Spain: Thriving Without a State

After years of repression Catalans have revived their language and economy, and are winning significant autonomy from Spain

IN THE FOURTEEN years since the death of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, Catalans have made enormous strides toward regaining control over their stateless but thriving nation. They have a bilingual government and a Statute of Autonomy. Once forbidden, the study of their language is now obligatory in public schools, and Catalan predominates at both Barcelona and Valencia universities. Some seven to ten million people speak Catalan. The area they inhabit went through a painful period of adjustment but now has the most robust economy on the Iberian peninsula. For twenty years it has been the region of greatest industrial concentration in the Mediterranean, and it has lower unemployment and a higher growth rate than the rest of Spain as a whole.

The historical heartland of the Catalan nation is the Principality, also called Catalonia: the provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. A second major Catalan-speaking area is the Valencian land: the provinces of Alacant, Castelló, and Valencia. A third is the Balearic Islands: Majorca, Minorca, Iviza, and Formentera. Each of these three areas now has an autonomous government, which in Catalonia and the Valencian land is called the Generalitat. All these areas together are known as the Catalan lands, and they contain 25 percent of Spain’s population and account for 40 percent of its gross national product. The Principality is the land with the oldest and strongest tradition of both Catalan nationalism and industrial activity. The Balearics and the Valencian land, which were stagnant, rural societies until the 1960s, have become new centers of economic growth and Catalanism.

The Catalan nation is best defined by its language. Catalan is one of the four major languages of Spain, along with Basque, Castilian (which is commonly called Spanish), and Galician. It is a Romance tongue similar to Provencal, which was the language of French troubadours during the Middle Ages; the name today often refers to all the southern dialects of France. Catalan has a rougher, brusquer sound than other Latin-derived languages, and early authors, such as the Valencian lyric poet Ausiàs March and his contemporaries in the fifteenth century, made effective use of the sound. Catalan is the language most widely heard in the major cities of the Catalan lands and is the language of thousands of books, from scientific texts, car-repair manuals, and murder mysteries to classical and modern literature, in the original or in translation. There are two Catalan-language dailies in Barcelona—Avui (Today) and Diari de Barcelona (Barcelona Daily)—and about half of Catalonia’s television programming is in Catalan. Outside Spain, Catalan is the official language of Andorra, and is also spoken in Alghero, Sardinia, and in a small strip of southern France that includes Perpignan and Prades.

Some of Europe’s outstanding medieval and Renaissance literature was written in Catalan, and in our century the Catalan lands must be ranked among the most creative nations in Europe. Their literature remains largely unknown in the United States, but a list of major Catalan painters, sculptors, and architects— including Antoni Gaudí, Joan Miró, Juli Gonzàlez, Salvador Dalí, Antoni Tàpies, and Arístides Maillol—will suggest the force of such a claim. These names evoke the volatile spirit of modern Catalan culture: playful but emotionally charged, deeply rooted in the land yet ardently experimental.

In culture and social structure as well as language, the Catalan lands have always been closer to southern France and even northern Italy than to the rest of the Iberian peninsula. The most powerful class in the old Catalan-Aragonese kingdom was the energetic mercantile bourgeoisie. Catalans are still known in Spain—sometimes with scorn, sometimes with admiration—as hardworking people unhampered by aristocratic conventions. Statistics from the eighteenth century show that in the bishopric of Burgos, in Castile, a full third of the heads of families belonged to the nobility, and were therefore forbidden to engage in trade or industry; in the Principality, however, only one percent of the heads of family were members of the nobility. Apart from its bourgeoisie, the Principality has had a prosperous and independent peasantry and a large number of artisans and small traders, called menestrals. These two groups, peasants and menestrals, are closely linked through the traditional Catalan system of primogeniture, under which the firstborn sons of peasant families help their younger brothers set themselves up in a trade or craft. The class of menestrals has probably contributed more than any other to the character of modern Catalonia—more even than the industrial proletariat, which has also emerged as an important social force. The enlightened Catalan middle class and industrial bourgeoisie have no parallels elsewhere in Spain.

CATALANISM, A POLITICAL movement that seems on the verge of reaching some of its major goals, has its roots in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Catalonia was then more prosperous than it had been since early in the Renaissance. Its cultural identity, however, had been in decline since the early 1700s, when Spain’s new Bourbon monarchs, who had defeated the Catalans in the War of the Spanish Succession, eliminated the Catalan language from government affairs and publications and closed the University of Barcelona. From 1810 to 1845 Catalan industrial expansion, particularly in textiles, accelerated. Barcelona burst through its fifteenth-century walls and poured into the surrounding countryside. With growth came demands for local autonomy. But under the monarchy, restored in 1814, the Spanish government was one of the most reactionary in Europe. Spain was desperately poor and ignorant, in the final stages of a centuries-long decay, and its government was unsympathetic to both Catalonia’s national traditions and its growing industries.

