It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
-Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)
Living, as I do, in Barcelona part of the time, I am struck with how Dickens’ wonderfully descriptive opening could apply directly to what has become our surrealistic daily lives in Catalonia over the past 2 years – because yes, it has been over two years that I have been trying to write this blog post, and over two years that have found me paralyzed, trying to even know where to begin – so thanks, Charley!
So much of what has gone on here over the last while is governed by perception, emotion, “belief” and “incredulity,” as Dickens points out. But really, it’s a battle over two vast opposing concepts of what a “nation” is.
Warning: long post ahead
To begin with, here are a few facts:
- Nine pro-independence political and cultural leaders have been sentenced to 9 – 13 years after being held since October 2017 in Spanish prisons in “preventive detention.” This was possible because they were charged with “rebellion” – a crime that requires violence to have been committed, and for which they were acquitted. Many of those in prison are the parents of small children, who are growing up with only two hours of contact per month with the missing parent.
- Over 100 members of the recently ruling Partido Popular (founded by Manuel Fraga, a former minister in the Franco dictatorship) have been convicted of corruption in scandals that involve hundreds of millions of euros. None of them is in prison. Wikipedia has a page devoted to political corruption scandals in Spain that is worth checking out.
- Six pro-independence leaders have fled into exile. Various attempts by the Spanish government to have them extradited to Spain on “rebellion” charges have all failed. Spain has now reissued warrants for them, only on “sedition” charges.
- The Spanish judge in charge of instructing these cases, Pablo Llarena, was charged in Belgian courts by exiled Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and other exiled leaders with violating basic human rights. He was ordered to appear in Brussels, the Spanish government is paying his defense for refusing.
At the time of this writing there have been two weeks of demonstrations and protests in Barcelona. The vast majority of them have been peaceful. Over half a million marchers from all over Catalonia converged on Barcelona October 18, and 300 thousand demonstrated on October 26. A few hundred direct action activists who burned garbage bins in the street got way more attention, though – from media and politicians alike.
OK – I probably shouldn’t put “violent” in quotes. There has, indeed, been violence. Spanish police have fired rubber bullets into crowds sitting peacefully on the ground. In one incident, when a woman asked police what they were doing, beating a person who hadn’t done anything, they started beating her. This was captured on film:
There has also been violence from direct action groups calling themselves CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Republic), and “Tsunami Democratic.” They consist largely of young people, mostly students, who did not grow up under Franco and who are angry. Very angry. They are also fearless. They have “attacked” police officers directly, something never seen before in Catalonia. I put “attack” in quotes because this means primarily facing down police in full riot gear with truncheons and shields, using only their bodies. They also throw things at the police, in general paint balls, beer and soda cans, fruit, and, yes, stones.
They did set fire to garbage bins, and pile up metal barricades to prevent police vehicles from chasing them. While they used molotov cocktails to light the garbage bins, no incendiary devices – not one – has been directed at the police. It is true that some activists did use them to burn empty police vehicles.
Both demonstrators and police officers have been injured. Four demonstrators have lost vision in an eye after being hit by rubber bullets. People have picked up rubber bullets in the street and found that many have been written on before being fired. Probably the least offensive phrase was “son of a whore.”
This is the first time since 2008 that this sort of violence has come from pro-independence people, and I, for one, am saddened to see the solidarity of non-violence, an unblemished record so far, broken, but their frustration and desire for action is also understandable.
It has always been a matter of pride and discipline among the independence movement to keep it non-violent. I have witnessed, myself, crowds chanting “we are peaceful people” in the face of riot police, and have seen how they prevented a few hotheads from escalating into violent confrontation. There is and has been civil disobedience. The Spanish government has wilfully distorted the understanding of what civil disobedience entails, and has deliberately used the term “violence” to describe that non-violent civil disobedience, amalgamating it the real violence of the direct action groups.
On October 20, a group of militaries calling themselves “Tsunami Español” – to mock the direct action’s monicker, “Tsunami Democratic,” published the following on Twitter:
Tsunami Español •••
18 horas • G
Avisamos al gobierno de España:
Militares del Ejército Español exigimos al gobierno de España, que restablezca el orden en Cataluña enviando todos los medios y personal necesario para ello, de todos los cuerpos de seguridad del estado, para apoyar a nuestros compañeros de Policía Nacional
Damos de plazo hasta el Martes 22 de Octubre para anunciar dicho requerimiento.
