Despatches from Catalonia

Last week I posted a guest post from Barcelona in the lead up to the Catalan Referendum.    Today I’m posting the following dispatch from the frontlines of the referendum struggle from a very different perspective, summing up the tumultuous events that have shaken Catalonia in the last few week, by my great friend and indefatigable independentista Andreu Jené:

Catalonia: The Revolution of Dignity

I begin this report from the electoral college in my neighbourhood, where about eighty of us have shut ourselves in  order to protect it during tomorrow’s referendum.   This may seem a little strange or ridiculous to British readers, but this  is actually happening in a country that calls itself a democratic member of the European Union.   At the request of the public prosecutor’s office,  the Supreme Court of the Justice of Catalonia has ordered all electoral colleges to close at 6 tomorrow morning in order to prevent the referendum on self-determination convoked some months ago by the Catalan government (Generalitat).

Hundreds of electoral colleges across Catalonia have been similarly occupied by peaceful protestors to prevent their closure,   and ensure that the vote takes place tomorrow.     Schools have been kept open since Friday evening in order to prevent them from being closed.

The last few weeks have been charged with high intensity.   The Spanish state has done everything possible to abort the referendum, from raiding printing shops without legal authority in search of papers and ballots to violating postal secrecy, by opening letters and confiscating magazines simply because they mentioned the referendum.   It has confiscated electoral papers, letters directed to members of electoral tables, electoral posters.

More than 150 websites have been closed – which fortunately were immediately reopened – in  addition to Google apps that gave information about which electoral colleges to vote at.   Police have tried to enter without authorisation the headquarters of a legal political party, the CUP ( Popular Unity Candidacy), and were only prevented by the rapid mobilisation of the people.   These police interventions reached a peak on  20 September,  when the Civil Guard arrested 14 officials and technicians from the Generalitat on charges of preparing the referendum.

Two of the arrests carried during this razzia (raid) were particularly serious.   In one case a woman was arrested in the street in front of her children as she was taking them to school.   The children had to be taken in a taxi without knowing who or why their mother had been arrested so violently.   In another incident, an official from the Generalitat was driving his car when a motorcycle and two cars blocked his path and seven or eight agents took him away,  as if were a narcotraficante or a terrorist.

All this was clearly intended to send a message.   In response to every  intervention the people have mobilised, protesting peacefully at printing shops with carnations. The arrests produced an immediate popular response.  Outside the Department of the Economy, where some of the arrests took place, people began to gather in large numbers when they heard what was happening.   Within a few hours the centre of Barcelona was completely blocked by crowds calling the detainees to be set free.   Throughout this period,  popular pressure has continued to intensify.  Everyday at 10 o’clock there was a cacerolada (pot-banging) and some two hundred people spent the night in front of the Supreme Court of Justice, before the detained officials were charged and released after making their declarations in handcuffs – something that very rarely happens.

In response the state brought in two Italian cruise ships and another from Tarragona to the port of Barcelona filled with police and Civil Guard from different parts of Spain.   This expeditionary force left its barracks fired up with shouts of ‘ Go for them!’ as if they were crusaders hunting infidels.

The demonstrations in solidarity with the detainees and the involvement of the whole of society have been the crucial determining factors in bringing together so  many different sectors that have made the referendum possible.     Students have staged multiple demonstrations and occupied the University of Barcelona.   Firemen have helped with these demonstrations.   Longshoremen refused to supply the police cruise ships in the port.   Farmers used their tractors to slow traffic and cut roads.   Collectives of lawyers demonstrated against police legal irregularities.     Rural agents, teachers and taxi drivers offered to transport invalids or incapacitated people to polling stations.  Committees in Defense of the Referendum were organised by teachers, neighbourhood associations and political parties to protect the electoral colleges.

Now let me pick up the tale after the referendum.   The whole world has witnessed the barbarity of the Spanish police on their tv screens.    They behaved like lunatics, cynically attacking people whose only crime was their desire to vote.   They did this without any provocation or warning, beating old people and young on the waist, face and head, deliberately dislocating fingers, and in one case sexually assaulting girls by touching their breasts.   They fired rubber bullets (prohibited in Catalonia since 2014) at close range directly at the body.   Although we knew about the violent historical character of the Spanish state, we were not prepared for such savagery.

The police laughed at the pain of their victims and insulted them.   In addition to personal injuries, they vandalised the schools where the president, vicepresident and president of the Parliament of Catalonia  were going to vote.   Of course they didn’t do this in any school in the city of Badalona, where – what a coincidence! – the local Partido Popular MP intends to run again in 2019.

