Eduardo Barreiros and the Recovery of Spain

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A dramatic biography of the extraordinary Spanish industrialist and entrepreneur Eduardo Barreiros

Born in an impoverished region of Galicia, possessed of little education and less money, Eduardo Barreiros (1919–1992) rose to become an immensely successful entrepreneur and one of Spain’s most prominent industrialists. In this engaging biography, the first on a Spanish entrepreneur in English, Hugh Thomas recounts Barreiros’s origins as an auto mechanic, his success in the motor ...

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A dramatic biography of the extraordinary Spanish industrialist and entrepreneur Eduardo Barreiros

Born in an impoverished region of Galicia, possessed of little education and less money, Eduardo Barreiros (1919–1992) rose to become an immensely successful entrepreneur and one of Spain’s most prominent industrialists. In this engaging biography, the first on a Spanish entrepreneur in English, Hugh Thomas recounts Barreiros’s origins as an auto mechanic, his success in the motor industry, his tragic alliance with the Chrysler Corporation, and his little-known role as a motor industry founder in 1980s Cuba. Drawing on an unrivaled knowledge of Spanish history, Lord Thomas also brings to light Barreiros’s critical role in the modernization of the Spanish economy in the post–Civil War years.

The book offers a detailed portrait of Don Eduardo’s personality, character, and numerous entrepreneurial endeavors, as well as a full account of the difficulties the Franco-era government threw in the path of his capitalist activities. The relationship between Barreiros and the Chrysler Corporation is also described, along with the failed Dodge Dart project that ultimately cost Barreiros his business. Finally, the book recounts Don Eduardo’s late-in-life efforts to help establish a motor industry in Castro’s Cuba—a paradoxical conclusion for a great capitalist.

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Editorial Reviews

Sir Geoffrey Owen
“Hugh Thomas has succeeded admirably in linking the story of an individual entrepreneur to the national and international context in which he was operating; the drama of this man is skillfully tied in to the drama of Spain during a tempestuous period in that county’s history.”—Sir Geoffrey Owen, Department of Management, London School of Economics
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300121094
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2009
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Hugh Thomas is a member of the House of Lords in London and the author of numerous books on the history of the Spanish world, including most recently Beaumarchais in Seville: An Intermezzo, published by Yale University Press. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Eduardo Barreiros and the Recovery of Spain

By Hugh Thomas

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Hugh Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12109-4

Chapter One

The Peasants Do the Real Work

The peasants were the only people in our country to do any real work. [Soia e verdadeira xente do traballo no noso país.] -Rosalía de Castro, prologue to Follas Novas

Eduardo Barreiros, prince of industrial innovation in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s, imaginative entrepreneur in Cuba in the 1980s, was born on October 24, 1919, in Gundiás, a hamlet in Galicia. With about ten houses, it was so small a place that it could be found only on large-scale maps.

Gundiás, a word whose origin is difficult to determine, is less than ten miles from the provincial capital of Orense. It lies in beautiful hills to the northeast of that city, and from the ruins of a mediaeval castle known as "La Torre," a hundred yards west of the village, there is a fine view of the majestic river Miño, which flows in its gorge on through Orense and then, past famous vineyards, a hundred miles west to the Atlantic. On the high ground near Gundiás, the soil is fertile and for generations the farmers had been growing chestnut, walnut, and apple trees, as well as rye for bread and grapes for wine. A few farmers also grew flax for linen and hempfor rope.

Gundiás was part of the parish of San Miguel do Campo, which with its seven dependent places, or "lugares," boasted perhaps one hundred houses altogether.

In the church in San Miguel, rebuilt in neoclassical style in the nineteenth century, Eduardo Barreiros was christened by the priest Don José Benito Feijóo, whose local Orensano surname reminds us that just down the hill from Gundiás, not far from the river Miño, there was the village of Casdemiro, famous since the eighteenth century as the birthplace of the philosopher Fray Benito Feijóo.

How appropriate that it should have been such a short distance from Eduardo Barreiros's birthplace that Feijóo should have made this telling experiment!

