Cat­alo­nia’s deeply di­vi­sive, highly con­tro­ver­sial ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence from Spain takes place to­mor­row. Prob­a­bly

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Guy Hedge­coe in Barcelona

On an over­cast evening in Can Dragó, a recre­ational park, lo­cals are gath­er­ing for a small rally in favour of Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence, ahead of the ref­er­en­dum on the is­sue sched­uled for Sun­day. The event is or­gan­ised by the Repub­li­can Left of Cat­alo­nia (ERC), a pro-in­de­pen­dence party that is a mem­ber of the Cata­lan re­gion’s gov­ern­ing coali­tion, and a small tent has been set up bear­ing the red and yel­low colours of the re­gion’s flag, where vol­un­teers hand out fliers.

On the stage a singer is strum­ming lively rum­bas on a gui­tar and mak­ing jokes about Span­ish prime min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy, whose op­po­si­tion to the ref­er­en­dum has made him a fig­ure of both dis­dain and ridicule to many Cata­lans.

The mood is festive and there is lit­tle here to sug­gest a re­gion on the verge of the big­gest up­heaval of its mod­ern his­tory, or that the Cata­lan sit­u­a­tion has thrown Spain into its deep­est po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in decades.

But as they lis­ten to three ERC politi­cians take their turns to speak, the re­sponse of the 50 or so mainly el­derly peo­ple who are watch­ing is pas­sion­ate. “Votarem! Votarem!” (“We will vote”), they chant in Cata­lan at one point.

Later, they shout “No tinc por” (“I’m not afraid”), a slo­gan that went vi­ral in the af­ter­math of the Au­gust ter­ror at­tacks in Cat­alo­nia which killed 16. This time, they use the phrase to ex­press their de­fi­ance not of ji­hadist ter­ror­ists, but of the Span­ish gov­ern­ment and state, which have been in­tent on pre­vent­ing Sun­day’s vote from tak­ing place.

“This is some­thing that has been brew­ing for the last seven or eight years,” says Jaume Almi­rall, a 70-year-old pen­sioner who is watch­ing the rally, of the ref­er­en­dum. “They’ve screwed us so much that we have to be­come in­de­pen­dent. They’ve forced us to do this.

“I hope I can vote,” he says. “I will try to vote. They’ve made it hard for us.”

Such un­cer­tainty about whether the ref­er­en­dum will even take place is wide­spread, due to the gov­ern­ment’s op­po­si­tion. And de­spite the pro-in­de­pen­dence fer­vour at ral­lies such as this one, Cata­lans have be­come deeply split over the is­sue and over se­ces­sion in gen­eral.

As the ERC politi­cian Anna Simó ad­dresses the crowd, a passerby heck­les her. “You’re di­vid­ing Cat­alo­nia!” he shouts in Castil­ian Span­ish. An­swer­ing in Cata­lan, she in­sists not. An­other more stri­dent heck­ler is jeered by the public as he voices his griev­ances with the in­de­pen­dence move­ment. They are sheep – they are be­ing ma­nip­u­lated!” the man, who is 82 and iden­ti­fies him­self only as Josep, tells The Ir­ish Times. He strides an­grily away from the rally.

“Peo­ple are play­ing on Cata­lan sen­ti­men­tal­ism. When a coun­try is strong it’s united. We need to be united – do you think we should be sep­a­rated with all the en­e­mies out there in the world?” he asks.

“Eng­land is strong be­cause it’s united. Ger­many is strong be­cause it’s united. Look at Yu­goslavia . . . It’s all sep­a­rated and they’re ut­terly screwed.”

Ar­rests of of­fi­cials

On Septem­ber 20th, mem­bers of the civil guard po­lice force raided sev­eral premises be­long­ing to the Cata­lan re­gional gov­ern­ment in Barcelona. They stayed most of the day, search­ing for ev­i­dence linked to the Oc­to­ber 1st ref­er­en­dum.

They also ar­rested 14 Cata­lan gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials on charges of mas­ter­mind­ing the preparations for the vote. Later in the day, the civil guard seized about 10 mil­lion vot­ing slips from a ware­house else­where in the city.

In a rare tele­vi­sion address, Ra­joy en­dorsed the po­lice’s ac­tions, which had been or­dered by a judge. In­sist­ing that the ref­er­en­dum would not be able to take place, he de­scribed it as “a chimera, or even worse, the ex­cuse some seem to have been look­ing for to deepen even fur­ther the schism they have pro­voked in Cata­lan so­ci­ety.”

Ra­joy and his con­ser­va­tive Pop­u­lar Party (PP) gov­ern­ment say the ref­er­en­dum is il­le­gal. They had al­ready taken steps to thwart it ear­lier this month, in­clud­ing an­nounc­ing the par­tial seizure of Cata­lan gov­ern­ment fi­nances and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of about 800 Cata­lan may­ors who had of­fered their towns’ public spa­ces in which to stage the vote.

