When you’re in the middle of great political upheaval–I mean serious upheaval, with police batons crunching skulls, half a million protesters clogging the streets, politicians being charged with sedition, and an entire region threatening to secede–it’s easy to lose track of which end is up. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Are they the same people? Whose side do you support? Whose side should you be supporting? What’s a legitimate point, and what’s just third-rate propaganda?
Emotions blur your perspective. Surround yourself with 150,000 Catalans marching down the Gran Via in Barcelona, and you’ll find it almost impossible not to stand with them in solidarity. They could be marching for the right to fire kittens out of cannons during halftime of Barca futbol games, but you’d still pump your fist in the air every time someone loads another cat into the barrel. Mobs kill impartiality.
There’s also the issue of parsing volumes of historical beefs and political divisions. Right now, the Spanish central government and Catalan government are like a bitchy couple arguing with each other except in this case they’ve been dating each other for 300 years. I could–and probably will in just a few days–go to my grave trying to figure out who wronged who the most times.
On top of everything else, you also have to decipher the minutiae of a foreign country’s constitutional law. For starters, what the hell is a parliament anyway? How exactly is a referendum vote illegal? How is it possible for any vote to be illegal? Most importantly, is there a Spanish version of “School House Rock” that will explain all this to me?
I’ve been taking notes, though, and I’ve boiled down the essential facts to create what I believe is a concise, accurate portrait of the situation in Catalonia:
- Everyone here is nuts.
- My head hurts.
Now that you’re up to speed on things, let’s take a look at some of the events from the past few weeks that factored into my analysis.
Sunday, October 1:
Catalans attempted to vote on a referendum asking if they wanted Catalonia to be its own country in the form of a republic. Only 850 of them were assaulted by the police.
Later that evening, while 850 Catalans were busy changing the dressings on their head wounds, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy congratulated the police for acting with “firmness and serenity.” Rajoy should be careful with his words. I remember seeing someone act with “firmness and serenity” towards the police once. It didn’t end well for the police.
I spent the day at two polling stations near my house. They were only two blocks from each other. I arrived at the first one at 5:45am. A few hundred people had already starting lining up to vote–and to protect the polling station. I couldn’t vote. I just showed up to 1) watch, and 2) help form critical mass in case Catalonia’s regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, showed up.
The Mossos had been instructed to start closing polling areas at 6:00am, but since the Mossos were somewhat sympathetic to the independence voters, they left themselves an out: If they got to a polling station and found a large group of people already there, they could ignore their orders by saying that the group was too large “to disperse safely.” So the first order of business for voters on Sunday morning was to make sure crowds at the polling stations were “too large.”
I saw my friend Sergio standing on the fringe of the crowd. Sergio could not be a nicer human being. He’s in his late 30s and has a such a positive outlook on life that I sometimes want to smack him. His greatest attribute, though, has to be his patience when talking to me. He speaks almost no English so when we talk it’s usually him talking for five minutes in Spanish then pausing to ask me if I have any idea what he just said. I shake my head, then he repeats everything more slowly.
A light rain started to fall. Sergio and I stood in the dark and the drizzle and talked politics.
Sergio is Catalan born and bred. He’s been pro-independence since he was 15 years old.
“I just feel like I’m part of a different country here,” Sergio said.
He paused before adding, “And when I travel around Spain people treat me like I’m from a different country.”
I’ve heard similar comments from other Catalans. It may be a chicken-or-the-egg situation. You feel different and get treated accordingly. Or you get treated differently and therefore feel like an outsider.
I asked Sergio what he thought about Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia.
“I like him. He’s strong,” Sergio answered.
“He doesn’t seem to have a plan for what happens after Catalonia gets independence,” I said. “What’s he going to do about schools, the economy, forming an actual government?”
“He has people who are working on that,” Sergio said.
Tiny alarm bells went off in the back of my mind. I could almost hear what was going to come next. “Terrific people!” “The best people!” “Winning!”
The polls didn’t officially open until 9:00am. People huddled under balconies to escape the rain. They chain smoked. They speculated about how the vote was going to go.
Sergio and I continued hanging back from the main crowd. At 8:30, a minivan drove around the corner from the main entrance to the polling site and stopped. The passenger door slid open and two men jumped out quickly. They were carrying the ballot boxes. The men ducked into a side entrance to the building and came back out no more than ten seconds later. Most people didn’t even realize what had happened.
That the ballot boxes arrived was a significant step. The Guardia Civil had been hunting for them all over Catalonia in the weeks leading up to the election. Seeing the ballot boxes being smuggled out of a windowless van and into the building made it seem like I was standing in some Hollywood thriller. A few minutes later an announcement was made that the boxes had arrived. A cheer went through the crowd.
But nine o’clock arrived with a fizzle. The Guardia Civil cut internet service to most of the polling stations so the voter databases couldn’t be accessed. No one was allowed in to vote until things could get straightened out. We all waited patiently.
