Catalonia on the Brink

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

An independence supporter outside the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, Spain, October 10, 2017

The first disagreement is about metaphors, and perhaps it is the most important one. How to speak of countries and nations? Some people see them as relationships. They use the language of couples and romantic feeling: a breakaway region is no longer in love or loved, seeks divorce, wants its freedom. Secession may be painful, but it’s her right. Others prefer the language of the body: a country is an organic whole, its component parts are limbs. What for some is just the right to seek happiness elsewhere, for others feels like mutilation: the pain is physical, unbearable.

I thought of these conflicting metaphors on October 1, while I was reporting on Catalonia’s referendum on independence from its capital city, Barcelona. This was the latest act in a long unfolding drama. Since 2010, the pro-independence movement has been picking up strength, with constant shows of force, spectacular mass demonstrations, and, crucially, the support of a nationalist-dominated regional government and parliament. The pro-independence campaigners had been trying to secure a legally binding referendum of independence, without success. Madrid would not allow it, citing the wording of the Spanish Constitution, which provides regions with a high degree of autonomy but flatly rejects their right to self-determination.

What happened on October 1 was that the nationalists had decided to take the plunge, to step outside the Constitution and hold a vote on independence no matter what. The secessionists would ignore the ban placed on the vote by the Spanish Constitutional Court and the threat of police action. The result was mayhem: Spanish police storming polling stations in order to seize the ballot boxes; baton charges, bloody faces, and rubber-coated bullets ricocheting off the facades of the historic buildings of Barcelona, and in dozens of other cities and towns. The day would end with almost nine hundred people injured throughout Catalonia.

Despite the disruption, the vote went ahead. By the end of that difficult day, Carles Puigdemont, the separatist president of Catalonia, appeared on TV to announce that “the Catalan people had won the right to become an independent state,” and he hinted that the regional parliament would issue a unilateral declaration of independence in a matter of days. If countries make a particular sound when they break apart, I thought I’d heard it that day in Barcelona.

How did it come to this? While covering the story, a childhood memory kept nagging at me. I had been in the same streets many years before, on another October day, in 1977. My father, a doctor, had to attend a congress in Barcelona and took us with him from our distant home in the northwestern region of Galicia. He was unaware that this was to be the day when the great Catalan nationalist leader Josep Tarradellas was set to return from his long exile. General Franco, the dictator who had ruled Spain with an iron fist for nearly forty years, had died less than two years earlier. The mood in Barcelona was ecstatic. Ja sóc aqui. “I’m back,” the elderly Tarradellas shouted in Catalan to roaring crowds and a red-and-yellow storm of Catalan flags. My brother and I were fascinated by the electrifying atmosphere, and brought back with us one of those flags as a memento. It’s been stored away in a closet ever since, along with all the paraphernalia my brother Antonio collected on those hopeful days when democracy was emerging from the shadows.

Two years later, Catalonia gained its statute of autonomy. But Catalan nationalism, always strong, proved also to be moderate. Catalans like to speak of their dual personality: there’s the rauxa, the rage, and there’s the seny, the prudent pragmatism. Seny prevailed. Catalan nationalists became, in fact, a stabilizing force in Spanish politics. For two decades, they often provided parliamentary support in Madrid to minority governments of the left and the right, receiving more self-government in return. To be sure, there were those who dreamed of full independence, but they were few, a fringe in the Catalan nationalist movement. They spoke of their vision as a “journey to Ithaca,” after a popular song by the singer Lluís Llach: like Ulysses’ voyage, theirs was to be a long one, fraught with obstacles and siren calls. Their Ithaca was a Catalonian republic. They would not get there soon; they might never arrive.

Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain was not idyllic but it took the shape of a healthy contest, epitomized by the eternal rivalry between Spain’s two world-famous soccer teams: Real Madrid and Barcelona. If other Spaniards sometimes perceived Catalans as arrogant, they also thought them more efficient, more modern, more “European.” The Catalans, for their part, would sometimes grumble about Spain’s too easygoing approach to life, but then they would mock their own sense of superiority, and they, too, celebrated southern Spain’s vibrant culture. After more than a century of receiving a constant stream of migrants from other parts of Spain, Catalonia had become “a little Spain,” where Andalusian flamenco, Gypsy rumba, and Galician bagpipe music were almost as significant a presence as Catalan culture itself. This was particularly true of Barcelona. Barcelona, says Spain’s seventeenth-century literary hero Don Quixote, is a “fountain of courtesy, shelter of strangers, …reciprocator of firm friendship.”


