Since September, the prospect of Catalan independence has shaken Spain once more with the introduction of an independence referendum on October 1 by Catalan leaders. This follows months of exchanges between the governments in Madrid and Barcelona regarding how much self-determination the Catalans should have over their state as one of the economic powerhouses of Spain.
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, has been an important commercial hub for centuries. It features one of the most active ports in Europe, attracts a great deal of tourists, and boasts the headquarters of some of Europe’s premier investment banks. Due to its economic strength, the autonomous state has a significant fiscal deficit with Spain, paying 16 trillion more euros in taxes to Madrid than it receives back in funds. Catalan leaders and citizens have cited this siphoning of the region’s wealth as integral to their motivations for independence. However, for many Catalans, the calls for independence stem instead from a painful history between them and the Spanish government.
As citizens of the Second Spanish Republic, Catalans fought alongside the left-leaning Republicans against the Nationalists (led by General Francisco Franco) in the Spanish Civil War. Franco is famed for the concentration camps he set up for prisoners of war and his overthrow of democracy following his victory in 1939. During the White Terrors of Spain, the dictator persecuted former Republicans and targeted the Catalan population in ways that many today perceive as unusually retributive.
Catalans were executed by the thousands in Francoist concentration camps and prisons for even the suspicion of providing aid to the Republicans. In an interview with The New York Times, Serafina Sabaté, a Catalan mother, recounts how her father, who had been a fabric worker for the Republican Army, was imprisoned for six years in a Francoist cell. Summing up her fears of the current crisis, Mrs Sabaté said, “You see how it is going to end.”
The Francoist state also targeted the Catalan language, banning its use in public. To many Catalans, this was an attack on the foundation of their culture and the Catalan identity. Even after the reestablishment of democracy after Franco’s death in 1975, many Catalans remain ambivalent towards the Spanish government and seek to redress this history with a complete separation from Spain. Mrs. Sabaté’s son, in another interview with the Times, expressed, “All my life, I had the dream of dying in an independent country, … [and] now it is very near.”
These tensions led the Catalan government to hold a “participation process” in 2014 that asked citizens whether or not they would like to see Catalonia become an independent state. This was after the non-binding referendum initially planned was struck down by the Constitutional Court of Spain. Roughly 80.76% of participants had voted yes, but turnout was not recorded. The vote held in Catalonia on October 1 this year asked voters a very similar question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” However, Catalan leaders made this referendum binding, which led Spain to adopt a stronger strategy to contest it.
While Spanish leaders dismissed the 2014 initiative as illegal, they took little action to disrupt voting. With the 2017 referendum, they did not take the same laissez-faire approach. In addition to condemning the referendum as illegal, the Spanish government also sent security forces to Catalonia to ensure that voting would not take place.
According to an article from The Independent, Spanish national police forces raided the offices of several Catalan ministries in Barcelona on September 20, leading to the arrests of several Catalan officials involved in facilitating the referendum. On the day of the referendum, citizens and Spanish police clashed as the latter attempted to confiscate voting materials. Violence ensued, with the police discharging rubber pellets and wielding batons to disperse protesters from the polling stations.
Humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International have condemned the police violence as “excessive and disproportionate.” Spanish officials and some news outlets, including El Mundo and El País, have suggested that the reports of police violence had been exaggerated and edited using video enhancement technologies such as Photoshop.
The referendum ultimately concluded with 92.01% of voters favoring independence, leading some Catalan officials, including President Carles Puigdemont, to claim a popular mandate. Spanish officials, however, claim that the vote was invalidated by the low, unrepresentative turnout of 43.03% and last-minute changes to the rules such as suspending the need to register at a specific polling station.
Several weeks past the referendum, tensions have continued between Madrid and Barcelona over the matter of independence. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party has called for the removal of President Puigdemont from his position and is set to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, giving the government a broad authority to suspend aspects of Catalonia’s autonomy for the protection of “the general interests of Spain.”
The Senate of the Spanish Parliament, dominated by the People’s Party and anti-separatist coalitions, passed Rajoy’s measures 214 to 47 on October 27. The Catalan Parliament voted 70 to 10 to formally declare independence on the same day.
Controversially, Rajoy has hinted at a government takeover of Catalonia’s primary TV and radio outlets—TV3 and Radio Catalunya—in light of pro-independence sentiments expressed by Catalan media figures like Vicent Sanchis, the general manager of TV3. In a press statement, Rajoy justified his proposal as crucial to ensuring the “transmission of information that is truthful, objective, and balanced [and] respectful of the political, social and cultural pluralism.” Spanish officials maintained that the publicly-funded stations are being used to spread seditious narratives in Catalonia.
For many Catalans, the threat is reminiscent of the Francoist censorship of the Catalan media and language that commonplace in Spain. As Mr. Sanchis said in an interview with The New York Times, “When a government says that it will take charge of a television [sic], I know that this is something very serious.” Rockville AP Lang teacher Krista McKim concurred. “I get very nervous as soon as you start limiting free speech,” McKim said in an interview with the MoCo Student. “What’s going to happen next?” She worried that such a media takeover could be a stepping stone to greater invasions on Catalans’ civil liberties.
Yet, McKim maintained clear concern for the position of the government in Madrid. “Think back to what the United States did during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln curbed a lot of civil liberties during the 1860s, so it just seems pattern for the course for [potential] civil wars.” McKim said. For some, the question of whether Spain is justified in the removal of aspects of Catalonia’s autonomy is complicated.
Others in the MCPS community have displayed mixed reactions to the prospect of Catalan independence. David Baker, a computer science teacher at Rockville High, summarized, “On one hand, I think first about the Civil War and how the South tried to do a very similar thing for independence, for maybe different reasons.” He continued, “But now everybody’s breaking up: [such as with] Brexit and other nations … , and it’s a little concerning to me.” Concerned about the recent success of separatist movements abroad such as in Britain or Ukraine, Mr. Baker warned against a reversal of the international unity shown in the aftermath of World War II, such as in the various predecessors of what is today the European Union.
While the crisis in Catalonia does not yet pose a significant threat to communities such as the EU, several prominent international leaders have remained quiet about it. According to a statement released by the German government, “[Chancellor Angela Merkel] affirmed her support for the unity of Spain” during talks with Prime Minister Rajoy, but offered little more. Yet, others, like US President Donald Trump, have expressed great support for the Spanish government. President Trump welcomed Rajoy to the White House on September 26 and said during a joint press conference, “I think Spain is a great country, and it should remain united.” The U.S. State Department released a statement on October 27 formally supporting the Spanish government and affirming President Trump’s statements.
How the crisis in Catalonia will evolve remains to be seen. The Spanish government is expected to oust the Catalan president Puigdemont and potentially charge him with sedition along with Catalan legislators who voted for independence, but the details of the operation are unclear. For now, the duel between Barcelona and Madrid continues.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Alex Rankine of Rockville High School