I would love to explain why exactly I have not been writing here in the past months but the truth is I don’t really know. I think about writing and take photos to illustrate interesting posts, I even talk about writing but then I do nothing.
Or worse – I turn to Facebook or to my computer game of Borraco!
According to a wonderful and insightful blog post about procrastination by Wait But Why, I am wallowing in the ‘dark playground’ because my internal ‘let’s just play games instead’ monkey is scared that actually writing a post might be painful, or hard work, or even too difficult to complete.
And if ever there was something I want to put off doing it is writing about Catalunya and the Independence vote.
It is a long and complicated story. I arrived here just over five years ago without any knowledge of the political situation, or the history or the culture and as I am trying to read the news in Catalan gaining understanding is not easy. That is partly why I have been writing this blog – to inform myself by pretending that I am informing you!
I can’t explain what is going on right now in Catalunya without writing a rather long post, but the day of voting is drawing near and in fact it is due to happen this very Sunday on November 9th. As I write a blog about Catalunya, I must say something…. but where to begin, or more accurately where to stop?
I am going to dive in and just hope for the best. You may know the basics already but just in case you have been doing something else, here goes.
Catalunya is presently an autonomous region of Spain. But it wasn’t always like this – about six hundred years ago it was a powerful and independent country and even after it was swallowed up by Castille after a royal marriage, it still retained quasi-independence. It has its own language, culture, history, habits and customs and the people feel very strongly that they are not Spanish. This is a bit complicated as after various population migrations there are many people who are both Spanish and Catalan (and of course there are many other nationalities including Scottish!). Everyone who lives here is considered Catalan if they want to be but it appears to me there are some people who are more Catalan than others.
We all know that Spain was a dictatorship under General Franco after his forces won the civil war. One of the strong republican regions was Catalunya who fought until the end when they finally had to admit defeat. They then lived under a dictator who hated their region and mistreated their people, punishing them for having fought against him and generally trying to subjugate and humiliate them in all the ways that dictators enjoy doing, including banning the language and outlawing other Catalan activities.
When Franco died in 1975 there began the period of transition to democracy – this is a very complicated part of the history which I am not going to try and explain but let’s assume that although it was good that democracy was chosen as the way ahead, unfortunately the powerful people at the time were still rather close to the old dictatorship. It was decided that there would be an amnesty and no-one from the regime was to be held responsible for crimes committed under the dictatorship and in fact those who had been part of it could even carry on with powerful positions.
Catalunya was one of the new autonomous communities and a legal Statute of Autonomy was drawn up to define what this meant. This is something that is important to remember because this Statute was not seen as fair at the time and when later it was amended it was an important step for Catalunya being seen as a nation. In 2010 the central government in Madrid (which has wielded power over the whole country rather than sharing it democratically with all the autonomous communities), went to court (also run by their cronies) and radically changed the Statute leaving Catalunya weaker and humiliated yet again.
This brings us, more or less, to recent years. The centralism of the Madrid government means that people in Catalunya feel increasingly angry about various unjust things. Remember that Catalunya was republican and has a strong history of democracy and that the central government is rather the opposite – the current ruling party, the PP, has uncomfortably close ties with the old dictatorship. People in Catalunya want a more just society and to protect their language and culture. They are subject to a thousand little daily humiliations, for example the courts of law require you to speak Spanish and it is almost a contempt of court if you try to communicate in Catalan. Watch the film Fenix 11.23 if you can!
The more that Catalan people called for change, the more intransigent became Madrid. Also bear in mind that Catalunya is a wealthy region that pays a lot of taxes to the central government which are used elsewhere, even for building white elephant projects like motorways in parts of Spain with hardly any traffic or airports that are never used. Imagine paying through the nose and being insulted rather than thanked. The Catalans are often accused of being difficult trouble makers.
We now have the scenario of an unstoppable force coming into contact with an immovable object. The Catalan president tried to negotiate with the Spanish Prime Minister about such things as the unfair taxation system and was send back home after being told there would be no discussion.
People who had waited patiently for years hoping for change began to feel there was no hope within the present setup. There were further attacks from Madrid on the education system which in Catalunya uses Catalan as the main language. The fact is that children here – all of them – emerge from school speaking at least two languages, Catalan and Spanish. Children in Spain may or may not speak a second language but in general only speak one – Spanish. In Galicia they also speak Gallego and in Basque country, Euskera and these minority languages are also under attack.
The decision to have a referendum on independence was taken and the date chosen was November 9th. While they would have liked a binding vote such as the one in Scotland, this was quickly prohibited by Madrid and after weeks of threats and blustering, finally the courts (remember the cronies there) said it was illegal. If it went ahead the Catalan president could be arrested. One Spanish minister called for the army to be called in if there was trouble.
This referendum was cancelled but another vote is planned for the same day, now to be called a ‘consultation’. It has even less weight than the first one and will be run by volunteers and not Catalan government officials but still Madrid fears it so they went back to the courts asking for it to be deemed illegal.
Now it is Wednesday and the television news is full of politicians talking about the vote. Many houses on the streets have Catalan flags hanging from the balconies, there are buildings and trees wrapped in yellow to show support for the right to vote and posters all around town saying ‘to vote is normal’ ‘let the Catalans vote’.
In Barcelona people tonight came out onto their balconies to do a ‘Cassolada’ which means banging pots and pans as a people’s protest to reclaim the right to vote.
The President of the Catalan government is saying the vote will go ahead even if it means he is arrested. It is now more a question of whether or not people are allowed to express their opinion.
How can a country pretend to be democratic when there is such pressure to ‘put up and shut up’?
It is easy to look at a large demonstration such as the one in Barcelona on September 11th and think ‘oh it is just another group of crazy nationalists’ but when you are there, you see they are normal people, families, old people, babies and dogs. They are not calling for independence because they believe Catalans are better than anyone else. They are just totally fed up with being manipulated and subjugated and want to organise and run their own country along different lines from what seems possible in modern Spain. Catalan people have a long history of democracy and tolerance and they want to live with these values again.
I am uncomfortable with nationalism generally and with flag waving and the like but it can’t just be dismissed as a strange Catalan fever for independence. People who would normally be happy to just live quiet lives are coming out to call for the chance to vote, to be heard and to be treated with respect. Whatever your opinion on independence, you should be allowed to vote.
There is a deep and strongly held feeling that come what may, people should be allowed to vote on Sunday. How can it be otherwise? This vote is only an expression of opinion but when the central government find it so frightening that it has to ban it completely and threaten even to bring in the army….. can Spain still be described as a democracy or is its hidden and dirty past beginning to show through, like a stain that cannot be covered up any longer?
The longer I live here the more I see how the society is affected by what happened after the war, and perhaps even more importantly after Franco died. If there was no healing, no attempts to tell the truth, no official acknowledgement of wrongs done, no apologies, no opportunities for victims to be heard, no strong policies to prevent ex-fascists from taking power again, no reconciliation with regions such as Catalunya, little creative inspiration towards making a new and more just society; if all that is true, no wonder that there is such a lack of trust and a continued need to stand up to a government that feels like an oppressor. And I haven’t even mentioned the endemic corruption of most of the political classes in Spain and even in Catalunya.
These are interesting times, and a bit depressing and even rather scary I have to admit.
But at least I have managed to write down a little of what goes in for me while watching the process unfold. I told you it was complicated and it would be long! Let’s see what happens on Sunday.