[Column] Will Catalonia become independent?
The Catalonia independence crisis sunk Spain, according to Spanish media, into the worst crisis in 40 years. I asked the people of Vega de Tirados, the small village off the road from Salamanca to Vitigudino and to Portugal, what they think, and after a long pause, they asked: Why? Why are they doing this?
And a Puerto Rican in Spain, steeped in the island’s status politics and conflict, will ask: How will all this play out? Will Catalonia become independent?
On Oct. 27, 2017, the Catalan government declared the independence of Catalonia. Hundreds of thousands of Catalonians took to the streets to celebrate.
For the Catalonian separatists the reaction was: At last! It’s been a long, long struggle. Some argue, since 1150 when Petronilia, the Queen of Aragon, married Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, beginning the historical process that through the centuries forged a distinct Catalonian culture and language.
More recently the process that began with the Oct. 22, 2014, referendum, 80.8 percent voting for independence, to the Oct. 1, 2017, referendum, 90 percent in favor, finally to the independence vote in the Catalonian Parliament with 70 voting in favor, 10 against.
The crisis has shaken Spain. Not only because of Catalonia’s huge importance to the Spanish economy, but because it fears that other autonomous regions will want to break away. The very existence of Spain as a nation is at stake. And for the economic impact in Europe, with several countries, like the United Kingdom, concerned about their own internal separatist movements.
So why did Catalonians declare independence?
The separatists allege that the national government has abused Catalonia for decades; that the Franco dictatorship took away its autonomy and oppressed their culture; that since Spanish democracy, Catalonia contributes economically much more than it gets from the rest of Spain; that in 2010 the national Constitutional Court revoked parts of Catalonian autonomy; and that since 2014, the national government has attempted to brutally suppress the independence movement.
But the fundamental issue, it seems to me, is identity. That Catalonians see themselves as different from Spain, a different cultural nation, and thus with a natural right to independence.
But this is more than a conflict between the Catalonians and the Spanish. It’s a conflict between Catalonians and Catalonians. As one anti-independence woman, speaking at a massive anti-independence rally in Barcelona, cried out: The conflict has broken her family, her separatist husband no longer speaks to her.
Polls indicate that those in favor of union outnumber the separatists. Some polls show that only 41 percent favor independence; other polls, as low as 33.5 percent. Nationwide, 80 percent are against and only 14 percent in favor. The referendums won by the separatists were boycotted by the unionist: Only 43 percent of the Catalan voters voted in the Oct. 1 referendum.
But let’s return to the people of Vega de Tirados, a village of fewer than a hundred in winter, in Castilla y Leon, considered the heartland of Spain with its rich cultural heritage. Salamanca’s beautiful Plaza Mayor, the Spanish flag draped from the balconies, as throughout Spain to express support for union. Asking “why?”
Would an independent Catalonia be economically viable? Catalonia is already paying a big economic price. Since the Oct. 1 referendum until Oct. 27, a total 1,821 private firms have left, 1,639 from Barcelona.
So far, no government has recognized Catalonian independence. It would take an independent Catalonia years to enter, if at all, the European Union.
“I just don’t understand what they are thinking,” Susana, a barber in Ledesma, a beautiful medieval town near Vega de Tirados, told me.
It must be, she and others said, that the Catalonian public educational system “brainwashed” young Catalonians not only in unrealistic nationalism but against Spain and the Spanish.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the national government, once the Catalonians declared independence, reacted quickly and strongly, invoking Article 155 of the Constitution to remove from power the Catalan officials, taking over the Catalonia government, and immediately accusing its president, Carles Puigdemont, his government officials and Parliament’s leadership of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds.
To everyone’s surprise, Puigdemont and five government officials quickly left Spain for Brussels, presumably to avoid arrest.
Rajoy scheduled new elections in Catalonia for Dec. 21, obviously expecting the Catalonians will elect a pro-union, anti-independence government. Although Catalonia already enjoys a high degree of autonomy, it is likely, many here believe, that he will attempt to appease the separatists with more autonomy.
So far, Rajoy’s decisive reaction seems to have avoided a violent confrontation. It was crucial that he took control of the 17,000-strong Catalonian armed police force. Spanish newspapers, usually highly critical of Rajoy, some accusing him of being too soft, are expressing guarded approval of how he has defused this dangerous crisis.
So how will this play out?
I have met no one in Vega de Tirados, Ledesma, Salamanca who believes that Catalonia will become independent. What most puzzles them as they witnessed the striking TV images of hundreds of thousands of passionate Catalonians on the streets of Barcelona, waving the flag of Catalonia (that is similar to the Puerto Rican and Cuban flags), is their belief that all this is futile. That, no, it won’t happen, no, their Spain will not break up.
And a Puerto Rican will compare all this to our status conflict. There are big differences. In Puerto Rico the independence movement is small, less than 3 percent of the voters. In Catalonia it is big, and until now, controlled the government. In Puerto Rico the statehood movement is big, but economically impossible. In Catalonia it would hurt economically, but it’s certainly not impossible.
But there is, I think, one similarity. In Puerto Rico the status conflict does unnecessary damage. And so has this Catalonian conflict. There is a consensus in Spain, and especially after Puigdemont ignominiously fled Catalonia, that he and his people committed a bad mistake, throwing Catalonia into a dangerous state of constitutional, legal, economic instability, for the present losing totally its autonomy, and throwing Spain itself into political turmoil.
And as the good people of Vega de Tirados say, it made no sense.
–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist for the San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and publisher and editor of El Reportero.