The images circulating from Cataluña today are unnervingly reminiscent of another era. Not since the dissolution of Francisco Franco’s fascist state in the 1970s has Spain looked like this. Following orders from the central Spanish government in Madrid, hundreds of members of the Guardia Civil and Policía Nacional, helmeted and dressed in black riot gear, converged on polling stations set up at local elementary schools Sunday morning, forcing their way through the throngs of voters to seize ballot boxes and drag vehement Catalan citizens from the polls. The police intervention quickly turned violent—the injury count for the day currently stands at over eight hundred.
Despite the turmoil, the majority of polling centers managed to remain open, and the vote on Cataluña’s independence referendum, known as the 1-O, proceeded as planned. Carles Puigdemont, President of Cataluña, said he would unilaterally declare independence from Spain within forty-eight hours if the region voted in favor of secession, and while the results of the vote are not yet clear, the hope for Catalan independence is stronger than ever.
The struggle for secession in Cataluña can be traced back to 1714, when King Felipe V captured Barcelona, absorbing Cataluña to create modern-day Spain. The protests lasted for two centuries. In 1932, Spain at last recognized the autonomous Republic of Cataluña, but General Franco promptly repealed the statute in 1938 and brutally repressed Catalan nationalism under his authoritarian regime. He was nearly successful in eliminating Catalan institutions, prohibiting use of the language and wiping out countless families through a series of purges, but the fight for independence resumed after his death. In 2006, the region was granted status as a nation, only for the Spanish Constitutional Court to strike down the ruling four years later, contending that “while Catalans were a nationality, Cataluña was not a nation.” A subsequent declaration of sovereignty in 2013 met the same fate.
And yet the separatist movement still persists, undeterred by more than three hundred years of opposition. “Many Catalans have grown to adulthood believing that they were, simply, not Spanish,” the New York Times writes. Cataluña, after all, has always had a distinct history of its own, manifested in its unique language, culture, and identity (not to mention the bitter rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).
Moreover, Cataluña is the wealthiest and most highly industrialized region in Spain; separatists argue that it has propped up less affluent Spanish cities for decades, particularly during the 2008 economic crisis, from which Spain has only recently recovered. It is the site of twenty-three percent of Spain’s metalworking, food-processing, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries and the heart of Spain’s prospering tourism sector. Cataluña accounts for only sixteen percent of Spain’s population, but represents nearly twenty percent of the country’s GDP.
Catalans demand the right to determine their sovereignty and consider the central Spanish government undemocratic for preventing them from doing so. However, the rest of the country regards Cataluña’s defiance as a violation of the constitution. As The Economist explains, “Spain’s democratic constitution of 1978, which was approved by more than ninety percent of Catalan voters, gave wide autonomy to the regions but affirmed the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” In other words, Spain is a unitary, indivisible state, and only the Spanish parliament can change its constitution. President Puigdemont’s referendum is therefore illegal.
It is not uncommon for secessionists to hold referendums on independence (think Scotland in 2014, Brexit in 2015). However, the legality of the vote must be negotiated with and approved by the central government beforehand in order for it to have any real impact. The Catalan referendum was never made legitimate by the Spanish Constitutional Court and will have no legal status moving forward.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has employed extraordinary measures to block the referendum. He has suspended two Catalan referendum laws, arrested fourteen Catalan officials involved in organizing the vote and threatened many others with investigation for cooperating, confiscated 9.8 million ballot slips, deployed three large battle ships full of national police to respond to unrest on the Catalonian coast, and shut down all .cat websites supporting the movement. Meanwhile, European officials have expressed “firm, though muted, support for Spain’s central government” and have tried to stay out of the conflict, viewing it as an “internal matter.”
It is difficult to determine where to place the blame—who is at fault for the events that have transpired within the past few weeks? Fingers point in all directions, but Rajoy’s inflexibility in reacting to the situation is especially perplexing. Academics Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín note that his “brand of Spanish nationalism is eerily close to that of erstwhile dictator Francisco Franco, a die-hard centralist for whom the unity and cultural homogeneity of Spain was sacred.”
Given that the referendum had already been deemed unconstitutional, why didn’t Rajoy simply allow it to occur? Why did he go to such lengths to obstruct a vote that was purely symbolic, and why didn’t he more constructively address the demands of the Catalan separatists? His reflexive, heavy-handed crackdown has further escalated tensions within the country and has cast a haunting shadow of Francoist Spain over his government.
As the day came to a close, crowds gathered in the Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid, chanting cries of Spanish unity and proudly waving red and yellow Spanish flags. But a handful of others were more subdued. And now and again, their voices rose in solemn chorus of a fascist hymn from the Franco years, “Cara al Sol” (“Facing the Sun”). It is a refrain they are unable to forget.
Volverá a reír la primavera, que por cielo, tierra y mar se espera. ¡Arriba, escuadras, a vencer, que en España empieza a amanecer!” (Spring will laugh again, which we await by air, land and sea. Onwards, squadrons, to victory, that a new day dawns on Spain!)