Scourge of Madrid: the gui­tarplay­ing pres­i­dent of Cat­alo­nia


FIVE years ago the mayor of Girona, the largest city in north­ern Cat­alo­nia, noted that David Cameron and Alex Sal­mond had just signed a deal to en­sure that an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum could take place in Scot­land. It was, the mayor said, a Euro­pean para­dox that per­mit­ted one govern­ment and EU mem­ber state to grant such a land­mark plebiscite – and an­other mem­ber state, Spain, to de­clare it as trea­sonous.

“This is the most im­por­tant mo­ment in our his­tory, this is a very im­por­tant mo­ment for us,” he said of his na­tive Cata­lans. “Our re­la­tion­ship with Spain is at an end. Enough is enough.” To­day, Car­les Puigde­mont i Casamajo is the Cata­lan pres­i­dent over­see­ing an ea­gerly awaited but con­tro­ver­sial in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum that is be­ing staged across the pros­per­ous, restive re­gion. Spanish courts and the cen­tral govern­ment have, how­ever, de­scribed it as il­le­gal. Spain’s at­tor­ney-hen­eral de­clined, last Mon­day, to rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that Puigde­mont him­self might be ar­rested. Four­teen high-level Cata­lan of­fi­cials have been locked up and around 10 mil­lion bal­lot pa­pers seized.

Cat­a­logu­ing the Spanish govern­ment’s un­am­bigu­ously hos­tile re­ac­tion, Puigde­mont drew par­al­lels with Franco-era Spain: “Cata­lan home rule has ef­fec­tively been sus­pended due to this anti-demo­cratic at­ti­tude from the Spanish govern­ment. It’s a sit­u­a­tion that harks back to the dark past of this coun­try, when democ­racy was not a part of the Spanish dic­tionary. What is hap­pen­ing here in Cat­alo­nia would not hap­pen any­where else in the Euro­pean Union … With the ar­rests of high-rank­ing of­fi­cials and threats to de­tain demo­crat­i­cally-elected politi­cians, I be­lieve the Spanish govern­ment has vi­o­lated the Euro­pean char­ter of fun­da­men­tal rights.”

When Puigde­mont was of­fi­cially sworn in on Jan­uary 12, 2016, as the 130th Pres­i­dent of Cat­alo­nia, he was not ter­ri­bly well-known across Spain. But all of that has changed now.

HE was born into a fam­ily of bak­ers in the town of Amer, in Girona, on De­cem­ber 29, 1962. He stud­ied for a de­gree in Cata­lan philol­ogy at the Univer­sity Col­lege of Girona and af­ter­wards em­barked on a ca­reer as a jour­nal­ist at El Punt, a Cata­lan daily news­pa­per, ris­ing to be­come editor-in-chief. He be­came the chief editor of Cat­alo­nia To­day, a daily news­pa­per in Eng­lish which he helped launch, and was also di­rec­tor of the Cata­lan News Agency.

He is mar­ried to a Ro­ma­nian jour­nal­ist, Marcela To­por, and has two daugh­ters. Among his pri­vate pas­sions are FC Barcelona and play­ing rock gui­tar. His mop-top hair style makes him look younger than his 54 years.

Puigde­mont has long been in­ter­ested in how Cat­alo­nia is seen abroad. In 1994, he pub­lished a book – Cat­alo­nia As Seen By The For­eign Me­dia – and he later penned a weekly col­umn on the is­sue in the magazine Presèn­cia.

Be­tween 2002 and 2004, he was di­rec­tor of the Girona cul­tural cen­tre, Casa de Cul­tura, and it was later that his ac­tive political ca­reer took off. In 2006, he be­came a CiU (Con­ver­gence and Union) Party mem­ber of the Cat­alo­nia par­lia­ment. He was elected mayor of Girona in 2011 and served on the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties for In­de­pen­dence (AMI). In May 2015, he was re­turned as mayor and be­came AMI pres­i­dent – a post that was his un­til Jan­uary 2016, when he stepped up to be­come pres­i­dent of Cat­alo­nia it­self.

Puigde­mont was not, how­ever, elected as pres­i­dent. His ap­point­ment came as the re­sult of a last-gasp deal be­tween Cata­lan sep­a­ratist par­ties to re­place Ar­tur Mas as leader of the re­gion. Mas per­son­ally chose him as his suc­ces­sor.

Puigde­mont was ini­tially dis­missed by many Spa­niards as Mas’s pup­pet and he was not ex­pected to last long. But he has proven to be a for­mi­da­ble leader in his own right, as he has suc­ceeded in keep­ing to­gether the ram­shackle coali­tion of con­ser­va­tives, left­ists and anti-es­tab­lish­ment rad­i­cals that shore up his govern­ment and its push for in­de­pen­dence.

Puigde­mont has re­port­edly em­pha­sised that he does not in­tend to stay in of­fice and that, once Cat­alo­nian in­de­pen­dence has been kick-started, he will make way for a suc­ces­sor. It’s no­table, how­ever, that he has thus far failed to make any friends out­with the re­gion or to win any in­ter­na­tional body over to his pro-in­de­pen­dence be­liefs. The Spanish govern­ment, of course, re­mains im­pla­ca­bly op­posed to any ref­er­en­dum, and Spanish par­ties have on oc­ca­sion de­scribed his govern­ment as au­thor­i­tar­ian.

On Tues­day, Puigde­mont rang Ma­soud Barzani, the de facto pres­i­dent of the Iraqi Kur­dis­tan re­gion, to of­fer his con­grat­u­la­tions on the in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum in which more than 92 per cent of vot­ers in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan sup­ported se­ces­sion. He will be fer­vently hop­ing that ges­ture is re­cip­ro­cated at some point to­day.

Pho­to­graph: AP

Cat­alo­nia’s re­gional pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont

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