893 injured, one of whom may lose an eye – many more than the wounded during the August terrorist attacks – these awful  events have shocked many people, some of whom are still affected by the terrorist violence, and left us with a sense of  rage and generalised impotence.

It’s possible that Rajoy took this decision in order to see how far he could take the repression and measure what the response of the people would be.   The government has had the temerity to say that the   international consequences don’t matter much, when it comes to saving the sacred unity of the fatherland.   What is clear is that whether they wanted it or not, they have lost Catalonia forever.   Independence might come this month or in a few years, but the relationship between Catalonia and Spain will never be the same.   After this declaration of war,  no dialogue or pact is possible.   They have broken the cards.   .

And what about the EU?   A lukewarm condemnation of the violence and little more –   exactly what you would expect from a club of countries that allows thousands of people to die in the Mediterranean and sells human lives to an authoritarian state like Turkey.

For Catalans the only thing that remains to us now is to give some value to the referendum that we managed to organise admittedly in less than optimal conditions, but with a real determination to stand up to the barbarity and get round the obstacles that Spain placed in our path.     Only by declaring independence will we obtain protection from this fascist state,  even it goes badly for us in the first weeks.   Spain will never permit a negotiated referendum.   The EU says that we are an internal Spanish problem.   We could be trapped for decades in this loop.

Enough!   The people have spoken

Spain Versus Catalonia

Political struggles demand that you take sides, but there are some political confrontations that you just wish weren’t happening.   Watching the struggle for Catalan independence unfold over the last seven years, I have certainly not felt like a neutral or indifferent bystander.  Indifference is not possible when dealing with a country – Spain,  that I love – and a country within a country – Catalonia, where I lived for nine of the best years of my life and which I also love.

Throughout the last seven years I have often felt that I was watching a political tragedy unfold with potentially devastating and uncontrollable consequences for both Spain and Catalonia.  I have never believed that Spain would allow a ‘divorce’ like the one agreed between the Czech Republic and Slovakia – or which would have almost certainly happened here had Scotland won the independence referendum.

Not only is Catalonia too important politically and economically for Spain to let it go, but a successful Catalan separatist movement would open the way to secessionism in the Basque Country and other regions.  There is no way that the Spanish state or army will allow that to happen.

Knowing this does not mean that I could side with the Spanish state, especially a state represented by one of the most corrupt political parties in Europe, the Partido Popular – a party so riddled with sleaze and corruption that it constantly amazes me to find it still in power, and which combines these failings with a political cloven-footedness and instinctive authoritarianism that too easily reveals the party’s Francoist lineage.

The Partido Popular’s corruption, coupled with the overwheening centralism that led it to rescind the reform of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010, has led millions of Catalans to embrace the secessionist cause to an extent that was unimaginable when I lived in Barcelona in the 1990s.    Contrary to the arguments of Thatcherite reactionaries such as Mario Vargas Llosa – Catalanism does not represent some retrograde and anachronistic retreat into ‘nationalism’.

Nationalism and self-determination can take many different forms, from the racist US Confederacy and the ethnonationalist chauvinism of the Bosnian Serbs to the progressive political and socioeconomic aspirations that were partly responsible for the rise of the SNP – and the Catalans.

Personally, I would prefer to see such aspirations pursued outside a nationalist framework,  but regardless of what people like me might think, millions of Catalans see an independent state as a means of pursuing them, and when it comes to the issue of self-determination, their opinions are what counts.  Because self-determination is exactly what it sounds like; it means the right of a particular people to define its own political future.

The secessionist movement which has now coalesced around the Junts pel Sí coalition has campaigned peacefully with skill and passion,  and built a genuine popular movement.  It has compelling political, cultural and historical arguments on its side for an independent Catalan state – even if the arguments about ‘paying too much to Madrid’ are not amongst them, to my mind at least.

That said, the case for self-determination has not yet been won.  Independence cannot be decided on the basis of a 51 percent vote and previous surveys have not even reached that.  A political transformation of this magnitude requires a much higher participatory threshold and a much higher majority – and a broad consensus within Catalonia.

For all that the secessionist movement has achieved these last seven years, it is by no means clear that such a majority exists.  Nevertheless the movement has certainly made the case for a broad democratic consultation,  and the Spanish government’s repeated refusal to allow this has been a monumental political error.

