or those initiated by Aguirre with the US Office of Strategic Services in October 1941, presaged the intense controversy that would arise due to the “Spanish Case” at the heart of the United Nations after the end of the Second World War. A lot of complex Basque administrative and diplomatic machinery had to be set up in the Americas.
By April 1942, Aguirre had communicated to the members of the Euzkadi Buru Batzar, headquartered in Redhill, his intention to visit South American Basque groups. In a letter from New York dated April 7, the lehendakari said,
Our activity on this continent suffers a lack of depth due to a lack of resources. This summer, I want to take a long tour to definitively prepare and coordinate this enormous flow of men and sympathies what we have in the extensive Basque colony. Fortunately, the reaction is consolidating, but the language of contribution is still not understood because it is still believe to feed the lazy. Against this environment, there is nothing left but personal work. Before, they wanted me to stay there. I couldn’t, because I had to occupy the post that, thank God, was given to me here by pointing me out exceptionally. Otherwise, I would be worse off than you. However, my voyage now, I believe, will be very fruitful in all aspects. It continues, our people with a monumental fever. In Chile, they’ve announced the construction of a new building for which almost two million pesos have been collected. In Havana, they tell me they want to build a Center for me to inaugurate when I arrive. I have not raised any objections to all this because if I did, they wouldn’t do one or the other…
In response to this news, Elías de Etxebarria pointed out,
Believe us that when we found out that there were Basques who were willing to invest millions in the construction of buildings that were more or less recreational and that other compatriots have, with no sacrifice, hundreds of pounds a month, while the best citizens in the Basque Country are exposed to dying by tuberculosis, we are filled will deep sorrow and concern. What could we do, urgently, to bring but a small bit of relief to those people
As was easy to foresee, the arrival of Aguirre to Montevideo caused a note from the delegation of the Spanish state. This, dated September 12, said,
José Antonio Aguirre arrived at Capital to give a series of talks inaugurating it with one sponsored by Spanish Red entities in Ateneo about “Impressions on his six-month stay in German-occupied area.”
Did not discuss problems in Spain except defense against seizure values and treasures from Basque banks that he said were all given to legitimate owners.
Visited Ministers and President of Republic being specially received by him and Foreign Minister as expressed to me upon verbally protesting for Tax Minister’s presence at Ateneo event which I stated could only be attributed and due to the senile weakness of this Executive member of Basque origin.
I judge it not prudent to present written protest considering that warning sufficient and that tensions are high against Germans especially Foreign Minister who vigorously expressed disgust for not even receiving reply to Notes protesting sinking Montevideo and Maldonado”.
Notwithstanding the Francoist delegate’s protests, Aguirre was received by the highest authorities in the country who, like the Basque collective and the Spanish republicans, lavished attention on him. Upon his return to New York, his collaborators drew up a detailed report to be presented to several official organizations in the US government in Washington, relating the contacts made in the Americas. In this report, the countries visited, the conferences given, and the “ideological guidelines” of the same, depending on whether the audience was South American, Basque, Catalan, Galician, or democratic Spaniards, were detailed. Regarding the topics covered when the audience was South American, they noted that the elegy of purpose of cultural topics which, starting from Basque history, brought us to today. The sympathy of the Basque problem made it possible to then discuss current topics of palpable interest… As for the Basques, they added, …The Basques who have several colonies and powerful organizations received President Aguirre with extraordinary enthusiasm. The topics (of the conferences) for the Basques focused on the freedom they pursued, exciting them to a perfect union and harmony amongst themselves, while at the same time building enthusiasm for the cause of the United Nations. In the line item “General impressions by country,” referring to Uruguay, they stated,
This is the country with greatest democratic concern. He was officially received by the Government. Of the lengthy conversations with Mr. Guani, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he deduced the consequence that he is an enthusiastic and loyal friend to the Allied cause. He coincids with other South American politicians in the aforementioned causes for the examination of the spiritual position of those territories.