An old guide to Father Feijóo's birthplace sums up the charm of that stretch of the valley of the Miño into which Gundiás gazes down: it describes how on summer evenings the clouds seem silver against a deep blue sky, whose border is gilded by the rays of the dying sun; how distant mountains seem to merge with those same clouds; how oak and pine forests cover the gorges, accompanied by cypress trees and myrtle bushes, orange and lemon groves: "a countryside truly blessed by nature."

The meticulous nineteenth-century geographer Pascual Madoz said of San Miguel do Campo that it was a place where "all the winds fought." Of this part of Galicia in the nineteenth century, that region's greatest poet, the immortal Rosalía de Castro, "a poetess of spontaneous felicity" in the words of the English critic Gerald Brenan, wrote that Galicia was "always a garden where one can smell pure scents, freshness and poetry."

At the time of the christening of Eduardo Barreiros, there were also still to be heard many attractive, now forgotten sounds: "The creaking [chirrido] of narrow boat-shaped oxcarts, a sound as lazily pleasing as that of a bee, evocative of summer, of trellises and vines, of the distant murmur of gaitas [bagpipes] at fiestas." The oxen themselves are said to have liked the noise since it calmed them; and it also told others on the roads-often not then paved-that they were coming. "Willingly," an English traveller wrote, about the time of the birth of Eduardo, "would one live forever on this mountainside."

Several things, however, should be said about this apparently idyllic landscape. First, the rain: the novelist Camilo José Cela, a Gallego from near Santiago de Compostela, in the first paragraph of his complicated novel about the civil war, Mazurca para dos muertos, wrote: "It is raining lightly but without ever ceasing, it rains here without seeming really to want to [sin ganas] but with infinite patience."

María Casares, a great actress in Paris yet a daughter of Galicia (her father was a liberal prime minister of Spain during the terrible time at the end of the second republic in the 1930s), wrote nostalgically (with "morriña," the Gallegos themselves would say), from her exile, "of that widow, Galicia ... the damp green and sombre bitter-sweet lands ... whose skies are always in movement."

Another matter that affected the landscape and life in Orense (as other parts in Galicia) was the type of lease enjoyed by the majority of farmers. For this was the characteristic land of "minifundia": tiny plots of land that were divided and subdivided into fields often bordered by walls of granite and inherited by brothers or cousins whose ancestors probably once held the lands concerned as tenants of a bishop, a monastery, or a nobleman. These parcels might be as small as an acre in size. Indeed, a farmer's holding might total as much as that only by adding up several tiny separate plots that might grow a diversity of products. Access to them could be physically complicated.

In the remote past, most of the cultivable land in Galicia belonged to the Church. In 1800, the institution also owned over half the towns. That meant, in the province of Orense, that the bishop or the Cistercian or Benedictine monks were the biggest landowners. These would let land to tenants who would pay 2 percent of the value of the harvested crop as a rent-a foro, as the word was. That was usually a contract covering three generations (tres voces) plus twenty-nine years; say, about a hundred years in all.

These arrangements decayed in the eighteenth century because the fixed rents had come to seem small in days of inflation. The position was rendered more difficult still because many tenants (foreros) sublet land for ten or twenty times what they themselves paid. Unable to do much about that, the real landlords, the Church or the noblemen, tried to insist at least on the termination of leases when the original contract was due to come to an end. But the foreros resisted that, embarking on litigation that might last for generations. Eventually, in 1763 an enlightened monarchy, served by liberal ministers who believed in a free market in land and who were nothing if not anticlerical, gave victory by a decree to the tenants, though that triumph was qualified by the retention of all jurisdiction, both criminal and civil, in the hands of the old landlords. The subtenants were soon also insisting on the freezing of their rents. So there were ample possibilities for many further years of litigation.

In the province of Orense, the most important landlords had been the monastic orders, especially the Cistercians at their magnificent edifice of Oseira near the city of Orense; while the nearest convento to the birthplace of Eduardo Barreiros had been the large Benedictine establishment of San Esteban (de Ribas de Sil) ten miles northeast of Gundiás, a foundation that had owned nearly all the nearby land until the dissolution (desamortización) of 1836. Thus Eduardo Barreiros's ancestors would have been subtenants (foristas) of the foreros of San Esteban on whom they would depend for nearly everything, justice included.