Now, showing the political tin ear that it has always shown, Rajoy’s administration has turned to repression, whether confiscating ballot papers, arresting Catalan officials, threatening members of the Catalan government with sedition, or attempting to subject the Catalan police the Mossos d’Esquadra to the direct control of the Interior Ministry

Such actions are grist to the separatist mill.  They have further discredited Spanish institutions in the eyes of many Catalans, bringing back old memories of the Francoist era, and threatened to turn the ongoing confrontation into an explosive crisis with grave implications for the future of Spanish democracy.

Rajoy and his supporters have used the law and the constitution to justify the government’s clunking response, but legalistic arguments aren’t  a valid response to a popular movement of this scale, and repression will not succeed in extinguishing it.   The only way this confrontation can be defused and worked through – one way or another – is by a process of democratic consultation, which allows the Catalans to decide their own political future.

If the secessionist movement has not yet won its case for independence, it has surely won its right to put its case to the same kind of popular vote that we saw in Scotland and the UK, and which the Kurds are currently demanding in Iraq.

That shouldn’t mean a referendum with no participatory threshold.  Independence is too serious a business to be decided by a first-past-the-post race in which whoever gets 51 percent ‘wins.’  The parameters should be agreed on, the referendum should go ahead, and Spain should accept the result.

Because, if the government doesn’t allow this, and continues on its present course, then it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Catalonia will be placed in a state of emergency and that we will once again see the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona.  And as ambivalent as I might feel about Catalan independence, that is not something that I will ever support



Catalonia Dreaming

Last Friday morning I was on the top of Mount Canigou, ‘the sacred mountain of Catalonia’,  with my staunchly independentista friend from Barcelona,  Andreu.   Andreu had brought a Catalan flag with him to mark the occasion, and he wasn’t the only one.  A seventy-five-year-old  Barcelones  named Joan had climbed the summit with his daughter Anna in the hope that it would bring the Independence bloc luck in last Sunday’s elections.

Joan had no doubt what he hoped to achieve.  Halfway up the mountain he explained to a two French Catalans from Roussillon that, ‘ We want to escape from this shit that is Spain. I don’t mean the Spanish.  I mean Spain.’  Joan wanted this escape to be achieved by  mutual agreement.  He described it to the two Frenchmen as a mixture of divorce and a settling of accounts, in which Spain and Catalonia would give each other what they owed and each of them would go their separate ways.

The problem, as Joan and every other independentista like him knows well, is that Spain does not want such a divorce, and refuses to allow its increasingly unhappy Catalan spouse to walk away from a relationship that it considers crucial to its own national self-image.   On the summit Joan and his daughter took photographs of themselves draped in the Catalan flag while Andreu attached his own flag to the iron cross – a symbolic gesture that would once have earned him a long spell in jail under the Franco dictatorship.

The desire for an independent Catalan state is not a recent phenomenon.   Its roots can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when so many would-be states across Europe began to hatch from the shells of larger states and crumbling geopolitical empires.   Like many forms of nationalism, Catalanism has spanned the political spectrum from left to right, and incorporates different class forces, from  the  industrial magnates of the pre-World War I Lliga to rural farmers and the working class.

Traditionally one of the richest, if not the richest, regions in Spain, Catalonia’s nationalist sentiments have been driven not only a shared sense of Catalan identity rooted in language, culture, history and territory, but by the belief that it has given more to Spain than it receives in return, and by a sense of entrapment inside a corrupt, inefficient and even decadent Spanish state.

Those who remember the Spanish Civil War as a confrontation between left and right often forget that it was also a conflict between an army that saw itself as the armed embodiment of a centralist Spanish state and the nationalist aspirations of Catalonia and the Basque Country, which the Franco dictatorship spent decades attempting to suppress.

Even after Spain’s democratic transition and the autonomy statutes granted to the Basques and Catalans under the post-Franco constitution, that desire for independence has never subsided.

When I lived in Catalonia in the 1990s, it was more of a background hum.   In those years Jordi Pujol’s conservative  Convergència i Unió federation controlled the Catalan regional government and adroitly used a succession of high-profile events like the Olympic Games to promote Catalonia on the European and international stage, while exacting various political and economic concessions from successive Spanish governments that depended on its votes.

What is happening today is very different.  In the last decade, support for independence has soared, to the point when many independentistas feel closer to their goal than at any time in history.    The  main reasons for this resurgence are two-fold: firstly the strongly centralist, authoritarian, corrupt and startlingly politically inept governance of the ruling Partido Popular (PP), a conservative party with strong Francoist roots that appears to many Catalans the embodiment of the worst of Spain.