When people started checking Twitter a few minutes later, they started to wait less patiently.
Shortly after 9:00am, videos started to appear showing the Spanish Policia Nacional storming into polling sites across Catalonia. The videos were sickening. Women were being dragged down staircases by their hair. Elderly men and women were being thrown to the ground. Ballot boxes were being confiscated left and right. In almost all the cases, there was zero resistance from the Catalans. I had been listening to the organizers of my two polling sites. I didn’t understand much of what they said, but I certainly knew what “pacifista” meant. The amount of restraint shown in the videos was impressive, especially given what the people were facing.
Once the internet issue was resolved people were finally allowed to start voting. The line moved at a crawl. The vote was being held at a school. A ten-foot sliding metal door separated the school’s courtyard from the street. Three people guarded the door. They never opened the door more than three feet to let people enter. Voters had to be in groups of four or five, and everyone in the group had to know each other.
I asked my other Catalan friend Xavi what was going on with groups. Xavi speaks English, so I had an actual idea of what he said.
“They think there are undercover police in this crowd. They don’t want to let them in. No strangers are allowed through the door.”
This also explained why the door was being so closely guarded. If members of the Policia Nacional were already in the crowd and tried to rush the door, it could be shut and locked within seconds.
Xavi represents another side of this independence issue. He was born in the neighborhood and actually went to the grade school where the vote was being held. His own kids attend the school now. He was also scheduled to take over manning the metal door to the school later in the day which meant if the Policia Nacional showed up he was most likely going to get brained. Xavi is as Catalan as you can get. He is also very much against an independent Catalonia. Yet here he was putting himself at risk in order to make sure people could vote.
Polls before the vote showed that 48% of Catalans were against secession, 41% were in favor of it, but a solid 80% of them were in favor of actually having the vote. This actually made sense to me.
I hung out with Xavi for a bit longer until he left to go work the door. I enjoyed talking to him not only because he could explain things to me but also because he could vouch for my identity. It dawned on me after he left that in a crowd possibly infested with undercover police, I was standing there completely by myself, staring intently at the door to the school, speaking to no one.
By midday there were close to a thousand people lined up to vote. Things had started moving more quickly now. The crowd was for the most part in a good mood. The long delays hadn’t bothered people. They’d been waiting a few years for this vote. What was a few more hours? The Policia Nacional hadn’t showed up yet, so no one was getting maimed. Occasionally someone would start a chant, and the whole crowd would join in and buoy its own spirits. The polls had to officially stay open until 8:00pm, but by late afternoon it was clear that most people had already finished voting. The only hurdle left was getting the ballot boxes back out of the building without the police seizing them, but the Policia Nacional didn’t seem very interested in our neighborhood.
When the polls closed, the crowd roared victoriously. Catalans songs were sung. Chants were started. Surprisingly, there was even a long, sincere round of applause for the two Mossos d’Esquadra officers who were standing on the corner.
So went my day at the polls. It was nerve racking at first, but it all ended up going smoothly. Where the Policia Nacional did show up, it was brutal. But fortunately they didn’t show up everywhere.
Skull intact, I headed home around 9:00pm.
Monday, October 2:
The day after the vote, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour discussing police brutality at the polls, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis deftly bludgeoned his own argument to death by saying, “If there was any harm, it was not deliberate. And I don’t think it was excessive.”
Also on Monday, 150 Spanish Guardia Civil officers who had been staying in a hotel in the coastal town of Calella got run out of the joint by an enraged mob. The crowd had seen all the beatings the day before and descended on the hotel chanting “Out, occupation forces!” among other less polite things. The police hightailed it out of there, but not before banging up a few members of the mob.
The head of the Guardia Civil union said that what happened to his officers was “more like Nazi Germany than what you see in any other country where democracy reigns and rights are guaranteed.”
This sounds kind of whiny, but in his defense he was probably just exhausted from stealing ballot boxes and clubbing voters over the head all day Sunday.
Tuesday, October 3:
Tuesday was jam-packed. For starters, a general strike across all of Catalonia brought the whole region to a standstill. Demonstrators closed highways. At 11:00 in the morning, so many stores in Barcelona were closed you would have thought it was 3:00pm instead. Later in the day, at least half a million pro-independence Catalans marched to Placa Universitat in order to…hang out at Placa Universitat, I guess. A few folks gave speeches. People cheered a lot. They shouted at the police for awhile. I’m not really sure what the point of the rally was. They’d already had their vote. I think they held the rally because Carles Puigdemont had been saying for weeks that he was going to declare independence within 48 hours of the vote if the “yes” side won. Maybe this rally was supposed to be the grand finale. The only problem was that Puigdemont forgot to declare independence. He either got cold feet and chickened out or came to his senses and realized declaring independence would probably doom Catalonia to years of poverty and misery.
