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Spain's Troubles

Because my novel Sins of the Younger Sons delves into Basque separatism in Spain, several friends and readers have asked for my outlook on the alarming news coming out of Catalonia. Let me stress that while my new book is fiction drawn from extensively researched fact, I am not an authority. The Basque Country and Catalonia both have beautiful coastlines (the Atlantic and Mediterranean) and reach into the Pyrenees to the French border. They both were major losers in the Spanish Civil War, and were subjected to ferocious retribution by the Francisco Franco regime. But their languages, cultures, and experiences with Spanish rule are not the same. And their separatist rebellions are quite different critters.

I don’t sugarcoat the tactics of ETA, Euskadi ta Askatasuna, the Basque separatist group. They made their reputation killing Spanish police and prosecutors. They robbed banks, kidnapped private sector executives, assassinated Franco’s handpicked fascist successor, and bombed a nuclear power plant into ruin. They killed more than 800 people in an insurrection that began in 1967. But after some years of unofficial ceasefire, this spring ETA formally renounced violence, and as proof of its intentions, leaders surrendered its cache of weapons and explosives. The response from the administration in Madrid sounded cool and distrustful, and ETA took the precaution of making the gesture on the French side of the border.

Eight hundred thousand Catalans once marched in outrage when ETA blew up a supermarket in Barcelona. Tourists crowd into Barcelona to see the architecture of Antoni Gaudí and its storied main street, Las Ramblas. But for three centuries Catalans have demonstrated no love for a central government in Madrid. Their separatist movement has not been entirely peaceful. Starting in 1978, a group called Tierra Iliure seemed to follow the decade-old ETA example, with shootouts with police and a high profile kidnapping of a journalist who wrote that the Catalans threatened the Spanish language. But riddled by defections and denunciations by ex-members, that group formally disbanded on a Catalan national holiday in 1995. Since then the separatists in Catalonia have pursued a strategy of winning elections and passing legislation.

The leader of Catalonia’s semi-autonomous government, Carles Puidgemont, won election as an advocate of independence. Last summer he and the regional parliament approved a binding up-or-down referendum on Catalonia’s independence. The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, denounced the vote as unconstitutional, and the European Union has shown no enthusiasm for a nation of Catalonia. Among the arguments against it: the euro could not be the currency, and Spain’s two largest banks, both Catalan, are relocating their headquarters because of the volatile situation. But Andorra, Monaco, and Switzerland are small independent nations in Western Europe, and they get by without membership in the European Union. And their existence has never lit a fuse of crisis.

Spain is a decentralized union of “autonomous communities” that have their own legislative bodies and carry out the day-to-day tasks of governance. Organizations now seek independence or greater autonomy in twelve of those seventeen official regions. The crux of this standoff is that Spain’s economy suffered a near-collapse in 2008. Catalonia is by far the richest region in Spain, and the belligerent reaction of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is an admission that it cannot continue its recovery without Catalonia’s wealth. Two major recent polls have found that more than fifty percent of Catalans oppose secession, with about forty percent in favor. If the referendum had gone ahead unimpeded, the anti-independence vote might well have prevailed. But on October 1 Rajoy sent in riot police to wield truncheons and rubber bullets against protestors in Barcelona and mauled voting stations, trying to stop the election. Rajoy then made the strange announcement that with certainty none of this happened. Say again? The rest of the world does not have television?

In defiance the referendum went ahead and separatist leaders claim 90 percent voted for independence. But the turnout was only 43 percent. Huge crowds of unionists have marched in Madrid and Barcelona chanting, “¡Viva España!” Next Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, known in Spanish politics as “the nuclear option.” Never before imposed, the article allows “all measures necessary to compel the community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above mentioned general interest.” Rajoy removed Puidgemont and his cabinet from office, disbanded the regional parliament, scheduled new elections for December 1, and imposed direct rule by the national government. The latter is a chancy proposition because only nine percent of Catalonia’s 200,000 civil servants get their paychecks from the national government. Threats have circulated that Catalans who resist could be tried for sedition and face decades in prison.

But the same day Rajoy issued his decrees, Puidgemont led a march of 450,000 protestors in Barcelona. And by a vote of 70 to 10 the Catalan parliament declared independence.

What should Americans make of this? By any strategic measure we don’t have a dog in that fight. Leaving Catalonia’s direct rule to his deputy prime minister, Rajoy is next coming to Washington to meet the supportive Donald Trump, which could make for a lively press conference. The only word for the situation in Spain now is ominous. Rajoy mocked Puidgemont by welcoming him to run for office in the new election. Whatever becomes of Puidgemont and the independence declaration, rebellious Catalans are expected to respond with civil disobedience. The government in Madrid has already used brutal force in an attempt to crush a separatist movement that for more than two decades has been peaceful. Now comes word that a gang of nationalist youths attacked a Catalan radio station. The reporter John Carlin was fired from the El País, a national newspaper based in Madrid, for writing a blistering rebuke of Rajoy’s actions. On October 29 Carlin wrote in the London Sunday Times that “All sides seem to be living in Wonderland,” and that the gravest threat was a conclusion drawn “among highly energized independence-seeking youth that they have been victims of a Franquista coup d’etat.”

The analogy that comes to my mind is the martial law the fascist regime of Francisco Franco imposed on the Basque Country in the 1970s. Observers who can’t discern shadows and echoes of the Spanish Civil War are not paying attention.

Jan Reid © 2017

Jan Reid is a journalist and novelist who has written for Texas Monthly, Esquire Magazine and others. His new novel, Sins of the Younger Sons was published this year.

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