Today hundreds of thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona in favour of maintaining unity with Spain and rejecting separatist leader Carles Puigdemont’s aim of declaring independence next week, in effect a coup d’état. The situation in Catalonia is much more complex than the narrative circulated by the independentistas – that the demand for secession expresses a mass uprising against an oppressive Francoist state – as editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times cautioned earlier this week. The demonstrations for the union in Cataluña today and those for dialogue yesterday have shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that secession is not backed by a majority of Catalans.
The voices of unity are finally being heard above the cacophony of the separatist referendum and general strike. Until now those Catalans who do not support independence were actively intimidated by the separatists and their opinions suppressed in the Catalan media. Javier Pérez, a 36-year-old teacher, told reporters: “I joined the demonstration today because I believe there’s a problem between official Catalonia and those it silences, that doesn’t consider Spanish-speakers here as real Catalans. … I went because I want to stop being treated as a second-class citizen.”
According to the Guardian, the Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), who organized the rally, claimed as many as 930,000 people had taken part. “I hope that nothing will happen,” said Juliana Prats, a Barcelona resident taking part in the protest. “[Catalonia] is going to lose more than [Spain] because businesses are fleeing from here already. I hope it will remain like it has been up until now: 40 years of peace.” Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa told the rally: “Besides Catalans, there are thousands of men and women from all corners of Spain who have come to tell their Catalan companions that they are not alone. We want Barcelona to once again be the capital of Spanish culture.”
The Observer reported Álex Ramos, president of the SCC, saying: “This is a revolution of the powerful, of Catalonia’s wealthiest classes, not the oppressed. It’s a selfish revolution. They mobilise, telling the world how hard done by they are, and then dismiss anyone who disagrees as a fascist.” One Barcelona native who didn’t wish to be named added: “No one talks about the state of siege brought on by the secessionists that has the rest of us watching what we say and what we do, or that we don’t post on Facebook just so that others don’t come down on us and call us fascist.”
The left in Britain and around the world has fallen uncritically for the secessionist line, ignoring a number of red flags, the most obvious being that the party leading the movement is the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCat), a center-right leaning party which represents Cataluña’s political and economic elite. Its history is worth noting. It began as Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), characterized by a pro-independence article in Jacobin as the party that represents big capital. “The CDC came to power in 1980 under the leadership of Jordi Pujol, initiating a long phase of conservative nationalist hegemony and closing the previous period when Catalanism was mainly dominated by its progressive currents,” it stated. During the post-Franco transition, Pujol presented himself as a moderate nationalist, but moved to the right after the late 1990s and was succeeded by Artur Mas, who chose Puigdemont as his successor after the failure of the “consulta” (survey) vote in 2014.
Puigdemont’s and PDeCat’s coalition with the left parties (CUP and ERC) hinges on the political necessity of the separatist project and not on any shared vision for what would happen in Cataluña in the aftermath of its independence. Such cynical political expediency should give outsiders and Catalans of all persuasions serious pause. They have played upon the legitimate frustrations of Catalans with austerity which have been successfully channeled against the central Spanish government by the separatists, with the help of the ultra-left propaganda of the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular. The CUP “played an important role in social activism, but remained politically marginal until the 2000s, when radical left pro-independence candidates began to win seats on local councils… Over the past five years, CUP has combined its commitment to the independence process with an anti-capitalist program. However, it has largely operated from within the independence movement’s framework” reports Jacobin.
The fact that the separatist leadership is part of a right-wing regional government which in the past called out the Catalan police to violently disperse anti-austerity demonstrations has not seemed to matter to leftist commentators in Britain and the United States, including public figures such as Susan Sarandon. Puigdemont, the leader of the separatist movement, is not above sacrificing those Catalans who disagree with his kamikaze politics—as he calmly told TV3, the Catalonian government-controlled television station, he intends to declare independence based on the results of the vote on October 1.
