Catalonia vs. Spain: An Intractable Standoff

Two years after Spain crushed Catalonia’s bid for secession, Catalonia and Spain are entrenched in political and legal battles over independence, reflected in these banners in the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Catalonia. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

BARCELONA, Spain (CN) — Catalan independence flags hang from balconies and in shop windows. Political slogans scrawled on walls cry out for freedom. The Catalan president’s palace at the heart of Barcelona displays a banner: “Free political prisoners.” Barcelona is a landscape of political messages that take aim at one primary and old foe: Spain and its rulers in Madrid.

Spain is the country Barcelonans and Catalans live in, but so many people here feel no allegiance to Spain and despise the notion they’re Spanish citizens. Nearly half of Catalans tell pollsters they don’t feel part of Spain and more than 40% favor independence.

Yet a sense of resignation is creeping in. Two years after Spanish authorities violently squashed a secession referendum, hopes for independence are growing dimmer. Catalonia is an autonomous region, but does not control its taxes and is subject to Spanish laws.

When asked about independence, people are stoic but pessimistic. Flags hanging from balconies reflect the mood of this entrenched conflict: They’re often faded and tattered —  stubbornly displayed but worn-out looking.

“I would like to see it become an independent country,” said Olga Serrano, a young customer service employee in Barcelona. “But I don’t know if it will happen.”

A new survey by the Barcelona-based Center for Opinion Studies found about 44% of people in favor of independence, a 4% drop from a year ago. Fights between pro-Catalan political parties and a sense that Catalan leaders were unprepared to actually run an independent state also have damaged the separatist movement.

Ramon Gonzalez, a 65-year-old retired fireman, said the independence drive “hasn’t taken us anywhere.”

He said Catalonia was up against an economically stronger foe — with an army. He’d like to see Catalonia gain more autonomy, but he’s against independence.

He likened Catalonia’s attempt to break away from Spain to a card player trying to win by bluffing.

“This has been like a poker game,” he said. “You can bluff, bluff, bluff, but in the end if you don’t have the four aces, you don’t win. When you show your hand, you lose. This is what happened.”

The Catalan presidential palace in Barcelona displays a banner calling for leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement to be freed from prison. (Cain Burdeau photo/ Courthouse News)

The hurdles to independence are formidable. For one, Spain’s constitution does not allow for the breakup of the country. Also, more than half of Catalonia’s people do not favor independence, often because they come from families who moved to Catalonia from other parts of Spain to work.

Additionally, Spain’s largest political parties, including even socialists, and most of the rest of the nation are opposed to Catalonia’s secession drive — not least because Barcelona and Catalonia are economic engines and produce about 20% of Spain’s gross domestic product. Granting independence also would be a body blow to Spain’s fragile sense of national unity.

Two years ago, Catalans voted for independence in an unauthorized referendum and then saw their secessionist struggle crushed by Spanish authorities. Their political leaders were imprisoned on charges of rebellion and sedition and twelve of the movement’s leaders face prison sentences in coming weeks, after a Supreme Court trial this year.

“Spain has proven to be an undemocratic country,” Gonzalez, the retired fireman, lamented. He said it was unfair to imprison the independence leaders.

Some Catalans say Spain’s aggressive tactics have only made them even more anti-Spanish.

“I am even more in favor of independence,” said Didier Gago, a 36-year-old costumer service employee, who was standing with Serrano on a work break on a recent morning in Barcelona.

He’s got good reason to be. Gago said he was among hundreds of Catalans beaten by Spanish police at polling stations when they went to cast votes in the referendum. Spanish police, brought in from around Spain, stormed polling stations and attacked Catalans voting in the controversial referendum on Oct. 1, 2017.

“We were in the voting stations and the police came; we had our hands up,” he said. “They started grabbing us, hitting us.” Gago said his mouth was bloodied and that his leg still hurts where he was hit.

On Wednesday, as happens in Barcelona each Sept. 11 in these tense years, a sea of people will take to the streets of Barcelona in a massive display of Catalan fervor and unity. Theirs is a cry for independence from Spain.

In the late 1800s, Sept. 11 began to be celebrated as a national holiday called La Diada Nacional de Catalunya, or the National Day of Catalonia. In truth, the day marks a somber historical event for Catalans. On Sept. 11, 1714, after 14 months of siege, Barcelona fell as the Catalans were on the losing side of a wide-ranging war in Europe over who would claim the Spanish thrown and empire.

That defeat led to the fall of the crown of Aragon, the rulers of Catalonia, and the imposition of central rule from Madrid, the seat of power for the crown of Castile. After the defeat, Catalonia’s laws and institutions were abolished and its language banned for official use. Castilian, the language of Madrid, now ruled.

Today, many Catalans feel so strongly about independence because they feel that their history has made them so different from the rest of Spain and its national stereotype of the proud, religious, rural and formal Spaniard. Catalans see themselves as cosmopolitan, open-minded, oriented toward commerce and aligned with Northern Europeans.

Likewise, many Catalans view Madrid and Spain’s central government as fundamentally conservative, regressive and anti-Catalan —bent on punishing Catalans culturally, economically and politically.

