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.



Catalonia’s human castles

A very good Catalan friend of mine has just sent me a fabulous calendar of one of my favourite Catalan folk traditions: els castellers – the castlemakers.  It’s a tradition that was first recorded in the late eighteenth century, though its roots may reach further back than that.

It sounds simple and a little crazy at the same time:  teams known as colles compete with each other to build human towers by standing on each others’ shoulders.  In accordance with tradition they wear white trousers, bandanas, coloured shirts and black sashes wrapped round their waists,  which give them added strength and stability and also provide footholds and handholds for the higher layers as they climb up or down.

The construction of these towers begins with the  solid base known as the pinya – the base of the castle, made up of stocky men chosen for their strength, which is then given additional support by a larger group that reach out their arms and push against the core like a human buttress:


Once the base is formed and stabilised,  another group climbs on top of them, approaching from different directions at exactly the same moment to avoid any risk of overbalancing and lopsidedness, forming another tier and then another, with the top formed by a single child known as the enxaneta (the rider), who raises his or arm to signal that the maximum height has been achieved.  You can see one preparing to go up here, in the red helmet:


And here at the top:


Even then the process isn’t fully complete, since a tower is only considered successful when it has been descarregat – successfully dismantled,  as opposed to carregat (collapsed in dismantling).  These towers can go up eight storeys in the popular quatre de vuit – eight by four:

And even on very rare occasions to nine in the quatre de nou amb folre–four people on each storey and 9 storeys high, which I’ve never seen, performed here by the legendary Castellers de Vilafranca:


Watching them go up is an incredibly exciting and moving experience.  There are many different possible variations and their construction is a highly technical and intricate process that has been refined and developed over decades, which depends on the exact distribution of weight, height, build, and meticulous coordination between all the members of the team.

The pinya is critical.  The group chief or organizer known as the cap de colla and his or her assistants will spend some time calling out names and numbers and instructions until the base is considered sufficiently compact and level to support the next layer.

At this moment musicians begin to play the Catalan flute called the gralla and the drum known as the timbal, which accompany each phase of their construction and also informs the members on the lower levels what is happening above them.

The next layer is lighter and then lighter still, and the speed and agility as they climb onto each others shoulders and get into position, linking arms with their legs trembling is just astounding to watch.   At times it looks as if the whole structure will come crashing down at any minute, and sometimes it does.

But then, almost impossibly, a child who might be as young as six will make the last lonely climb all the way from the bottom to stand on the shoulders of the last two or three people,  and raise their hand to signal that the tower has reached its maximum point.

This element of danger and tension is part of what makes the castellers such a compelling dramatic spectacle.  But the drama also stems from their setting.  They are usually performed on festival days in front of the town hall, in public squares that are filled with people, who are themselves part of the performance.

For Catalans, the castellers are a powerful symbol of Catalan national identity.    But they also symbolise more universal ideals that most human societies aspire toward: solidarity and community, trust, cooperation, mutual collaboration and support, and the human desire to defy boundaries and climb higher.

It’s impossible to watch the castles without sensing this, and it wasn’t for nothing that  UNESCO inscribed the castellers amongst the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ in 2010, because they really are a kind of masterpiece.

Today Catalonia, like the rest of Spain is under the austerity lash.  Unemployment in Spain has just reached an astounding five million and the shambolic performance of Zapatero’s socialists has paved the way for the political comeback of one of the worst right wing parties in Europe, the Partido Popular, whose political lineage reaches back to the Franco dictatorship.

My friend says that ‘to overcome this difficult 2012 we’ll need a lot of the values of Castellers’: “Força, Equilibri, Valor i Seny” (Strength, Balance, Courage, and Common Sense).

Couldn’t agree more – and not only in Catalonia.  But I’d one more thing.   In Chris Marker’s classic film Sans Soleil, the anonymous narrator quotes from the Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon, the sixteenth century author of The Pillow Book, who wrote of her desire to compile arbitrary lists of ‘ things that quicken the heart.’

A beautiful expression.   In these dismal years of meaningless wars, of waste, greed, corruption, incompetence and monumental  folly, when so many towers are crashing down all around us, we also need to compile our own lists of ‘things that quicken the heart’, and the castellers will always be on mine.

