As if the world was lacking problems, with hurricanes and Trump and wars in the Middle East, we had two “new” topics to think about. The referendums about independence in Southern Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) on September 25, 2017, and in Catalonia on October 1, reminded the world about the aspirations of these two peoples.
The initiatives to hold such referendums represent an optimistic approach, a belief that the expression of the will of the people carries a moral weight that may influence political events. But in both cases we also witnessed the refusal of the local and world ruling powers to accept the legitimacy of the referendum. The perspective of conflicts that might get out of control is looming. What is it all about and what does it teach us about the state of the world these days?
I was lucky to meet a distinguished guest in Haifa a few days after the referendum, an intellectual activist from Catalonia. He agreed to help me understand better what is behind the Catalan referendum and how people in Catalonia think about their future as an independent nation. I will try to summarize below what I heard from him as well as the result of some reading and research on my side and deliberations about current discussion of the issue in leftist circles.
The deep roots of Catalan aspirations
Catalonia‘s history as a nation with distinguished language, culture and history goes back many hundreds of years. But the roots of today’s struggle for Catalonian independence can be immediately traced to the harsh history of Spain in the 20th century. Being industrialized earlier than most of Spain, Catalonia became a hotbed of republican and democratic aspirations, as well as of social movements, with a big role to the trade unions and to anarchist and socialist parties and organizations.
Barricades in Barcelona, 1909. Refusing to oppress rebellious Morocco
During the 1909 “Second Rif War”, waged by Spanish colonialism to oppress liberation struggles in Morocco, anarchists and socialists in Catalonia called for a general strike against forced conscription to the Spanish army. The people of Barcelona took control of the streets, and soldiers from the local units of the army refused to move against their brother workers. Soon army units were sent from other parts of Spain. They crushed the popular uprising by deadly fire, killing about 150 people. Later the Spanish courts ordered the execution of some of the political leaders of the movement, including anarchist thinker Francesc Ferrer.
The repressive dictatorship of Primo De-Rivera, a general who suspended the constitution and ruled Spain with the support of the king between 1923 and 1930, spent special efforts to suppress “separatists” in Catalonia and the Basque country. Economic crisis and mass protest forced the dismantling of the dictatorship and opened the door for the establishment of the “Second Spanish Republic” that lasted from 1931 until it was slaughtered in the bloody 1936-39 civil war by General Franco’s fascist forces.
Francesc Meciá addressing a rally
Just before the republic was declared, on April 1931, after parties supporting Catalan independence won local elections, Catalan republicans led by Francesc Macià declared the establishment of an independent Catalan Republic, hoping to be part of an “Iberian Confederation”. They were soon pressed by the new republican leadership in Madrid and agreed to settle for an autonomous Catalonia within Spain.
After the election victory of the right-wing and fascists and the formation of a republican government led by CEDA, the Catalan local government declared, on October 6, 1934, a “Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic”. It was meant to be part of a leftist resistance movement against the rising danger of fascism, which was threatening the whole European continent. Soon the Spanish army crashed the independent state, suspended local autonomy and arrested many activists including president Lluís Companys and all his government.
All this was just prelude to Catalonia’s special experiment during the 1936-39 civil war between the Spanish Republic and General Franco’s fascists. There are many books and films about this extraordinary social experiment aimed not only to defend the democratic republic but also to create a better society, led by workers and peasants in a real democratic and egalitarian spirit. In fact, my early love for Catalonia started with reading Orwell’s book “Homage to Catalonia”.
Later, of course, followed the bleeding experience of almost forty years of oppression by the Franco dictatorship. Mr. Companys, who was Catalonia’s president during the civil war, was among many who were executed in revenge for their struggle for freedom and justice. The Catalan language was outlawed and tens of thousands were imprisoned or had to go into exile.
There is a direct line connecting the experiences of the 20th century and current events in Catalonia. Most people that are active today have living memories of parents, grandparents, relatives and friends who were killed, tortured, imprisoned or had to go into exile during the civil war or Franco’s dictatorship. The party of Macià and Companys, the “Republican Left of Catalonia” (ERC), is still leading the movement for independence and returned to be the biggest party in the Catalan parliament in the 2015 elections with 62 out of 135 representatives. And Spain is still a monarchy with institutions that have never completely broken with the tradition of Franco’s dictatorship. The “People’s Party” (PP) of Prime Minister Rajoy was actually established by a previous interior minister under the Franco dictatorship to assure this continuity.
Sympathy and ambivalence about separatism
Some young comrades here see this reference to Catalonia’s idealistic and rebellious past as pure nostalgia. They say that now Catalonia is simply richer than most of Spain, and wouldn’t like to share its affluence. Comparing the current complaints of the Catalan with those of the Kurds (or the Palestinians), outside observers may say “they have nothing to complain about”.
