At the top of the Rambla, the emblematic boulevard of Barcelona, about twenty yards down from the Plaça de Catalunya, stands the Font de Canaletes. The famous fountain holds a special significance for all visitors to the Catalan capital. Legend has it that, if you drink from its waters, you will return to this magnificent city.
It was precisely here in 1974, with the country in lock-down awaiting the death of General Franco, that I had my introduction to life under a military dictatorship. I could not have chosen a worse moment. As the autocrat drew closer to death, rather than mellowing with age, his regime hardened with his “bunker” rekindling the authoritarian values of old in the face of change.
At this very spot, in wonder and disbelief, I watched police vans and jeeps speeding up the centre of the pedestrian precinct to put down a demonstration which only existed in the imagination of some paranoid official. Wonder, because as I looked towards the port I saw the parting of a sea of people scrambling out of the way of this convoy, a magical vision like Moses dividing the waves in DeMille’s Hollywood classic. Disbelief, since it was only as the motorcade charged towards me that I realised the desperate threat it supposed to life and limb and took evasive action.
It was not until August of this year that I witnessed anything similar, when 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub drove his hired van into an unsuspecting crowd at the self-same place, killing 14 and seriously injuring hundreds more.
Shortly after the atrocity, a multitudinous homage was led by the city’s leaders, including dignitaries from elsewhere: King Felipe, the prime minister Mariano Rajoy and, representing the Opposition, Pedro Sanchez (PSOE) and Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos). After the ceremony, those assembled heaped praise on the professionalism of the Catalan police who had rapidly tracked down and neutralised the perpetrators, in two perilous gun battles, saving countless more lives. Finally, in a gesture of defiance and civic pride, the assembled multitude broke out in the chants “Som gent de pau” (We’re people of peace) and “No tinc por” (I am not afraid). In the face of aggression, life would go on in Barcelona: the people would not be coerced by terror.
Sadly, any apparent solidarity from the rest of Spain was short-lived. Snap elections, called as a plebiscite in 2015 on the single issue of holding a binding vote on independence, had returned an absolute majority of independentist deputies who duly called the referendum for 1 October this year. As such, the poll was manifestly democratic in origin and organisation. The Spanish government, however, moved to declare the consultation illegal, a decision which was confirmed by the Constitutional Tribunal. This outcome was hardly surprising since ten of the twelve judges of Spain’s highest court are appointed by politicians in Madrid; and their rulings seldom disappoint their sponsors.
Central government had elegantly ignored a previous consultation on the issue in 2014 and simply declared the result unconstitutional. But this time — with a logic reminiscent of a previous era — the executive resolved to suppress the process at all costs. The Mossos d’Esquadra attempted to prevent the poll by restricting voting to those institutions where action to the contrary might provoke violence and injury. The state-police and the Civil Guard, however, would show no such restraint or respect for good policing. Polling stations were ransacked, those queuing to vote manhandled, election officials assaulted, with the result that, after indiscriminate baton charges and the firing of rubber bullets, 893 civilians required hospital treatment. Hands aloft to show they were unarmed, voters repeated the same chants in the face of their Spanish aggressors.
The world bore witness to this brutality which brought denunciations from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission for Human Rights. Central government, supported in all areas by the state-wide Opposition, claimed the violence to be “proportionate” and “legitimate”. Caucuses in Spain labelled those casting a ballot as “Nazis”, “fascists” and “demophobes”. For the less confused, these epithets are more commonly applied to those who use intimidation to prevent the exercise of democracy.
In the wake of the referendum, the legal recriminations have begun. The director of the Mossos d’Esquadra stands indicted for sedition: his force’s policing, which had previously faced down terrorists, was “insufficiently robust”. President Puigdemont is exiled in Belgium with half of his cabinet.The other half are on remand, accused of sedition or worse. Since this offence requires the presence of violence — an option insistently rejected by the Catalans —, the charge appears bogus and the detainees are now considered political prisoners, guilty of fulfilling a manifesto promise. Fresh autonomous elections are called for December as direct rule is imposed by a party which, in 2015, returned a mere 11 seats out of 135 in Catalonia. And with half of the local political leadership in jail or on the run, this “restoration” of law and order is more reminiscent of the “organic democracy” of the Franco dictatorship.
The whole shameful episode is crowned by the indifference shown by the European Union. Brussels, that greatest of moralists, has buried its head in the sand, refusing to apply political pressure or the life-line of mediation. The posture worryingly recalls the 1930s when, with appeasement and non-intervention, Western Europe turned a blind eye to a conflict in the Peninsula to disastrous effect. Todo cambia para que todo siga igual intones the Spanish version of a well-known French saying. Once again, as I look down the Rambla — which has witnessed repression and violence so many times before — I am left fearing the worst.
Dominic Keown is Professor of Catalan Studies at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.