“There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”
-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
On Sunday, October 1, millions of Catalans voted in an illegal referendum for independence. Hundreds were injured as federal police attempted to break up the vote. How Catalonia reached this turmoil is a much longer narrative—one rooted in hundreds of years of history marred by conflict over linguistic and cultural affiliation.
Catalonia, a wealthy autonomous Spanish region with its own distinct culture and unique language, has a long and storied history of fierce independence dating back to the 15th century and its original integration into the kingdom of Spain. Since then, Catalonia’s desire for independence has surfaced time and time again: during Catalonia’s first cultural renaissance of the early 19th century, the Renaixença, and into Spain’s brief time as a Republic in the early 1930s. The ensuing civil war defined Catalonia’s identity for the coming century and is crucial in understanding its modern cultural and political beliefs.
During the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia fought on the side of the left-wing Republic (the established government) against General Francisco Franco’s nationalists. The region was one of the last to fall, as bloody fighting ravaged the entire Spanish Peninsula. During the war, famed English author George Orwell travelled to Spain and fought on the side of the Catalans. Immediately after the war, Orwell published his culturally ubiquitous book, Homage to Catalonia, in which he described fierce fighting, but an even fiercer people. Franco’s dictatorship after the war left little room for Catalan independence, yet his reign did not remove the simmering sentiment of emotional independence Orwell expressed in Homage to Catalonia. After Franco’s death, Spain converted into a constitutional monarchy and the new constitution, put into effect in 1978, granted Catalonia broad autonomy as a region of Spain. The balancing act lasted for several decades, until 2006.
Today’s strife over independence can be most directly linked to the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia and the resulting discourse. The 2006 statute was an attempt to better outline and define Catalonia’s autonomy as a Spanish region. It placed the Catalan language above Spanish, gave broader authority to regional courts, and even referred to Catalonia as “a nation” in its preamble. After the Catalan legislature, national Spanish parliament, and a regional popular referendum each approved and enacted the statute, the Constitutional Court (Spain’s equivalent of the United States’ Supreme Court) immediately announced they would review the statute. Four years later in 2010, the Court struck down 14 of the statute’s 223 articles, including those regarding Catalan language, Catalan judicial independence, and called the Catalan nation reference legally moot. Despite this seemingly “light-handed” judgment as a 2010 Economist article noted, more than a million Catalans marched in Barcelona following the judgment. Many believe this was at least in part due to the recent global recession, which drew wealth out of the wealthy Spanish region and into other swaths of Spain. Over the next four years, Catalonia pressed the Spanish government for more financial freedom.
In 2014, Catalan President Artur Mas posed an independence referendum to his people. Despite the Constitutional Court’s declaration that the vote could not proceed without including all Spaniards, President Mas continued and called the ballot an unofficial opportunity for the people of Catalonia to express their feelings towards independence. As the Washington Post reported, “Of the around 2.3 million Catalans — less than half of those eligible — who vote, more than 80 percent choose secession. The national government rejects the vote as propaganda.” While nothing officially came of the March 2014 vote, Mas was banned from holding public office for the next two years.
On June 9, 2017, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced a referendum on Catalan independence would be held on October 1, yet on September 7, the Constitutional Court suspended the October 1 ballot after an appeal from Spain’s Prime Minister. Despite its illegality, Catalan officials proceeded with the referendum.
On October 1, millions of Catalans voted on independence from Spain. The scene on the ground, however, was not one of democratic joy or accomplishment. As Catalans took to the polls they were met by armed national police under orders from Madrid to use force if necessary to prohibit the vote from taking place. Police fired rubber bullets into nonviolent crowds, smashed glass at polling stations, and even dragged voters out of polling stations. All told, 893 civilians and some 431 police officers were injured in the violence. Despite the violence, October 1st was also filled with bravery and heroism. As pictured below, many Catalan first responders (including firefights, police, and medics) formed lines between protestors/voters and the national police in an attempt to quell the violence.
Despite an apology for the violence, the central government has continued to both overtly and esoterically subvert Catalan independence. Days after the vote, King of Spain Felipe accused Catalan leaders of “unacceptable disloyalty.” At the same time, Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero was summoned to Madrid for questioning under charges of sedition for allowing and protecting the illegal referendum. This past Friday, October 6, the Spanish government passed a law easing restrictions on moving private company headquarters out of Catalonia, including redacting a previous rule that a shareholders meeting must be called to relocate. These measures are increasing the flow of weary companies out of the region. Two major banks headquartered in Catalonia, Caixabank and Sabadell, have already agreed to move their respective headquarters out of the region, a serious blow to the independence movement. In response, respected local newspaper El País published an op-ed article warning Catalans to proceed with caution as the region’s economic stability is just as much at stake as its political integrity.
In the wake of this turmoil, Catalan independence leaders published the results of the referendum. With a turnout of 2.3 million people (43% of the eligible population), 90% voted in favor of Catalan independence from Spain. There has been speculation that this percentage does not accurately reflect the feelings of Catalans, as violence scared off many potential voters and many of those who actually oppose Catalan independence boycotted the illegal vote. After announcing the Catalan assembly would meet on Monday, October 9, to discuss the results of the referendum (and potentially vote on independence), the Constitutional Court quickly suspended the regional session. In lieu of the suspended parliament session, President Puigdemont announced he would address the regional parliament.
On Tuesday, President Puigdemont gave a speech that, “seemingly satisfied neither his separatist base nor the central government in Madrid,” as an LA Times piece put it. While reaffirming his belief in an independent Catalonia, President Puigdemont suspended the results of the October 1 referendum that favored independence, angering his pro-independence base. His subsequent call for peaceful dialogues with the federal government were met with sharp negativity and a dismissive tone by Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, further angering the central government.
With both the Basque Country (another autonomous region in Spain) and Wales in the United Kingdom eyeing independence, Spain’s maneuvering matters now, more than ever, on a global scale. Under tremendous pressure thus far, Spain has failed. The Spanish government owes its citizens respect, order, and a voice—none of which they have shown the citizens of Catalonia. Contrarily, Catalonia owes its federal government due process. This is not an independence movement rooted in systemic and legal injustices. Catalonia must respect the law and move through the legal routes it can take toward further autonomy and potentially independence.