San Esteban is even today a wonderful building, hung like a hornet's nest on the crags overlooking the gorge of the river Sil, a few miles before it joins the Miño at Los Peares. No other convento in Galicia can compete with its solitary grandeur, overlooking a deep gorge. It is, as is so much in Spain, principally an achievement of the eighteenth century, but there is a splendid Gothic cloister, allegedly built by "the nine hermit bishops" in the thirteenth century, as well as much Renaissance work of the sixteenth. The monastery was, however, founded in the ninth century.

In the years before dissolution in 1836, San Esteban had managed a vast territory, including much to the south as far as the pueblo of Sabadelle; everything to the east as far as the remote town of Parada del Sil; much land between gorse and heather with chestnut woods of great riches; while in the north, San Esteban's property spilled over the river Sil to include several villages in the next-door province of Lugo. In the west, the border of the monastery's lands was the river Miño. In the last years of monastic control, rye and vines had been the most important crops there, the vineyards stretching down on terraces to the Sil.

In 1836, the property of San Esteban, like other Spanish monasteries, became by the law of dissolution an object of "national wealth" (the dissolved monasteries became "bienes nacionales"). The following year the government also began to sell the lands of the secular church and the bishops. Perhaps 80 percent of Galicia was the subject of these changes.

The time-honoured leases were bought mostly by the old foreros. They, often living in towns, and sometimes themselves lawyers, continued their lawsuits with their own old subtenants, the foristas, who worked land that they had come to assume that they owned. After all, they could plant what they liked and on their deaths divide the territory as they liked. They thought of their rent as just one more tax, to be paid in cash to their landlords' agents once a year and, sometimes, if they held land in several places, to several such agents.

Subdivisions seemed more and more necessary in the nineteenth century because of the increase in population, itself partly inspired by the cult of the enriching potato, whose popularity had none of the disastrous consequences encountered in the British Galicia, Ireland. When Eduardo Barreiros was born, 80 percent of the agricultural land in Galicia could probably have been classified as minifundios. Wooden or stone markers would indicate the boundaries between properties. But these were difficult to maintain. Four or five cows on a small farm could easily stray over to neighbours' holdings where potatoes might be planted. The consequent arguments can be imagined. Sometimes the markers might be secretly moved, and it was said that ghosts came to avenge those who suffered such outrages (Galicia, once the land of Suevi, was full of ghosts, whereas Castile, land of Goths, was not).

At the end of the nineteenth century, when the grandfathers of Eduardo Barreiros, Valeriano Barreiros in Sabadelle, and Francisco Rodríguez in Gundiás, must have been in their prime, the chief goal of a farmer would be to have land enough, even if separated, to support his family. The farmer would also probably have a cow, probably one of those vacas rubias that are still a typical sight in this countryside. That animal would provide milk and cheese and do whatever ploughing was necessary. It was sometimes said that while the typical peasant lived from his cow, he also lived for his cow ("el paisano vive de la vaca, y vive para la vaca"). The farmer in Orense might expect, too, to plant rye from which his wife would make the excellent bread for which Galicia was renowned. He would also make wine. Essentially he would live on what he produced, even if he might take chestnuts to be sold in Orense to be made into the delicious marrons glacés that since 1909 the city had made. Sometimes, too, a calf or two might be sold.

Further income could be achieved only by emigration or partial emigration. For example, younger members of a family might go to work in Castile or even Andalusia during harvest time. Throughout the early twentieth century, workers from Galicia with their sickles might be seen in railway stations, beneath the well-loved French clocks, waiting for trains to the south.

Castilians often had a condescending attitude to these Gallego immigrants on whom they nevertheless often relied: for example, in the novel El Buscón, by Quevedo, a Gallego maid is made to seem silly when she shrieks with terror when her master, an actor, pretends to be eaten by a bear. A Gallego was caused to seem an unintelligent boor in many Castilian plays. Galicia? A region where women worked as farm labourers, porters, and even road menders.

Other Gallegos still might travel in the rest of Spain as itinerant knife grinders, afiladores. The heart of that ancient profession was Noguiera de Ramuín, where there now stands a statue to that characteristic Gallego of the old days. These dedicated professionals developed their own language, Barallete, which has in it a few words of Gypsy, Basque, and even of English ("dog" in Barallete is doco, "fish" fixo, and "hot" hote).

