It’s hard to say what will happen next in Catalunya.
A little over a week ago, the region stood ready and filled with emotion. Would Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declare independence from Spain? Would he not?
The streets were filled with protesters, and nearly every conversation one might overhear in any café... or on a random corner waiting for a traffic light... revolved around Puigdemont’s possible declaration.
On the night before Puigdemont's speech my husband got together for dinner with a close Catalan friend, a business owner. This man confided that as much as he was wary of Catalunya declaring its independence, he also saw a lot of hope and opportunity in the situation.
“It’s almost like leaving a stable job at the big company to go out on your own, as an entrepreneur,” his buddy Aleix* explained. “Yes, there is a lot of risk, and you don’t have the security and backing of the large company. However, there is also tremendous potential.”
From his point of view, if Catalunya seceded from Spain there could be temporary discomfort and uncertainty, but in the long term it could be a great opportunity for innovation and investment. This region has long been a motor for industry.
The next day (the day of the declaration) I headed by train to Sant Cugat to pick up Soccer Dude and ferry him to his evening fútbol practice while my husband Señor Aventura met up with a group of his friends to head down to the Parc de la Ciutadella, where thousands of hopeful Catalans waited outside of the Catalan parliament building for what promised to be an historic moment.
My husband was excited to witness this incredibly unique event.
“Be careful,” I gave him an extra hug before we parted ways. “Who knows what the streets will be like tonight if he declares independence and the Spanish civil guard or federal police begin to make arrests.”
“I’ll be fine,” he assured me. “It means a lot to Aleix to hear the speech in person tonight, so a group of us are going to go down together to listen to it and support him, and then we may get drinks.”
While Señor Aventura made his way toward the epicenter of political activity, I took the opposite route and headed out of town. The vibe in Sant Cugat, a well-heeled bedroom community twenty minutes outside of Barcelona, was decidedly calm compared to the palpable, almost electric tension within the city.
I met a dear friend for lunch, and we spent two hours analyzing the Spanish political situation in context to our own experiences in the United States (my home country) and Britain (hers).
Independence would make a large impact upon both of our families for a variety of reasons. We discussed the sudden rush of large companies to leave Catalunya, the possibility of a run on the banks, and how investments here right now are suddenly on hold.
“I ran into our realtor the other day,” my friend Gwen* confided as we enjoyed salad, stuffed mushrooms and chicken. “She’s the one that helped us buy our house here in Sant Cugat. I said to her, ‘You must be very busy right now, I’ve heard the real estate market is booming!’ and my realtor said, ‘Yeah, until two weeks ago. The second the independence referendum happened, sales went completely flat.”
“I completely understand that,” I nodded. “As a foreigner, I feel like I’m sitting on the outside of this thing waiting to see how it plays out before we even go to IKEA to get more furniture for the apartment. If it gets violent and there’s some kind of civil disagreement, who knows if we may need to leave for a little while until things calm down. What’s the point in spending more money in this economy if we’ll have to scrap any investments?”
“How disappointing,” we agreed, reflecting together on how happy all of our children are at school right now and how much they love their teachers this year. What a shame it would be to have to yank them out of school and fútbol in a hurry due to a regional political problem.
I consoled myself by ordering a slice of berry cheesecake.
After lunch we headed up to school to collect our respective children. I then shuttled Soccer Dude and Little Angel to fútbol practice knowing that The Scientist (a 12 year old latchkey kid these days) was already at our apartment working with his Catalan tutor.
The buzz in the air had intensified by the time we returned to Barcelona and arrived at fútbol practice.
Fútbol parents are asked to wait in the gymnasium cafe while the children receive their training, and on this day I was quite grateful and willing to settle down at a table not far from the flat screen television on the cafe wall.
The television had been turned on and was already playing reports from local news reporters waiting down in the Plaça along with my husband and thousands of others. They were preparing for Puigdemont to speak, and interviewing people of all ages waiting to hear him declare victory and independence.
“I’ve waited all of my life for this,” said one older man in Catalan. “I will feel so proud to be part of a free and independent Catalunya.”