The President, General Baldomir, is also a resolute partisan of the Allied cause. He personally attended Dr. Aguirre’s conferences. He spent a great deal of time with him. He was very concerned about the turn of events in Argentina.
He had the opportunity to speak with all the ministers of the Uruguayan government and with future President, Dr. Amézaga: extraordinarily intelligent, and a great democrat, everyone expects an excellent presidency from him. He is of direct Basque descent, and unconditional with the Allied cause.
The President of the Supreme Court of Uruguay, at the solemn reception organized for President Aguirre, stated the following: that it was the first time that such an event had been organized, but that we live in times when the statue of justice needed to take off her blindfold to see that violence was dominating in the world. The Basque people is a symbol of justice and law. In the personage of President Aguirre, the people of Uruguay saw the representation of those small peoples being steamrolled over.
The banquiet offered to him by the Catholic elements of Uruguay was of great importance, and was preceded by the visit to the Catholic Club of Montevideo. At the table, in addition to the latest Uruguayan ambasador to the Vatican, Mr. Secco, there were other dignitaries, Congressmen Drs. Regules and Brena, the latter, the director of the Catholic journal “EL Bien Publico”. This contrast is unique, because this journal had been famously pro-Franco, and now, thanks in large part to the work of the Basques, has changed positions, and now sides with the democracies.
Making the most of the cordial and educated ambiance of the meeting, President Aguirre proposed the idea of holding a congress of Catholic politicians, diplomats, thinkers, and writers, in South America, specifically Buenos Aires, whose conclusions would definitively bring the Catholic world to the side of freedom, interpreting the points of Pius XII. The Buenos Aires congress would appeal to the Protestant and Cismatic world to hold a World Congress of Christianity in Washington or London, accepting, like the churches of London, the basic points of the papal program, and adding the post-war social and economic restoration concerns, as well as the problem of freedom and the coordination of peoples.
Purpose: that the program and organized Christian action today be a guarantee for their doctrine and for the volume to such a large mistaken, selfish, freedom-adverse crowd, and in the post-war build a positive and constructive force that influences future society with political and social advancement criteria, separating works from the Communist danger, which so frightens many sectors. The strength of organized Christianity, looking forward with generosity to the future, would be of such a nature that its representation would guide humanity’s future.
These ideas were enthusiastically received, and it was agreed to take steps and hold meetings with the Catholics of Chile and Argentina to come together and celebrate the congress the following spring.
Finally, we must record that President Aguirre was received, in a solemn session, by the conventions of the Batllist and Independent Nationalist parties and by the Socialists.
Reading the whole report shines light on the enormous differences in the welcomes offered Aguirre in the several countries of the Southern Cone. Without a doubt, Uruguay stands out enormously. Indeed, this is so true that it would be publicly recorded two years later by the Ekin publishing house in Buenos Aires when they published Cinco Conferencias pronunciadas en un viaje por América (1944). In the Preamble, the editor noted,
The recap of these five conferences is not everything we would like to have published, but we believe that it is enough to see the definition of a doctrine and of behavior coherent with the principles that were accepted and proclaimed.