It reminds me of the response of some poor people, which are used to the view of women being abused, beaten and prevented from going out of the house, to hearing of a middle-class woman that asks for a divorce just because there is no love in her marriage. “Let her be beaten and shut up”, they might say. But don’t we all believe that unity, in state or marriage, should be the result of free will?
“You say that Spain is not a democracy?”
Well, now, with the clumsy attempts by the Spanish state to oppress the referendum, and the views of police beating citizens furiously just for their will to cast their vote, Catalonia can show the blooded noise and bloated eye that turn public opinion in its favor. Wasn’t all the argument about staying in Spain based on the assumption that Spain is now a democracy? What is more democratic than letting people express their opinion? Britain allowed the Scots to vote on independence. British politicians campaigned to convince them to vote “No”, and won in a democratic way.
All the idea of “the right of nations for self-determination” is not about the argument whether staying in one state is better or worse than separation. It states the obvious fact that keeping a nation within a state contrary to its will is basically wrong, both morally and practically. Even if initially there were no compulsory reasons for separation, the oppression and enmity that are the inevitable results of trying to forcefully suppress separatism are making life miserable for the oppressed, and awkward in many ways for the oppressors, and undo any possible benefit of unity. This was recognized by the greatest leader of Arab nationalism, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who let Sudan separate peacefully.
I learned from my Catalan guest that the same effect worked also within Catalonia itself. Initially many more people supported the referendum than supported total independence. They were saying: “We may agree to be part of Spain, but this should be decided by our free will”. And after the brutal assault on the referendum, Catalan people who supported unity with Spain joined the protesters for the first time, some of them waving Spanish flags.
I find it especially wired while some leftists consider the corrupt rightist ultra-centralist government in Madrid as God’s invisible hand that was sent to redistribute Catalonia’s excessive wealth to Spain’s poor regions. It is doing much better job at holding Barcelona back than at helping anybody else.
The long road to the current referendum
There is also a more recent historical experience that led to the current surge in support for Catalan independence. It goes back to the previous decade, when the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) was in government in Madrid, under Prime Minister José Zapatero. At the same time the socialists were also in government in autonomous Catalonia, and there was a long process of negotiations to redefine the place of Catalonia within Spain, to satisfy the demand for greater autonomy. After compromises on both sides, the agreement was approved in 2006 by both Parliaments, in Barcelona and Madrid, and in a special referendum in Catalonia.
The Spanish rightist party, PP, then in opposition, objected to the 2006 agreement and appealed against it to the constitutional court. In 2010 the court decided by 6 to 4 judges to rewrite and re-interpret the status of Catalonia, annulling most of the achievements of the Catalan people in terms of language, legal rights and economic autonomy. This intervention by the court, based on laws that are mostly relics of the fascist era, which overthrew all what was agreed upon in long negotiations and approved by a democratic process, convinced many Catalans that they can’t rely on Spain’s democracy to meet their aspirations.
The immediate response to the annulment of the autonomy status by the court was the first mass pro-independence rally, which was estimated to number more than a million people. The main slogan of the protest was “We are a nation. We decide.” Since then mass independence demos continued in Catalonia every year.
Opponents of Catalonia’s independence emphasis polls in which respondents were given three options: Full independence, wider autonomy or preserving the status quo. Those clearly stating their preference for independence usually fall short of outright majority. But the option for greater autonomy was unilaterally blocked by Madrid, so it is hardly a viable alternative. And, put together, there is a clear majority that is unsatisfied with the status quo.
Also, many of those that avoid calling for separation from Spain do it out of fear from outright repression and economic sanctions that may follow. The nightmares of the civil war and the dictatorship are still a strong force in Spain as a whole. Of course, these are legitimate considerations that should be taken into account while choosing your path. But it means that not all those that prefer to stay in Spain do it because this is what they really want.
What the Spanish government doesn’t understand, explains my guest, is the deep popular nature of the quest for independence. They negotiate with political leaders, hoping to convince them to abandon the call for independence. But now, as so many
One ballot box saved
people are active and emotionally involved and the ideas are so widely spread, this is not an option. If some leaders will give up, they will immediately lose their popular support.
He describes the political map in Catalonia. The support for independence is strong both among local establishment (pro-capitalist) parties and among the different leftists, socialist and anarchists. Parties that didn’t join the movement, like the local socialist party, were split and abandoned by many of their grassroots activists as well as intellectual highlights. Podemos, the new alternative left on the Spanish level, is supporting independence in Catalonia and gained farter credibility by defending Catalans’ right to choose their way in the Parliament in Madrid.
