By Michael Cebert
The events that unfolded throughout the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia during the October 1 independence referendum were shocking and polarizing. Spanish riot police of the Guardia Civil, under the mission codenamed Operation Anubis, stormed polling stations in Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona and other Catalan locales in order to prevent the “illegal” independence referendum. Police forces wounded over one thousand civilians during the operation. Over four hundred officers were hurt according to the Spanish Ministry of the Interior (around 400 of these injuries were scrapes and bruises), while Catalan health officials claim only 12 officers were harmed. Clearly, both sides dispute the severity of the police action, but the images of young and old Catalan citizens bloodied and bruised by police forces circulated widely.
The Catalans enjoyed a short-lived republic after the referendum, and Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is currently in legal limbo for his role in the referendum. The response to the actions of the Catalan government was that of near universal criticism. Any form of solidarity from Madrid after the terrorist attacks in Barcelona was soon replaced by scathing derision of the Catalan “terrorists.” No government recognized the short-lived Catalan Republic, and only Slovenia, Israel (through a minister’s social media), and Venezuela offered sympathetic stances. Ironically, the partially recognized State of Palestine stated its support of a united Spain. Barcelona, the economic and cultural heart of Catalonia, is one of the most economically important cities in the European Union. Perhaps for this reason, Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, strongly stated the EU’s support for a united Spain. Where Catalan protestors did find support was with human rights organizations, particularly the watchdog group Human Rights Watch, who accused the Spanish government and its officers of using violent force against peaceful protestors.
Even some sympathetic Spanish officials acknowledged the overreaction of the Guardia Civil to what had been peaceful protests and voting. The referendum was a flashpoint event, but the lack of recognition of the “democratic” act gives it the appearance of capricious political stunt by leftist agitators and overzealous Catalan nationalists. To understand the reason for the referendum vote, it is important to understand the troubled history between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
The origins of the autonomous spirit of Catalonia begin after the fall of the Roman Empire when the Germanic Visigoths settled the area. Barcelona became one of the capitals of the Visigothic Kingdom. In the subsequent centuries, Catalonia fell under the control of the Muslims, the Franks and finally the counts of Barcelona, who were Frankish vassals. These counts founded the House of Barcelona, who ruled Catalonia in a state of autonomy until 1410, which historians often cite as the beginning of Spanish unification.
When Spain was unified following the marriages of Ferdinand II of Aragon (Barcelona was the capital of Aragon at the time) and Queen Isabella I of Castile, Catalonia became part of the Kingdom of Spain, and this status was maintained more or less till the modern era. From time to time Catalonia would rebel against the crown, and the region often took advantage of Spanish vulnerability and allied with Spanish enemies, but each time it ultimately remained under Spanish rule. The modern tragedy of Catalonia truly begins with Francisco Franco. The defeat of the Spanish Republic, with the help of Adolf Hitler, led to the rise of Franco, an ultra-conservative fascist autocrat. Francoist rule strictly prohibited any semblance of Catalan nationalism. The region, known in the Catalan dialect as Catalunya, suffered cultural repession and had to conform to “Spanish” culture. Speaking Catalan became a crime, and even Futbol Club Barcelona, one of the most storied soccer teams in Europe, had to change its name to the Spanish “Club de Fútbol Barcelona” and remove the Catalan flag from its crest until the end of the regime. Spain’s government ruthlessly oppressed Catalan, Occitan, Basque and other cultural identities. Franco saw Spain as a continuation of Roman Hispania, ignoring thousands of years of regional autonomy that made Spain as diverse as the German or Italian states.
The referendum has been a long time in the making, and it should not surprise anyone that a sizeable portion of Catalonia, despite their relative wealth, wanted out of Spain. In recent years, many cultural regions such as Puerto Rico, Scotland and Kurdistan have been seeking independence and autonomy. Even though Catalonia enjoyed more autonomy than most cultural regions around the world, it was clear to see the displeasure they have always had with the Spanish government. Even Argentine footballer Lionel Messi, who many consider one of the greatest athletes ever, declared ‘Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya” (Long live Barça and Catalonia) after FC Barcelona won a historic three trophy season in 2015. Catalan pride has become intertwined with the region, and the referendum vote, no matter how disputed and controversial it was, is a testament to the resiliency of Catalan independence throughout the years.
In the present, the Catalan Referendum is also a reflection of larger trends. European economic integration appears increasingly vulnerable. In the light of Brexit, the EU faces other controversial referendums, from Scotland (which may seek to leave the United Kingdom in order to rejoin the EU), to greater autonomy referendums in Flanders (Belgium), Lapland (Finland), and Lombardy and Veneto (Italy). It is understandable that the EU generally opposes the breakup of its member states into increasingly autonomous regions, just as Spain does not want one of its most important economic regions to walk away. All the same, we must understand that to proud Catalans and other groups aspiring to increased autonomy, the images of October 1 look like an EU-approved throwback to the Francoist crackdowns on culture. Catalonia has been Catalan as long as it has been Spanish, and Europe must find a way to constructively deal with the Catalans and other proud peoples of Europe’s diverse past and present.
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