‘I’VE NEVER FELT SPANISH IN MY LIFE’
SECESSION CRISIS REVEALS DEEP-SEATED ANIMOSITIES
To sense the conflicting identities that have led Spain to the edge of a constitutional cliff, look no further than Girona, some 100 kilometres northeast of Barcelona. Maps and world governments say it’s in Spain — but many residents consider it part of an independent republic of Catalonia.
Amid the party atmosphere of a festival weekend, many in this secessionist stronghold cheered the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence from Spain, a country they don’t regard as their own.
“I’ve never felt Spanish in my life,” said graphic designer Anna Faure as Girona celebrated the annual festival of its patron saint with food, music, a carnival and displays of the gravity-defying sport of human towers, known as castells.
Faure says castells is a true Catalan tradition, a view she doesn’t hold about Spanish icons such as bullfighting, which Catalan authorities have tried to ban, or Flamenco, an import from Andalucia in southern Spain.
Flamenco is fine, she said, but “it’s not mine.”
Many people in this northeastern region of 7.5 million believe Catalonia’s language, history and cultural traditions — even Catalans’ ironic sense of humour — set it apart from the rest of Spain.
That feeling of separateness has mixed with a volatile blend of wounded pride, economic pain and political animosity to create a crisis that could break up Spain.
The country has been in constitutional turmoil since Catalans backed independence in an Oct. 1 referendum that was dismissed as illegal by Spain. When the regional parliament voted Friday to declare independence, Madrid fired the Catalan government and called a new election.
On Monday, Spain’s state prosecutor said he would seek charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement against members of Catalonia’s ousted secessionist government, pushing the crisis over the region’s independence declaration into an uncertain new phase.
Chief prosecutor Jose Manuel Maza said he would ask judges for preventive measures against the politicians and the governing body of the Catalan parliament that allowed a vote to declare independence last week. He didn’t specify if those would include their immediate arrest and detention before trial.
The rebellion, sedition and embezzlement charges carry maximum sentences of 30, 15 and six years in prison, respectively. Maza didn’t name any of those facing charges, but they include regional leader Carles Puigdemont, his No. 2 Oriol Junqueras and Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell.
Puigdemont has now travelled to Brussels, according to a Spanish government official. The trip came after Belgian Asylum State Secretary Theo Francken said over the weekend that it would be “not unrealistic” for Puigdemont to request asylum.
No one knows how the crisis will end, but many Catalans feel it has been a long time coming.
“We wouldn’t have arrived at this point if they had treated us well for many years,” said illustrator Judit Alguero, expressing a common feeling that the authorities in Madrid are at best neglectful and at worst hostile to Catalan aspirations.
The seeds of that feeling, and of Catalonia’s modern independence movement, germinated during the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975. Franco banned the official use of the Catalan language and executed or imprisoned opposition politicians and activists.
Stories of that repressive era are part of the lore of many Catalan families.
Primary school teacher Ariadna Piferrer, whose grandmother told of being beaten for speaking Catalan at school, said that by declaring independence, “we are living the dream of our grandparents. And I think that’s so important for us.”
After Franco’s death, Spain became a democracy, and Catalonia was granted a degree of autonomy, with a regional government, its own police force and control over education. Public schools now teach primarily in Catalan, and national symbols are flown with pride.
While Catalan nationalism has flourished, support for outright independence was not widespread in the decades after Franco’s death. In the early 2000s, polls suggested only about 15 per cent of Catalans wanted to break from Spain.
But in recent years economic crisis and political hostility between Barcelona and Madrid have left many Catalans feeling wounded, fanning the flames of separatism.
Many here trace their support for independence to the political and legal battle over a 2006 autonomy agreement granting Catalonia the status of a nation within Spain, with tax-raising powers. Parts of the agreement were struck down by Spain’s constitutional court in 2010, triggering angry protests and leading some Catalans to believe they would never get a fair deal from Spain.
That sense of grievance grew stronger after the 2008 global financial crisis hammered Spain, spending unemployment skyrocketing. Catalonia is one of the country’s wealthiest regions, and many here feel they pay more into Spanish coffers than they get back.
Andrew Dowling, a specialist in Catalan history at Cardiff University in Wales, said that 13,000 businesses in Catalonia went under in 2009, pushing many moderate Catalan nationalists toward independence.
“The financial crisis made Catalans angry, that as a rich area they were suffering because they had no control over the economic levers,” Dowling said.
Against that backdrop, Catalonia’s independence movement has proved adept at harnessing discontent toward Madrid. A pro-independence coalition was elected in 2015 on a promise to push for succession, and well-organized groups have brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets.
Independence leaders regard the Oct. 1 referendum as a mandate to separate. But turnout was only 43 per cent as many pro-union voters stayed away and Spain sent in police to shut down polling stations.
Although pro-independence forces in Catalonia have shaken Spain to its foundations, it’s not clear how they can make their selfproclaimed republic a reality — or whether most Catalans even want them to.
Many pro-union Catalans believe they are a silent majority, drowned out by noisy supporters of independence. Hundreds of thousands of anti-independence protesters rallied Sunday in Barcelona, waving Catalan, Spanish and EU flags and chanting “Catalonia in Spain.”
In Barcelona on Monday residents expressed confusion about who was actually in charge of Catalonia. “I don’t know — the Catalan government says they are in charge, but the Spanish government says they are,” said Cristina Guillen, an employee in a nearby bag shop. “So I have no idea, really. What I really think is that nobody is in charge right now,” she said.
SUFFERING BECAUSE THEY HAD NO CONTROL OVER ECONOMIC LEVERS.
Many people in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalan believe its language, history and cultural traditions — even Catalans’ ironic sense of humour — set it apart from the rest of Spain, feelings that go back to the authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco.