BARCELONA—Even along La Rambla, where human statues pose for money and wide-eyed tourists chug down super-size beers, one can imagine that this was the place where some of the opening volleys in the fight against fascism were waged.
Barcelona’s old Communist Party headquarters may now house a mega-sized Apple Store, but there is still a sense that ghosts of the Spanish Civil War are alive on the streets. And this last week, at the Plaza Universidad, student protesters accused the current government of Mariano Rajoy of fascism for his vow to halt Sunday’s referendum on independence. After all Rajoy’s Partido Popular originally was founded by Franquistas way back at the re-nascence of Spain’s democracy.
Satirical posters of Rajoy can be seen here and there depicting him kissing the former arch-dictator “Generalissimo” Francisco Franco. Others depicting the words “democracia” and “Hola Nou Pais,” (“Hello new country” in Catalan) are held up high.
The government in Madrid, citing a Supreme Court edict declaring the vote unconstitutional, has vowed to use all legal measures at its disposal to prevent it. It has arrested (and released) 14 Catalan politicians urging independence, raided offices suspected of printing ballots, and confiscated the ballots it could find.
Meanwhile the government has dispatched several thousand officers of the Guardia Civil (a gendarmerie infamous under the dictatorship) and national police to Catalonia to intervene physically if necessary to keep the vote from taking place.
Locals complained that Madrid had sent more police to Catalonia to prevent them from voting than they did to help them respond to the August 17 terrorist attacks on the Ramblas and in the sleepy Catalan town of Cambrils. Madrid complained that the independence movement should have not called for an independence vote after a terrorist incident. Independentistas whispered that Madrid had a secret agenda to destroy Catalonia. Conservatives complained that the Catalans were in league with the Russians. But if Russia Today was pushing independence, it sure wasn’t doing it in the Catalan language.
On the one hand, the claims of fake news, the insults, and the high volume indignation on both sides are weapons in a fight meant to settle old scores between “independentistas” and Madrid. On the other, it represents the personal animosity between the Rajoy administration and Catalonia’s politicians. The independence movement in Catalonia is nothing new, but the vitriol has flowed at an alarming rate.
There are some parallels between the independentistas of today and those who supported Catalonia’s independence nearly 100 years ago. While Catalans like to talk about a history that dates back to the 9th Century, the modern roots of secession began in 1922 when Francesc Macià founded the first pro-independence political party in Catalonia: Estat Catala. In 1926 he led an abortive insurrection against the dictatorship in Madrid of Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera.
Then in 1931, Spain, like the rest of the world, was in the midst of the Great Depression, and Primo de Rivera lost his grip on power. Municipal elections were held in an effort to relieve political tensions and, remarkably, Macià’s independence party won in coalition with two others. Spain’s monarch fled, and Macià proclaimed a Catalan Republic. For a full three days, Catalonia was a country. Negotiations began with the new provisional government in Madrid, and Catalonia remained part of the Second Spanish Republic, but as an autonomous region.
When Franco’s fascists decided to take over Spain with the backing of Hitler in the mid 1930s, Barcelona became a key battleground, but independence was not the issue.
Although George Orwell, who fought there, later lamented the incredible amount of lies and fantasies that masqueraded as facts about that conflict, “The broad truth about the war is simple enough,” he wrote. “The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labor movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world.”
It was in Barcelona that on July,18, 1936, Catalan nationalists, Anarchists, Communists, union workers, strengthened by local police, erected barriers with horse-drawn carts to stop an advancing brigade of fascist soldiers loyal to “Generalissimo” Franco. The fascists fought their way down the end of La Rambla and several other major streets, but went no further. Barcelona was a hardscrabble town where guns were relatively easy to find and the street-wise resistance, along with the local cops won the day with relative ease.
Spain’s democratically elected Republic kept Franco’s forces at bay for three years until Barcelona finally fell in 1939. The fascists were supplied with modern military weaponry from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, which turned the tide of the war. Afterwards, Spain suffered Franco’s authoritarian rule for several generations until the dictator’s death in 1975.
“Back then, there were a lot of Catalanistas, most of whom wanted Catalonia to be a part of a federal Spanish government instead of independent,” says Nick Grono author of Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War. Even today independence parties hold only a slight majority in the regional parliament.