This sort of “proudly Spanish Catalonia” peaked during the 1992 Olympic Games. Spain had proposed Barcelona, rather than Madrid, as the venue for the games, and it turned out to be an unqualified success. This gave Catalans and Spaniards a sense of mutual recognition and pride. In the closing ceremony, the popular Catalan Gypsy singer Peret summed up the mood in the refrain of his song: ¡Barcelona es poderosa! “Barcelona is powerful!” Indeed, it was.

And then 2010 changed all that. In that fateful year, two things happened. The economic crisis that had struck the whole world at the time was felt hard across Spain, but in Catalonia the cutbacks to social services and the austerity measures of the Catalan government were harsher than those Madrid imposed on the rest of Spain. This caused a wave of anger at the establishment and created an atmosphere in which any radical idea could succeed. At the same time, after four years of agonizing deliberations, the Spanish Constitutional Court issued a controversial ruling. The Catalans had approved in a referendum a new, reformed statute of autonomy. Now the court was annulling parts of it. Catalonia was not to be called a nation, the Catalan language would not have absolute primacy over the Spanish language, Catalonia was not to have its own justice and tax system.

Catalans took this ruling as an affront. Some went further and concocted a powerful explanation that mixed the two unrelated events like chemicals in an explosive: What if Catalonia’s financial woes were the consequence of the region’s lack of fiscal autonomy? After all, Catalonia contributed more to the national budget than it got in return. An ugly slogan sprang up: Espanya ens roba! “Spain steals from us!” The seny evaporated. The rauxa took over. But it would be unfair to say it was all about the money. Identity, not ethnic but political identity, was what fueled the movement. “Catalonia is not Spain” read the graffiti on the walls. A simple statement, no need to explain. In 2012, a mass demonstration swarmed Barcelona: a million and a half people under the slogan “Catalania, new European state.” More of a convert than an opportunist, the hitherto cautious Catalan president, Artur Mas, joined the call for independence—and he began to demand that the issue be settled in a referendum.

Catalans celebrate their national day, the Diada, on September 11. Paradoxically, it’s the anniversary of distant military defeat, commemorating the fall of Barcelona during the War of Spanish Succession in 1714. But now Diadas became spectacular shows of force and popular will: hundreds of thousands of Catalans paraded the streets peacefully but earnestly demanding separation from Spain. The senyera, the traditional flag of Catalonia, began to be replaced by the estelada. This was a flag designed by Catalan nationalists in the shape of the Cuban flag to show their support for that island’s independence from Spain in 1898. The old flag that my brother and I had brought back from Barcelona almost forty years earlier now meant little to Catalan nationalists.

In Madrid, they didn’t read the signs. Government officials dismissed all of this as “a ruse of the Catalans to get more money from the state.” Political analysts repeatedly described the rise of nationalist sentiment as a soufflé that would deflate sooner or later, just a lot of hot air. Even had they taken the matter seriously, little might have changed. In those years, Britain, where the parliament is sovereign, was able to grant Scotland a legally-binding referendum of independence. Covering the story, I spotted groups of Catalan nationalists in beautiful Edinburgh wearing their flags like capes, their eyes gleaming with vicarious hope. But Spain has a written Constitution that clearly states the nation is indivisible and, more crucially, that sovereignty resides with “the Spanish people” as a whole This means that Catalan independence could only be established by putting the issue to a country-wide vote. Needless to say, that made it impossible.

By 2015, it had become clear that the “Scottish option” was not available. Artur Mas tried something else. He called a snap regional election and turned it into a plebiscite. Votes for nationalist parties would be counted as votes for independence. It was a narrow miss. The secessionists won a tantalizing 47.8 percent, almost a majority, but short of it. Yet the whims of the electoral law handed them a parliamentary majority nonetheless. Faced with the temptation, they succumbed. The relatively moderate Mas was replaced by the much more radical Puigdemont, who was willing to call a referendum even if it meant stepping outside the law. He wouldn’t care if the Constitutional Court did not approve or if the turnout didn’t pass the 50 percent threshold. What had hitherto been an irreproachably democratic movement morphed into a popular and institutional insurrection. Ithaca could wait no longer.