We hope that our friends will forgive us if the modesty of this book so limits the illusions that conceived it. However, to ensure that the projection reached in all the Republics he visited can be seen, we’ll allow ourselves to highlight some of the significant acts that Mr. Aguirre’s stay gave rise to, taking as a typical example the events that occurred in the Eastern Republic of Uruguay. Mr. Aguirre arrived at Montevideo on the eve of the presidential elections that determined the triumph of the candidacy of the current president of the republic, Mr. Juan José de Amézaga. In addition to the natural exaltations of passion of the moment, in a fully free country such as Uruguay, there was also the circumstance of dealing with a complex and delicate constitutional problem in those elections. Despite this, the Uruguayan Parliament agreed to meet in an extraordinary session to dedicate an homage they believed obligatory to the Basque people, represented by Mr. Aguirre, and Mr. Aguirre, the defeated fighter in one of the first and cruelest battles that humanity is tearing itself apart in, was able to experience the satisfaction of seeing that the spell of the Basque people and of himself broke the violent differences that divide the Uruguayan family, and that in this memorable and perhaps unique parliamentary session in the history of the world in these last few years, all congressmen who spoke in the name of all, absolutely all parliamentary minorities, from the far left to the far right, treated him equally cordially. In the minutes of the meeting, speeches are registered from the representative of the Socialist Party, Mr. Emilio Furgón; the representative of the several factions of the Colored Party, Mr. Julio Iturbide; the representative of the Herrerist Nationalists, Mr. Pedro Casal; of the Communist Party, Mr. Eugenio Gómez; and of the Catholic MPs, Mr. Tomás G. Brena, as an eloquent expression of the messages that Mr. Aguirre received.
And as if the hierarchy of the recorded homage were not sufficient expression of the feelings of the people of Uruguay, a special meeting of all the magistrates and attorneys in Montevideo was held in honor of Mr. Aguirre and the High Court of Justice, in which its president, Mr. Julio Guani, state that for the first time in the history of the High Court of Uruguay, a meeting of such a nature had been held in honor of a politician, because when humanity is fighting a decisive battle between freedom and slavery, perversion and honesty, Justice cannot stand blindly by given the drama, and had the duty to raise the sword she carries as a symbol of her service to human dignity, represented by men like Mr. Aguirre, defeated in the first part of the battle in a war that would end with the triumph of the forces of good….
We’ve used this, again, as a typical example of what happened while Mr. Aguirre was in Uruguay.
This last statement may have been a bit of an exaggeration, as none of the other countries he visited received Aguirre with such warmth and enthusiasm. Such is the case of Argentina, where, in addition to President Ramón S. Castillo’s agenda, there was also the scheming of the president’s subsecretary—an enthusiastic supporter of Franco and totalitarianism, according to the report—making it impossible to set the planned meeting. Similarly, in Venezuela, the government refused to receive him and censured his conference, “My impressions of Germany”.
The eleven-page report ended with seven conclusions:
- There is no greater problem for democracy and the Allied triumph in South America than the definitive incorporation of the Latin American Catholics into the side of freedom.
- The need in South America is urgent for propaganda to be brought by those who cannot be branded as political extremists or religious proselytizing dissenters and who can unite a deep Catholic religious feeling with a deep sense of freedom and democracy.
- The South American spirit feels great unease and is moved when exposed to a sincere doctrine of freedom and democracy.
- In South America, the need for a clear and definitive approach to these universal problems is understood, coordinating their sense for Christian civilization with their sense of freedom.
- Diplomatic fears given the gravity of the moment are futile. Indeed, they wish to finish off situations of confusion
- Upon understanding the meaning of the enormous danger the infiltration of the totalitarian spirit via Latin dictatorship regimes, they react against them publicly, officially, and unofficially, showing their perfect understanding of the current concerns most men have in all peoples that are fighting for freedom.
- The success of President Aguirre’s trip is due to: due to his being Catholic, he received an homage from the highest-ranking Catholic representative; due to his being a democrat, from the democrats of all political nuances; due his being Basque and for having represented a people who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of those ideals, the respect of all. A Belgian religious representative, Father Charles, who gave three conferences to high society in Buenos Aires, gave this report to the Catholics seeking guidance: “Follow the Basques.”
After the Lehendakari’s stay in Montevideo, the representative of the Franco dictatorship in Uruguay, when referring to the conferences given by Aguirre at the Ateneo in Montevideo, reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid on September 20th,
It is true that Mr. Aguirre, in his conferences and statements, presented himself as the champion of freedom and the defense of democracy, a moth who has upset so many people and little people at these latitudes, and that is why so many rushed to join in on welcoming him, with political motives, afraid of also being labeled for not having gone to a march or welcoming ceremony of a “democratic tendency.” .
