The longer we live in Spain and the more closely I encounter the Catalan Independence movement first hand, the more I have the sense that in many ways this country is like a large, colorful, somewhat dysfunctional family. In other words it reminds me of pretty much all families, everywhere.
In American holiday movies, we often celebrate this kind of family. So many films are spun around a Christmas reunion where the weary mother slaves all morning making a huge holiday feast that at least a third of her relatives won’t eat because they are dieting, vegetarian or (like me) gluten free.
The guests who do show up on time spend at least half of dinner gossiping about wild cousin Suzy who has just gotten a mohawk or new tattoo… and who may or may not arrive at dinner late with her new boyfriend who - rumor has it - is twenty years her senior.
There is a hum of tension in the air, but also an undercurrent of connection… and dare we say it… there is a tired but abiding love.
The more my husband and I talk with our Catalan friends (both the independistas and those who are pro-unity), the more we understand that their situation has a profoundly emotional flavor and seems a lot like a crazy American holiday dinner.
“Madrid just doesn’t understand us…” the independistas sigh dramatically, sort-of like your middle-aged aunt who is considering filing for divorce after 25 years of marriage. “We give and we give (money) and what does Madrid give us in return???? Nothing!”
“Catalunya is spoiled and unappreciative!” grumbles gruff Madrid and the rest of Spain from the opposite end of the table, a bit like a beleaguered husband. “She doesn’t realize how good she’s had it. I’ve given her autonomy and incredible opportunity. It’s not like I had an affair!”
Then he carefully cracks his knuckles and his neck.
(Madrid looks a little bit scary but the young cousins suspect he will still race around the living room and tickle them after this tense dinner has ended.)
“That region needs to learn respect,” snaps Madrid’s aged mother (the Spanish Civil Guard). “She thinks she’s too good for my son!”
(I’ve actually read just this week that people in Madrid are saying that Catalunya needs a good ‘slap’ right now to knock some sense back into the territory. Yikes!)
The European Union even plays its role as the family patriarch sitting at the head of the holiday table… as Catalunya’s wealthy father-in-law who hired her years ago to work in his big, successful firm when she and his son were newly married.
The EU is listening warily to the whole divorce conversation as it unfolds, without saying much... carefully polishing his pocket watch… unsure deep-down whether to fire Catalunya if she goes ahead and files for divorce, or keep her on with the firm in spite of his son, because she’s been a brilliant worker.
Despite all of the tension around the Spanish family table right now, most of our friends here in Barcelona seem to be waiting on and expecting a relatively happy ending to this episode. They are waiting for the moment in the story, perhaps, when the entire family bonds over a bittersweet memory of their ancestors who died in the Spanish Civil War. The moment when they make a toast in honor of their grandparents, shake hands and wipe tears from their eyes.
Everyone seems to anticipate an ending that is perhaps mildly disappointing for all... OR a cliffhanger where you will have to wait for the sequel to find out what happens (and the sequel is truly never very exciting).
Nobody we’ve spoken to in Catalunya seems to expect this situation to become a tragedy.
To our Catalan friends, this ‘independence referendum’ narrative is destined to become a family classic… or a family headache… rather than a suspenseful horror story. We really, really hope they are right!
“Eduardo seems to think nothing’s going to change,” remarked my husband after he returned from the morning drop off chat at the bus stop today. “He seemed very ‘tranquilo’ about the whole thing.”
“Is he concerned about the big banks leaving?”
“Well, that’s not really such a big deal. Nobody is losing their jobs. They’ve just changed the address of their main business operations to other territories… but business will continue as usual here.”
“What did Francesc say?”
“He wasn’t at the bus stop today… maybe his son is ill… but that other Catalan dad who works in Britain was there and he seemed quite fed up with the situation.”
“Yes, he said that this has gone too far and needs to stop before things get out of control and it makes a severe impact on his homeland.”
“Well, I read that President Puigdemont plans to declare Catalan independence tomorrow! Do they think there will be a violent response?”
“So far, nobody seems too worried. I guess we’ll see!”
As outsiders we watch and listen. We wonder privately how much further the independence movement can push its envelope before Madrid cracks down and sends in tanks and troops. Already 20 convoys of troops were sent in earlier in the week to help ‘support’ the Spanish federal police and Spanish Civil Guard who have remained in town since the October 1 referendum.
Over the past seven days, while Catalan President Puigdemont and his regional government recounted and certified the official votes from the election and decided how to proceed next, we’ve definitely noticed an upswing in local sentiment for Spanish unity.
Pro-Spain demonstrators have been walking the streets clothed in Spanish flags and singing boisterously. The Catalan police (Los Mossos de Esquadra) have been protecting pro-Spain groups marching throughout the city chanting, yelling and setting off fireworks.
At night when the independistas come out to bang their pots and pans, some neighbors are now blasting the Spanish national anthem loudly from their windows.
When we first arrived in Spain about 15 months ago, Spanish flags flew next to Catalan flags all across the city. As the Independence referendum of the 1st of October neared, those Spanish flags disappeared. Suddenly the only flags we saw flying all over the city (hanging from balconies, roofs and windows) were Catalan flags and pro-independence flags.
However, this week, the Spanish flags have come back and were certainly out in full-force this weekend when two massive protests (called ‘manifestacións’) in favor of Spanish unity took place in Barcelona and Madrid.