In the second place the 2007/8 financial crisis has brought Spain’s two-party system under pressure and produced new forms of civic activism, protest and new social movements.   In Catalonia, the crisis has acted as a political catalyst which has induced many Catalans, like the Scots,  to see independence as a progressive alternative to the austerity politics which the PP has attempted to forced down the throats of the Spanish population.

Neoliberal globalists such as the Peruvian novelist and Andean Thatcherite Mario Vargas Llosa often make spurious comparisons between Catalanism and Nazism, using the shallow argument that all forms of nationalism are essentially the same.   But  Catalan nationalism is not Golden Dawn, or the Ustacha, or Radovan Karadzic.   And the ‘all nationalisms are the same’ argument entirely ignores the search for social justice and for a new kind of politics that are driving the pro-independence surge of recent years.

In Scotland, proponents of ‘better together’ often appealed to notions of British social solidarity as an alternative to independence, even as these notions were being  made effectively redundant by the political domination of a small – mostly English – political elite in hoc to powerful financial interests and collectively wedded to the bitter medicine of economic ‘realism’ and its ugly sister Ms Austerity.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by writers such as Javier Marias and others who lament and mourn the Catalans antipathy towards Spain or present as a reactionary and essentially neurotic political manifestation.

To point this out doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that self-determination offers the solutions to the problems that its proponents have identified.   But many Catalans clearly believe it will,  and their quest for independence is part of a search for a new kind of politics that has taken many different forms in many countries over the last few years.

The Catalans have been trying hard to achieve their aspirations,  through a skillful campaign of civic participation, rooted in an umbrella of local assemblies or  asambleas  and powerful popular mobilisations such as the massive 2012 I million march in Barcelona, which have assumed the proportions of a genuine social movement.

Using these methods they have sought to promote their cause nationally and internationally and increase the political pressure on a Spanish government that has remained resolutely tone-deaf and determined to resist any negotiations or concessions regarding Catalonia’s future.

Last Sunday’s elections were seen by many Catalans as a  de facto  referendum on independence, following repeated refusals  by the PP to allow the kind of referendum that took place in Scotland last year.   The elections were preceded by a Spanish version of ‘project fear’, which warned among other things of dried-up ATM machines and limits on cash withdrawals in an Argentina-style  corralito.

Unlike the Scots, the Catalans have resoundingly rejected these scenarios, and delivered 62 seats for the coalition of leftist and centre-right nationalist parties  Junts pel Sí  (‘Together for Yes’).  If the coalition can reach an agreement with the leftist pro-Independence CUP, the pro-independence bloc will have an absolute majority of 72 seats out of 135.

So Joan’s communion with the ancestral spirits of his native land may have borne fruit. But this victory is not quite a mandate for independence.  With less than 48 percent of the overall vote out of a record turnout of 78 percent, it is difficult to see how the pro-independence bloc can proceed to establish their own national institutions, as some have promised to do.

But it is equally difficult to see how the current Spanish government or its successors can ignore this result and pretend that it hasn’t happened. In fact  it is difficult to imagine than any future Spanish government will willingly grant independence to Catalonia – a process that would almost certainly be followed by independence for the Basques and possibly by other autonomous regions as well.

The election results don’t resolve this conundrum, and it is difficult to see how it will resolve itself in the future.    Ultimately, as Juan Luís Cebrián argued recently in the anti-independence  El País, the political crisis in Catalonia is the product of the failings of the Spanish state itself.

Cebrián believes these failings can be addressed.    Last Sunday’s elections make it clear than nearly two million Catalans don’t have the same opinion, and the government that takes power after December’s national elections will have a hard time convincing them otherwise.



The revolt of the Catalans

Barcelona is a city where I spent nine years of my life and where I have many good friends.     So I”ve been following with special interest – and not without some anxiety – the upsurge in separatist sentiment in Catalonia, which reached its apotheosis in the huge pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona on 11 September.

The freefall of the Spanish economy is clearly the decisive factor in the largest demonstration in Barcelona”s history, and the recent opinion polls suggesting that 51 percent of Catalans would vote ‘yes’ to independence.

With most of Spain”s autonomous regions, including Catalonia,   on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to pay for the provision of basic public services, many Catalans have become even more resentful than usual at a financial relationship with central government that they argue benefits Spain more than it does Catalonia itself.