Such mea­sures height­ened the sim­mer­ing ten­sions be­tween Cat­alo­nia and Madrid. But the ar­rests of the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials were par­tic­u­larly provoca­tive, be­ing seen as the bold­est in­ter­ven­tion by the Span­ish state in one of its 17 au­ton­o­mous re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tions since the coun­try’s re­turn to democ­racy in the late 1970s, af­ter the death of dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco.

‘This re­minds us of Franco’

Al­most as soon as the civil guard had en­tered the re­gional gov­ern­ment build­ings, out­raged Cata­lans were out on the street demon­strat­ing.

The de­ploy­ment of thou­sands of po­lice and civil guards to Cat­alo­nia from other parts of Spain has only added to the sense of cri­sis. This week, video footage of civil guards de­part­ing the south­ern city of Huelva for Cat­alo­nia went vi­ral. It showed crowds out in the street wav­ing Span­ish flags and chant­ing “A por el­los!” (or “Go get them!”), as if the po­lice were sol­diers head­ing off to bat­tle.

“There’s a very strong feel­ing in Cat­alo­nia that they are be­ing mis­treated and bul­lied,” says Josep Lobera, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Madrid’s Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity. “This all re­minds peo­ple of the Franco dic­ta­tor­ship – since the dic­ta­tor­ship we haven’t seen any­thing like it.”

While the events of re­cent days may have made the ref­er­en­dum look less likely to take place, they do ap­pear to have stiff­ened the re­solve of Cata­lans who were al­ready in favour of in­de­pen­dence.

“They’re try­ing to per­suade us in an il­le­gal way not to go and vote,” says of­fice worker An­drea Ox­ovi. Po­lice of­fi­cers have been to her daugh­ter’s school this week, she says, to ask the prin­ci­pal whether or not he plans to al­low the premises to be used as a vot­ing sta­tion on Sun­day.

“Why are po­lice­men go­ing to schools? What is that?” she asks. “That’s not the way a democ­racy should treat its cit­i­zens.”

She says the Span­ish gov­ern­ment’s heavy-hand­ed­ness has per­suaded sev­eral peo­ple she knows, who were against the ref­er­en­dum and se­ces­sion, to vote this week­end in favour of in­de­pen­dence.

“Ra­joy has han­dled this very badly. He has al­lowed the prob­lem to get much worse,” says Lobera. “Peo­ple who pre­vi­ously didn’t in­tend to vote now want to go and vote.”

A Cata­lan re­pub­lic

Al­though Cata­lan sep­a­ratism can be traced back decades, even cen­turies, the cur­rent drive to­wards in­de­pen­dence is widely seen as hav­ing be­gun al­most ex­actly five years ago.

In Septem­ber of 2012, the then Cata­lan pres­i­dent Ar­tur Mas went to Madrid to ask Ra­joy to ne­go­ti­ate a new ar­range­ment with Cat­alo­nia, to give it more con­trol over its fi­nances. Cata­lans com­plained that their rel­a­tively wealthy re­gion paid out much more in taxes to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment cof­fers than it re­ceived back in in­vest­ment.

Ra­joy flatly re­fused, cit­ing the eco­nomic cri­sis that was af­flict­ing the coun­try.

“We al­ways thought that Spain would un­der­stand the as­pi­ra­tions of a peo­ple like the Cata­lans,” Mas said af­ter­wards. “I un­der­stand now that this is not the case.”

But Cata­lan griev­ances were not purely fi­nan­cial. They also re­volved around per­ceived at­tempts to rein in ex­ist­ing au­ton­omy, such as in the area of Cata­lan lan­guage. In ad­di­tion, the Span­ish courts re­peat­edly re­versed the re­gion’s at­tempts to pass leg­is­la­tion in ar­eas such as so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy.

The re­ces­sion of 2008-2013 left many Cata­lans poorer and seek­ing a new po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tive. The ar­rival in power of Ra­joy’s rigidly union­ist PP in 2011 would drive many into the arms of sep­a­ratism, which promised, re­al­is­ti­cally or not, a Cata­lan re­pub­lic that would be more pro­duc­tive, more demo­cratic and less cor­rupt than the state they were leav­ing be­hind.

Since 2012, the na­tion­al­ist Cata­lan gov­ern­ment has put se­ces­sion­ism firmly in the po­lit­i­cal main­stream, chan­nelling an al­ready sub­stan­tial civic move­ment.

In 2015, pro-in­de­pen­dence par­ties won a ma­jor­ity of seats in the Cata­lan par­lia­ment (but not a ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote), giv­ing them, they said, a man­date to push ahead with a road map to in­de­pen­dence.

Since then, Cata­lan pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont has done ex­actly that, push­ing through the re­gional par­lia­ment laws paving the way for the ref­er­en­dum and an in­de­pen­dent state.

Polls sug­gest Cata­lan so­ci­ety is fairly evenly di­vided on the is­sue of in­de­pen­dence, al­though more than three-quar­ters would like a for­mal, Scot­land-style ref­er­en­dum, a pro­posal Ra­joy roundly re­jects.

