Why you should care
Because a meeting with the Cuban leader helped a Madrid suburb fend off expropriation and relocation.
It wasn’t a call Esther Castellanos was expecting. “Mrs. Castellanos, this is the Cuban Embassy. We have good news for you. A diplomatic car will pick you up at once.”
Sure enough, a car swung past Castellanos’ home in Madrid to take her to the embassy. It was July 26, 1990, and celebrations for the anniversary of the attack on Moncada Barracks that kicked off the Cuban revolution were in full swing. Amid the raucous singing and dancing, Castellanos was told the good news: Fidel Castro had invited her to Cuba.
The excavators will have to drive over our dead bodies. No one is leaving the suburb.
Esther Castellanos, activist quoted in El Salto in 1990
Castellanos wasn’t as surprised as you might expect. It was just the latest twist in a saga that had begun more than a year earlier, on March 29, 1989, to be precise. That was the day Madrid officials decided to expropriate the land of Cerro Belmonte, a humble suburb in the capital’s north now known as Valdezarza. It was a decision that sparked an unlikely independence movement — one that started local and improbably turned international.
Authorities planned to redevelop what they termed 19 “bags of urban decay,” including Cerro Belmonte, and relocate residents to surrounding neighborhoods. Cerro Belmonte’s 125 families were offered a paltry 5,018 pesetas per square meter (about $43) for their current homes in exchange for 40-square-meter apartments in nearby Vallecas and Villaverde. The City Hall brochure sold the plan as a way to “substitute centers with deficient development for new suburbs integrated in a quality urban structure.” But the residents of Cerro Belmonte weren’t buying it.
Castellanos, a 28-year-old divorce lawyer, was suspicious of City Hall’s intentions from the start. A property developer was offering 20 million pesetas for 90-square-meter apartments in an adjacent neighborhood. Castellanos told the Spanish daily El País what was commonly believed in her community: “We suspect that the expropriation of the land … could be followed by rezoning laws that allow high-rise apartments to be built.” And so Cerro Belmonte residents refused to sell their homes for less than 200,000 pesetas per square meter.
When city officials showed no interest in negotiations, the residents decided to make some noise. Literally. They staged cacerolazos, taking to the street to bang pots and pans. And during afternoon rush hour they created barricades with garbage bins, fences and placards to disrupt traffic.
When that didn’t work, the residents threatened to seek independence from the city that was trying to exploit them. “The excavators will have to drive over our dead bodies. No one is leaving the suburb,” Castellanos yelled as the machinery moved in, reported the monthly magazine El Salto.
The authorities remained unmoved by the call for secession, so Castellanos and other activists took the next logical step — they asked Cuba for political asylum. It was denied.
They weren’t expecting it to be granted. But they also weren’t expecting Fidel Castro to spring for 25 flights to Cuba. For Castellanos, it was just another way to draw media attention. At a neighborhood raffle, residents drew the 25 lucky names, including an 80-year-old man who had served in Spain’s Hitler-supporting Blue Division and a 10-year-old girl.
The locals arrived in Cuba in time for Castro’s birthday, Aug. 13, and were paraded across the island. During their seven-day Caribbean getaway, they received state honors, cigars and books, and even sat down with Castro. “We were aware that it’s all for show, but the only way of making politicians hear us is through the media,” Castellanos told the Spanish website El Español.
The publicity did little to sway Madrid. So Cero Belmonte held an independence referendum the first week of September in the home of Desideria Becerril, one of the neighborhood’s oldest residents. It was a haphazard affair with cardboard ballot boxes and handwritten voting slips, but the result was definitive — 212 votes in favor and two against. The Kingdom of Cerro Belmonte was born — a “kingless kingdom,” according to the constitution.
It was radical politics, but the movement was so small the police could do little about it, says Ángel Cuéllar, president of the Poetas Dehesa de la Villa Neighborhood Association. “They couldn’t intervene because it would have been like attacking normal people in the street.”
What followed was a rush of nationalism. Becerril’s son, Gregorio Bravo, designed the flag (a red star on a white background) and took charge of developing the kingdom’s new currency — the belmonteño, valued symbolically at 5,018 pesetas. The local punk rock band Kaduka2000 chipped in with a national anthem — “we want bread, we want wine, we want the mayor on a stick” — and a huge party was held in the local soccer stadium to celebrate ratification of Cerro Belmonte’s constitution on Sept. 12, 1990. Among other things, it promised asylum to residents elsewhere in Madrid who had been poorly treated by the city. As a final measure, founders called on the United Nations to recognize the neighborhood’s sovereignty.
At last, City Hall gave in. Officials removed Cerro Belmonte from the redevelopment plan and included it in a different one that gave locals time to negotiate better prices individually with private contractors.
“Over time the people have left, most of them were older, and there is no trace of the community. Not even the houses remain,” says Cuéllar. And with them has gone the memory of the independent Kingdom of Cerro Belmonte. “The authorities have tried to cover up what happened,” says Cuéllar. “It is just an anecdote from the past.”