On 27 October the Catalan government declared independence unilaterally. A few days later, Catalan vice-president Oriol Junqueras along with seven cabinet ministers were charged with sedition and sent to prison without bail. The decision, taken by a Spanish judge, was based on an outdated penal code from Spain’s Francoist regime. The same occurred to Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, the presidents of the civil society organisations Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly – detained since 17 October. Extradition warrants were also issued for Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several of his ministers – by then in Brussels – who surrendered to the Belgian police and were subsequently released. Wednesday 8 November marked Catalonia’s second general strike this autumn, during which tens of thousands of people took to the streets once again to demand freedom for their political prisoners and to denounce Spain’s abuses of power.
Abroad, the situation in Catalonia is often presented by the mainstream media in an ahistorical, de-contextualised way. However, we cannot sufficiently stress that the Catalan question did not appear ‘out of nowhere’ on 1 October (referendum day); to understand why independence was declared unilaterally, we need to examine current events in their historical context.
The Catalan experience of oppression
The history of repression in Catalonia is long, but the history of its people is even longer; it starts centuries before the formation of the Spanish state, with a Catalan Constitution dating back to 1283 (the Spanish one can be traced back to 1812). After the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1714), Catalan institutions were destroyed and an oppressive military rule was established by the Bourbons. Throughout the centuries that followed, these institutions, rights, language and other cultural traditions were abolished and restored numerous times. The repression against Catalans was especially brutal during Franco’s fascist regime (1936-1975) and included executions, purges, physical violence, economic repression, social control and cultural domination. As a result, this history of repression became an integral part of the memory of Catalan people and their sense of collective identity.
The repression, however, did not end with Franco. Many Catalans still consider that they are incapable of having a say in the decisions that affect them or make their voices heard under the current status quo. This is largely due to the constant belittling of their power by the Spanish government, like in 2010, when the Partido Popular (PP) in Spain filed an objection to the Spanish Constitutional Court, leading to serious cuts and amendments of the new Statute of Autonomy – initially agreed upon between Spain and Catalonia and approved by referendum in 2006. Since then, many progressive laws conflicting with the right-wing agenda of the PP were turned down by the Spanish government after being approved by the Catalan Parliament: laws against fuel poverty, fracking and evictions as well as reforms promoting gender equality, social security, taxation on nuclear energy and banks, etc. In total, 25 laws approved by the Catalan Parliament could not come into force because they were repealed by the Constitutional Court at the request of Mariano Rajoy’s government.
Dialogue and legality
Calls for dialogue and political negotiations to deal with the Catalan question were issued eighteen times by Catalan leaders since 2006. Madrid dismissed them every time. Faced with the impossibility of Spain ever agreeing to a referendum, the Catalan Parliament finally voted in favor of organising one unilaterally. During his speech on 10 October, instead of declaring independence, Puigdemont attempted to reach out to Spain once more by temporarily suspending the declaration of independence with the hopes of starting a dialogue with Madrid. President Mariano Rajoy responded with the threat of direct rule, which he implemented later on through Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. Yet Catalonia’s wish to dialogue with Spain could not be clearer; it is outlined in its new declaration of independence, stating: “[w]e affirm our will to open negotiations with the Spanish state”. The declaration of independence also came with a call for tolerance, peace, inclusiveness and collaboration, as well as an explicit willingness to incorporate the voices of those who disagree with independence into shaping the formation of the new Republic.
Where Catalonia has asked for dialogue and understanding, Spain has responded with violence and repression. So far, the number of Catalan political prisoners amounts to ten. This does not come as a surprise in a country that ranks 58th in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of judicial independence, directly below Kenya, Lithuania and Botswana. However, Spain fails to understand that the independence project is not dictated by high-ranking politicians; it is a process led by the people. It is precisely the grassroots nature of the pro-independence movement that allowed for the successful organisation of the referendum. It is the people who mobilized en masse to prevent the arrest of 14 politicians charged with sedition on 20 September. It is the people who took part in the general strike against police violence after the referendum. It is the people who are now organised peacefully to resist direct rule and defend their institutions. These same people went on general strike on 8 November to demand freedom for their political prisoners. Rajoy’s government can imprison as many politicians as he wants, but there are not enough prisons in Spain to imprison all Catalans fighting for independence.