Grono sees other parallels between today’s independentistas and those of old. “Just as in the 1930s, the people of lower income in Barcelona now are generally the least in favor of independence,” says Grono. “You go to the working class outskirts and you will see far less Catalan Flags.” While the independence movement has recently made inroads among less affluent voters, particularly Pakistani and Moroccan immigrants, it’s still very much a bourgeois affair.
Franco ran Spain with an equal-opportunity hatred for anyone who opposed him. Torture became an often-used tool of the regime as Franco was responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 Spaniards deemed political opponents and dissenters. Migrants from Andalusia and other parts of Spain were brought to Catalonia to dilute an otherwise restive Catalan population. Catalan, as well as the Basque language Euskera and Gallego, were outlawed.
After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia was filled with a desire for modernity. In a recent talk in Madrid, Nobel Prize winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa described Barcelona as a city that had become a bridge between Latin America and Spain. Such writers as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez frequented Barcelona not only to meet with their Spanish editors but to enjoy the city’s deeply cosmopolitan culture. “Nationalism was completely marginalized,” Vargas Llosa told El Pais. “I did not meet a single nationalist in five years—it sounds like a joke, but it isn’t.”
For Vargas Llosa, nationalist movements were “something old-fashioned and anachronistic.” Catalan independentistas “were reactionary old people whom you did not have to take too seriously because they lived in the past.”
But as Catalonia became more successful, it sought to establish itself as a state much more in line with the autonomous government that Catalanistas envisioned in the 1930s. By 2005 the Catalan parliament had approved by a vote of 120 to 15 recognition of Catalonia as a nation, insisting Catalan be the primary language of the region, and establishing a new agency to engage in tax collection.
The following year, the Spanish Parliament approved a compromise version of the legislation which was ratified by referendum in Catalonia, something that Rajoy’s Popular Party vowed to contest in Spain’s Supreme Court.
It is 2006 and the government in Madrid releases statistics outlining how much of the nation’s taxes are collected in each of Spain’s 17 regions. They confirm what many in the Catalan independence movement have claimed, that between 11 billion and 14 billion euros in taxes raised inside Catalonia are invested elsewhere in Spain. Catalans now realize that not only do they have cultural arguments for greater autonomy and independence, they have financial ones as well.
The chasm between Catalonia and Madrid widens as Spain goes deeper into recession in 2009. Fully 16 percent of Catalans are jobless, a figure that will rise to 23 percent by 2013. To make matters more tense, Spain’s Supreme Court, in a highly contentious decision, rules in 2010 that many of the provisions of the 2005 autonomy legislation, including taxation and Catalan language primacy, were unconstitutional. To top it off, Rajoy, the region’s arch-rival, is elected prime minister in November of 2011.
By 2012, the political relationship between the regional government led by Artur Mas and Rajoy’s government has become caustic. Local Catalan parties begin to call for demonstrations on Catalan national day on September 11, and no less than 1.5 million people show up. Still, local polls suggest that less than half of all voters in the region actually support secession.
The Catalan regional government again asks Rajoy to allow it to collect and retain more of its own tax money—an arrangement similar to what Madrid allows the Basque Country. Rajoy refuses, citing its unconstitutionality. By this time, the independentista movement in Catalonia is in full throttle. When Mas calls for a referendum on independence, the central government responds by stripping him of office for two years.
If the desired effect of Rajoy’s decision is to send a message to Catalan politicians not to seek further autonomy, much less independence, it backfires miserably. In the wake of Mas’s departure, the even more radical CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) gains seats in regional elections. The region’s new leader, Carles Puigdemont, vows to continue the push for independence. Both sides have dug in their heels.
The results of this checkered history will manifest themselves at the polls on Sunday. Already local fire departments have vowed to create human cordons to allow the voting to take place. Catalonia’s high court, in concordance with the Supreme Court decision, has ordered Google to delete an application that tells people the location of polling places. The region’s police department has been given orders to use force at the polls only as a last resort, even as the Guardia Civil has been ordered to shut them down.
“I don’t believe there will be anyone who will use violence or who will want to provoke violence that will tarnish the irreproachable image of the Catalan independence movement as pacifist,” Puigdemont told Reuters. This is not the Catalonia of 1936. At least not yet.