Si el Martes a las 23:59 horas, no vemos ninguna medida, militares unidos de diferentes cuarteles de todo nuestro país, nos reorganizamos para solicitar días de permiso y acudiremos en masa para aplicar el articulo 8 de la constitución española.
El dia que juramos bandera, juramos defender nuestro país, a sus ciudadanos y a nuestra bandera, aunque a ello nos cueste la vida.
Animo a todos los militares a seguir nuestra cuenta de Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TsunamiEspa/ y nuestra cuenta de
Para estar informado de nuestras medidas y movimientos. Cataluña no está sola.
Here’s the translation:
Spanish Tsunami ••• 18 hours • G
We warn the government of Spain:
Soldiers of the Spanish Army demand that the government of Spain restore order in Catalonia by sending all the means and personnel necessary to do it, from all the state security forces, to support our national police comrades.
We set a deadline of Tuesday, October 22 to announce compliance with this requirement.
If on Tuesday at 23:59 hours, we do not see any measures, united military from different barracks throughout our country will reorganize ourselves to ask for days of leave, and we will go en masse to apply article 8 of the Spanish constitution.
On the day we swore allegiance to the flag, we swore to defend our country, its citizens and our flag, even if it costs us our lives.
I encourage all the military to follow our Facebook account: https://www.facebook.com/TsunamiEspa/
and our Twitter account: https://twitter.corn/TsunamiEspanol
to be informed of our measurements and movements. Catalonia is not alone.
Article 8 of the Spanish constitution states, “The mission of the Armed Forces, comprising the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain and to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional order.”
I’m not sure how soldiers taking matters into their own hands defends constitutional order. In any case, these soldiers were given a slap on the wrist, but were not charged with “rebellion,” even though they had no orders to take any action in Catalonia, while elected political leaders and cultural leaders are in jail for organizing a vote.
Nationalism = Fascism, Right?
Much of the Western press has assumed that if you want to separate your region, you must be like many so-called “nationalist” movements in Europe: xenophobic, isolationist, communitarian, and authoritarian. Catalonia’s nationalism is actually a heterogeneous mix. The oldest established independence party is Esquerra Republicana – Republican Left. They have always favoured Catalonia separating from Spain and forming a republic. Their conception of the new republic has traditionally been based, essentially, on labour socialism.
The Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (PDeCAT) is a centre-right party. They have always been nationalist, but have not always been separatist. Under their former name, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), they formed an alliance with the Christian Democrat Unió party, known as Convergència i Unió (CIU). They governed Catalonia for 23 years led by Jordi Pujol, who manoeuvred adroitly around the notion of Catalonia as a “nation without a state” within Spain. He often made pacts with the right wing Partido Popular in Madrid, during the government led by Jose Maria Aznar. In 2015, new leadership in CDC came to the conclusion that it was impossible to negotiate with the Spanish government, and became openly pro independence for the first time. This caused a rupture with Unió.
There is a third pro-independence party in Catalonia – the CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular). This is a very small party – they have but four seats in the Catalan parliament – but they hold the balance of power, the other two parties combined being two seats short of a majority. The CUP are an extreme left party, and very anti-system. Their voting pattern seems capricious, and the other two parties cannot depend on their automatic support. They are especially inimical to PDeCAT.
So you see, those who, in the media, characterize the Catalan independence movement as being equivalent to Italy’s Northern League, or to the excesses of Viktor Orban’s governing party in Hungary, really don’t understand just how multi-faceted and even conflicted the Catalan independence movement really is.
On the other hand, during the demonstration in favour of Spanish unity on October 27 (80 thousand people, many of them from out of Catalonia, including some cabinet ministers), Spanish national police posed with people sporting the flag from Franco’s fascist government.
On that occasion, the Spanish interior minister, Fernando Grande Marlaska stated that violence in Catalonia had “more impact than in the Basque Country.” In the Basque Country and elsewhere, 800 people were killed by ETA terrorists, including their deadliest ever attack in a Barcelona shopping centre, where 21 were killed and 45 injured. In Catalonia, the death toll from political protest is zero.
Personally, I find this behaviour scandalous, outrageous, and absolutely unacceptable for a European member state, and even worse coming from a government minister, and in a demonstration where government ministers were present. Yet I’ve heard of no reprisals, no apologies, nothing. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has referred to Grande Marlaska as a “fantastic interior minister.” And the European Union has remained totally silent on this issue, though they criticize the governments of Hungary and Poland, and support protest and civil disobedience in Hong Kong.
