Rachel Berlowe Binder is currently studying abroad in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and offers a first-hand look at the current independence movement in the region.
Imagine what the effects would be if California, the U.S. state with the highest gross domestic product (GDP), mobilized toward independence. In Catalonia, the wealthy autonomous region of Spain that includes Barcelona, such a situation is unfolding.
Catalonia has a complicated history regarding its relationship with Spain, in large part based on its cultural and linguistic differences with the rest of the country. The Catalonian independence movement has historically been fairly small, but has gained momentum in recent years with unofficial referendums and a shift in power in the Catalan Parliament. Most recently, the Catalan Parliament scheduled a referendum for Sunday, October 1, 2017 – which the Spanish Supreme Court and the Spanish government in Madrid quickly declared unconstitutional. Although the population of Catalonia is about evenly split for and against independence, a majority of Catalans wanted a democratic referendum.
On October 1, the Spanish government sent police and the Civil Guard to Catalonia with instructions to ensure that voting didn’t happen. Catalans lined up to vote, many successfully, and the Spanish police resorted to violence in some cases (the official numbers of people injured vary depending on whether you ask the Catalonian Health Ministry or the Spanish Interior Ministry). The violent images that were broadcast throughout the United States and the rest of Europe were certainly legitimate, but were from relatively isolated incidents. Based on my observations on October 1 in Barcelona, the city was quiet, many stores were closed, and those lined up to vote were quite peaceful. On Sunday night, Carlos Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia, announced that independence would be declared, since over 90% of the votes cast were in favor of independence. But – only 42% of the population of Catalonia voted in this referendum. On the other hand, Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, declared that the referendum had been successfully blocked.
In response to the Spanish government, Puigdemont declared a general strike throughout Catalonia on Tuesday, October 3. Almost everything – from stores to the metro to universities – was closed. The purpose of the strike was to show Spain how much Catalonia contributes to the Spanish economy and to express frustration with how little they receive from Spain in return.
The next weekend, huge demonstrations were held in Barcelona, including the peace demonstration on Saturday, October 7, at which participants wore white and called for negotiations and peaceful interactions between the two governments. There was also an anti-independence rally, which proved that while the independence party may have more power and visibility, the population is truly divided. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in Barcelona about the referendum and its results, including my professors, my host family, and my coworkers at my internship. They’ve each expressed different views for or against independence, but all have said they hope for peace and negotiations – and regardless of their political ideology, they all blame both the Spanish and the Catalan governments for the lack of these two ideals.
On Tuesday, October 10, Puigdemont addressed the Catalan Parliament regarding “the issue of Catalan independence.” During his speech, Puigdemont appeared to declare independence from Spain, but then immediately paused the process to allow time to negotiate with the Spanish government. Understandably, this caused widespread confusion throughout the region and the country as to whether or not Catalan independence was actually declared.
In response, Rajoy played on such confusion to put the ball back into Puigdemont’s court. Rajoy took the first step in invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which gives the Spanish Prime Minister authority to completely revoke autonomy of any of Spain’s regions should the region attempt to secede. Before officially revoking autonomy, however, Rajoy called on Puigdemont to clarify, within the week, whether Catalan independence had genuinely been declared.
Yesterday, Puigdemont released a statement addressed to Rajoy that, in theory, aimed to clarify whether he was declaring Catalan independence. However, this question was not explicitly addressed in Puigdemont’s statement, and the media – in Spain, Catalonia, and internationally – has widely covered this statement as Puigdemont’s continued evasion of a decision regarding independence. Puigdemont called for two months of negotiations with the Spanish government and an immediate end to what he called Spain’s “repression” of Catalan citizens. In response, the Spanish government extended the clarification deadline to Thursday and denounced Puigdemont’s statement as “not credible.”
Earlier yesterday, Spanish police arrested the head of the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police force, for failing to enforce Spanish law on the day of the referendum, but he was released hours later. After he was released, two prominent grassroots organizers for independence were arrested and held without bail while they are under investigation for sedition. Their supporters plan to hold multiple demonstrations in protest of the arrests today and in the next few days. Puigdemont denounced these arrests on Twitter and called the two organizers “political prisoners.”
Politically, it seems like neither Rajoy nor Puigdemont wants to be the one to decide the next steps for Spain and Catalonia. Each continues to put the onus on the other to announce Catalonia’s fate, so both Catalonia and Spain are still on edge. From political science professors to activists, people are uneasy, waiting on clear decisions from both Puigdemont and Rajoy, but it is impossible to tell what these decisions will ultimately be.