The Mando Economico of the Canary Islands
In the Anaga hills, high on a ridge above the valley of Igueste de San Andres, is a little ruined hamlet of about six or seven houses called Las Casillas. They were obviously built a long time ago and then abandoned, only for at least one of them to refurbished and re-occupied. You can tell from the modern-ish tiles in the kitchen and its fittings that it has been lived in within living memory, or at least not long before it. The question I asked myself as I looked at the roofless house was ‘Why?’ Why would anyone go to such lengths to bring all the building materials, including roof tiles, windows, doors, furniture and other home comforts, even the water to mix cement and plaster, on the back of a mule or donkey, along a mountain track to create a home here, when there were towns and villages that offered a much easier way of life. Well, a possible answer came to me when I discovered the Mando Economico, the Economic Command, of the Canary Islands.
The years of the Second World War, together with the remaining nineteen-forties, were a time of great economic hardship for Spain, which was just recovering from the devastation of the Civil War that finished only months before the outbreak of war in 1939. For the duration of the world war Spain maintained a curious type of neutrality, while, internally, Spanish society under the Franco regime “was socially and politically pacified, and at an economic standstill”. They were years of food shortages, of rationing, of strict regulations, and a general decline in the standard of living.
The Canary Islands were isolated from mainland Spain by the war at sea. Like the rest of Spain they were governed by a strict military regime and here the command was also isolated from the mainland. As a result, the Commander General of the Canaries was told, basically, ‘you’re on your own, do what you can’. This led to the inspired reconstruction of the Canary Islands in what was known as the ‘Mando Economico’ or ‘Economic Command’.
The Mando Economico was an institution established in 1941 by General Serrador, the Commander General of the Canaries at the time, whose function it was to oversee and manage all economic activity, intervening if necessary. General Serrador, who died in 1943 to be succeeded by General Garcia Escamez, set up a committee, not an elected committee due to the marshal-law on the island, of only twenty-seven people, including the secretaries. As well as managing the economy and social welfare of the islands (and keeping an eye open for any resurgence of Republicanism), the committee set about mo-dernising the infrastructure of the archipelago with a hugely ambitious programme of public works for which all the money, that in the end (1946) totalled 32,856,455.74 pesetas, was raised, amazingly in view of the economic hardship, through local taxes, including one of 5 cents on a kilogram of sugar.
Balanced on a lectern in the Museo Militar at Almeyda in Santa Cruz is an enormous book that illustrates many of the works carried out under the Mando Economico on Tenerife. The works included construction of pipelines to supply drinking water to El Rosario, Punta Hidalgo, La Matanza, La Guancha and Realejo, the construction of schools, including a reform school, churches, hospitals, the main university building at La Laguna, bridges, road building schemes, notably the road to San Andres where a new pier was built, markets, public buildings, public baths and washhouses, housing schemes for Orotava and fishing villages in the districts of Guimar and Icod, as well as one-off works such as the construction of the Radio Club of Tenerife and a combined workshop for printers, shoemakers and tailors, even down to the small detail of the provision of 80 mobility tricycles for the disabled. Optimistically, the Gran Hotel de Turismo was built at this time.
All of this energy and enterprise still could not overcome the fact that the Canary Islands were isolated from mainland Spain and barely able to support themselves in food production. Ships from Argentina, carrying foodstuffs intended for the Spanish mainland or Europe, rather than risk being sunk by belligerent warships or submarines would often sell their cargoes in the relatively safe haven of the Canaries and then scoot off home. But this in itself was not enough, the islanders had to adopt a siege mentality and, just as people did in Britain, they dug for victory. Subsistence farming was revived and officially encouraged in an attempt to offset the lack of food imports. Now this could be the reason why the little house high up in Las Casillas was refurbished. Up there is to be found fertile ground for small vegetable gardens and lush grazing for goats. Moreover, so long as you could bear the social isolation, when you were up in those trackless hills, you were up and out of harm’s way in the event of an invasion (the threat of which was real enough from both the Axis countries and the Allies) so if you were self-sufficient in food with a bit to spare, then you’d be a lot better off than people in the towns.
But the artificially created conditions of the Mando Economico, including the high level of employment, had only been made possible by the isolation of the Canaries. The conditions were temporary and they did not last long after the Second World War, as soon as peace was made people began to emigrate, illegally at first and then legally, mainly to Venezuela. Between 1946 and 1950 many thousands of Canarians left their island home, life on the islands was simply too hard,
In hindsight, modern-day town planners have criticised the developments in Santa Cruz as being without an overall plan or a methodical approach to the development of the capital city, but nevertheless, within an unbelievably short time, the few years between 1941 and 1946, a multitude of projects had been completed.
Today architectural, sculptural and engineering results of the Mando Economico, the Economic Command of the Canary Islands, can still be seen. The most prominent examples are the Puente General Serrador, the bridge over the Barranco de Santos named after the first Commander General of the Mando Economico, that leads to the iconic ‘Mercado de Nuestra Senora de Africa’, the African-themed market square to the south of the centre of Santa Cruz, and there is the huge ‘Monumento a los Caidos’, the ‘Monument to the Fallen’, in the Plaza de Espana.
With this evidence in front of our eyes it’s hard to believe that, while war raged in the outside world and great cities were being destroyed, the infrastructure of Tenerife was being created, changing many aspects of island life beyond recognition.
(With thanks to Don Emilio Abad Ripol for supplementary information and insight into the situation.