In 1833 Bonaventura Carles Aribau, a Catalan living in Madrid, reawakened literary nationalism with his poem “To the Fatherland.” The cultural revival soon matched that of the Principality’s economy, especially after the 1859 reestablishment of the Jocs Florals (“Floral Games”)—public poetry contests in which prizes were awarded. In the late 1800s Barcelona’s lower-middle-class neighborhoods developed a network of civic and cultural associations that would have been unimaginable anywhere else in Spain. Perhaps the most famous of these were the choral societies, of which there were eighty-five by 1861. Their founder was Josep Anselm Clavé, an archetypal menestral with radical republican sympathies. As Catalanism grew, enlightened menestrals came to make up the great majority of its supporters. Such people still dominate the atmosphere of certain older Barcelona neighborhoods—Gràcia, for example, which is a maze of tiny stores and workshops along small streets with names like Liberty and Fraternity. For much of the past two hundred years the proprietors of these shops have been Barcelona’s frustrated Jacobins. Like most other Catalans, they have been frustrated because they have been unable to play a normal role in a normal political situation, for they are at the mercy of an alien society: Castile.

The other group to rise during the late 1800s was the industrial working class. Thwarted by Catalonia’s powerlessness, its members embraced anarchism. The anarchist movement was exceptionally creative, marked by an interest in culture and education, schools and lending libraries, and the insistence on a revolution made by the people and not by a manipulative “vanguard.”

By the early twentieth century the cultural and intellectual renaissance had outgrown its initial romantic and patriotic stage and was producing writers of international stature, such as Joan Maragall, Narcís Oller, and Angel Guimerà. Other figures, including the architect Gaudí and, a bit later, Dalí and Miró, gained international recognition as well. Barcelona became a center for the avantgarde. Both the number and the circulation of Catalan newspapers and magazines increased, in Catalonia and also, to a lesser degree, in the other Catalan lands. Several important Catalanist political parties were founded, the largest of them the conservative Lliga Regionalista. As a major political force, the Lliga was short-lived, a victim of bloody repressions that occurred in 1909 and 1917. Nonetheless, the Lliga did much to establish Catalanism as a viable political force. When the newborn Spanish Republic held a plebiscite on autonomy in 1931, Catalonia overwhelmingly voted yes.

from 1931 to 1939 Catalonia had its own chief executive and legislature, and bilingual legal and education systems. More than a thousand Catalan-language newspapers and magazines were published. Catalan schools were among the best in Europe, astonishingly humane and advanced by comparison with what normally passed for education in Spain. The eight years of autonomy were the fulfillment of a century of struggle. Unlike most of Spain, which veered from left to right in general elections, Catalonia remained solidly behind its government, led by Lluís Companys and the Esquerra Republicana. The full possibilities of an autonomous Catalonia were never realized, however. There was no time: five years after the period of autonomy began, the Spanish Civil War broke out.

On January 26, 1939, Franco’s troops entered Barcelona. Shortly afterward all expression in the Catalan language outside the home was declared a crime. Hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed. The police were quartered in school buildings. Posters were hung everwhere reading “Habla el idioma del Imperio” (“Speak the language of the Empire”). Even the sardana, Catalonia’s traditional dance, was outlawed. Republican textbooks were replaced by Castilian propaganda. Overnight a whole world disappeared. From 1939 to 1944, according to one government source at the time, 192,000 people were executed. Ordinary citizens, trade unionists, and party militants vanished into concentration camps. Some returned years later. Others never came back.

It was an era of great poverty, of rationing and black-market millionaires, of constant struggle by all but the wealthiest families to find enough to eat. A climate of fear and exhaustion settled over all of Spain. Catalonia and the Basque country were treated as conquered territories. Before 1939 they had been the only industrialized areas in Spain, and now they were punished for their support of the Republic.

THE ECONOMY remained dormant until 1959, when Spain threw itself open to foreign capital, adopting Europe’s most liberal investment laws. Spanish workers, who had previously found it difficult to leave the country, were allowed to emigrate. They did so by the millions, and the money they sent home helped create a favorable balance of payments. Overt economic discrimination against Catalonia ended. A whole new set of policies, called the Economic Stabilization Plan, went into effect. The government that sponsored these policies was dominated by Opus Dei, a pragmatic, technical religious order that had been recognized by the Vatican in 1950. Opus Dei’s technocrats thought that economic growth was Spain’s best protection against social change, and for a while they seemed to be right.

