During a trip to Barcelona, I sat down to read a local newspaper and, although I understand Spanish, I couldn’t fathom a word. The newspaper was in Catalan. Catalonia is part of Spain but has its own distinct language, territory, culture and history of resistance to oppression.
It was the Spring of 2003, and I was speaking on a panel with other US journalists opposed to the Iraq War. The conservative government in Madrid supported the US invasion; the progressive government in Catalonia did not. Hundreds of people came out to our events, which were sponsored by the Barcelona city government.
Catalonia, which is located in the northeast of Spain, now has an even bigger dispute with a conservative government in Madrid. In October, the Catalan parliament declared independence. Then the central authorities, led by the right-wing Popular Party (PP), seized control of the Catalan government and jailed some of its leaders. Other leaders fled to Belgium to avoid arrest.
The central government dissolved the Catalan parliament and called new legislative elections for Dec. 21. Both pro- and anti-independence parties are mobilizing for the elections, and the results may be close.
Opponents of independence argue that Catalan secession would splinter Spain, and worsen economic and political conditions in Catalonia. Richard Silberstein is an American attorney who has worked in Barcelona since 1992. His firm represents multinational corporations, among others. “The Catalán government,” he told me “was willing to ram secession down the throats of the majority of the Catalán population through undemocratic, illegal means.”
Independistas disagree, saying Catalans voted for independence in a fair election. They say they are fighting for democracy and social justice. “Today everything is in the hands of the rich people, the same as in [former dictator Francisco] Franco’s time,” Xavi Turull told me. “Now the people are taking power.” Turull is a well known Catalan musician and independence advocate.
Who’s right? Well, it’s complicated.
To the extent Americans know any Catalan history, it’s from George Orwell’s seminal book Homage to Catalonia. He described the 1930s civil war when communists, socialists, anarchists and progressives fought Spanish fascists, who were backed by Hitler and Mussolini.
From 1931-1939, when Spain elected a progressive government, Catalans enjoyed considerable autonomy with the right to speak their own language and control local government. When Franco seized power in 1939, he crushed Catalan autonomy along with democratic rights throughout Spain.
The struggle for Catalan rights continued throughout the Franco era and down to the present. In a 2006 referendum 78% of Catalans voted to establish a Statute of Autonomy, which gave Catalonia control over cultural matters, education, healthcare, and local government, among other matters.
But in 2010, as a result of a legal action spearheaded by the conservative PP, Spain’s Constitutional Court rewrote 14 provisions of the Statute and changed the interpretation of 27 others. Over a million Catalans demonstrated against the court decision.
“We got very angry,” Turull said. “Why belong to a country that overrules our laws.”
That’s not how the pro-unity forces see the issue. Silberstein said the independence movement propagates populist myths based on a false sense of Catalan victimhood. He noted that Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain.
The independence movement is “an insult to people who really are oppressed, who have dictatorships or face ethnic cleansing,” he said. “I would challenge anyone to show how they are oppressed.”
But many Catalans do, indeed, see themselves as oppressed. That was reflected on October 1 when the province held an independence referendum. The central government declared the voting illegal and sent security forces to arrest independence party leaders and block people from voting. Over 800 people were injured in clashes with police and Civil Guards.
Catalans voted 91% in favor of independence, although because of a boycott by unity supporters, only 42% of registered voters participated.
“Lots of people were horrified, including investors,” said Silberstein. “It opened the floodgates for companies moving out.” More than 2,400 Catalan based corporations have technically relocated by moving their headquarter addresses to Spanish territory.
The vote was a watershed moment for independistas, however. “We celebrated,” said Turull. “We were so happy. But we knew it wouldn’t last.”
Turull acknowledged that the independence movement is mostly made up of intellectuals, middle income people and youth. The working class, which includes a lot of people from other parts of Spain, has not favored independence. Turull said the independistas focus on the lack of democracy in Spain, not immediate economic issues.
Turull said Catalans are tired of having their progressive laws overruled by Madrid. “A small country is easier to have a socially progressive majority,” he said. “Look at Iceland where they jailed their bankers after the 2008 crash.”
The left in Spain falls into two broad camps regarding the Catalan issue. Several smaller Catalan parties, such as the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), support independence. CUP argues that a left wing coalition can actually win power in an independent Catalonia while it could not in Spain.
On a national level, the leftist Podemos and the Communist Party of the People’s of Spain support self determination, including the right of Catalans to hold free elections on independence. They urged a vote against independence, however, and encourage peaceful dialogue to expand Catalan autonomy within a federal Spanish state.
Turull, for example, would favor greater autonomy within Spain if Podemos headed the government in Madrid. “Podemos would have convinced Catalans to remain in Spain,” he said. “Podemos in power means we would have had a chance for real change.”
But the left does not hold power in Madrid. Major Spanish institutions are solidly allied against independence and even oppose a referendum. Spain’s King Felipe VI, the Constitutional Court, PP and the Socialist Party oppose Catalonia’s right to self determination.
I think these central government policies are a guarantee of continued turmoil. Catalonia has the right of self determination, which can be compared to the right of divorce. Knowing you can separate allows the marriage to stay together on the basis of equality. Recognizing the right of divorce doesn’t mean every couple should actually separate. That same principle applies to independence movements.
An independent Catalonia would face tremendous problems as it came under attack economically and militarily by the central government. Europe would also seek to isolate the new country, fearing the example it would set for separatists in Scotland, Belgium and elsewhere. And, it’s not at all clear that an independent Catalan government led by nationalists, not leftists, would improve the lives of ordinary people. However, that’s a decision for Catalans to decide.
The left and independence forces plan to make the Dec. 21 parliamentary elections into a new referendum on independence by scoring a victory for their parties. I think the independence forces will respect the vote if they lose. I seriously doubt that the central authorities will do the same.
“The only thing I want is a fair referendum,” said Turull. “If the majority votes for union, then we stay in Spain. But if we vote for independence, we will become independent. That’s democracy.”
Reese Erlich’s syndicated column “Foreign Correspondent” appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. His home page is www.reeseerlich.com; follow him on Twitter @ReeseErlich or on Facebook, Reese Erlich foreign correspondent.