The Myths That Fuel the Catalan Crisis

Flawed, oversimplified narratives are driving both sides.

Catalan separatist flags are held up as fireworks go off in Sant Jaume Square in front of the Catalan regional government headquarters during celebratrions after the Catalan regional parliament declared independence from Spain in Barcelona, Spain, October 27, 2017.  (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

In the hours after their parliament declared independence, thousands of Catalans streamed into the Plaça Sant Jaume, a medieval square in Barcelona that serves as the seat of Catalonia’s regional government. They waved the Catalan flag, sang the Catalan anthem, and shouted “Long live the Republic!” But at the decidedly un-Mediterranean hour of 11 p.m., the party ended, and its participants went back to their normal Friday night activities. One observer commented on the ambivalence with a reference to the local football team.It’s like Barça tied in a home match,” he said of the celebration that, while jubilant, was noticeably subdued for this part of the world.

On October 27, the clash between Spain and Catalonia—one that, depending on whom you ask, has been building for months, years, or centuries—reached a head, with the Catalan parliament casting a secret vote in favor of independence and the Spanish government subsequently activating Article 155, the constitutional provision that allows it to impose direct rule. There is no shortage of reasons for why a little over 40 percent of Catalans—but nearly 52 percent of their members of parliament—supported independence. The Catalans’ distinct language and culture, the oppression they suffered under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, a tax structure perceived as unfair (especially during the economic crisis), and Madrid’s unwillingness to renegotiate their autonomy agreement, all contributed to the crisis. Spain’s opposition to Catalan secession has numerous roots as well, beginning most fundamentally with its constitution, which expressly prohibits a region from breaking away unilaterally.

But behind these arguments are two fundamental myths, two epic narratives that have shaped each side’s understanding of what it is fighting for. Those myths brought them to the perilous moment they now face.

The independentist myth, largely amorphous until October 1, locked into focus during the referendum. When police sent by the Spanish government to stop an unconstitutional vote responded by smashing in school doors and beating old ladies in their attempt to confiscate ballot boxes, it gave the secessionists the ballast they needed. Here was proof that they really were being violently oppressed, and ammunition for their narrative that this was not just about regional rights. It was about something much bigger, something captured in a recent video produced by Omnium Cultural, one of the pro-independence groups. It features a young woman, seemingly on the verge of tears, warning that the “European values” of freedom, democracy, and human rights “are under attack” in Catalonia; the video quickly went viral.

That myth was again evident at an October 21 rally in Barcelona to protest the imprisonment of Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, the heads, respectively, of the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural. With police helicopters circling overhead, the 450,000 protestors in attendance listened as the emcee, a middle-aged woman in turquoise-colored glasses, read De Que Se Ríe, a work by Uruguay’s left-wing poet Mario Benedetti. It includes the lines: Here in the street, / Your guards kill / And those who die / Are humble people.

Invoking Benedetti’s poem was a stretch. While police beat hundreds of Catalan protesters weeks earlier when they tried to vote, no one was killed. The betrayal of the nation to the “gringo” that Benedetti describes in an earlier line in the poem also didn’t really apply. But it hardly mattered. In a single voice, the protestors joined the announcer in shouting out the poem’s final line—What are you laughing at? In their minds, they were no longer fighting just for the right to declare themselves a nation, speak only Catalan, and collect their own taxes. As they saw it, they were fighting the Good Fight, the one that began in 1789 and had passed through the Paris Commune to the Battle of Guadarrama, from Che, to King, to Mandela. They were the latest in a long line of freedom fighters throwing off the yoke of oppression. “This is a fight for liberty,” the ANC’s national secretary Francesc Bellavista said. “It’s clear now that we’re fighting a colonial power that wants to subjugate us.”

With astonishing speed, the myth has helped convert Sánchez and Cuixart, imprisoned without bail for alleged sedition (they helped orchestrate a protest during which police were trapped inside a building, and their vehicles vandalized), into political prisoners arrested not for their actions but for their ideas. “In my 20 years as a lawyer,” Barcelona deputy mayor Jaume Asens wrote in a post that has been re-tweeted 5,100 times, “I have never seen a legal aberration so extreme. There is no tyranny worse than that exercised in the shadow of the law.” Tomas Belanche, who attended the October 21 rally with his three-year-old daughter perched on his flag-wrapped shoulders, shook with emotion when asked why he had come. “We are here so that she never has to face the insult of having someone ask her ‘Why do you speak Catalan?’ So that she can grow up free.”

