BARCELONA — The story goes that if you put a frog into lukewarm water and then turn up the heat, it won’t notice the gradually increasing temperature until it is too late. That would have been a good characterization of what was happening to Catalonia between the transition from the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s and the year 2000.
From the outside, things might have looked rosy, but from the inside, people felt like they were gradually getting boiled. Catalans had little control over taxation, spending or investment, and the Spanish government was aggressive about attacking the use of the local language.
But from 2010 on, it started to feel like the Spanish government had abruptly put the heat on high, as the ruling Popular Party overturned a hard-won compromise on autonomy, stripped out guarantees for use of the Catalan language and contested Catalonia’s right to call itself a nation.
With Thursday’s vote, Catalans have jumped out of the water for good.
The victory of pro-independence forces, after the harsh repression of a peaceful referendum, is a clear insistence on democracy and a rejection of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s strategy. Not only did independence parties win an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, voters punished Rajoy’s Popular Party, reducing its representation from 11 members of parliament to just three.
Spain’s actions are damaging to Europe’s reputation, to its economy, and to its stability.
The unequivocal message was “Don’t beat up our voters at the polling stations, jail our leaders or force them into exile, or dissolve our parliament. We want to solve this democratically.”
Madrid could have resolved this situation many times over but instead, by resorting to harsh tactics, by chortling over “decapitating” the independence parties — as the Spanish vice president did last week — it has only solidified Catalan determination and helped to broaden the movement. Who wants to live in a country that considers nonviolent, peaceful, cheerful marches “seditious?”
On the march
It didn’t have to be this way. Catalans, seeing how the Basque conflict had gone, insisted from the start that their movement would be strictly and strategically nonviolent, opting for massive marches with more than a million people year after year after year. Catalan politicians resisted at first, saying there was not enough support for independence, but Spain’s heavy-handedness, its refusal to listen to any kind of grievances, and the determined mobilizations pushed those political leaders to finally promise a binding referendum earlier this year.
Spain, frankly, has not been up to the challenge. Instead of listening to Catalan complaints and trying to work out a solution, they have refused any kind of negotiations, denying Catalonia’s right to self-determination despite being a signatory of the U.N. Charter of Human Rights and the European Charter, both of which enshrine that right. And since the referendum on October 1, it has gone from turning up the heat on independence activists to beating them with billy clubs, terrorizing their villages with tear gas, and employing judicial threats with 30-year jail terms and million-euro fines.
The world saw how Spain treated voters at the polls in Catalonia’s referendum on independence. It also saw how Catalans reacted: firmly, nonviolently, with their hands up in the air, insisting on voting. It was a testament to Catalans’ faith in democracy.
Axed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont gives a press conference in Brussels | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images
It was also absolute proof that Madrid had failed to control the situation: despite using all of its resources, arresting high level members of the Catalan government, threatening poll workers with €300,000 fines, confiscating millions of ballot papers and even posters with the simple word “Yes” on them, and sending 10,000 riot cops to steal the ballots and ballot boxes, it was simply unable to stop the vote. More than 2 million Catalans braved the Spanish police that day in order to make their voices heard at the polls. You can say Spain had called the referendum illegal, but you cannot help but recognize the determination with which the Catalan people have been peacefully and democratically trying to get their voices heard.
Spain’s actions are damaging to Europe’s reputation, to its economy, and to its stability. Since the referendum, Spain has cracked down even more harshly on democratic forces in Catalonia. In a report by the Guardia Civil widely circulated on Thursday, it now considers the massive demonstrations in favor of independence as grounds for rebellion.
In other words, the largest, most cheerful demonstrations in European history — in which more than 1 million of the 7.5 million people in Catalonia have participated for six years in a row — are considered a seditious and rebellious act, and subject to 30-year jail terms. How can that be in 21st century democratic Europe?
Working peacefully and politically for change is not sedition and it is not rebellion.
The European Union’s disappointing reaction to Spanish police violence on October 1 made a lot of traditionally pro-EU Catalans question Catalonia’s continued membership in the EU. If the EU can think it reasonable for Spain to beat up voters at the polling stations, perhaps that isn’t a club we want to be a part of.
Can the EU defend human rights only in Poland, or will it also do so in Spain? Does it depend on who has the bigger army or the cleverest foreign affairs minister? Or on personal friendships or marriages like that of the European Commission spokesperson with a high-ranking Popular Party member? Is it OK that Spain bought Latvia’s silence on Catalonia with a shipment of military materiel? Or will the EU finally embrace its true values for human rights and democracy and listen to the voice of the people expressed over and over at the polls? In short, what kind of democracy does the EU believe in?
Now the EU has a chance to redeem itself. It should recognize the victory of Catalan independence parties by demanding that Rajoy issue a blanket amnesty to all independence activists and immediately stop any judicial proceedings against them.
A supporter of the Republican Left of Catalonia awaits the election results in Barcelona | Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Working peacefully and politically for change is not sedition and it is not rebellion. The EU should also demand the immediate release from jail of the Catalan vice president and home affairs minister as well as the leaders of the two civil society organizations responsible for those massive peaceful demonstrations, and it should ensure safe passage for the Catalan president home from Belgium.
Finally, the EU should insist that Spain sit down with Catalonia and come to an agreement. Ten years ago, that agreement would have looked like the Statute of Autonomy that the Popular Party worked so hard to overturn. Today, it looks like a binding referendum on independence so that we can settle this once and for all, democratically and without boiling anyone alive.
Liz Castro is a former international committee chair at the Catalan National Assembly and the author of “Els carrers seran sempre nostres,” a chronicle of the Catalan independence referendum, and “Many grains of sand,” a book of photographs about the independence movement.