The Point
Last updated: 08 October 2017.

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Catalunya no estás sola – Catalonia, you are not alone

The Point’s Graeme McIver reports on the momentous recent events in Catalonia;

“There is now a much higher principle at stake than simply whether or not Catalonia should have its independence. The oppressive actions of the Spanish State mean this is no longer just a binary yes/no choice in a referendum but instead a fight to defend democracy itself and those filling the streets of Barcelona and other towns and cities in Catalonia along with their supporters across the world know it. “Catalunya no estás sola” – Catalonia, you are not alone!”

 

 

 

“Es un escàndol democràtic que s'escorcolli institucions i es detinguin càrrecs públics per motius polítics. Defensem institucions catalanes - It is a democratic scandal that institutions are scrapped and those in public positions are arrested for political reasons. We defend Catalan institutions.”

Ada Calua – Mayoress of Barcelona 20/09/17

There is a hilarious and farcical scene, early in the Woody Allen comedy, “Take the Money and Run” where his character, Virgil Starkwell, is attempting to play the cello in a marching band. Whilst his colleagues play on the move, he carries with him his unwieldy instrument, a chair and a music stand. He runs in front of the band, sits down for a moment to play, but by the time he is ready to start his fellow musicians have moved on, leaving him behind. Each time he tries and fails to keep up. In composing an article on current events in Catalonia you can find yourself reminded of Virgil’s travails.

Events are changing by the hour, by the minute, by the second. It’s hard to keep pace. What happened yesterday might as well be last month or year given the speed of change as Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia prepares to defy the Spanish Government of Mariona Rajoy and press ahead with a planned Independence Referendum from Spain on October 1st.

 If we examine the single day of 20th of September 2017 alone, there were a huge number of truly remarkable developments in the Catalan referendum story.

At 10:10am the Associated Press reported that Josep Maria Jove, Secretary General of Economic Affairs and number two to the region's Vice President Oriol Junqueras, had been arrested by agents of Spain’s paramilitary Civil Guard.

Less than an hour later, at 11.05am the same agency reported Spanish police had, “arrested 12 people in raids on offices of the regional government of Catalonia as a crackdown intensifies on the region's preparations for a secession vote that Spain says is illegal.”

Before mid-day it was being reported that Spain's Finance Ministry had imposed further controls of the Catalan government's finances to ensure no public money was to be used for the referendum.

“Spanish Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro signed an order that limits new credit and requires central authorities' supervision for every payment of non-essential services in the north-eastern region of Catalonia. The decision came after Catalan officials failed to voluntarily agree to the controls. With the latest measure, virtually all Catalan spending will be in the hands of Madrid. The finance ministry took over the direct payment of basic services such as education, health and civil servants' salaries last week.”

At 1.10pm, Carles Puigdemont appeared with members of his cabinet to declare that there had been a "de facto" suspension of Catalonia's self-rule. Ten minutes later Spain's Interior Ministry announced that all time off and vacations had been suspended for Civil Guard and National Police officers assigned to ensure that the vote does not go ahead.

At 2.10pm there were scuffles between protestors and police as Spanish Civil Guard officers arrested Xavier Puig, the IT Manager in the headquarters of the region's department of external affairs. In response the National Catalan Assembly civic group urged citizens to rally peacefully on Las Ramblas.

Just before 4pm the Spanish Interior Ministry announced they had seized 10 million ballot papers they alleged were to be used in the referendum as well as polling station signage and documents.

Within the hour, Barcelona Football Club, arguably the best known sporting institution on the planet issued an unprecedented statement to say it condemned the attempts to halt the referendum stating, “we condemn any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights… (we) will continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people, and will do so in a civil, peaceful, and exemplary way."

In a tweet, Mayoress of Barcelona Ada Colau stated, “Es un escàndol democràtic que s'escorcolli institucions i es detinguin càrrecs públics per motius polítics. Defensem institucions catalanes - It is a democratic scandal that institutions are scrapped and those in public positions are arrested for political reasons. We defend Catalan institutions.”

Before 8pm over 500 people marched through central Madrid in support of the right of the Catalonians to hold the referendum whilst police broke up a far-right counter demonstration.

Within the hour, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy had made a televised statement where, addressing Catalan officials he said, “If you care about the tranquillity of most Catalans, give up this escalation of radicalism and disobedience….You are on time to avoid a greater harm."

On any normal day any one of these stories on its own might be enough to grab the headlines, however these are not normal times in Spain and Catalonia.

I contacted my friend who has lived in Barcelona for over a decade to get a feel for what was happening on the ground in the city itself. When I visited him earlier in the summer we had discussed the 1st of October referendum and the likely response of the Spanish state. Both of us however were shocked at the pace and intensity of recent developments.

We chatted on facebook messenger about the events that had taken place in the last day.

“If you were here”, he said, “you’d think that revolution was in the air.”

He told me about the thousands of people surrounding the Economic Ministry protesting against the police entering the building. He described how many of the streets in the centre of the city had been blocked since early morning by peaceful, singing protesters. Many of those occupying the city’s “carrers” are vowing to stay there until the unlikely event of the police leaving the referendum process alone.