This on the heels of the exhumation and reburial of Franco himself, supposedly to remove him from a mausoleum to a normal grave. In fact, the event – carried live on national TV – ended up as a state funeral, with cries of “Viva Franco” and fascist salutes as the body was transported from the Valle de los Caídos. You’ll hear it near the end of this film:
Todo por la Patria
This Spanish expression, which implies that one is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country, can be found on police and military buildings all over Spain, dating from the Franco dictatorship. I only recently learned that the Spanish have a saying about themselves: they don’t know how to win, only to conquer. It’s certainly the impression I get.
Imagine if Hitler or Mussolini won the war. In Spain, Franco did.
Remember: Francisco Franco died in bed. The so-called democratic transition and the 1978 constitution left all of Franco’s people and government apparatus in place, including the various police forces and Guardia Civil. Nobody from that regime has ever been prosecuted for crimes against humanity or war crimes. When one judge tried to do so (Baltasar Garzón), he lost his judgeship and was publicly discredited over supposed improper investments. Garzón was the same judge who was investigating corruption in the then ruling Partido Popular (PP), and who brought charges in Spain against Chile’s dictator Pinochet. The PP government then changed to law so that charges against dictators from other countries could no longer be entered in Spanish courts.
Missing from all this: a political solution
All of this started because the government of Mariano Rajoy, elected in 2008 on the heels of the economic crisis, challenged over 40 clauses of Catalonia’s statute of autonomy in the constitutional court. I’ve explained it elsewhere, but it bears repeating that this statute was passed by the Spanish parliament, passed by the Catalan parliament, and ratified by a referendum that the Spanish considered legal in Catalonia. In other words, approved by three democratic processes. This legal, democratically negotiated statute was gutted of any of its substance by decisions of a court that was packed by the political nature of its nomination (by committees of political parties – forget separation of powers).
When the Catalan government said, “let’s talk,” Rajoy answered “I’m willing to talk about anything except what you want to talk about.” He continued, instead, to use the judicial process as a club to impose Madrid’s will, rather than talking.
Conflicts between Catalonia and Spain go back at least 400 years, and probably as much as 1000 years:
“While there’s one remaining Catalan in Catalonia, and stones in the deserted fields, we shall have enemies and war”.Francisco de Quevedo (Author, 1580-1645)
“A person I know assures me that it is a law of Spanish history the necessity to bomb Barcelona every fifty years.”Manuel Azaña (president of the Second Republic of Spain), 1931
“We want the unity of Spain to be absolute, with only one language, Spanish, and only one personality, the Spanish one”Francisco Franco (dictator), 1939
“Catalan, Jew, and renegade, you will pay for have you have done!”.from “Cara al sol” (the anthem of the Francoist regime)
“Catalonia was occupied by Philip IV, Philip V, was bombed by general Espartero and we occupied it in 1939 and we are willing to occupy it as many times as it is necessary and for that I am willing to pick up my rifle again”.Manuel Fraga (Interior minister under Franco, and founder of Alianza Popular, predecessor of today’s Partido Popular), 1961
“Our interest is to Hispanicize Catalan kids.”José Ignacio Vert (Minister of education in the PP government of Mariano Rajoy), 2012
When Castile had an absolute monarch, Catalonia had a quasi-democratic assembly called the Council of 100 (Consell de cent). Catalonia has always been a trading nation, much more accustomed to merchant marines and negotiating than the conquering Spanish Armada (yes, I’m generalizing and I know it – and yes, the Catalans were pretty nasty conquerers at times in their history too).
Catalonia has a language and culture that is different from the rest of Spain. It’s not the only region in Spain to have that – Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Andalucia, Valencia, and the Canary Islands, just to name a few, have individual cultures and languages. Some of them (Balears and Valencia) share a language with Catalonia – the Catalan language, which is not a dialect of Spanish, but a language in its own right. Its grammar is closer to French than to Spanish, though it shares bits of both. It has much in common with Portuguese and Italian, and shares over 3000 words with Romanian. Catalans are fiercely in love with their language, which has its own literary and poetic traditions. But the real issue for most pro-independence Catalans is not some sort of communitarian identity – though that certainly exists too. It’s rather a difference in concept between a unitary, centralized monarchy (Spain) and a pluralistic, open, and probably more democratic republic (what they hope for in Catalonia).