He claims for the secessionists a legitimacy that they clearly do not have: neither by virtue of the vote, which, aside from its legality, had no regular processes in place to guarantee the legitimacy of the vote itself – no international observers, no control of how many and who cast votes – nor by virtue of the numbers: only 40% of Catalans support independence. That means that 60% of Catalans reject independence. Mariana from Madrid questioned the validity of the referendum’s results, and added: “Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions in Spain and its political elites have been involved in massive corruption cases in the last years. This is not a revolutionary process but a secessionist movement promoted by the elites.”
To accept the claims of Puigmont and the independentistas is to support a politician who would claim popular legitimacy to seize the apparatus of the state against the wishes of the majority of Catalans. This seizure could not be anything but violent, as it is going against the general will, and in its essence is an antidemocratic coup d’etat. All people of progressive conscience around the world rightly condemned the repressive maneuvers of the National Police on the October 1 vote, but it is baffling to read the same people uncritically supporting a man and a movement who would found a putative Catalan state on even greater repression.
For example, Red Pepper published an article describing the admittedly hard-line actions of the conservative Spanish government to defend the constitution as a “coup” against Catalonia, and the general strike as part of a popular uprising against a “brutal police occupation.” Images circulating on Facebook of demonstrations during the “general strike,” rather an employer-sanctioned work stoppage, involving some thousands of people, and those of the heavy-handed attacks by national police on citizens asserting their right to vote, seemed to support this interpretation.
To a great extent this binary narrative, people versus authoritarian state, has been manufactured by the left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (the ‘Popular Unity Candidacy’) party who are in coalition with the extreme right. The Red Pepper article itself points out that the role of the CUP was crucial in creating the semblance of popular support for the referendum by encouraging supporters to form lines at the polling stations with their families in defiance of its illegality. “It is CUP, with its roots in the neighbourhoods, that initiated the coordinated defense of polling stations against the police,” it says. “It is CUP that was central to supporting the left trade unions and the community and social movement demands for the general strike today.”
The CUP makes the naïve claim that the events around the referendum have pushed independence organizing towards a popular democratic revolt; but, in reality, the rightwing leadership will dispense with the CUP and institute much worse austerity measures if they were ever to gain control.
The political context is vitally important. The situation in Catalonia is much more like that in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, rather than that of Scotland or Greece, the references used by Paul Mason in trying to understand the independence agitation. In those years, Northern Ireland also had a general strike called by the Ulster Workers Council against power-sharing which was solidly supported by sectarian loyalist workers. Republicans faced intimidation and suppression: a bus driver who continued working was shot by a paramilitary gunman. A leftist group (the Irish Communist Organization) in a similar way to the CUP argued that protestant Ulster was a separate nation with the right of self-determination, echoes of which continue to exist today in the contention that Ulster Scots is a separate language rather than a local dialect.
Elena Tavera, a Spanish national who lived in Northern Ireland and has now returned to Cadiz, opposes the separatists’ cultivation of enmity towards Spain and sees the parallels between Cataluña and Northern Ireland : “I have heard accounts of a secondary school student who reported that school staff asked students to raise their hands if their families were going to vote. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if teachers asked students if their families would support a Sinn Féin-orchestrated referendum about joining the Republic of Ireland. It would be called sectarianism. I have not read in the international press that on Sunday people in Catalonia could vote as many times as they wanted as reported by, for example, El País. I have not read either that the advice on the day of the referendum was to bring children and form big queues for the press to photograph, or that their regional police had instructions to watch from a distance.”
The popular support of any movement does not guarantee its progressive nature. More importantly, it is clear that the case for self-determination of Catalonia through popular sovereignty has been grossly abused by the secessionists, and much of the media in Britain and the United States has aided and abetted that fiction. Progressives who truly care about the peoples of Catalonia, Spain, and Europe should not enable the destructive fiction of an independent Cataluña, for in the hands of Puigdemont and his allies, it will be anything but free.