But the economic crisis is really the straw that broke the camel”s back.  Even before the crisis really began to bite, secessionist sentiment was already on the rise, in the form of the local referendums or consultes populars that were held in various Catalan municipalities in 2009  .

These developments were partly influenced by a series of Spanish Court rulings limiting the use of Catalan as the main language of instruction in the region’s schools – one of the great achievements of Catalan nationalists in the post-Franco era.

Catalonia certainly has a strong historical case for independence, with a powerful sense of national and cultural identity that can be traced back to the medieval Catalan empire.   As the wealthiest region in Spain, it has the economic potential to fulfil the dreams of Catalan nationalists and create a “Switzerland on the Pyrenees.”

So why am I less than thrilled by these developments? Well, history is one reason.   It”s often forgotten that the hostility of the Spanish army to Catalan and Basque secessionism was a decisive factor in the military coup that ignited the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish army has always seen itself as the backbone of a Spanish state whose component parts have not willingly accepted Spanish rule, and it has intervened various times in history to suppress the rebellious Catalans.

In a recent interview with the online magazine Alerta Digital,   Colonel Francisco Alamán Castro, a serving officer in the Spanish army,  declared that “Spain is not Yugoslavia nor Belgium” and that “Catalonia will become independent over my dead body and many others.”

Alamán warned the “carrion-eating vultures” circling over the “comatose body of the fatherland” and that “ Although the lion appears to be sleeping, do not provoke the lion, because he has given abundant proof of his ferocity over the centuries.”

Indeed he has, and these are not words to be taken lightly.   A Catalan friend of mine   believes that the Spanish army would not be able to enforce such threats because of Spain”s membership of the EU.

But  it is not melodramatic   to imagine a future scenario in which the Spanish armed forces intervened in Catalonia, presenting themselves as the protectors of the region”s Spanish-speaking population and the upholders of constitutional legality.     If that did happen, it is difficult to believe that the armed forces would feel constrained by Spain”s membership of the EU, or that the EU would be willing or able to stop them.

Of course there are other less dramatic scenarios.  Catalonia and the Spanish government might agree to a political “divorce” of the type that resulted in the division of Czechoslovakia into two states during the 1990s.

But in Czechoslovakia, there were only two states in question, both of which wanted the same thing.     I can”t imagine that any Spanish government would agree to a process that would encourage the country”s other autonomous regions to go down the same route.

Catalonia often presents itself as a victim of Spanish chauvinism, and there have certainly periods in which it has been, such as the ruthless suppression of Catalan culture and political institutions under Franco.

But a recent declaration by a leading Catalan politician that Catalonia should not have to provide money to Spain, to enable its population to “go to the village bar” contains more than a little petit-bourgeois condescension not to mention an all-too-common tendency amongst richer regions in many countries to resent having to finance their poorer counterparts.

Such resentment was one of the driving forces behind the break-up of Yugoslavia, especially following the catastrophic IMF-enforced restructuring of the Yugoslav economy.

The severity of the Spanish economic crisis coupled with the monumental levels of corruption and financial incompetence that allowed it to happen has clearly encouraged a similar salvese quien pueda (everyone for himself) mentality in Spain, and I can”t help feeling that the revolt of the Catalans is partly an expression of  this tendency.

The EU should not be surprised by these developments.  Brussels may not be especially favourable to the idea of an independent Catalan state, but draconian economic “reforms” that bail out banks, cut social services to the bone and produce mass unemployment tend to unleash political forces that are not easily contained by ‘shock doctrine’ economics.

It is difficult to predict where all this will lead.   The right-of-centre Catalan politicians who have dominated Catalonia during Spain’s democratic transition are adept at using popular pressure for independence to force concessions from the Spanish government, and Artur Mas, the current president of the Catalan Generalitat appears to be playing the same game.

One minute he was saying that he wouldn”t go to the Barcelona demonstration, then he announced that he would only go in a “personal capacity.”     Now he is calling for “more Catalonia and more Europe” while simultaneously evading the question of whether that means “less Spain.”

Mas may well limit his aspirations to a renegotiation of Catalonia”s fiscal pact.  Or he may find himself propelled by the secessionist wave to seek a more radical redefinition of Catalonia”s relationship with Spain, in line with the slogan of the Barcelona demonstration slogan “Catalonia: a new state in Europe.”

Should things reach that stage, there is no telling what might happen.     And that is why I can”t help regarding the surge of patriotic fervour in the city where I once spent nine years of my life,  with more trepidation than enthusiasm.