At Plaça Sant Jaume, near Barcelona’s Gothic cathedral and the town hall, sits an old Catalan man covered in red paint and wearing a red beret. He holds a placard that reads: “1714 to 2017: Catalonia is an oppressed nation”.
Catalonia is a wealthy semiautonomous region of Spain and visitors to its capital Barcelona might wonder where the oppression is to be found. Barcelona is a wealthy city, a major tourist attraction and host to a number of multinational corporations. Yet from the Bourbon king who, in 1714, suspended the Catalan Constitution, to the military dictator General Francisco Franco, who suppressed Catalan culture in the 20th century, Catalonia has for centuries chafed under rule from Madrid.
These historical grievances manifested again on October 1 when Catalans voted for independence in defiance of the Spanish government.
The current crisis has political and economic roots, according to Professor Pamela Radcliffe, historian of modern Spain at the University of California San Diego. “Although there has always been a strong sense of national identity in Catalonia, support for secession was about 11% only a few years ago,” she said. “The political turning point was the Supreme Court’s rejection in 2010 of a Catalan proposal to amend the autonomy statute, followed by the Popular Party’s refusal to open any negotiations on the issue.”
Although not prime minister at the time, Mariano Rajoy led the Popular Party and its efforts to halt the statute, which would have granted Catalonia more autonomy, in 2010. The argument made then is similar to Rajoy’s contention today that the referendum was illegal under the country’s 1978 Constitution, which protects “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.
“The economic turning point,” said Radcliffe, “has been the severe economic crisis, leading many Catalans to believe they would be better off on their own.”
Spain entered a recession during the crisis and required a €100-billion bailout from the European Union (EU). Many Catalans blame the Spanish government for mishandling the financial crisis and say that, because the Catalan economy accounts for about 20% of Spain’s gross domestic product, the region should have a bigger say over its finances. Additionally, unlike the Basque and Navarre regions, Catalonia pays taxes to the central government and then receives money in return to disburse in the region.
Andrew Dowling, senior lecturer of Hispanic studies at Cardiff University, agrees: “The single biggest factor that has caused the push to independence in recent years has been the economic crisis.”
Since assuming the presidency of the Catalan regional government in 2016, Carles Puigdemont has built on the work of his predecessors in a bid to lead Catalonia to independence. The Catalan Parliament approved the independence referendum in June 2017.
Amid this backdrop, pro-independence demonstrations have been a staple of daily life over the past month. The colourful protests, in which Catalans often drape the Senyera — the red, yellow and blue Catalan flag — over their shoulders, have provided good photo opportunities for the many tourists who visit Barcelona.
The pro-independence movement has also used peaceful yet creative ways to voice their opinions. The Looney Tunes character Tweety Pie became a symbol of Catalan nationalism after a ship arrived in Barcelona’s port with cartoon characters painted on its side. The vessel had ferried Guardia Civil officers to Catalonia, who would later use violence in an effort to stop the referendum. The irony of police with body armour and batons arriving in a ferry covered with Looney Tunes was not lost on student protesters who co-opted Tweety as a symbol against the Spanish government. Then Catalan farmers drove their tractors into Barcelona and other towns to protect voting stations from the Guardia Civil to ensure that the vote would go ahead.
Yet these stories belie a major political, economic and constitutional crisis for Spain and Catalonia. Rajoy’s government received a rebuke from the EU, which said “violence should not be an instrument of politics” after the Guardia Civil injured 900 voters in clashes on the day of the referendum, according to figures from the Catalan regional government.
Catalans in favour of secession took a dim view of the government’s attempts to stop the vote, and its decision to deploy the Guardia Civil.
“The Spanish state is repressing us. They are scared of the people. They are scared to listen to the people. The only thing we want is to take a ballot and decide the future of our country,” said Marta Rosique, a student and spokesperson for an association called Universities for a Republic, which was formed to help organise the referendum.
Puigdemont has had to face problems of his own. In addition to the referendum being invalid under the Constitution, the threat of violence before the referendum and on the day had a significant effect on turnout; only 40% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Opinion polls before the referendum had warned that there would be a correlation between low turnout and a higher percentage of pro-independence votes. The EU also warned Catalonia that it did not see the referendum as legitimate and added that the region would have to apply for membership of the union.
Puigdemont then stopped short of making the unilateral declaration of independence that he had promised in the event of a “si” (yes) vote for independence in the referendum. In a speech on Tuesday night, Puigdemont suspended Catalonia’s declaration of independence and called for negotiations between Catalonia and Spain. He had little choice.
Rajoy had said that all options are on the table to deal with the Catalan crisis, including invoking Article 155, which would allow the government to suspend Catalan autonomy in the event of a declaration of independence. Meanwhile, in the week after the referendum, two of the largest Catalan banks, Banco de Sabadell and Caixa, moved their headquarters out of Catalonia. The winemaker Freixenet did the same, along with a string of other Catalan companies, causing major embarrassment to Catalonia’s leaders.
Puigdemont is adamant that Spain cannot ignore the two million Catalans who voted for independence. Nor can he afford to ignore the manner in which businesses have voted with their feet by moving their headquarters from Catalonia in the aftermath of the disputed referendum.
On the political front, Radcliffe warned of the dangers of “each side hunkering down in nationalist rhetoric rather than figuring out how to bring their conflicting visions of ‘what democracy means’ into the conversation”.
At Plaça Sant Jaume, the man in the red beret is clear that only a breakaway from Spain will address his grievances. Although two million people seem to share his sentiment and voted for independence, the “silent majority” of Catalans who did not vote found their voice last week and held huge rallies of their own to call for dialogue. Some were neutral and wore white to show that, others waved the Spanish flag instead of the Senyera, all of which underscored divisions not only in Spain but in Catalonia too.