The unity turnout was enormous, with estimates ranging from 350,000 to 1,000,000 people in attendance in Barcelona alone. Everyone was draped in Spanish flags, singing and chanting. Some people were even weeping.
On another day, the Podemos political party organized a large protest called “¿Hablamos?” (Shall We Talk?) and 10,000 protesters came to this manifestación dressed completely in white, to represent peace and conversation between the two sides.
My friend Alba, a strong independista, confided skeptically to me over a cup of tea that Madrid has been bussing people in from outside of Catalunya to protest for unity because they could not find enough pro-Spain protesters locally. I checked this out and she was right; over 100 busses had arrived locally by Friday to bring in pro-unity demonstrators before the weekend’s massive rally.
When I mentioned this to my husband Sr. Aventura, he laughed.
“Yes, but did Alba mention that Catalunya does the exact same thing for pro-independence demonstrations? On the day two weeks ago when I had to go to the airport, all of Diagonal was shut down with an independence protest and there were endless busses lining the street that had brought independence supporters from all over Catalunya to Barcelona to demonstrate!”
“So, you’re saying the tactic sort of goes both ways?”
“Yup. It makes good press. More impressive-looking protests for the international news media.”
Meanwhile Puigdemont presses forward with his determination (and that of his government) to make a unilateral declaration of Catalan independence. Large companies based in Barcelona continue to convene board meetings day after day and many are choosing to leave the territory based on fears of instability that may soon overtake the region after the declaration of independence.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has made it clear that Spain will NOT accept the move for independence, and reserves the right to invoke an article of the Spanish constitution that has never been used before - Article 155, the so-called ‘nuclear option’.
Article 155 is sometimes likened to an atomic bomb because it would legally allow the government of Spain to forcibly take over the current government of Catalunya and run the entire region until a new government can be elected.
“Spain is indivisible,” says Rajoy, and there is more than a small threat in those simple words.
As an American raised with the pledge of allegiance, I think about the words I was taught to speak as a child - standing, with my hand over my heart:
I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic
For which it stands
One nation, under God,
With liberty and justice for all.
I never thought of ‘indivisible’ as a threat before now, but I guess sometimes a threat and a promise can share the same body. My husband and I have enormous sympathy for the Catalan people and yet we also see and understand Rajoy’s point.
He is the prime minister of a democratic nation, an indivisible nation. It’s his job to keep democracy functioning, decisions of the Supreme Court followed, and elections legal.
The Catalan independence referendum of 1 October was not a legal election. It truly lacks legitimacy. Not only was it declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Spain before the vote, but the vote itself was not run cleanly. There was no independent oversight to make sure that it was run properly and votes cast correctly.
On the day of the election the Catalan government spontaneously announced that any Catalan person could vote anywhere in the country, rather than voting in their own neighborhood where they were registered.
Thanks to this, many people were photographed voting at more than one location, more than one time!
The Spanish Police and Civil Guard also confiscated many, many boxes of votes so we will never know how those Catalan citizens may have voted. Did they vote ‘yes’? Did they vote ‘no’? It’s impossible to say.
Finally, more than half of the people in Catalunya did not even leave their homes to vote, as they were told by the government of Spain that this vote was not legal or valid. As law-abiding citizens, they stayed home.
So, is it really fair to all of these citizens to be forced into an Independence for their country that they did not vote for and perhaps do not want?
“We know, we know,” nodded my independista friend Alba when I raised these concerns with her over tea. “It isn’t that we disagree. We would prefer a real, legitimate election… but we have asked for one of these for many years, and Madrid does not give it to us. So, we must now make it for ourselves.”
In 2014 there was another non-binding referendum on the same topic… rebranded a ‘participation process’ to poll the Catalan voters about their feelings around independence. The results then were not dissimilar to the results now. That poll saw 2.3 million votes cast, with 80.8% in favor of independence. Voter turnout ranged from 37 to 41%.
Three years later at last week's referendum we are told 2.2 million votes were cast, with a voter turnout of 43%. The result this time? 92% in favor of independence. So the tide has surged a bit for independence.
“From an outside point of view it seems to me that Madrid’s iron fist is causing Catalan people to become more passionate about your independence,” I remark to Alba.
“Oh yes,” she smiles with a twinkle in her eye. “We independistas smile a lot these days and say that Mariano Rajoy must be ‘muy Catalan’ because he has been the best helper to the independence movement we have had!”
Alba admits that once independence is declared tomorrow, President Puigdemont and his government may be arrested.
“It will be Madrid's huge mistake though,” she adds, “Reacting with force will unite all Catalan people behind the independence movement.” She gazes off into the distance with hope and I can see the flush of pride on her face. She appears determined; and perhaps a little naive.
“Be careful Alba,” I caution her, thinking about how much she has volunteered with the election recently. “You are a mother with a young son. He needs you.”
“Yes, this is what my mother says,” she agrees. “My mother lived during the time of Franco and she tells me that everything happening now is exactly what happened then. The events unfolded one at a time. People lost their rights one at a time. My mother is telling me to prepare to flee if we must.”
I can tell that Alba is not listening much though to me, or to her mother.
“It is because I AM a mother though that I must press forward for our independence,” she whispers. “We cannot stop now. I must build a better life, with better opportunities for my child. If not now, when?”
Under the table, I grip my seat with my hands but say no more.
We will see what happens next.
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