Little Angel and I sat at our table with an American friend and chatted while waiting for the speech to begin at 18:00 (six p.m.). The gymnasium cafe was already crowded with parents crowding around the television screen, and everyone seemed to be watching with great attention.
To our surprise though, about ten minutes before his speech was due to begin, the reporter announced that it had been delayed and that Carles Puigdemont would now not be speaking until 19:00 (seven p.m.)
“I wonder what that means?” I asked out loud. “Maybe they are negotiating behind the scenes with Madrid?”
“Could be,” my friend Jane nodded. “I heard that Switzerland offered today to mediate the situation.”
“That makes sense.” We settled in to wait.
Finally at ten minutes to 19:00, the screen on the wall showed the members of the Catalan parliament streaming into the empty chamber and taking their places. The buzz in the cafe around me suddenly hushed, and everyone turned their attention back to the television. It quickly became so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop.
Puigdemont began to speak. I struggled to keep up, as he was addressing the chamber in Catalan. Thanks to years of Italian, French and Spanish instruction I can basically catch the gist of most Catalan (which is almost like a blend of the three languages) but I’m still lost to the nuances and subtleties of dialogue.
Because of this, I wasn’t sure at first if he was declaring independence… or not.
Puigdemont spoke about the history of Catalunya and its many requests to Madrid for a free and fair election. He then discussed the recent 1 October independence referendum, citing both voter turnout and the high percentage of votes (over 90%) toward independence from Spain. He condemned the violence shown by Spanish federal police and civil guard members on the day of the election.
It seemed as though he was declaring independence. When Soccer Dude emerged from fútbol practice - exhausted, showered and very hungry - we crept out of the gymnasium cafe trying not to bother all of the other families who were still sitting, transfixed by Puigdemont’s speech and its huge implications.
We boarded our bus home. Its driver was sitting at the bus stop in the dark listening intently to the speech which was playing loudly all throughout his bus.
“I really feel for that guy,” I whispered to Soccer Dude and Little Angel. “I’ll bet he would rather be at the speech in person like Daddy or watching it on TV, but he has to work instead. It’s a really big moment for his city and his country. Many businesses shut down early tonight.”
“Bummer,” Soccer Dude agreed. “You’re probably right.”
We strained to listen to the speech playing over the bus speakers, but it was even trickier to understand without being able to actually see it taking place.
Then, without warning, there was an eruption of sound that might have been applause. The bus driver turned off the radio and kept heading down the hill. A woman boarded the bus in tears. She wept angrily and spoke loudly on the telephone to a relative.
“What happened?” asked Soccer Dude. “Did he declare independence?”
“I’m honestly not sure. Let me check the news on my phone.”
Scanning the news, I read this quote in English from Puigdemont’s speech:
“I want to follow people’s will for Catalunya to become an independent state. We propose to suspend the effect of the independence declaration… in order to work towards putting into practice the result of the referendum. Today, we are making a gesture of responsibility in favor of dialogue.”
“Hmmm... “ I tried to explain to Soccer Dude while Little Angel hopped up and down. “Looks like he declared independence but then immediately suspended it and asked for talks with Madrid. Seems like he’s trying to straddle a fine line.”
(“Seems like he’s trying not to get arrested,” remarked my husband later that night.)
“That sounds complicated,” said Soccer Dude.
I read on. Puigdemont also said, “I am not planning any threat. Any insults. We are all responsible for this. We need to de-escalate the situation, not feed it any longer. I want to address everyone about the issue. We are all part of the same community and we need to go forward together. We will never agree on anything but we have proved many times that the only way to move forward is with democracy and peace. That requires dialogue.”
Later that night, after dinner, we learned from the news that after his speech Puigdemont and the members of the Catalan parliament had gone ahead and quietly signed a declaration of independence toward the end of the meeting.
“Oh. He definitely DID declare independence,” I murmured to The Scientist. “Madrid is going to be pretty mad about that.”
