People waiting to vote on the independence referendum in Barcelona

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.

Only in Barcelona will you get a meal served to look like a Joan Miro painting: my anchovy ‘starter’ at the Nectari restaurant, Carrer Valencia.


  1. I have been very sad to read this post because of its bias. Especially because it was written by a scientist of whom we hoped for greater rigor, especially in a political matter of such gravity.

    Unfortunately, the events that occurred in those days in Catalonia have been very regrettable for all Spaniards and nothing is to be proud of. But it is surprising that anyone who says he does not want a Quebec separate from Canada or not be in favor of Brexit, make such a partial analysis of what is happening in Spain.

    Spain is not SO different. It is a European democracy perfectly comparable to any other in our environment. A country that works for the social cohesion of its citizens based on the solidarity between their diverse territories. It is true that Catalonia is one of the most prosperous regions and therefore contributes more than other regions. Germany also contributes more in Europe and it is not that country that has left the EU. The United States also contributes more to the UN and they protest, but don’t go away. In addition, the United States and Germany know who their best customers are, just like Catalonia.

    Mr Bates, you know Catalonia, you have good friends there and it is normal that you are told their version. And even it is normal that you sympathize with it. But recognize that it does not have to be an objective truth, you are a scientist.

    • In my democracy, state police do not go into polling stations and beat people trying to vote.

      You may disagree with independence for Catalonia or the legitimacy of the referendum, but it is important to let people peacefully express their wishes, even if you disagree with them. The current Spanish government ordered this police action and consequently has lost any right to claim to be a liberal democracy.

      What is needed on both sides is some mediation by a neutral party. Both sides need to act more moderately or the situation will just get worse. But the violence has predominantly come from the Spanish government.


    In Francoland |
    Antonio Muñoz Molina

    It happened to me the last evening in September, in Heidelberg, but it has also happened quite frequently in other cities in Europe and America and even here, in Spain, while talking with foreign journalists. Very often, at different times, with a monotony that only the differences in language and immediate purpose break, I have been forced to explain patiently, with as much clarity as possible, for educational purposes, that my country is a democracy, undoubtedly flawed, but not much more nor more seriously flawed than those of equivalent countries. I have gone to great lengths to present datelines, mention laws and changes, set useful comparisons. In New York I have had to remind people full of democratic ideals and condescension of the fact that my country, unlike theirs, does not accept the death penalty, nor sending minors to prison to serve life sentences, nor torturing prisoners in clandestine prisons.

    Outside Spain, sometimes, one is forced to teach history lessons and even geography lessons. Up until not so long ago, a Spanish citizen had to explain, in spite of being aware that the odds were that he wouldn’t be listened to, that the Basque Country is not even remotely like Kurdistan, nor Palestine, nor the Nicaragua jungle where Sandinists used to resist against the dictator Somoza. We had to explain that the Basque Country is among the most advanced territories in Europe, with one of the highest standards of living, and that it has a degree of self-government and fiscal sovereignty considerably higher than any state or federal region in the world. The answer used to be, at best, a polite but skeptical smile.

    A big part of the educated opinion, both in Europe and America, and even more among the academic and journalistic elites, would rather hold a bleak view of Spain, maintain a lazy attachment to the worst stereotypes, especially the one about the legacy of the dictatorship, as well as a bullfight-like propensity to civil war and bloodshed. The cliché is so captivating that is unapologetically held by people that are convinced of really loving our country. They want us to be bullfighters, heroic guerrillas, inquisitors, victims. They love us so much that they hate it when we question the willful blindness upon which they build their love. They love the idea of a rebel, Fascism-fighting Spain so much that they are not ready to accept that Fascism ended many years ago. They love what they see as our quaint backwardness so much that they feel insulted if we explain to them how much we have changed in the last 40 years: that we don’t attend Mass, that women have an active presence in every social sphere, that same-sex marriage was accepted with an astonishing speed and ease, that we have integrated, without outbursts of xenophobia and in just a few years, several million immigrants.

    The other night, in Heidelberg, on the eve of the notorious 1st of October, in the middle of a pleasant dinner with several professors and translators, I had to explain once again, and my vehemence helped me overcome my despondency. A German female professor told me that someone from Catalonia had just assured her that Spain was still “Francoland”. I asked her, as nicely as I could, how would she feel if someone said to her that Germany was still Hitlerland. She felt immediately insulted. With as much calm as I managed and in an educational tone, I clarified what no citizen from another democratic country in Europe is ever forced to clarify: that Spain is a democracy, as worthy and as flawed as Germany, for instance, and as far away from totalitarianism; even more so, if we read the latest election results obtained by the far right. If, as her Catalan informer said, we are still in Francoland, how is it possible for Catalonia to have its own educational system, a Parliament, a police force, a public television and a public radio, an international institute for the dissemination of Catalan language and culture? Acknowledging the singularity of Catalonia was such a priority for the new Spanish democracy, I told her, that the Generalitat was re-established even before voting the Constitution. What an odd Francoist country, one that suppress Catalan language and culture so much that it chooses a Catalan-spoken film to represent Spain at the Oscars.

    Anybody that has lived or is living outside our country knows about the precariousness of our international presence, the financial strangulation and the political meddling that have so often thwarted the relevance of the Cervantes Institute, the lack of an ambitious, long-term foreign policy and of a national framework agreement that doesn’t change with every change of government. The Spanish democracy hasn’t been able to dispel age-old stereotypes. Basque terrorists and their propagandists took good advantage of them for many years, precisely the years when we were at our most vulnerable, when the most murderous gunmen were still being granted asylum in France.

    Therefore, the Catalan secessionists have not needed a big effort, nor a big sophisticated campaign in the media, to turn in their favor, in the international opinion, the so-called “narrative”. They had succeeded even without the dedicated co-operation of the Ministry of the Interior, that sent forces from the National Police and the Civil Guard to appear as extras in the bitter spectacle of our discredit. Few things make a foreign correspondent in Spain happier than the opportunity to corroborate our exoticism and our brutality. Even the renowned Jon Lee Anderson, who lives or has lived among us, is deliberately lying, with no qualms, aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have, when he writes in The New Yorker that the Civil Guard are a “paramilitary” force.

    As a Spanish citizen, with all my fervent Europeanism and my love of travel, I feel hopelessly doomed to melancholy, for a number of reasons. One of them is the disrepute the democratic system in my country is in due to ineptitude, corruption and political disloyalty. Add to that, the fact that the European and cosmopolitan world in which people like me look at ourselves and which we have so painstakingly worked to resemble, always prefers to look down upon us: however carefully we try to explain ourselves, however assiduously we learn languages, so that they can better understand our useless explanations.

    Translated by María Luisa Rodríguez


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