The Fossar de les Moreres, where people who died during Barcelona’s defense in 1714 are buried. On Sept. 11, the date when Barcelona fell during the siege in 1714, Catalans converge here and pay homage to their culture. (Cain Burdeau photo/ Courthouse News)

The modern roots of this narrative begin with Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, a figure of loathing for many Catalans, and his 36-year reign of repression.

Before the breakout of the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia — a stronghold for socialists and anarchists — declared itself a republic and took a central role in the fight against the military coup led by Franco. The republican cause in Barcelona attracted many pro-democracy foreign fighters, most famously George Orwell, the British writer and intellectual.

After the defeat of the republicans, Franco’s regime ruthlessly persecuted and executed republicans. He also banned the Catalan language and people caught speaking the language were punished. The Catalan flag and its national holiday, La Diada, were outlawed. School children started their mornings singing “Cara al Sol,” the anthem of Franco’s fascist Falange party. The song ends with the words: “Spain, one! Spain, great! Spain, free! Onward Spain!”

After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia reasserted its autonomy by making Catalan an official language and reestablishing an autonomous government.

Since then, Catalonia and Spain have clashed repeatedly.

Public support for independence exploded in 2010 after Spain’s Constitutional Court declared several aspects of a 2006 statute on Catalan autonomy unconstitutional. The law had been passed by both the regional and Spanish government, which at the time was led by socialists sympathetic to the Catalan cause. The statute, though, was challenged by Spain’s conservative party, the Popular Party.

The Constitutional Court ruled against placing the Catalan language above Spanish and said wording in the statute’s preamble about “Catalonia as a nation” and “the national reality of Catalonia” had no legal effect. The ruling left Catalans seething.

Also that year, the Catalan government banned bullfighting, a move that left many in Spain feeling that Catalonia was attacking Spanish identity and culture. In Catalonia, supporters of the ban said the sport was cruel and unfit for a progressive society; some ridiculed it as a sport imported by Franco.

But in 2016, Spain’s Constitutional Court overturned the bullfighting ban, ruling that the Catalan government had exceeded its authority and that the Spanish state had a responsibility to preserve a “common cultural heritage.”

Regardless, Barcelona’s bullfighting arenas are closed today — there’s little appetite for the sport. Flamenco, too, is hard to come by in Barcelona outside of tourist spots. It’s not Catalan, but Spanish, locals say.

Catalonia is also taking aim at another Spanish tradition: the siesta. In 2017, more than 100 professional groups agreed to do away with the tradition of a long lunch break. By 2025, many Catalan businesses plan to shorten the lunch hour and get in line with Northern European countries, allowing workers to leave work earlier. The Spanish government is contemplating a similar change, but has not set a timetable.

It’s not just a cultural conflict. People in Catalonia feel cheated by Madrid.

People here say the Spanish government extracts as much money as it can from the region and then leaves Barcelona underfunded. They complain about the number of highway tolls that have been erected around Barcelona and say Madrid neglects its infrastructure — from its trains to its main airport.

A banner over a restaurant in Barcelona calls for leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement to be freed from prison. (Cain Burdeau photo/ Courthouse News)

All of this leaves many residents feeling that an independent Catalonia with its 7.5 million inhabitants and Barcelona as its capital would do just fine on its own. Barcelona has a long history as a commercial powerhouse in the Mediterranean.

“Catalonia can carry on as a country because we have a big powerful economy with its tourism, industry and innovations,” said Gloria, a 63-year-old unemployed woman who declined to give her surname.

In Madrid, naturally, many people view Catalonia’s urge for independence differently.

“Catalonia independence is a fake,” said Francisco Hernandez, a 49-year-old Madrid lawyer. “Catalonia has never been independent from Spain. Its independence has been created in the last 30 years. There are 500 years of Spanish history, and Catalonia was always in this history.”

He said the 1978 constitution that laid down the foundations for a post-Franco Spain and its constitutional monarchy gave regional parties too many concessions. Since the end of Francoism, Spain has dealt with growing independence drives in the Basque Country and Galicia too. The fight for independence in the Basque Country was marked by terrorism and the deaths of nearly 800 people.

“It was the dark side of the agreement,” Hernandez said about negotiations over the constitution that led to regional autonomy. “I don’t think Catalonia will ever be independent.”

But others in Madrid — especially those on the left — are sympathetic to Catalonia. Among them are Andrea Alvarez and Javier Garcia, two 20-year-old art students who were on their way to the Prado Museum, Spain’s fabulous national art museum.

Alvarez said she supports Catalonia’s cause and that it’s unfair for Catalonia to pay more in taxes than it gets in return. “It is logical that they want independence from my point of view,” she said. “They are paying for a lot of things.”

Garcia sees the uprising of Catalans as “a coup of awareness.”

“I’m not in favor of everything about independence, but I like how it’s a social movement,” he said. “It’s waking people up.”

In an early morning square in the hip Malasaña neighborhood of central Madrid, 64-year-old bookseller Francisco Villa Verde mused about Catalonia as he stacked books he hoped to sell that day.

“It’s possible that it will be independent,” he said. “But it will be more of a psychological independence than a material one. Spain is very united. But it is possible that one day the unity will end. But it will be quite a number of years before that happens.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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