“Will they use the 155?” my elder son asked with concern. “Everyone at my school was arguing today about the independence. Half of my classmates are pro-Spain and the other half are pro-Madrid.”
“Sounds like a pretty fair representation of all the people we know here,” I agreed, thinking about my own adult friends who are divided on the issue and the statistics cited by nearly every newspaper showing the region is fairly evenly split with respect to its feelings about independence.
“What will happen now, Mom?” he asked.
“I’m honestly not sure. Article 155 is a very powerful part of the Spanish constitution that states that the government of Spain can suspend home rule of any of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities… if they feel that that region does not follow the law of the Constitution or attacks the general interests of the country as a whole. So, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy may decide to use Article 155 and take over the government of Catalunya.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s actually never been used before! It’s an extreme measure meant for extreme situations.”
“I wonder what Rajoy will say!” remarked The Scientist, who at age 12 is becoming more and more interested in local and international politics.
The next day we found out the answer. We’d just arrived in Mallorca for a long weekend and my husband and I were unpacking upstairs in our AirBNB when The Scientist began to call my name from downstairs.
“Mom!” he yelled, “Mom!”
He came bounding up the stairs.
“It’s Rajoy! He’s on TV, he’s going to respond to Puigdemont! Come and watch!!!”
I hurried downstairs in time to catch most of the speech with The Scientist perched on one side of me and Soccer Dude on the other.
Prime Minister Rajoy spoke in Spanish and was much more easy for me to understand. His tone was forceful but calm, and his words were reasoned but not conciliatory.
Rajoy began by stating that two pro-independence parliamentary groups (who did not obtain a majority of votes in the last elections to the Catalan parliament) were acting against the Spanish Constitution, the law, and the will of a majority of Catalan people.
He condemned this as a provocative act designed to break the law. He denied the legality of the independence and announced that it would have zero effect upon Catalunya or Spain.
“Those who wish to separate and divide Catalonia** from Spain must know that they will not succeed,” he said, “and they are not going to do so because it is against the majority of Catalans and Spaniards as a whole. They are faced with a law and a government ready to enforce it.”
Rajoy then emphasized, “Everyone… I repeat… is subject to the law and the rulings of the courts.” He confirmed his commitment to defend Spanish democracy with “firmness, determination and with the instruments provided to us by law.”
Prime Minister Rajoy requested that President Puigdemont clarify in writing whether or not he had actually declared independence by Monday, and announced that if the independence was not renounced, Article 155 would be invoked.
Monday came and went, but Puigdemont did not clarify the political status of Catalunya. He asked instead for two months to spend in dialogue. Rajoy extended the deadline for a clear written response until Thursday (tomorrow!) but began immediately to implement Article 155.
The leaders of the two pro-independence parliamentary groups, Jordi Cuixart (Omnium) and Jordi Sànchez (ANC) were arrested on Monday and are being held without bail pending an investigation for alleged sedition.
The Spanish High Court also banned Catalan chief of police Josep Lluís Trapero from leaving Spain and took his passport as they investigate his actions with respect to the 1 October referendum.
More arrests are expected anytime, and as of now (Wednesday morning) local papers are announcing a Spanish takeover of the Catalan government.
Protests continue, and at night the banging of pots and pans on balconies of citizens pro-independence (and against Madrid) has resumed and become loud again.
For now though, the atmosphere in the city feels less charged. Unlike the powder keg of declaring independence, the Spanish takeover of the government seems to be met by most locals with a mixture of resignation, relief and disappointment.
“The referendum was historic,” my pro-Spain physical trainer remarked after the 1 October independence vote, “but ugly. This was not well done.”
“Nothing will change,” said our friend Eduard* at the school bus stop. “You'll see. Things will go back to normal.”
“A ver,” shrugged Francesc* (an independista) lifting his small son to hold him close. “Let’s see.”
* Names changed to protect anonymity.
**Catalonia is Spanish spelling of Catalunya (Catalan spelling)
Did you like this post from the Years Of Adventure Travel Blog?
If so, feel free to share or re-post!