I’m in Barcelona for a conference on innovation in teaching in higher education, organized by the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). As I worked at UOC for a while between 2003-2009, I have many good friends here.
On Sunday, I went with friends, whose 20 year old student daughter was a volunteer, to visit the local voting station for the referendum. When we got there, we found the crowd above. People were waiting for two to three hours in order to vote, in a referendum that the Spanish federal government had ruled was illegal.
Although there was no violence at this polling station in the San Gervasi district, you will all have seen the appalling scenes of voters such as these being beaten and attacked by the Spanish federal police, the Guardia Civil. Police broke into schools and community centres to snatch the ballot boxes, cut the provincial and municipal government Internet connections, and beat voters and community members who were trying to protect the ballot boxes from seizure by the Spanish government.
Before yesterday, I had mixed feelings about the Catalan independence referendum. I want to see a broader Europe with fewer nationalistic boundaries. I am strongly opposed to Brexit, and I want Québec to be a unique part of Canada.
But Spain is different. For many centuries the Spanish state based in Madrid has been an imperialistic power in Catalonia. Until the late 1880s, the Spanish government ran Catalonia as a colony of Spain, with a governor appointed from Madrid and a large Spanish garrison in the Ciutadella to keep the Catalans in line. The Catalans in the Spanish Civil War were republicans, who fought Franco to the death and as a result were punished for it. Since the end of the Franco regime, Catalonia has pushed increasingly for more autonomy, and by and large has been denied it. The Basques have more autonomy than Catalonia, yet Catalonia is the most prosperous part of Spain and contributes more to Federal revenues than it receives.
So the referendum was about much more than local nationalism. Many behind the independence movement want Catalonia to be a republic, and this is the real fear of the government in Madrid. It should be remembered that as recently as 1981, a part of the Spanish army attempted a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected government and replace it with a monarchical dictatorship. It is not insignificant that the current Spanish government recently placed one of the ringleaders of the coup d’état as the new chief of police of the Catalan police force.
The Spanish federal government has been unbelievably stupid in the way it has tried to stop this referendum. Because Catalonia (especially Barcelona and the surrounding region) has been so prosperous, it has attracted ‘domestic’ immigrants from all over Spain who do not want Catalonian independence. Had a proper, fully democratic referendum been held, it is highly probable that the majority would have voted ‘no’ to independence. That might still happen.
But by denying everyone in Catalonia the right to express their views on this issue, and by using unjustified violence to suppress voting, the Spanish government has alienated a much larger swathe of ordinary Catalans who previously were at best lukewarm and more likely hostile to the independence movement.
What has impressed me most has been the non-violent but quietly determined way hundreds of thousands of Catalans have turned out to the voting stations to defend their rights as citizens to express their views through the ballot box, whether or not they support independence. This is the closest to a non-violent revolution you will see in what is supposed to be a democratic European country.
However, what Spain now has is a major constitutional crisis. There are wild calls from Catalan politicians for a unilateral declaration of independence. The only way out of this is to allow a free and properly monitored referendum overseen by European Union officials within the next sixth months and a commitment by the Spanish federal government to abide by the decision of the Catalan voters. Catalans deserve no less for their fortitude and civility in the face of totally unjustified state violence.
In the meantime, it is going to be difficult here. I had tickets for a Barcelona soccer match on Sunday, but it was played behind closed doors because of concerns about security and a protest by the club about the violence over the referendum. There will be a general strike tomorrow which means the conference I am attending will probably be cancelled, or, like the football match, will be a ‘closed’ event, involving only the speakers and those with internet access. I may have problems getting back to Canada on Wednesday if air transport has not recovered from a shutdown on Tuesday.
But despite all the troubles, there are worse places in the world to be stranded than Barcelona. Yes, I do love the place.