Still more ambitious young men might emigrate to the Canary Islands, to Cuba, Argentina, or even North America. This recourse was less frequent in Orense than in the maritime provinces of Galicia but it certainly happened. Remittances sent home would thereafter play a part in farmers' budgets. Sometimes a successful emigrant, an "Indiano," would return home and, as in Asturias, build a pretty house with a palm tree placed near it to indicate the history of the person concerned.

Chapter Two

The Rodríguezes of Gundiás

That ceaseless laughter, Those light-hearted leaps, That mad gaiety: Why did it end -Rosalía de Castro, tr. Gerald Brenan

Eduardo Barreiros was born in the autumn of 1919 in the house of his maternal grandfather, Francisco Rodríguez, "el abuelo Francisco." Eduardo's mother, el abuelo's daughter, was then living with her father since her husband, young Eduardo Barreiros Nespereira, had gone some months before to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to seek new opportunities. If his work went well, he would take his wife and new baby there too.

El abuelo Francisco's dwelling is still standing, though it has been modernised; and for reasons other than architectural, it is hard to imagine what it would have been like in 1919 because both the building and its surroundings have changed utterly. For there was then no paved road in Gundiás, no electricity, and no running water-even if in front of the abuelo's house there was a well.

The abuelo was a typical minifundista, for he had several small holdings of about 100 to 200 square metres each in size. On these, like most of his neighbours, he cultivated vines that produced wine for use at home as well as fruit. He also had a few cows to provide milk, some of which, Eduardo would recall, he gave away to the poorer people of the village. He is said to have at one time carried dynamite to Asturias, presumably for use in the coal mines there.

Eduardo recalled his grandfather with affection. But he knew him only when he was old, or when he appeared so. His grandfather's second wife, Loreto Ánsia, had died before 1919, but el abuelo still seemed to Eduardo "hardworking and energetic" as well as "generous, tall and thin, of a strong character, of large build, without being in any way fat." When Eduardo was three or four years old, el abuelo's chief desire was to have his grandson sleep in his bed to keep him warm, for which service he would pay the handsome sum of ten céntimos.

The language spoken in the house was Gallego, which is close to mediaeval Portuguese but which has received many Castilian "intrusions." Gallego had been used in official documents in the region in the late middle ages, and at that time it had been the vehicle of courtly poetry even in Castile. It declined afterward, becoming about 1800 the speech of the mostly illiterate peasantry and fishermen. But in the late nineteenth century it saw a literary revival, especially in poetry, influenced decisively by the magical poet Rosalía de Castro.

By 1920, el abuelo Francisco had left the management of his property to his daughter Luzdivina. She accomplished this task in the absence of her husband with the help of two day labourers. Their work included ploughing the abuelo's land with a wooden plough since a steel one was only rarely seen in rural Orense. Luzdivina cooked, and we imagine cachelos-potatoes cooked in an original way-and circular doughnuts often being eaten as well as the exquisite cheeses shaped like women's breasts. "In Galicia," the English traveller Lady Holland wrote in her diary in 1808, which in the province was still really only the day before yesterday, "one may always find milk, eggs and potatoes.... On the roadside," she went on, "the countrywomen bring them ready boiled to sell."

Luzdivina Rodríguez, mother of Eduardo, was a strong, good-looking woman who in 1919 was just over twenty, having been born in 1898. All who remember her think of her as very religious. A niece by marriage, Aida Penedo de Barreiros, thought of her as a saint; her daughter María Luz recalled that she went to mass every day. One of Luzdivina's sons, Graciliano, considered her "the motor" of her family, being intelligent and cultivated, having been to the village school. She was a strong character and a lover of discipline and rather dominating, one of her grandsons remembers.