The Economic Stabilization Plan laid the foundation for the expanding Spanish economy. From 1959 until the 1973 oil crisis Spanish industry grew rapidly. The Spanish GNP is now among the world’s top fifteen, and large sections of the country give the impression of being completely part of modern Europe. In addition, a flood of tourists invaded Spain. For twenty-five years an army of young people from northern Europe and the United States has been tramping through the peninsula, leaving behind it a generation of young Spaniards far more cosmopolitan than their parents and grandparents.

In the Catalan lands the economic boom and change in attitudes also meant a resurgence of nationalism. During these years there was a partial lifting of restrictions on Catalan-language publication. Feature films, radio, television, and newspapers remained forbidden territory, bur a torrent of books and magazines began to pour forth. Painters like Tàpies and Joan Ponç and poets like Salvador Espriu, Miquel Martí í Pol, and Joan Vinyoli established themselves as major figures. These poets were able to publish their works and often to reach a mass audience through best-selling records by singers like Raimon, Lluís Llach, and Maria del Mar Bonet, who set their poems to music. Their success provided a vital means of communication that strengthened both Catalan culture and underground political activity.

Another major change between 1960 and 1975 was the development of the Balearic Islands and the Valencian land. Before the Civil War these areas had been provincial, semi-feudal realms. Tourism transformed the Balearics into one of Spain’s richest provinces, shaking the islands out of their centuries-old isolation. The Valencian land now has one of Spain’s highest rates of industrial growth. A Catalanist movement emerged there with far wider support than its predecessor in the 1930s had. During Franco’s last years this movement caused an annual doubling in the number of Catalan-language classes, radio shows, and theatrical productions. The superb poet Vicent Andrés Estellés is a Valencian. So is Joan Fuster, often considered the finest Catalan essayist. Now the Gcneralitat of Valencia has made Catalan obligatory in the schools and has moved to establish a new Catalan-language television channel, which is scheduled to begin broadcasting this year.

THE CONSTITUTION of Spain “recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions which compose it” and guarantees official recognition of “all other Spanish languages ... in the corresponding Autonomous Communities.” Actually, all of Spain, including areas with no tradition of separatism or even regionalism, is currently divided into “autonomous communities.” Even Madrid has an autonomous government. Among the “nationalities and regions,” however, only the Basques and the Catalans— particularly in Catalonia—have pushed self-rule to its limits.

The Basques, in their struggle for independence, have had an economic advantage. Under a centuries-old feudal arrangement with the kingdom of Spain (suspended during the Franco period) they collected their own taxes and then handed over an agreed-upon sum every year to the state. This arrangement has been reactivated, giving the Basque government a much bigger budget than that of the Catalans. The Basques’ primary disadvantage from a nationalist perspective is that a majority of the people who live in the Basque region do not speak Basque. In addition, their economy, based on decrepit coal, steel, and shipbuilding industries, has been slower than the Catalan one to adapt to current trends; and the explosive political situation, the guerrilla war being waged by the ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty), and the ETA’s imposition of a “revolutionary tax” have scared off investors.

In the Catalan lands, though small groups of extreme nationalists do exist, the atmosphere is far more relaxed than it is in the Basque country. The booming Catalan economy, which has increased its industrial use of energy by 30 percent in the past two years, has been financed by North American, European, Arab, and Japanese investment. In the Sabadell-Terrassa area, outside Barcelona, an Iberian Silicon Valley has sprung up, encouraged by investments in infrastructure, tax breaks, and cheap credit from the Generalitat of Catalonia. Further improvements in infrastructure are planned in preparation for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, including new housing, tunnels, superhighways, harbor and airport renovation, and extensions of the subway system.

Because speaking Catalan is a key to social advancement and is indispensable in managerial positions, immigrants from other areas of Spain are anxious to learn it. (The fact that it is a Romance tongue makes it easier to master than Basque, which is unrelated to any other language.) Intellectuals have criticized the cultural efforts of the Generalitat of Catalonia as insufficient, but it has nevertheless striven to make Catalonia bilingual at all levels. Most Catalans educated after the Civil War are illiterate in their native tongue, because under Franco all public education was in Castilian. The Generalitat has sponsored Catalan courses for adults—both native speakers and immigrants from other parts of Spain. Classes in about 40 percent of Catalonia’s primary schools are now conducted entirely in Catalan, with Castilian offered as a second language. Signs outside stores and businesses, menus, bank forms, government paperwork, and public notices of all sorts are increasingly in Catalan—often to the surprise of tourists. But probably the Generalitat’s greatest success has been with television. Catalan TV, featuring Dallas and the enormously popular Barcelona soccer team, has seen its ratings soar in Catalonia, while capturing 25 percent of the audience in the Valencian land and the Balearics.

