The Catalonian saga makes Brexit look positively boring and predictable. To begin with, an illegal referendum is so much more exciting and romantic than a legal one, even if the Brexit referendum was flawed. The Brits – bless them – are so fair-play, sticking to the rule book. In triggering Article 50, like all good little boys, they are asking permission to leave the classroom. In contrast, just look at the speed at which Catalonia acted. Independence was voted for, approved by parliament, and officially declared, within a month.
The Catalonian freedom-fighters, in stark contrast to the Brexiteers, have the merit of being romantic. They take us back to the legendary Cuban revolution that lead to Fidel Castro taking power, in 1959.
The ousted Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, is fighting two enemies. The first, is the Spanish government, the arch-enemy of Catalonian freedom, firing rubber bullets on referendum day, closing the gates of poling stations, and not hesitating one minute in knocking down old ladies trying to exercise their democratic rights. Yes, the referendum was declared illegal by Spanish courts – but who cares when you are in love with your country. The second enemy is the European Union – a foreign imperial power, par excellence, preaching uniformity instead of unity.
In his time, Fidel Castro was also fighting two battles at once. It was a revolution to end all revolutions, to transform an impoverished dictatorship, under Fulgencio Batista, into a corner of paradise that all the world would envy. It was also to escape the claws of a universal oppressor, the United States, who considered Cuba as a fallen apple, that was to be gathered and eaten.
But Cuba was a fruit… It was an apple hanging from the Spanish tree, destined to fall, as soon as it was ripe enough, into the hands of the United States… Apparently the apple was ripe, and the United States Government held out its open hands. – Fidel Castro, United Nations, 1960
The romantic nature of the events in Catalonia, has reached new heights, with Puidgemont fleeing to Belgium, a country with its own fair share of volatile separatists. Having organised his own referendum – albeit illegally – the Catalonian president is now being pursued by fellow nationals, and finds refuge in a country with its own regional disputes. He may well encounter the Flemish version of Che Guevara and, together, they will plot a way back to free Catalonia of its chains. Although Puidgemont could have joined the separatists in Corsica, avoiding the Belgian rain, his presence in Brussels may have a more practical reason, than a love for wet weather. EU nationals are able to apply for political asylum in Belgium and, although Puigdemont maintains that he will not apply, the Spanish request for a European arrest warrant, may make him change his mind.
But I must stop dreaming, and not fall into the trap of considering Puidgemont as a martyr or a romantic idealist. He is not the victim of his demise, but the instigator of a referendum that did not abide by boring democratic rules, and was thus rightly considered illegal by the Spanish central government. However, in acting so violently, on referendum day, Spain has also shown that it has not yet grasped the true workings of democracy. The ghosts of Francoism are still roaming the streets of Madrid, it seems.
New elections will take place, later this year. Whether Puidgemont will be in Catalonia for the campaigning is another matter. It is more than probable that the election results will produce a hung parliament, with smaller parties, once again, holding the balance of power. A more disturbing scenario, is the possible progression of more extreme left-winged separatist parties, one of which – the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) – merits particular focus. The party may have had only 10 of the 135 seats, in the dissolved parliament, but Puidgemont needed their support in order to carry out his separatist agenda. The CUP sees itself as a “clearly socialist organisation with the objective of replacing the capitalist socio-economic model with a new model that is centred on the human collective and that respects the environment”. It opposes Catalan membership of Nato and of the EU.
The stated objective of the CUP is clear, simple, and – above all – hopelessly utopic.
To become a unitary political reference at municipal level for the pro-independence left and all sectors of the working class and popular classes who are conscious of the need for a socialist transformation of our society and the establishment of a political framework that guarantees social rights, democracy and freedom for our people.
Anna Gabriel is one of the CUP’s founding members and was, up to now, an elected member of the Catalan parliament. She embodies the heart and soul of the CUP, that considers itself more of a movement than a party. The fact that she can step out of a brand new Seat Ibiza, courtesy of a more than generous salary, underscores her views that, “On October 1st, we are going to sweep away capitalism, corruption, and monarchy.”
Even if Catalonia does eventually attain independence, life for the Catalans will be far from easy. In the days following the Catalonian referendum, CaixaBank and Banco Sabelli – Spain’s third and fifth largest banks – announced that they would be relocating their head-offices to Alicante and Valencia, respectively. Other companies, including Seat and Lidl, are monitoring the situation, worried about the happiness of their share-holders, and helped by timely changes to the law concerning relocations from the region. In the independent “Socialist Republic of Catalonia”, señora Gabriel may have to travel a long way to service her newly acquired Seat. Whether they like it or not, the people of Catalonia belong to the Western world, where economics takes precedence over noble thoughts about social justice for everyone.
I ask myself, though, if trading with Spain will be that important, for an independent Catalonia. In 2016, Catalan Minister for Business and Knowledge, Jordi Baiget, and director of the centre for the promotion of foreign trade ProCuba, Roberto Verrier, signed in Havana, an agreement aimed at strengthening trade relations between Cuba and Catalonia. For Verrier, the agreement will allow “an exchange of information between the two major trading countries”, adding that, “We encourage Catalan businessmen to come to Cuba, either as suppliers or potential investors”. ProCuba is an office that facilitates the establishment of foreign investors and businesses in Cuba.
In announcing parliamentary elections next December, the Spanish government has provoked the Catalans on two counts. The first, is that by accepting the forthcoming elections, the Catalan parliament has, in fact, accepted that Madrid can call an election in their own back-garden. The second, is that the political parties have a matter of days to prepare themselves for the elections. This can be particularly debilitating for the smaller opposition parties, such as the CUP.
It seems clear, that Catalonia and Madrid are involved in a double confrontation, that not only involves those for and against secession, but also comprises a direct clash between the regional parliament of Catalonia, and the central government in Madrid. Secession continues to be a long-term struggle, up to now devoid of an ending. The parliamentary conflict, however, is imminent, and pitches the popularity of a regional parliament against the political will of a national government. In shouting for its independence too loudly, Catalonia may just be losing its cherished autonomy.