So what on earth is happening in Catalunya?
December 4, 2017 6:09am CST
So what on earth is going on in Catalunya, and why? Like many people, I expect that until recently you had barely heard about the Spanish autonomous community of Catalunya, situated in the north east of Spain. Until 16 years ago when I moved there, I thought the same. In my usual bull in a china shop way, I did little research and minimal planning to make the big move abroad. It wasn’t till after we had committed that I found out my kids would be taught all their lessons in Catalan not Spanish, and the few words I had learnt of Spanish would probably help me not one jot. But the Catalans are very different indeed from the rest of Spain. While being open and accepting of other nationalities, they have a strong pride in their own language, traditions, culture and land. Many do not feel Spanish and resent Madrid’s interference in their lives and in their pockets! The Vote Two years ago there was an unofficial referendum, which resulted in 80% of the turnout voting for Catalan independence. Since then, every 11th September- Catalunya day, people have thronged the streets of Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya, to let Spain and the world know how they feel. Two million people, laughing, singing and coming together in a common cause. This year, as we have all seen on the news, they tried to have another referendum. Yes, it was deemed illegal in the high court, and yes it was unconstitutional…but if you want change then you have to break some laws. Instead of declaring the referendum pointless and the results without value, the Spanish government, headed by Mariano Rajoy – head of an extreme right wing party who do not have an overall majority - decided to declare the vote illegal, arrest democratically elected politicians for embezzlement, and send in the heavies. On the day of the election, ordinary people casting their vote were bashed over the head by masked policemen, dragged down the stairs by their hair, and ballot boxes were forcibly removed and destroyed. In the rural area that I know well, armoured police trucks were racing from village to village with riot police intent on confronting the peaceful citizens who were merely putting an X in a box. Trees were felled across roads to stop them, ballot boxes were moved from location to location in an attempt to outfox them, Catalan police and firefighters stood against the Spanish police in defence of their countrymen. Did this really all happen in a civilized European country? The Aftermath In the days after these horrible scenes the Catalan leader, Carlos Puigdemont -who stood in the last elections with an independence ticket, but also did not get an overall majority - offered various pathways towards discussion and compromise. They were not offered with any hint of guilt or humility, but as one leader with strong views and strong support to another, in a hope to avoid further conflict. Rajoy refused all offers, believing his truth to be the only one, and that Puigdemont had no right to offer face to face talks as an equal. Because of this we now have the situation where Catalunya following a legal vote in their own Parliament, have declared independence, and Spain have sent in the authorities to dismantle the parliament that Catalunya fought so hard over decades to achieve. Madrid has taken over power, and the democratically elected leader Puigdemont has had to flee for his own safety to Brussels to beg for support. Where it will all end, nobody knows! What do Ordinary Catalans think? Of course there are always the extremists, just as there were in the Brexit debacle, who are militant in their love of their Catalunya and believe fervently that the region would be better off alone. The pro-Spain faction are extremely quiet right now in the towns and villages…unsurprisingly so, as to speak up would undoubtedly cause a huge, and probably public, row. I have even heard tell that the inhabitants of small villages feel uncomfortable to be heard talking Spanish, although I haven’t experienced this in my slightly larger town. There are no Spanish flags flying on balconies, no Spanish t-shirts on sale, and no bull symbols on peoples cars….the donkey is the symbol of Catalunya. But to be completely honest there never has been, even people who are not particularly political always chose to hang a Catalan flag not a Spanish one…it’s just the norm. Whenever I have spoken to people about the current situation, the overall consensus is that independence isn’t necessarily the ideal situation, but refusing them the right to a free and fair vote is all types of wrong. The behaviour of the Spanish government pushed many fence sitters over to the side of pro-independence….who wants to be part of a country that can behave in such a violent and unreasonable manner against its own citizens? To a man, people say they should have had a free and fair vote in the first place, and think it would have come down on the side of staying part of Spain…even if the vote wasn’t a legal referendum, it would have stopped all the speculation and calmed the situation. What people mainly require from the government of their country is the right to keep and distribute their own taxes. They are happy to share their wealth with their less than prosperous neighbours, but not to the point that the neighbours become rich and they become poor. A bit of History In living memory, Catalans have suffered terrible deprivations at the hands of Franco and his Civil Guard. In the years of his reign, 1939 to 1975, they were oppressed, starved, and treated with cruelty and malice. The Guardia Civil ruled with complete autonomy and were horribly corrupt. For their part in the civil war, many Catalans were sent to concentration camps, and to this day vitally important papers giving the whereabouts and outcome of loved ones lost during and after the civil war are still being withheld from the Catalans by the government in Madrid. So it is hardly any wonder really that the Catalans now want their independence from what they see as the great oppressor Spain. They have been fighting for this for decades, winning the right to have their own assembly, re-assert their own traditions and promote their language. While the Basque separatists, who also suffered terrible privations, chose the violent route to get what they wanted, and achieved it with control of their own taxes and spending, Catalans have always preferred a strong but peaceful approach and so far have not had the success of their Basque neighbours. They produce 20% of the wealth of Spain, but after they have paid their taxes to central government, get little back, converting them from one of the richest in GDP to one of the poorest in government spending per capita. VAT and many local taxes are higher than in the rest of Spain too. Independence This is not some silly little people blowing their own trumpet and having a tantrum. Catalans have a genuine and legitimate gripe against Spain who have treated them like a cash cow for years, without ever paying heed to them. The constitution of Spain does not allow for autonomous communities to declare independence, but it is a constitution that was written in a hurry in the last months of Franco’s life. Even after death he did not want to give up power, so he had a constitution written and picked his choice of king to take over the rule of a newly democratic country. The man’s legacy lingered for years after his death, and the current Spanish ruling party which Rajoy heads, PP, continue many of his right wing policies. Now Rajoy has declared a snap election for the 21st December to elect a new Catalan government, but has already stated that if that new government is pro-independence then he will overthrow it again.....democracy at work folks. Maybe Catalunya are being foolish, maybe independence is a crazy dream, but why don’t they have the right to find out?
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