The referendum is presented over and over again as “illegal” – an argument that Spain uses to justify the implementation of direct rule and the detention of political prisoners. However, legality comes to mean very little in a country with a corrupt judicial system, whose government represses the people living in its territory and violates the fundamental right to self-determination of the Human Rights Charter (as recently highlighted by UN Human Rights Council Independent Expert Alfred de Zayas). Indeed, the Spanish Government itself has been acting outside its own Constitution. According to Articles 10.2 and 96, Spain must abide by international law, which includes the right to self-determination. Furthermore, the implementation of direct rule on 27 October, justified through the application of Article 155 of the Constitution, is not within the remit of the Constitution either: Article 155 only enables the central government to issue instructions to autonomic governments or authorities, not to take over the autonomic government and its functions, as is currently the case. Taking control of the Catalan government is not only illegal, it is also undemocratic. To implement direct rule and govern a territory where the PP only won 8% of the votes in the past elections would hardly constitute a measure to “restore democracy” and “give Catalonia back to Catalans” as Rajoy previously claimed.
The legitimacy of the ballot box
Many Catalans would have liked nothing more than to be able to vote in a referendum that was not blocked by Spain through the confiscation of letters on voting procedures, shutting down of websites, censorship of media and police brutality, amongst other things. Yet, despite these measures, the people managed successfully to organise and carry out the referedum of 1 October. Despite the Spanish coercion, it is estimated that around 56.8% of the electorate voted on 1 October, but that only 43% of ballots could be counted as the rest were seized by the police. Amongst the votes that could be counted, 90.2% of the voters supported independence. For ‘no’ to have won this referendum, over 77.6% of the population would have needed to vote, with all the additional and stolen votes being cast against independence. Considering that the highest turnout in the history of Catalan elections is 77%, it is extremely unlikely that the majority of the population was against independence.
New regional electitons are scheduled for 21 December, which will supposedely determine the road Catalonia will take. Some pro-independence parties have stated that, should a majority of voters support pro-unity parties, they would respect the people’s will and drop their demands for independence. However, considering the imprisonment of pro-independence leaders and the great lengths to which Spain has gone to maintain control over Catalonia, the fairness of these elections is not a given.
The future of Catalonia
In legal terms, we are witnessing an instance of ‘dual conflicting legality’, in which the “Transition Law” (passed by the Catalan Parliament) co-exists with Spain’s direct rule (based on an interpretation of Article 155). Both claim to govern Catalonia today. However, ultimately, it is up to the Catalans to decide on their future, and their decision should be understood and respected by foreign countries. This is why so many calls for international solidarity have been issued. After the police violence of 1 October, many people claimed there was no way back. As one pro-independence Catalan said: “[w]e are accused of disobedience, and the Spanish government uses our disobedience to justify the implementation of direct rule. Please know that we have no other options but to disobey”. Indeed, had Catalans held off from declaring independence and called for regional elections, the Spanish government would still have implemented direct rule under Article 155. Furthermore, PP leaders recently indicated that, even if pro-independence parties were to win the 21 December elections, direct rule would be maintained so long as their electoral programme advocated Catalonia’s independence.
In other words, Catalans were put in the situation of choosing between declaring independence unilaterally or losing all of their autonomy. That choice cannot be condemned, especially when faced with a state that represses people, abuses the justice system and manipulates the media. The Catalan question is not an internal problem; it is an international one, which requires the combined mobilisation of people worldwide. So far, solidarity protests have been staged all over the world and (inter)national committees are being set up to put pressure on governments to condemn Spanish repression and recognise the Republic of Catalonia. In the same vein, this article has sought to provide an analysis of the current situation in Catalonia to an international audience, with the aim of explaining the case for international understanding and solidarity.
Readers who wish to show their support can share this article, write to their representatives, visit supportcatalonia.eu or contact their local branch of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) for information on future events, publications or ways to be involved.
By Júlia Muntanyà López and Marta Musić
Júlia Muntanyà López is a Catalan political activist and epidemiologist who divides her time between Mozambique and Barcelona working on a malaria eradication campaign. She is also involved in advocacy work to increase access to medicines worldwide.
Marta Musić is a Serbian and French political activist, freelance journalist and photographer. She is currently doing research for a PhD project on the Latin American Left, social movements and alternatives to neoliberalism.