Excerpted from Eduardo Barreiros and the Recovery of Spain by Hugh Thomas Copyright © 2009 by Hugh Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Book I. Old Galicia ONE The Peasants Do the Real Work....................3
TWO The Rodríguezes of Gundiás....................8
THREE The Barreiroses of Sabadelle....................11
FOUR "Guagua, Guagua!"....................15
FIVE Give to Him Who Asks....................18
SIX A Clear, Bright Town....................25
Book II. The Spanish Catastrophe SEVEN People Lived for Politics....................33
EIGHT There Came Forth from the Soil Armed Men....................45
NINE Red Beret....................52
TEN This Cruel Struggle....................61
Book III. Peace ELEVEN Establishing a National Syndicalist System....................69
TWELVE The Rich Girl of the Village....................78
THIRTEEN Marching Alone....................85
FOURTEEN Transform Your Car to Diesel....................91
FIFTEEN Good-Bye Rivers, Good-Bye Fountains, Good-Bye Little Streams....................98
SIXTEEN A Good Source of Income....................104
Book IV. Madrid SEVENTEEN "Madrid! Madrid!"....................113
EIGHTEEN The Vehicle of Progress....................126
NINETEEN Onward, Barreiros!....................136
TWENTY My Boyfriend Works in Barreiros....................141
TWENTY-ONE The Factory of Happiness....................147
TWENTY-TWO We Worked with Optimism....................159
TWENTY-THREE Your Call Persuaded Me....................165
TWENTY-FOUR We Beseech You to Refuse a Licence....................172
Book V. Chrysler TWENTY-FIVE Boys Always Run After Motor Cars....................183
TWENTY-SIX AUniversity of Work....................193
TWENTY-SEVEN The New Gods from the West....................202
TWENTY-EIGHT Disagreement with the Americans....................213
TWENTY-NINE Very Sad for Us....................224
THIRTY A Combination of Adversities....................236
THIRTY-ONE We Never Thought That We Would Reach This Moment....................244
Book VI. Aftermath THIRTY-TWO A Place in La Mancha....................257
THIRTY-THREE Life Has Dealt Me a Bad Hand....................266
Book VII. Cuba THIRTY-FOUR Don Eduardo in the Land of Comrades....................279
THIRTY-FIVE Villaverde Revisited....................289
THIRTY-SIX I Am a Barreiros Product....................301
Appendix: Letter from Eduardo Barreiros to Fidel Castro....................321
Illustrations follow p. 180
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  • Posted October 1, 2010

    not recommended

    The section on Chrysler was poorly researched. Thomas elected to interview Spanish executives whose primary interest was to cover their own backsides.Their accounts ranged from errors to lies and outright BS. Eduardo was in charge throughout. He listened too much to yes-men, foremost being Carranza and Baquero, who told him what they thought he wanted to hear. Eduardo made two fatal mistakes. His personal estimate for the Dodge Dart was 20,000/year, vs Chrysler's 5000/year. Chrysler chose to give Eduardo a free hand because of his past considerable success. The advisers were assigned at Eduardo's request, but they had no authority, and they were instructed to stay out of daily operations unless specifically requested. Their task was to assist in the implementation of proven US systems.
    Eduardo authorized the purchase of 20,000 sets of components, and later the plant manpower required. He compounded this error by launching full scale production instead of a gradually increasing rate to finally prove out new plant facilities, new tooling, new components from local suppliers (Chrysler had already built 2.5MM vehicles, so the quality of the body parts they supplied was already proven)and on-line training of totally inexperienced employees. I was one of the Chrysler engineers who recommended a gradual product launch, which was standard in the auto industry. Eduardo chose to reject this advice.
    The results were highly predictable - cars with missing parts, poor fits, water and air leaks, electrical problems, etc., etc..
    The quality of these early units had a lasting impact on the Dart's image in the Spanish market. Sales were far below expectations. And the company was left with crushing inventory and labor costs that it had to carry for several years. A final kiss of death was applied later when it was announced that ownership of a Dart was proof of an annual income of at least one million pesetas.
    (Note: The Dart was a highly successful product elsewhere, and was manufactured in several plants around the world. It was in production for 16 years, with total production of almost four million units. In several markets it was rated number 1.)
    I spent three years as an adviser in Madrid, and consider myself to be a Hispanophile, as Thomas seems to be. But I could not sit idly aside and let these criticisms go unchallenged while some of my colleagues are probably no longer around to defend themselves. We did everything we could to help Barreiros become a successful company.
    I left Chrysler over thirty-five years ago, so owe them no employee loyalty. But I must honestly state that Chrysler's dealings with Barreiros were always honorable! For former Spanish executives to infer otherwise is malicious and despicable. Thomas should have recognized this bias in their statements. And he should have talked to some of the Chrysler employees involved!

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