We discussed the protests that were erupting across Catalonia as the police and the Spanish state hunted down ballot papers and boxes, confiscating posters and leaflets and threatening elected officials. Rumours abounded of extra Guardia Civil being drafted into the city and being stationed on a boat in the port area to replace the Catalan squaddies, the Mossos d'Esquadra.

He spoke of discussions he’d had with anxious friends whose pay was now become the responsibility of the Spanish Government in Madrid rather than the Generalitat in Catalonia and their concerns that they won’t receive their wages. He and his partner were constantly watching TV3, the Catalan channel that they expect to be closed down imminently by the authorities in Madrid. His partner’s brother had left earlier to become part of the occupation of the Plaça Catalunya and as he typed he could hear all over the Tibidabo neighbourhood, the iconic mountain which overlooks the Catalan capital, the banging of pots and pans in protest at the actions of the Spanish Government.  

Given the significance of the events during the past 24 hours he asked me how all this was being reported back home and was shocked to hear that it was barely getting a mention. Neither the 6 o’clock nor the 10 o’clock BBC National News programmes covered these momentous happenings in Spain.

Given the apparent intransigence on both sides of the referendum debate it looks likely that events will quickly escalate even further as the 1st of October approaches. Puigdemont believes that he has the democratic right to call the referendum following the outcome of the 2015 elections where a majority of pro-Independence politicians were elected to the Government of Catalonia, the Generalitat. He has pledged to declare Independence from Spain if the majority vote in favour on October 1st.  Madrid however says such a referendum is unconstitutional and therefore illegal. 

The Spanish Government of Rojoy have taken an extremely hard-line on the attempt by Puigdemont and his allies to press ahead with the poll and look likely to become even more authoritarian in their future attempts to suppress the referendum. This calls into question as to whether or not the current peaceful protests against the Police and the Spanish state can be maintained or if they will escalate into violent confrontations on the streets.

Democracy in Spain is still in a relatively early phase of development compared with the majority of Western European countries. Those idealised images of the boom in package holidays to the Costa Brava during the late 60’s and early 70’s, where British tourists consumed vast quantities of Watney’s Red Barrel in the Crown and Anchor Pub, returning with donkey’s and sombreros are tainted by the knowledge that Spain was still in the grip of Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship. In addition to those who died in the Civil War that followed his toppling of the democratically elected Government of Spain in 1936, an estimated 400,000 mainly left wing political opponents of his murderous regime were killed. Still in her early 40’s, Ada Colau was born on the same day as the last Catalan activist to be executed by the Francoist regime. In Catalonia there was repression of the language and culture and any attempt at self-government.

Following his death in late 1975 the country embarked on a process of transformation towards nominal democracy with the constitutional Monarchy of Juan Carlos and announcement of elections. However in 1977 the state passed an Amnesty Law that basically allowed those in charge of the apparatus of power during the dictatorship to continue without ever facing justice. From the late 70’s onwards political violence ensued where elements of fascism and the catholic right-wing committed atrocities against trade-unionists, left wing politicians and activists. This included the Atocha massacre where five people were killed and many wounded as neo-fascist terrorists targeted Communist Party members and lawyers working for the trade union of transport workers.

Those former fascist functionaries, free from the threat of prosecution set themselves up as self-styled democrats in the new fledgling democracy of Spain. There is a direct line going back from Rojoy’s, Partido Popular, (The People’s Party) to the Franco regime.

The crisis in capitalism and the financial crash of 2008 hit the Spanish economy particularly hard. Unemployment, especially amongst young people reached record levels and the established parties of Spain, the Partido Popular and Partido Socialista Obrero Español were exposed as corrupt and self-serving. Rajoy lectures Catalans on democracy whilst his party is at the centre of scores of corruption scandals going back decades. New parties, such as the left wing force Podemos led by Pablo Iglesias, grew as Spanish voters looked for fresh alternatives. The election of Ada Calau, an occupy activist as Mayoress  in Barcelona and in Madrid of retired lawyer Manuela Carmena, leader of Ahora Mardrid (Now Madrid) a coalition of left activists and anti-austerity campaigners, showed that Spanish politics has entered a period of flux and change where the old order was being challenged.

In Catalonia since 2012 there has been a growing clamour for separation from Spain. On September 11th of this year, on the national day of Catalonia, the Diada, over 1 million people marched through Barcelona to demand Independence. Whilst polls show that there remains a majority in favour of remaining within the Spanish state, around 80% of those living in Catalonia believe that they have the right to make a choice in a referendum. Rajoy’s tactics in recent days are likely to drive this figure even higher.

The crowds gathering on the streets to defend their democratic right to choose have been chanting the phrase coined in the wake of last month’s terrorist outrage, “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid).

There is now a much higher principle at stake than simply whether or not Catalonia should have its independence. The oppressive actions of the Spanish State mean this is no longer just a binary yes/no choice in a referendum but instead a fight to defend democracy itself and those filling the streets of Barcelona and other towns and cities in Catalonia along with their supporters across the world know it. “Catalunya no estás sola” – Catalonia, you are not alone!

External links:

Bella Caledonia

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Green Left

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Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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