So came October 1, the day of reckoning. It was a messy affair, a clash of metaphors again, and this time the nationalists had a winning story. They just wanted to vote, they said, in spite of the threat of police action. Their quest made an epic tale: the ballot boxes, hidden for weeks by anonymous citizens to confound the police, arriving at dawn to each of the more than two thousand polling stations throughout Catalonia. There, a corridor of voters, their hands linked, watched the boxes carried by in an eerie, almost sacred silence. For the rest of the day, these activists would protect the ballot boxes with their bodies from the attempts of the Spanish riot police to seize them.

The nationalists played a perfect game, the Spanish made a blunder. They had failed to understand that their police officers would also be read symbolically. Madrid insisted, and genuinely believed, that those men in riot gear pulling demonstrators by the hair were simply defending the law and therefore democracy. But images take on a meaning of their own, and in the eyes of most Catalans, and many others around the world, this was the face of oppression. To return to Don Quixote, Spain’s fictional alter ego, his curse is that he often misunderstands others’ intentions and overreacts. At the end of the novel, he is defeated in Barcelona after he accepts a challenge to a duel he cannot win.

I returned to Catalonia on October 10. President Puigdemont was adjourning the regional parliament in order to validate the result of the referendum, which had showed a resounding “yes,” albeit with a low turnout. There was mounting speculation that he would declare independence there and then. In parliament, Spanish journalists were already being asked to register at the foreign press desk. Separation was starting with me, I thought, though I didn’t take it personally.

I watched the tens of thousands of independence supporters waiting outside the building, waving their flags, tense and solemn under an aptly overcast sky. They surrounded the Arc de Triomf, the landmark where the city’s marathon usually ends, but also a place with a more somber resonance. The street is named Lluís Companys Avenue after the Catalan president who, in 1934, proclaimed a state of Catalonia that lasted only hours and ended with forty-six dead and his own imprisonment. (Companys was subsequently tortured and executed by General Franco’s henchmen.)

Perhaps Puigdemont met Companys’s tragic shade that evening on his way to parliament, as in an English ghost story. He declared but immediately suspended independence, and offered negotiations. Or he didn’t declare it at all. It was all so confusing. The demonstrators outside did not understand. They had reached the finishing line, the Arc de Triomf, but the marathon, apparently, was not over. Later, to appease their followers, the nationalist members of parliament signed, one by one, the suspended declaration of independence. The voice doing the roll-call sounded familiar. It was Lluís Llach, the singer of “Journey to Ithaca.” Now almost seventy, he is himself a nationalist parliamentarian. “When you begin your way to Ithaca / Better pray it’s long,” goes the song, meaning that it’s not the destination, but the journey, that matters. Did this appearance by Llach signify a holding back that expressed an unconscious fear of disappointment, the unspoken realization that desire is a stronger feeling than success?

But to remind everybody and themselves of their commitment, the nationalist representatives broke into song: “Els Segadors,” the Catalan national anthem. Its lyrics celebrate the harvesters who revolted in the seventeenth century against the king’s authority. It includes a harsh refrain, given special emphasis by the music: Bon cop the falç! “Give it a good strike of the sickle!” There’s symbolism for you: Catalonia will be severed from the rest of Spain, sooner or later.

So, we circle back to metaphors. Breakup or mutilation, the language of feelings or the language of the body. Perhaps, both are correct. To an extent, Catalan nationalists are right when they say countries are partnerships. They do have feelings and require a modicum of happiness to endure. Misunderstandings, frustration, or resentment can destroy them. Some relationships are better broken, some breakups are followed by regret. What they all have in common is that in most cases breakups are irreparable and painful. In that, the other Catalans and Spaniards are right, too. At his point, nobody knows whether Catalonia will finally secede from Spain, but, if it comes to that, it will feel like the loss of a limb. And for many, the hurt will be unbearable.

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