Spain’s far right
Not only that, Some would say, in fact, that the far right nationalism in Spain is Spanish nationalism. It used to be fashionable to claim that unlike the rest of Europe, Spain had no far right. This was always untrue. It just didn’t have a far right official political party. The Falange party, which was Franco’s primary pillar of support, has continued to exist in a variety of incarnations since the death of the dictator. And recently, a new political party, Vox, has emerged as an official voice of the far right. A small detail, though: Almost all the members of Vox come from the Partido Popular (PP), the main stream party on the right. They always existed as a current within the PP, now they’re just more visible.
Another new party, called Ciudadanos (Citizens), started as a regional party in Catalonia. Their main objective was, and always has been, to destroy the Catalan language and culture, and bring Catalonia into some sort of mainstream Spain, for which the Madrid culture remains the emblem. Their leader, Albert Rivera, is an admitted crackhead. The party started out as favouring social democracy, but has since moved to the right. They proclaim themselves centre-right, but they have made pacts with Vox to govern together in many regions, and have participated in violent ultra-right demonstrations. French president Macron sent them a warning message concerning the centrist group where they both sit in the European parliament, because of Ciudados’ far-right tendencies.
Catalonia is/is not Spain!
Whether you think Catalonia belongs in Spain depends, obviously, on your point of view. The oligarchy in Madrid says, clearly, that Catalonia has “always” been part of Spain, and is inseparable from it. Catalonia is also one of the powerhouse regions of Spain’s economy, and one of very few places that produces real innovation. Madrid’s attitude is that Catalonia “belongs” to Spain – i.e., it is Spain’s property. The attitude is, “we own it, and we’ll do whatever it takes to hold on to it.”
Madrid understands very well that Catalonia can probably survive economically without Spain, but that Spain would have a hard time not only surviving, but meeting its obligations, without the economic engine that is Catalonia. For that reason, they are desperate.
The Catalans, however, have been willing to play ball. They are ready to talk, negotiate, get a better deal. Or at least, they were. But the response is always “no” from whatever power exists in Madrid. Obviously, they feel increasingly alienated, and started displaying placards saying “Catalonia is not Spain” at football matches and other public events.
Where’s the carrot?
I am from Canada. I lived through the 1970 terrorist crisis when the Front de Libération de Québec (FLQ) kidnapped a British diplomat and a Canadian official, and murdered the latter. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current Canadian prime minister) proclaimed the War Measures Act – intended to give the government sweeping emergency powers in time of war. This was the only time it has ever been used in peacetime. When he was told he couldn’t do that, Trudeau replied, famously, “Just watch me!”
During that time, there were abuses. Most famously, Vancouver’s then mayor rounded up hippies, counter-culture types, and anyone else he didn’t like and detained them using security (as far away from Québec as you can get in the country) and the War Measures Act as a pretext. The courts quickly overturned those detentions, and other similar actions around the country. I had a much greater sense of freedom, and the ability to protest, in a real terrorist situation, than I do in Barcelona with this manufactured hysteria coming from Madrid.
Later, after the FLQ crisis calmed down, the non-secessionist liberal government of Québec introduced its famous law 101, a language law that give French primacy over all other languages in Québec. This was almost certainly unconstitutional, as English and French have equal status in Canada as national languages. Prime Minister Trudeau, however, did not challenge it in the courts, though he could have. He had the good sense to understand that Québec needed that law for reassurance about its language and culture. There were lots of jokes about the language police coming around measuring the size of lettering in signs in the windows of stores, especially in ethnic neighbourhoods, in various languages, but French prevailed in Québec. Spain attacks Catalonia for its language legislation, even though the Spanish constitution gives the Catalan language “co-official status.” That means it is official in Catalonia (and other Catalan speaking autonomies) but not elsewhere. Still, it is impossible to have a court trial in Catalan in Barcelona, and the government attacks the use of Catalan as the vehicular teaching language in schools (students must also have proficiency in Spanish to graduate, everywhere in Spain, and Catalan students generally score above the average for the country in Spanish).
When Québec held a (legal) referendum on separation from Canada, English Canadians often said dumb things about Québec, but they didn’t express hatred for it – instead they walked around with signs saying “Québec, we love you.” These generated some healthy scepticism in Québec, and with good reason, but it was an expression of desire to keep Québec in the fold, not of possession, but of fraternalism.