Despite these successes, the government of Catalonia has been constantly hampered by lack of money. The Generalitat’s responsibilities include managing Catalonia’s health and education systems, but because the Generalitat is entirely dependent on funds from Madrid, its yearly budgets have been modest—often amounting to little more money than the Spanish state-owned railway system loses in a year. In a perpetual game of chicken with Madrid, the Generalitat has run up huge deficits and has at times been unable to pay its bills. Political tensions have run high— all the more so because the ruling Catalan party, the centrist Convergence and Union, headed by Catalonia’s president, Jordi Pujol, is part of the opposition to the Socialist Party that governs Spain. Although Socialists control the Generalitat of Valencia, and Barcelona has a Socialist mayor, the Socialist Party has been unable to win a majority in Catalonia’s parliament, partly because it is considered subservient to orders from the central government.

The tensions take many forms. For example, the Generalitat of Catalonia is theoretically allowed its own police officers (called mossos d’esquadra). At present there are 600 mossos d’esquadra; for two years the Spanish government blocked the hiring of 300 more (the hiring will finally take place next month). Two mossos d’esquadra in the Generalitat’s anti-drug unit were accused last year of selling drugs. When the accusations were investigated, it turned out that their accusers, several people suspected of drug dealing, had been promised freedom by the Spanish Civil Guard in exchange for false testimony. The Spanish government has repeatedly jammed and in other ways hampered Catalan TV. And in various matters Madrid has transferred responsibility but not control to the Generalitat of Catalonia. For instance, although the Generalitat is now in charge of running public schools, the curriculum is still dictated by the Ministry of Education, in Madrid.

IN THE 1930s Catalanism and leftism seemed to go hand in hand. This connection, however, like so many others from before the Civil War, has been broken in the past ten years. Indeed, the best friend that the Generalitat of Catalonia had in Madrid after the demise of Franco was Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, a conservative who helped steer Spain through its transition to democracy. He was a good friend not so much because he was genuinely pro-Catalan but because, lacking a majority in the Spanish Parliament, he was forced to make concessions to Catalans in exchange for their support. The Socialist Party, headed by Spain’s Prime Minister, Felipe González, has an absolute majority and therefore has no reason to negotiate with Catalonia. The Socialist Party’s leaders—though many of them are Andalusians who railed against Castilian centralism when they were in the opposition—have shown scant sympathy for Catalan aspirations, which they view as an irritation and a threat to their power.

Last year Pujol’s Convergence and Union won its second straight majority in the Catalan parliament. Spanish elections are scheduled for 1990, and polls predict that the Socialists will lose their majority. Should this occur, Pujol will be much better positioned—as he was under Suárez—to press his demands. These include an end to the division of the four Catalan provinces (a Castilian imposition and a complicating factor in Catalonia’s administration, since each province has its own governmental apparatus), an expansion of the powers of the Generalitat of Catalonia (for example, over the size and responsibilities of its police force), and, above all, a new financial arrangement, similar to the Basque one.

For now Catalans are biding their time and hoping that these goals can be achieved through negotiations with a weakened Socialist Party. They are showing, however, increasing impatience. The economic transformation of the past few years has not been painless. Several sectors of Catalan society have emerged poorer: the elderly, displaced factory workers, young people unable to enter the housing market because of skyrocketing rents, and failed small businessmen and laid-off office workers. Among these groups the incidence of suicide, family violence, psychological problems, drug abuse, and alcoholism has risen, together with the prevalence of extreme nationalism.

Such problems—especially unemployment and drug abuse—have poisoned the atmosphere in some of Valencia’s and Barcelona’s older neighborhoods. Fifty years ago Federico García Lorca praised Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, “where one hears clear, sonorous fountains and fifteenth-century lutes.”Barcelonans now perceive its labyrinth of narrow streets as a sinister place, best avoided after dark.

If Catalan-speakers continue to be frustrated by the government in Madrid, the independence movement—partly fueled by the frustrations of the young and the alienated—can be expected to gain strength. Right now, however, most people are willing to wait and see. For better or worse, Catalonia is less different from the rest of Spain (including the other Catalan lands) than it was in the 1930s. The whole of the Iberian peninsula is more developed, and Catalans, after many years of Fascist-controlled media and education, are perhaps more “Spanish" and certainly less idiosyncratic than they were. Many hope for a new role within a United States of Europe, and the changes scheduled for 1992 will be a big step toward that goal. Of all Spaniards, Catalans have the most approving view of the European Economic Community. They see it as an opportunity to export rather than as a threat to inefficient industries, and as a kind of indirect liberation from Spain.

Barring some unforeseen possibility such as a military coup, Catalans will nearly certainly move toward greater self-government; the wish to do so is nearly universal among them. In the meantime they can take pride in their accomplishments. Of all Europe’s stateless peoples, only they have managed to thrive. Despite more than four decades of repression, it appears that the last word will be theirs.

—David H. Rosenthal