And today, recovering from flu and looking out onto the ice and snow, I can see a crowded square in Barcelona, the city where I spent nine great years, with the brilliant blue sky overhead, and the shrill sound of the gralla and timbal playing the toc de castells: the ‘castles reveille’, and I leave you with this fantastic video from the 2010 castellers festival in Tarragona, which captures something of their magic:


Spain is different (2)

Spain may be hovering on the brink of disaster,  but Barcelona is not the kind of city to allow the prospect of bailouts, cuts and economic collapse to interfere with the essential rituals of the Spanish summer.  On Wednesday night the middle-aged football fans leapt from the couch in the opposite flat and came out onto the balcony to shout ‘gooaaaal’ after a Messi strike against Real Madrid in the second round of the Supercopa.  Soon afterwards the streets were filled with bleeping horns and shouting in celebration of another defeat inflicted by Barca on Mourinho’s not-quite dream team.

In my old neighbourhood in Gracia, the streets have been decked out in their usual finery for the Fiestas de Gracia, the largest and most elaborate Fiesta Major (Neighbourhood Festival) in the city.   Every August Gracia residents drape their streets  in fantastic decorations for a week of street parties.   Some of these guarniments (Catalan: decorations) are amazingly elaborate and creative, transforming entire blocks into fantasy environments populated by aliens, giants and undersea creatures.

Many of them are the result of more than a year’s work by local residents, and competition for the first prize is so fierce that there have been rumours of sabotage during previous years.  Here’s a photograph of this year’s prizewinner, with a J.M Barrie/Peter Pan theme (not a choice that I agreed with, but I’m often mystified by the criteria of the festival judges):

And another:


These incredibly vibrant fiestas leave Royal Wedding street parties standing.  They are primarily intended for the benefit of the Gracia residents – so much so that their organizers once refused to change their traditional dates to coincide with the 1992 Olympic Games, despite the inducement of a not-inconsiderable sum of money from the city council.   Nowaways the festival is a huge tourist attraction.  Every night tens of thousands of people swarm through the neighbourhood to dance, drink and listen to the array of bands, discos and orchestras blaring from streets and plazas.

For many of Gracia’s residents sleep is impossible until about three or four in the morning, and even then the sound of horns and exploding fireworks is likely to wake people up around eight o’clock.  No one seems to mind, and those who do will at least put up with it for the week. Even young children stay up with the parents and grandparents till way past midnight, and there are activities for all ages, from lindyhop classes to punk bands and live opera.

Spain’s economic woes are not  entirely absent from the celebrations.   When I was last here three years ago there were clashes between riot police and local anarchos, who argued – somewhat unreasonably in my opinion – that the fiestas were ‘repressive’ because people were only allowed to party until the early hours rather than the whole night.

This year one street has been decorated with rows of anguished theatrical masks and a giant pair of scissors in protest against les retallades (cuts).  Apart from that, and the festival goes on – as in Spain and Catalonia – it always will.   An indispensable component of Catalan neighbourhood festivals is the Correfoc (fire run), my favourite Catalan tradition, in which processions of devils, and sometimes dragons, parade through the streets dancing and igniting chains of fireworks.

British standards of health and safety are generally absent from these gloriously anarchic processions.  On Wednesday we followed a Correfoc through the twisting alleys and streets of the Barrio Gotico in the San Roc neighbourhood near the old Gothic cathedral.

For an hour or so, devils danced and twirled, holding forks containing fizzing fireworks, and the ancient streets of the Gothic quarter were filled with smoke and fizzing fireworks and deafening explosions,  in a joyous parody of hell, accompanied by the manic rhythms of a local samba band.    I don’t have a camera, but this picture gives you a pretty good idea of the mayhem involved:

It was a hugely enjoyable spectacle – a tribute to the appetite for irreverent mischief-making and unbridled lunacy which has always coexisted seamlessly with the very practical, mercantilist Catalan temperament.  On Sunday we’re going to another one on the last day of the Gracia fiestas and I can’t help thinking these processions would make a terrific accompaniment for a papal visit to Barcelona.  I can see Ratzinger’s dark hooded eyes peering warily from the glass PopeMobile, waving his hand to bless the dancing devils and dragons.

Now that would be a Correfoc to remember.