When Scotland held its referendum on separation from the United Kingdom, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stumped the country seducing Scotts with perks to stay in and vote against independence.
Madrid’s autocrats talk a lot about how Catalans should feel part of Spain, and share in their common Iberic heritage – but not one offer, not one attempt to persuade Catalans to share mutually, to respect their need to protect a language spoken by 10 million people around the world (that’s less than Dutch, but more than Finish or Norwegian, which are official languages of countries). Why would anyone want to stay in a country that says things about them like the quotes above in this post?
Still, if a referendum had been held in 2012, when it was first requested, the polls stated that only 36% of Catalonia’s population would have voted for separation. Today, the polls go to somewhere between 48% and 51% in favour. Every time Rajoy, and his vice president, Soraya Saenz de Santa Maria, opened their mouths, they created new separatists who were fed up with the “catalanophobia.” Madrid castigates the separatist government (again, elected in a proper democratic process) for ignoring “half of Catalonia that wants to stay in Spain.” But Spain ignores the half that doesn’t, and does nothing to bring them back into the fold. Instead, it just continues to use the politicized courts as a political weapon, and refuse to talk about what really matters to Catalonia.
You cannot solve political problems judicially. At some time, you have to sit down and talk
Unfortunately, any Spanish government that would do this would lose its next election. The sad truth is, they have bashed Catalonia so badly for so long, aided by media that move in lock step with them, that they are backed into a corner. Their only option is to create more hysteria to win more votes. Ciudadanos and the PP are especially good at this, but Pedro Sanchez’ socialists are almost as good at it. As I write, there’s an election campaign on, and PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox are all accusing Sanchez of “complicity with traitors” (the elected Catalan government), and demanding immediate reinstatement of direct rule (per article 155 of the constitution) as was done shortly after the referendum in 2017. They’re doing this because they think it will win them votes elsewhere in Spain, and it well might.
And the European Union in all this?
The European Union has been anything between hostile to indifferent about Catalan’s longing for independence, even though all Catalan parties have made it clear that they see Catalonia as part of the European Union, and have every wish to play a full role in EU affairs.
One scary explanation for this comes from Matthew Parish, a British international lawyer living in Switzerland who has worked with the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. He outlines a nasty flow of corrupt funds between Europe and the PP, based on close friendship between EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junkers and former Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. These funds, he says, are being used to illegally fund anti-Catalan propaganda, and even the Ciutadanos party. I recommend reading his blog posts about Catalonia and Europe. Check out his credentials if you think it’s conspiracy mongering, he is a very credible source:
- Jean-Claude Juncker and the Catalan Crisis
- Reflection on the Catalan Conundrum
- Catalan Independence
- Sequestering Catalonia
- Catalonia Suppressed
But there are other reasons why the EU doesn’t want to touch Catalonia with a long pole. First and foremost, they are terrified that Catalan succession will trigger a domino separation effect throughout Europe: Corsica from France, “Padani” (the north) from Italy, Flanders from Belgium, permanent separation of Greek and Turkish areas of Cypress, the whole ethnic tinderbox of the Balkans, and not far away – Ukraine. The stakes, for European politicians and bureaucrats, are not about justice in one part of Europe, they are vast geopolitical considerations that, in their view, quash any humanitarian or justice interest that the Catalan issue may have. For this reason, Catalans should not look to Europe for help, at least not unless the situation becomes much more dire than it already is. There are voices in the European parliament who have started to speak up, most notably Irish MEP Claire Daly and French MEP Manon Aubry.
It’s the best of times, and worst of times. My final note: one of the things that never ceases to surprise me, after nearly 20 years of life in Barcelona, is how the Catalan people can continue to protest with what I might describe as a jubilatory attitude. They come out in anger and frustration, and yet they smile, they are joyous in expressing who they are. It makes me feel good to walk among them and see how they carry themselves, their dignity, their stubborn persistence in the face of constant negation and attempts to wear them down. This is the belief. When I first arrived, knowing the Québec situation, I said, “aha, Je connais le chanson,” but I only recognized part of it. I was sceptical of the abuse and the injustice, but now I have seen it over and over again, have lived it first hand, have been shoved around by the Spanish National Police, have seen Catalan police in tears as they blocked people from voting because they had to, and have seen the vindictiveness and injustice of the Spanish system first hand. This is the incredulity.
I don’t like to create black hats and white hats, but if I have to choose a side, I’ll pick the dignified, jubilatory folks over the conquistadores any day.