Thoughts on the Catalan Referendum

Sun, Oct 1, 2017 11-minute read

This is mostly for my non-Spanish/Catalan friends.

(I wrote this yesterday night, so this doesn’t take into account what went on today in Catalonia, including physical repression of peaceful voters by the Spanish police. Those dreadful incidents deserve a separate post).

Since many of my friends and colleagues in the US have been wondering about what’s going on in Spain and Catalonia right now, I thought it might be a good idea to write a post about it. Understand that I’m a data scientist and a musician living in the US for the past 8 years, so it is likely that some historical / socio-economic facts are wrong. Thus, take all of this with a grain of salt (and let me know what parts I should update!).

Let’s start with a bit of context. Spain is a plurinational country that struggled with a conservative dictatorship for almost 40 years, until 1975. Franco (also known as El Caudillo, which is the spanish version of Der Führer) was a military dictator who ruled the country until he peacefully died on his deathbed. His political opponents, mostly dissidents and left-minded, progressive people, were brutally oppressed, and around 400,000, including the then-president of Catalonia, were murdered by the regime. Through violence, Franco imposed the idea of a “unified” Spain. Speaking Basque, Catalan, or Galician in public would result in jail or, in extreme cases, death.

After Franco died, the period known as The Transition started. Under the Constitution of 1978, Spain would no longer be a dictatorship but a constitutional monarchy, bringing back the Bourbon royal dynasty. For Catalonia, this meant going from a fascist dictatorship back to being ruled by the same family that had subjugated Catalans for almost 300 years. In 1714, the Bourbons had fought a war against Catalonia, won, and made Catalonia abolish their own constitutional liberties to become a region fully ruled by the Bourbons.

But I digress. The 1978 Constitution, which is the current supreme law of the Spanish Kingdom, was written by seven white males (one of them a member of the Franco regime, another one a worker for the communist party) within a unionist, centralized framework, leaving little room for potential disagreements between the central government and some of its smaller nationalities (e.g., its preamble reads: “indivisible unity of the Spanish Nation”). Catalonia, which was (and still is) one of the richest regions in Spain, became an Autonomous Region where speaking Catalan in public was no longer banned. The Catalan parliament was restored, and a newly democratically appointed Catalan president was chosen. Coming out of a lengthy dictatorship, most people were excited about this transition to democracy, with 90% of voters in Catalonia backing the new constitution. But this excitement didn’t last long.

Catalan people soon realized that their language and historical heritage were often challenged by the Spanish government. As opposed to other plurinational countries such as Canada, where one can communicate in both English or French to any government official, Spain treats Catalan as an unofficial language. Statutes of autonomy, which are regulations written by the autonomous regions that must comply with the constitution, can recognize any of these “minority” languages such as Catalan or Basque, but only within their autonomous regions. This becomes problematic in many situations, e.g., when interacting with the EU: none of these languages are official in the European parliament because of their lack of officiality within Spain.

As opposed to federal countries such as Germany, the central government of Spain can do as it pleases with Catalan taxes. It is of course fair to redistribute wealth across the whole country, especially to the poorest regions, but the tax management has not only made terrible investment decisions (e.g., empty airports, high speed train stops in the middle of nowhere, abandoned toll highways), but also actively opposed critical infrastructural projects in Catalonia that would ultimately benefit the whole Spanish territory (e.g., “El Corredor Mediterráneo,” a merchandise train that even the EU suggested should pass through Barcelona, instead of going through other non-Catalan regions as the Spanish government has proposed in several occasions).

Two non-mutually exclusive factors seem to drive these questionable decisions: i) the persistent desire of Spain to achieve a unified, centralist, radial country (à la France) by restricting certain liberties from its subnations; and ii) the established corruption that perpetually propels most Spanish and Catalan politicians.

After several years, and in order to address some of these concerns, in 2006 the Catalan people voted in a legal referendum for an update of their statute of autonomy. The new text openly declared Catalonia as a nation within Spain, plus it gave more autonomy to the Catalan people in judicial and fiscal terms. 73.9% of the people voted yes to the new statute (20% no).
Unfortunately, Spain rejected the new set of laws after the Catalans voted, since they declared them unconstitutional after a lengthy legal process that culminated in 2010.

This created a turning point in terms of the Catalan independentist movement: no matter how many times Catalans democratically requested a fairer system, the central government had the power to not only ignore them, but to declare these requests illegal based on the constitution. And Catalans cannot hope to change the constitution on their own, since they make up a small percentage of the overall Spanish population, and two thirds of the Spanish parliamentary seats are needed to amend the Constitution. Hence, the idea of becoming an independent state within the EU flourished among the Catalan people, and the independentist movement was no longer marginal.

Thus, a series of massive protests occurred during the national day of Catalonia. In 2010, between 1 to 1.5 million people took the streets of Barcelona to demand that Spain recognize Catalonia as a nation. Moreover, a series of non-legal, locally-organized self-determination “consultations” took place in numerous Catalan municipalities, and over 1 million people voted. In 2012, between 1.5 to 2 million people openly requested the independence of Catalonia during the national day, which became the largest protest in the history of the region. To put these numbers in context, the whole Catalan population is 7.5 million.