The day of Truth
The popular character of the movement was strengthened and highlighted toward the referendum, as the challenge of oppression by Madrid became more threatening. My guest tells the story of thousands of ballot boxes that were bought in China, flown to France and smuggled through the borders by thousands of ordinary Catalan citizens, many of them farmers, hiding them under beds and in cowsheds. In spite of the efforts of the Spanish regular police and aggressive “civil guards”, which were sent in in great numbers by Madrid, almost none were caught.
Hooded police confiscating ballot boxes – can they confiscate the will of the people?
He also tells the story of the defiance of more than five hundred local mayors, the great majority of them, who openly defied the orders of the central government and supported the referendum. Will they all be arrested?
His two sons, he tells, woke up at 04:00 on the morning of Sunday, October 1, their day off work, in order to be, with many others, at the gates of the polling center before 5 am, four hours before voting started, to prevent any attempt by the police to disrupt the voting. He also didn’t only vote “Yes!” but stayed the whole day to guard his vote lest it will be stolen by a police raid. They were all tuned to hear the news from friends’ phones of brutal police attacks on nearby polling centers. Fortunately the police had a hard time where they did attack and couldn’t disrupt the voting in most centers.
The rest of it is the history that everybody knows; the 90% yes vote for independence and the denial by Madrid that there was a referendum at all. And, of course, King Philip the sixth expressed his disappointment with the disloyalty of his subjects in Catalonia. He should really consider choosing another nation to rule over.
I ask my guest how the Catalans view their future independent state. He explains that it is not a return to old style nationalism. Actually, most Catalans feel very much part of Europe. They speak from the beginning on limited sovereignty within the European Union, with common market, free movement of people and no visible borders. But if they anyway belong to the European club, why do it through the mediation of Madrid and not directly through Barcelona?
Agricultural Anarchist Collective – Catalonia 1936
But not all Catalans are to this level mainstream Europeans. There is a strong anarchist tendency, which enjoys the support of more than 10% of the electorate. And there is the radical left that is critical of Europe’s conservative economic policies. My guest is concerned with the radicalism of these parties, but he can’t deny that they are integral part of Catalan political history and culture. In the framework of Free Catalonia Podemos might well be the next government party.
He stress that Catalan nationalism is not xenophobic. Because of Catalonia’s economic prosperity it drew economic migrants from all over Spain and from other countries. He says the independence movement take care to put in the front not only people from Catalan origins but also immigrants from different races and regions of the world.
Catalonia’s people have all different views about the future. Now they are (or most of them) united in a struggle for independence. When this struggle will be won they will have the chance to pursue their dreams, free of outside chains and interventions.
To some extent this vision may be viewed as converging toward a modern concept of trans-national unity, with no physical borders, combined with decentralized democracy and multiculturalism, which distribute as many powers as possible to all local levels, where the people are. The Kurdish left, confronted with the much more complicated quagmire of the Middle East, developed it into a comprehensive concept of Democratic Confederalism.
I ask my Catalan guest about the danger of violent oppression. What will really come next after a declaration of independence?
The immediate expected response is more oppression from Madrid. But the worst he can think about is hundreds of political prisoners, mostly the imprisonment of the political leadership. He doesn’t think that in democratic Spain that wants to stay as part of democratic Europe there could be massacres or uncontrolled violence.
I hope he is right, but Madrid’s refusal to negotiate before the referendum will be “annulled” and threats to abolish Catalonia’s limited autonomy and force direct rule don’t bode well. As the people of Catalonia are mobilized in the struggle and the government only opts for more repression there are unlimited options for friction and confrontation to escalate and get out of control.
The Catalan leadership is striving for negotiations. Their main hope is that the European Union will intervene to find an agreed solution. But they are ready for any other kind of mediation, including Pope Francis who already intervened to solve sharp internal conflicts in other countries.
We like to think that the world is moving forward toward a more democratic order, where conflicts are solved by arguments and votes, not by guns and violence. The two referendums in Kurdistan and Catalonia pose an intriguing test to this assumption.
The Kurds know that they live and the most dangerous and politically oppressive region of the world, where hereditary kings and dictators rule by the power of the sword, and nationalism and sectarianism mix to create a combustive atmosphere. They don’t dare to declare independence as the armies of all neighboring states are ready to intervene to crush their dreams,
The Catalan referendum poses the question of how different Europe has become, has it really left behind its not so far violent past? It will test Europe’s pretension to represent a more democratic order that others may take inspiration from. If the holy unity of the state will prove stronger than the will of the people, than democracy is only a thin mask over the ugly face of dictatorship.