Tyranny, colonialism, freedom: a sense of proportionality dims, and history elides. In the last few days, French Catalans have offered safe houses to Carles Puigdemont, the now-deposed Catalan president, as if they were the Resistance. A poster published by the Sindicat d’Estudiants called for a student strike on October 25 and 26. It declared that the protest was “against Francoist repression,” and featured the stern figures of the Spanish king, the prime minister, and Franco. That one of them had been dead for 40 years was not immediately obvious.

In this telling, the fact that Catalonia has more autonomy than any other region in the European Union, including Scotland, does not figure. Fueled by the myth, pro-independence forces have clung stubbornly to the belief that the international community will rush to their aid, despite little to no evidence of their willingness to do so. (In the aftermath of Friday’s declaration, both the EU and the United States emphasized their unequivocal support for the Spanish government.) The myth helps explain why, on the day before the declaration, the pro-independence forces briefly turned on Puigdemont. He had entered negotiations with Madrid on a deal wherein he would abandon the independence proclamation and call for new regional elections; in exchange, the state would not apply Article 155. This made him persona non grata for many of his erstwhile supporters, who accused him of weakness and betrayal. Gabriel Rufián, a representative in the Spanish parliament for the Catalan Republican Left party, compared Puigdemont to Judas, tweeting“155 pieces of silver” in response to the news. Although Puigdemont later told the Catalan parliament that he favored the electoral route, the pressure from diehard independentists proved too great, and he abandoned negotiations.

Yet if the independence movement has been in the thrall of its own myth, the same can also be said of Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. In fact, the Catalan bid for independence has awakened the oldest myth in Spanish history: the myth of homogeneity, of one Spain, despite its numerous cultures, languages, and traditions. In its most severe iterations, that myth propelled the Reconquest, the Inquisition, and the Franco dictatorship. In its current form, it is far milder, tolerating regional differences so long as they remain submerged beneath a topsoil of Spanishness. But you can sense its presence in the Spanish flags newly draped across balconies in Madrid and Sevilla that, until recently, were adorned, at most, by fronds left out to dry from Palm Sunday celebrations.

There was a certain inconsistency to Rajoy’s decision to prevent the October 1 referendum: If it didn’t count, why take such pains to stop it? Especially when, 30 minutes before the polls opened, the Catalan government announced it was adopting procedures that would essentially allow anyone to cast their vote anywhere, regardless of their assigned polling station. At that point, whatever legitimacy the vote possessed dissipated. So when Rajoy nonetheless chose to invite international opprobrium by allowing Spanish authorities to confiscate ballot boxes and beat Catalan citizens trying to vote, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was the myth talking more than the law. The same is true of the charges brought against “the Jordis,” who will stand trial not for disturbing the peace or resisting the police, but for the far graver crime of sedition. On Thursday, when Rajoy could have negotiated an agreement with Puigdemont that would have diminished the conflict, allowed each side to save face, and most likely triggered the implosion of the independence movement, he again chose instead the myth over politics.

Of course, there’s another meaning to the word myth—falsehood. On Friday night, after the Spanish senate and council of ministers approved Article 155, Rajoy went on television to explain what intervention would actually mean: the removal from office of the Catalan president and heads of government, the dissolution of the Catalan parliament, and new regional elections to be held on December 21. It would not, as many secessionists had expected, mean tanks rolling through the streets of Barcelona. Nor, as some of the more fervent españolistas (“Spanish Nationalists”) hoped, would it mean a permanent revocation of regional autonomy.

No one knows for sure what comes next. On Saturday, Puigdemont appeared on television in a taped segment to say he was not stepping down, and to encourage peaceful resistance to Madrid’s intervention. But his party, and the other pro-independence groups, are now also preoccupied with the decision of whether and how to participate in the December elections. Will Puigdemont be dragged off in handcuffs to stand trial for rebellion? Will the ANC and other independence groups mount massive civil-disobedience campaigns, form human shields to protect Catalan institutions, and essentially shut down the region? If it comes to force, will local authorities turn against their fellow Catalans or against their national colleagues? Will more businesses join the over 1,000 that have left Catalonia? Will anyone pay taxes? Or will everyone simply come together for one more election?

Myths brought Catalonia to its declaration of independence, and Spain to its application of Article 155. And so long as each side views the other through this lens, there is no reconciliation. But if, instead, both the Good Fight and One Spain myths are accepted as nothing more than stories people tell themselves, there just might be a way out of this mess.

Recognition of that possibility might explain the sense of sobriety that ran through Friday’s celebrations. From a stall at a food festival just outside the same park where large crowds had gathered to await the declaration of independence, Carmen Uviedo was presenting her prize-winning Catalan cheeses. “I wish I were with them,” she said, motioning to the crowds of flag-draped citizens who were busy popping the corks on bottles of cava. “We’ve waited a long time for this day. But I still have a job to do. And we still have hard days ahead.”