Throughout 2012 to 2014, Catalan politicians periodically asked the Spanish government for more autonomy for the Catalan region and even demanded a non-binding referendum for self-determination. But the central government denied every request, citing the constitution. After this back and forth, and after a new series of consultations not recognized by the central government, 2015 Catalan parliamentary elections resulted in a majority of seats going to parties that favored independence. Newly elected political leaders claimed that, no matter what the Spanish government ruled, a binding self-determination referendum would take place during their legislature.

And all of this brings us to the current situation: the vast majority of the Catalan people (estimated at 80%) want to vote in a legal self-determination referendum, but in order to do so, the Spanish constitution has to be amended, a virtually impossible feat when Catalans only make up 16% of the Spanish population and the majority of the Spanish politicians are against it. The current Catalan legislature has organized a unilateral referendum for TODAY, ignoring the Spanish constitution. Independence may be declared days later if that’s what the Catalans vote for.

Obviously, the Spanish government declares this referendum illegal based on the constitution. In the past few weeks, and in order to stop it, Spain has brought over 10k officials to the Catalan region, has imprisoned several politicians, has seized millions of ballots, and has sued hundreds of Catalan pro-referendum mayors. Nothing like this has happened since the end of the Franco regime. Meanwhile, there have been daily and peaceful major protests in Catalonia in favor of the referendum (I was there last week), and the whole goal has gradually shifted from demanding the independence to demanding the chance to cast a vote.

So, what do I think about all of this situation? My take is that the Spanish government could have easily stopped the independentist movement by saying something like “Catalan people, we want to work together towards a multinational country where each of its composing nations helps each other to become stronger and wealthier within the EU. We do love you, and we want to be a better ally. Still, if you guys want to leave, you are free to have a binding referendum, but we will campaign for us to stay together.” If this were true, the independentist vote would very likely lose. This shows how the Spanish government has been a major fuel for the independentists.

Given that the Catalan secessionist movement originates from the people and not their politicians, I believe the Spanish government is the one who should move next: many Spanish people in Madrid, Valencia, and other municipalities have taken the streets in favor of the Catalan vote, and it’s their representatives in the parliament who should now do something about it. Of course, it may be especially hard for the Spanish government to accept such a referendum when its legal system is based on an arguably outdated constitution written when a dictatorship regime was coming to an end. But I really don’t know what else they can do, except to use the force, which is what happened today, and which will surely backfire.

On the other hand, the way the Catalan government has organized this referendum is also questionable: it is not clear what the collateral consequences this may yield (if Catalonia becomes an independent state, whatever happens to the pensions, the public and private debts, the immigrants, the relation with Spain, the relation with the EU, etc. remains to be seen). It is not even clear what the minimum turnout needs to be, or what percentage is needed for proclaiming secession. In fact, could it be possible to declare the independence when only 50.1% of the votes say YES? I think these major matters of state require a larger majority to pass, otherwise the newly founded country might start off with profound instability within its people.

It is also sad to see how non-diverse the independentist movement is: it is hard to find a person of color in any of these protests (the only ones I saw last week were the ones selling beer), which makes the argument for the independence a bit harder to sell, especially when discussing this with leftists abroad who have fought for years towards racial and immigration justice. My rationale is that Spain (including Catalonia) has historically kicked out all non-white, non-christian people from its country (nobody expected the Inquisition!), resulting in a demographic that is sadly vastly white. This is gradually changing since the death of Franco, but yet many of the immigrants still don’t have the right to vote (disappointing) and/or do not partake into these matters because they do not feel included (even more disappointing and highly concerning). Spain (again, including Catalonia) is extremely immature in terms of racial justice and I hope this gets addressed asap.

Leaving these aspects aside, the idea of getting the independence from Spain would result in a republic that no longer has to pay tributes to a king whose father was appointed by Franco. Moreover, managing a much smaller region such as Catalonia, seems way easier than managing the whole Spanish area that has proven to be really hard to administer, especially because of the government’s insistence in achieving a centralized, radial state that keeps relegating to the side the identities of its non-Spanish peoples (and whose constitution is rooted in an old conservative regime). Catalonia as a new state within the EU makes perfect sense: its size and GDP are similar to other state members, and would put Catalan as an official language in its parliament (as long as Catalonia enters the EU, which is uncertain at the moment). In general, this all seems quite reasonable, and that is why I voted yes to the independence. I am perfectly aware that this will not fix the major problems that Catalonia is facing (e.g., corruption, lack of jobs, racism, immigration), but I think it would be a small step towards the right direction. I also believe that Spain without Catalonia would face new challenges that might need important structural changes that, if done correctly, might yield a more prosperous and less conservative Spain.

To conclude, given the state of things, and despite the controversies from both sides, the best thing that Catalan people can do is vote. The right of self-determination should be universal. Today’s election will likely be the only chance (at least for a while) to accurately assess what Catalans want for their future. Many things can happen, including Spain further boycotting the referendum. However, if Catalans are allowed to vote peacefully and independence wins, it will provide a first-ever opportunity for a new country to originate without a bellicose conflict and by the will of its people. On the other hand, if people choose to remain within Spain, the independence movement will likely become a marginal one, at least for a while.