Secession Fever Grows in Catalonia

Secession Fever Grows in Catalonia

Barcelona and Madrid, which once made common cause against Franco, have ceased to understand each other.


BarcelonaA friend of mine, Núria, a Barcelona-born Catalan, has always believed in the unity of Spain; she has never wanted Catalonia or the Basque Country—Spain’s wealthiest regions, each with its own culture and language—to secede. However, not long ago Núria changed her mind. “How come?” I asked her. “I can’t go against my own people when they want Catalonia to be independent,” Núria answered. A columnist from Madrid, who was present that evening, didn’t take long to state in his newspaper that Núria had changed her opinion because opposing secession had become politically incorrect in Catalonia. “You didn’t understand me properly,” Núria tried to explain to him after reading the column. “What I meant was that Catalonia and Spain have entered a cold war, and I am on the side of my people.” But the columnist still didn’t get it. Barcelona and Madrid, which once made common cause in the struggle against the Franco regime, have ceased to understand each another.

I told this story to Aleksandar Hemon, a writer of Bosnian extraction who now lives in Chicago but who recently taught a course on creative writing in Barcelona. We were sitting on a cafe terrace in the Gothic Quarter, the borders of which are marked by two medieval cathedrals. While Aleksandar selected a few tapas for lunch, I distractedly watched people crossing the square: students, women in multi-colored saris, Africans in hats that looked out of place on such a warm day.

I told Aleksandar that Barcelona had a long tradition of welcoming foreigners, be they political exiles or economic migrants. In past decades, many Latin Americans found refuge here, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and thousands of Cubans. What’s more, during the Franco dictatorship, over a million migrants from the then-forsaken Spanish south migrated to prosperous Barcelona. Back then, Franco tried to kill two birds with one stone by offering work to unemployed southerners while Castilianizing rebellious Barcelona. In reality, what he did was turn the Catalan capital into a bilingual city—one that was more open and cosmopolitan—never suspecting that he would convert many Andalusian migrants into Catalans who were proud to have prospered in their new home. Franco banned the Catalans, Basques and Galicians from using their languages in public, but forbidden fruit tends to be the sweetest. After the death of the dictator in 1975, Spain’s minority languages and cultures flourished like spring buds after a long winter.

I ordered the tapas and wine in Catalan; the waiter noted everything down, then answered me in Spanish. Aleksandar, noticing that we were switching languages, asked me about the linguistic situation here. I told him that Catalans grow up bilingual and are used to switching between their two languages. Some Spaniards who don’t know Catalonia don’t understand that Catalan is the area’s native language, and believe that the Catalans speak another language out of “spite,” or so a man from Madrid told me. Some Spaniards call the Catalan language “Polish” and the Catalans “Poles” to express their distrust of these “foreigners.” It’s true that many Catalans think of themselves as Catalans first and Spanish second. This irritates the right-wing governing party, the Partido Popular (PP). Its vision of Spain is monolithic and Catholic, and it tries to play down several centuries of Arabic and Jewish cultural influence, not to mention that of the Catalans, Basques and Galicians; the PP’s Spain is a castrated one. For example, when the favorite historian of the PP’s ex-president and former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar was invited to contribute to an anthology of articles concerning the history of Spanish religions, he asked, in vexed tones: “A history of religions? But in Spain there’s only been one!” Aznar told George W. Bush that as far as the struggle against radical Islam was concerned, “In Spain we have centuries of experience in fighting the Arabs.”

I told Aleksandar that, after twenty years of living in Barcelona, I have noted that although judicially speaking Catalonia is one of Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions, in practice it works as a kind of enclave. It has always earned admiration from other Spaniards for being hard-working, modern and open to the rest of the world. It is Spain’s window to the rest of Europe, and it’s an important international port. At the same time, it irks some Spaniards that Catalonia is different. Those Spanish politicians who have ruled with an iron fist have always tried to suppress this region—in vain.

As we walked through the autumnal backstreets of ancient neighborhoods, Aleksandar pointed to the yellow flags with four red stripes and a blue triangle that were hanging from some of the balconies; these were the traditional Catalan flags with an independentist symbol attached. Deep down, the desire for independence of many Catalans is a protest against the Establishment: a secessionist movement that seeks to revive the welfare state so badly hit by the cuts imposed during the economic crisis. This movement is critical of the governing PP, which over the past two years has rejected Catalonia’s demand for a vote on the independence question, planned for November 9, claiming that such a vote is unconstitutional. (In September, after Spain’s Constitutional Court announced it would rule on the referendum’s legality, the president of the Catalan regional government, Artur Mas, downgraded the scheduled vote to a nonbinding “consultation.” On November 4, the Court ruled that even this nonbinding referendum must be suspended. The Catalan government, under fierce pressure from independentists, has vowed to go ahead with the vote anyway.)

In Madrid, there are people who tell me that Spain and Catalonia form part of an inseparable family, but there are also many Spaniards who understand the Catalans’ dissatisfaction. “The nation’s government cannot limit itself to using the Constitution as a trench in which to hide from the demand for a consultation,” wrote Javier Pérez Royo in Spain’s main newspaper, El País. “An exclusively judicial option can only lead to defeat. The Constitution is a judicial touchstone, but it is also a political pact.” The PP, which currently governs with an absolute majority, has dropped to fourth place in the latest opinion polls. It is this same party that, over the past two decades, has governed over half of that time and that in the 1980s had ministers from Franco’s fascist government in its ranks. This year the PP introduced a gag law that allows the government to fine or otherwise punish the organizers of large-scale anti-government protests. The international outcry over the law has found great support in Catalonia and feeds into the region’s resentment of central government policy regarding independence.

