Catalonia: Understanding the Situation in Spain

On October 1 of last year, as most Hamilton students were preparing for midterms, civil unrest and violence broke out in Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain, as a constitutionally illegal referendum shocked one of Europe’s largest countries. The news did not have a big impact in the United States, and understandably so. The Catalan independence referendum occurred on the same day as the worst mass shooting in American history, when Stephen Paddock killed 58 people in Las Vegas. On October 2, many news outlets reported the vote and unrest in Spain, but it took a necessary back seat to a story which news outlets had to cover for the American public. And with that, the Catalonian events soon faded away from America’s attention. I must admit that I too brushed aside the referendum in light of the massacre in Las Vegas.

It was not until this semester, when I went for a run in the beautiful Retiro Park on my second day of Hamilton’s program in Madrid, that Catalonia came to my attention again. I found a Spanish news podcast, to catch up with what I thought would be the local news. Instead, the entire news hour was about Catalonia. So I decided to do a little research, to see if this was true of just one podcast or if Spaniards were really still talking about events from a year ago. It turned out that almost every day since October 1, 2017, the newspapers’ opinion sections focused on Catalonia. Endless opinion pieces from all political sides flooded newspapers like torrential rain. So naturally, I decided that I needed to learn for myself exactly what happened in Spain.  

To understand the situation, one needs to go back to the brutal regime of Francisco Franco. Before the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s and the decades of dictatorship under Franco, Spain had a diverse culture. Its different regions, like Galicia and the Basque Country in the north, Andalucía in the south, Madrid in the center, and Catalonia in the east, all enjoyed a certain amount of cultural freedom. Catalonians, for example, could speak Catalan. When Franco came to power, however, he banned any identity that was not “Spanish.” He also killed many thousands of political enemies who did not fit his ideal vision of Spain, including many who were proud of their Catalonian heritage.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonians still felt repressed and furious. When Spain formed its new system, many of them wanted nothing to do with it, with the memory of the previous attempt at unification still fresh in their minds. They were a part of Spain, but in the Franco years had gained more and more autonomy. Nonetheless, Catalonian officials in 1978 signed a constitution that asserted Spain’s status as a unified, indissoluble nation.

Tired of the Spanish government, Catalonians held a referendum for independence last October 1. The Spanish Supreme Court declared this illegal under the constitution, which states that Spain is indissoluble. National guard troops and police officers started to raid voting centers in Catalonia and broke ballot boxes. Violence and protest ensued as pro-independence Catalonians tried to rapidly count the votes. The Spanish government refused to acknowledge any outcome. According to the pro-independence side, of the 42 percent of the votes that could be counted, 90 percent of Catalonians (also known as “Catalans”) voted for independence. But it is unclear exactly what the real or complete numbers were, since the national government was able to partially block the referendum.

In the wake of these events, the Spanish government has sent the Catalonian officials in charge of the referendum—except the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, who is currently in exile in Belgium—to prison for sedition. More than a year after the referendum and unrest, there is a stronger-than-ever tension between pro-independence Catalans and Spain. And while nothing as major as the referendum has happened since, it is only a matter of time before another major event in the region rocks the fifth-largest European economy.