Many Cata­lans find it hard to un­der­stand the Span­ish prime min­is­ter’s rigid­ity on this is­sue.

But it is closely linked to the rev­er­ence still held for the 1978 con­sti­tu­tion, which, three years af­ter Franco’s death, laid down the foun­da­tions for Spain’s mainly suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion to par­lia­men­tary democ­racy.

A re­gional ref­er­en­dum on se­ces­sion vi­o­lates that doc­u­ment, Ra­joy ar­gues with the back­ing of many (but not all) le­gal ex­perts.

For Mar­i­ano Gomà, pres­i­dent of the union­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion Cata­lan Civil So­ci­ety (SCC), Puigde­mont is an out­law who “has de­cided to com­mit sui­cide”.

“He’s on the edge of the precipice,” Gomà told El País news­pa­per. “But he wants to take on that role un­til the end. We have no doubts that the ref­er­en­dum will not take place be­cause it vi­o­lates all the laws.”

The SEC lacks both the unity and the abil­ity to mo­bilise of its ad­ver­saries. But the kind of stri­dent con­vic­tions ex­pressed by its leader are com­mon­place within the anti-in­de­pen­dence camp. Such en­trench­ment on both sides has made a so­lu­tion to the Cata­lan stale­mate in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

“The prob­lem is we have a PP gov­ern­ment which has de­nied the ex­is­tence of a prob­lem and a Cata­lan gov­ern­ment which has taken ad­van­tage of that de­nial to pur­sue the ob­jec­tive of in­de­pen­dence,” says Car­les Ruiz, the mayor of the town of Vilade­cans, near Barcelona.

His Cata­lan Socialist Party (PSC) pro­poses cre­at­ing a new, fed­eral struc­ture to defuse the stand­off. But it has at times been caught in the mid­dle of the cross­fire, un­easy at Ra­joy’s le­gal­is­tic ap­proach, but un­will­ing to wel­come a yes-no ref­er­en­dum on break­ing away from Spain.

“It’s quite ob­vi­ous that you can’t de­cide such an im­por­tant is­sue as the cre­ation of a new state and sep­a­ra­tion from an­other state via a penalty shoot-out,” he says, us­ing a foot­ball anal­ogy.

We al­ways thought that Spain would un­der­stand the as­pi­ra­tions of a peo­ple like the Cata­lans. I un­der­stand now that this is not the case

Punk aes­thetic

Sergi Fuentes has been sleep­ing rough at Barcelona univer­sity, where he stud­ies po­lit­i­cal sciences, since Septem­ber 22nd as part of a protest at Madrid’s at­tempts to stop the ref­er­en­dum.

With ear­rings, a Mo­hi­can and a cam­ou­flaged T-shirt, he fits the punk aes­thetic of the Pop­u­lar Unity Can­di­dacy (CUP), the small, anti-cap­i­tal­ist party whose sup­port for the na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment in the Cata­lan par­lia­ment has al­lowed the in­de­pen­dence drive to get this far.

The CUP is the most rad­i­cal se­ces­sion­ist party in main­stream pol­i­tics and for its sup­port­ers Sun­day’s ref­er­en­dum rep­re­sents a long dreamed-of mo­ment. While he says he be­lieves the vote will take place de­spite the ob­sta­cles in its way, like most Cata­lans, he is not en­tirely sure what will hap­pen.

He in­sists that the CUP and other pro-in­de­pen­dence forces will re­main peace­ful, al­though he sug­gests that vi­o­lence on the part of the Span­ish au­thor­i­ties could ben­e­fit his cause.

“That would send an im­age to the rest of the world that would help us, it would en­cour­age other coun­tries to sup­port the ref­er­en­dum,” he says.

Many the­o­ries are cir­cu­lat­ing re­gard­ing not just what will hap­pen on Sun­day, but what will un­fold af­ter­wards. There have been re­ports that if the ref­er­en­dum is blocked, Puigde­mont will con­sider is­su­ing a uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence next week.

Oth­ers sug­gest he might call a re­gional elec­tion in a bid to bol­ster the pro-in­de­pen­dence ma­jor­ity in the re­gional par­lia­ment. Some have ven­tured that Ra­joy is mulling call­ing a gen­eral elec­tion, to cap­i­talise on anti-in­de­pen­dence feel­ing else­where in Spain.

There is, of course, al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that once the dust set­tles, both sides will cau­tiously start to ne­go­ti­ate an in­crease in Cata­lan self-gov­ern­ment, with­out grant­ing it full in­de­pen­dence.

But for Fuentes, it is too late for that. “For me that wouldn’t be enough. For me the only so­lu­tion is in­de­pen­dence, given the sit­u­a­tion and know­ing the Span­ish state,” he says.

“We’ve started down this road. We’re not go­ing to take a step back.”

Josep Maria Belver (77) wears a shirt with the colors of a sep­a­ratist flag as he sings the Cata­lan an­them be­fore a po­lit­i­cal meet­ing in favour of the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum out­side the Univer­sity of Barcelona. Be­low: Stu­dents shout slo­gans and wave...

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