But Aguirre’s mission was not to finish upon his return to the United States, nor with the presentation of his report to the government as, as can be deduced from the letter written in October 1943, Anton Irala was still in South America. In this letter addressed to Elías Etxebarria y Arredondo, en Redhill, dated October 8 in New York, Aguirre said,
Within a few days, I expect Antón will return from his long trip through South America where he has been in direct contact with all kids of groups and organizations, which will provide me—that was one of the purposes of the trip—all that authentic and direct information necessary to lead things correctly. This will complete the very important information obtained on my trip last year. And it cannot be forgotten that in these territories are teh most powerful nuclei of our people. At the same time, our old understanding with Jon Axuria and his friends has been perfected, and I hope that it will soon offer splendid results.
Even a year later, the lehendakari’s tour and the multitudes who followed him would be rescued from the far back burner of nationalism. The authors of El Péndulo Patriótico published the note that monarchist José María Gil Robles sent to General Asensio, the minister of the army, demanding he resign and offer his support to the monarchical solution, which at that time was seen as a valid exit from Franco’s dictatorship. From a monarchist’s perspective, Gil Robles expressed some concerns about the Lehendakari’s achievements and charisma on his New World tour: In all South America, the hostility towards Spain is insurmountable. Do you not know that Aguirre was welcomed with flowers and decorations in Uruguay, and paid homage to at the most aristocratic club in Buenos Aires; that in Montevideo the Spanish flag could not be raised at the embassy; that in Venezuela, the “Reds” occupy the highest posts?”.
 Basque Nationalist Archive. Letter from Elías Etxeberria to José Antonio Aguirre, June 26, 1942.
 Archives of the Spnaish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Telegram Nº 138/139/140, September 12, 1942.
 Basque Nationalist Archive. Report on President José Antonio Aguirre’s trip to South America. New York, November 4, 1942.
 President Juan José Amezaga was the son of Biscayan immigrant Juan José Amezaga, who arrived in Uruguay in 1880.
 This book, among other things, publishes the conference Mis impresiones sobre Alemania, given at the Montevideo Ateneo on September 10, 1942.
 AZCONA, José; MURU, Fernando; GARCÍA ALBI, Inés, Historia de la emigración vasca al Uruguay en el siglo XX, Ministry of Education and Culture (Uruguay), p. 214., Montevideo, 1996.
 DE PABLO, Santiago; MEES, Ludger; RODRÍGUEZ RANZ, José Antonio, El péndulo patriótico. Historia del Partido Nacionalista Vasco (1936-1979), II, Crítica, p. 130, Barcelona, 2001.
* Alberto Irigoyen Artetxe
1959 Montevideo, Uruguay
President of the Durano Basque Center 1993–1995, and vice president of the same the following three years. In 1996, he was the Uruguayan delegate at the First Congress of Basque Collectivities held in Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 1998, he was a speaker at the Basques in the Contemporary World Congress held at the University of Nevada, USA. In 1999, he published the book Laurak Bat de Montevideo, the first Basque Center in the world, for which he received the Andrés Irujo prize, granted by the Basque Government. He has also published several articles on history in Eusko Ikaskuntza, the Jerónimo de Uztariz Institute, the Revista de los Vascos, y El Tranvía de Montevideo.
* Xabier Irujo Amezaga
1967 Caracas, Venezuela
He is the director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is the professor for genocide studies. He was the first Guest Research Scholar at the Manuel Irujo Chair Fellowship at the University of Liverpool, and he regularly gives courses on genocide and cultural genocide at Boise State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Irujo has led conferences on this topic at several US and European universities. With degrees in Philology, History, and Philosophy, he has two doctorates in History and Philosophy. He has tutored several PhD candidates and is part of the executive boards of five academic and university publishers. He is the author of ten books and several articles in specialized journals, and has received awards and prizes at the national and internation levels.