The opinion pages of the Catalan and Spanish papers are on fire with controversy. The writer Javier Cercas, born in the south of Spain and resident in Catalonia, wrote in El País that if Catalonia separated from Spain, he couldn’t look his son in the eyes, so ashamed would he feel about not having been able to impede secession. Other writers couldn’t look their children in the eyes if Catalonia remained “subjugated to Spain.”

*  *  *

In a little square next to the cathedral, an old man was playing a harp; his hat, laid on the ground, was full of coins. Aleksandar and I sat down on a stone bench on one side of a Gothic palace and listened to the gentle chords filling the square. He asked me, “Isn’t separatism a direct consequence of nationalism?” Aleksandar, who saw his native Bosnia torn apart over this question, added, “Nationalism is downright dangerous when it becomes entrenched in the political system, and when there is animosity between different cultural groups. When governments encourage the fear, anger and mistrust of different groups toward one another, to the government’s own benefit, the results are disastrous.”

Catalans are proud that in the Middle Ages they had a kingdom and a language of their own, I told him. In the 1970s, Catalan nationalists made such a fuss over their region they were chided for “staring at their own navels.” That era’s progres—young left-wingers or libertarians—were not necessarily nationalist, and they often looked down on nationalists. The current pro-independence movement is a blend of both tendencies, and most Catalans would characterize it as a desire for basic change. In this period of political, economic and moral crisis, it’s like shouting: “Enough is enough!”

According to the pro-unionist El País, of those who wish to vote in this Sunday’s consultation, 48 percent would support independence and 48 percent would not. According to the paper’s most recent poll, taken at the beginning of November, most Catalans favor a major change of status for Catalonia within Spain, rather than political independence; this is also what most international observers have been advising. However, the percentage of people supporting secession is slowly growing. Why? As a Madrid historian put it, the central government, with its aversion to dialogue, is simply manufacturing more independentists.

When we were saying goodbye, with the sound of the harp audible between words, Aleksandar asked me if the European Union would smooth things over. I told him that the EU has no wish to see Catalonia separate from Spain. If it did so, it could establish a precedent for other secessionist regions (Scotland, Friuli, Bavaria, etc.); moreover, fragmentation of Spain would destabilize the euro.

*  *  *

I crossed the Rambla, whose sidewalk, with its Miró mosaic, was peppered with yellow leaves that had fallen from the plane trees. I had a meeting at Barcelona’s Center for Contemporary Culture with the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who spends his time between Dublin, New York and Catalonia, where he used to live and where he still has a house.

“For centuries Catalonia has lived under the influence of nationalism,” Tóibín claimed. “A pacific, broad-minded nationalism, on the defensive against the pressure of a far more powerful culture: Spanish culture. Here in Catalonia not a drop of blood has been spilled in the name of nationalism. Even bullfights are forbidden by law,” he added, laughing. “An independent Catalonia would get ahead better than it does now that Madrid is organizing Spanish infrastructure along centralist lines: all the high-speed trains pass through Madrid; almost all transatlantic flights fly only from Madrid. Catalonia, with its 7.5 million inhabitants, contributes 19 percent to the treasury of Spain, which has a total of 47 million inhabitants, and gets back quite a lot less. Becoming independent would not be a drastic step for Catalonia to take because it has a solid industrial base.”

“For Spain,” I argued, “the secession of Catalonia—and the Basque Country, which wouldn’t take long to follow—would mean the departure of two of its wealthiest regions and would therefore be a significant loss.” But Colm dismissed my argument: “But this loss would bring about greater political stability. It would be advantageous for everybody.”

*  *  *

The sun was setting over the sea when I got off the Montjuïc funicular and headed for the Miró Foundation, a white modern building that overlooks the city. Two of its employees, Dolors and Oriol, were waiting for me in the restaurant. Over a copious and imaginative meal, we planned out a season of public lectures. Dolors commented on the recent manifestos released in Madrid about the Catalan consultation; one was published in the right-wing El Mundo paper, the other in El País. One of them, which was signed, among others, by the writer Mario Vargas Llosa together with several far-right journalists, demanded that the Spanish president ignore the Catalans’ request for a consultation. The other manifesto, signed by various social-democratic intellectuals, asked the president to take note of the Catalans’ representatives and their requests, and proposed a reorganization of Spain into a federal state in which all federated entities would have the same rights.

“If this proposal were taken seriously, Spain would be saved,” I argued. Dolors, more practical, replied, “But don’t forget that it comes from the opposition; the government won’t accept it.” Oriol reflected, “Things have gone too far, and there’s no way back for Catalonia.” I protested: “But if we become independent, every Catalan resident will lose a quarter of his or her savings because, according to the EU Constitution, a new state would have to abandon the euro.” Oriol remained defiant: “So what? We have to give each other support, and we’ll get over the loss.” Recently I’ve heard Catalans—who are, in other circumstances, pragmatic, cautious and thrifty—voice this opinion more and more. Oriol concluded: “Madrid won’t give us any other option; when there’s no dialogue, you have to head for the exit.”

After dinner, before going into Montjuïc Park and then the streets, I gazed at the illuminated city, a display of glittering jewels. I could see Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower, which was inspired by the towers of Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí, which, in their turn, were modeled on the rocks of the nearby mountain of Montserrat. I thought about the future of the Catalan capital that lay at my feet. The city will survive, just as it survived bombing from the planes sent by Fascist Italy to support Franco’s rebellion in the Civil War. Perhaps with time, its inhabitants will want to make peace with Spain, and Spain will make peace with this proud but now angry people. The Madrid columnist will understand the choice of my Barcelonan friend Núria. As I went down into the park, the city shone through the branches, as if it wished to tell me that even now, as a fierce struggle rages over Catalonia’s identity, this open, cosmopolitan city will continue to live its own life.

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