Also on Tuesday, Spanish newspaper El Pais ran an article detailing why the vote was an “infringement of all minimum voting regulations.” The article cited lack of transparent ballot boxes, lack of official ballots, and lack of an electoral board. The article did not mention that Spanish police forces confiscated ten million paper ballots the week before the election and arrested 14 officials associated with the election. The article also failed to mention that Spanish police chopped their way into polling places with fire axes and walked out with dozens of ballot boxes.
Wait. There’s one more thing. On Tuesday evening, the whole nation received a lecture on democracy from a king.
Wednesday through Saturday, October 4-7:
Wednesday through Saturday passed without much happening. There were a few whimpers from independentistas begging the EU to intervene and fix this mess. The EU thought it over for about, oh, half a second before declining to get involved. (Later, though, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron did come out and say that a unified Spain would best for everyone. Sorry, Jordi.)
There was a bit of exciting news on the business front. Catalonia’s two largest banks, a major biotech firm, and the region’s largest natural gas supplier all moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia to safer environs elsewhere in Spain. These companies have not yet moved any actual employees out of Catalonia, but if things get worse here you have to think that decision can’t be far behind. This should do wonders for the Catalan economy. (UPDATE: As of October 20, more than 700 companies have now transferred their legal domiciles outside Catalonia.)
Sunday, October 8:
One week after the referendum vote Catalonia sprang back to life when another 500,000 people took to the streets, except this time it was the pro-unity crowd waving their flags, both Spanish and Catalan. This was an important event because the whole issue had been turning into pro-independence Catalans versus the rest of Spain. Getting lost in the shuffle were all the Catalans who want to remain a part of Spain. And there were a lot of them out on Sunday. Polls suggest that the “stay” and “leave” Catalans are split almost evenly, with a possible edge to the “stay” crowd. If they aren’t a silent majority, they are at least a silent half.
My friend Sergio had told me to steer clear of this rally because it had the possibility of turning violent. That didn’t sound like much fun, though, so I decided to go to the rally with my friend Willie and his 15-year-old son. Willie had been at Tiananmen Square, so I figured he’d have some idea how to handle giant demonstrations gone wrong. And Willie’s son is pretty tall. He’d provide good cover if rubber bullets started flying.
The pro-unity marchers were certainly excited and vocal, but they were all well behaved for the most part. (Honestly, I’ll give credit to every person I’ve seen march here these last few months. Some of these rallies have been enormous, and emotions have always been running high, but the only people I’ve ever seen get out of hand have been the police.)
Willie struck up a conversation with a Catalan man named Alfredo. Willie asked him what he thought of the whole independence movement.
“I have a good life here,” Alfredo said. “There is nothing I want to do that I cannot. I am not oppressed. Puigdemont just wants to destroy the state.”
Alfredo glanced around at the thousands of people streaming past us.
“I am 51-years-old, and yesterday for the first time in my life I bought a Spanish flag.”
As the march continued, we noticed that two chants were the clear favorites among the demonstrators.
The first was, “Puigdemont, a prisión!” The direct translation, in case you missed it, is “Puigdemont to prison.”
The second chant was ‘Y luego diréis que somos cinco o seis.'”
The direct translation for this one is, “And then you will say we are five or six.” Basically the crowd was saying, “Tomorrow, Puigdemont is going to claim that there were only five or six people marching for unity.”
To put it another way, the two things the crowd was chanting were:
- “Lock her up!”
- “Fake news!”
It was beginning to sound like all Rajoy needed to come out on top of this whole mess was a Twitter account and a crass nickname for Puigdemont.
The crowd got so uncomfortably packed, and their lack of violence and looting got so painfully boring, that we all called it a day and took off to grab some lunch.
Throughout this whole week, my sentiments swung back and forth by the hour. Standing in the rain Sunday morning with my friends Sergio and Xavi as they put themselves in bodily harm just to be able to vote definitely swung me in favor of the independence movement. But then I remembered that one of them was against independence, so there went that barometer. (I need to point out that Sergio and Xavi get along with each other incredibly well despite their differences.)
Rajoy & Co. definitely handed a giant momentum shift to the separatists when the police attacked the Catalan voting stations. When you send droves of helmeted goons to seize ballots boxes from the populace it doesn’t really matter what’s actually on those ballots. In just one brutal morning replayed online a thousand times over, Rajoy managed to change the debate from an issue of independence to one of democracy.
Independence is tricky. People all over Spain are still divided on the issue, and they’ve been trying to figure it out for more than three centuries. But crapping on democracy by stealing ballots and raiding polling stations? That’s third-world, banana republic chicanery right there. Do that, and even your average American will hate you instantly even though that person probably thinks “Catalonia” is today’s special at The Olive Garden.
Then when I thought about all the businesses potentially leaving the area and the millions of pro-unity Catalans that would be affected by this, my sympathies started leaning more towards the “stay” crowd. The unity marchers also worked their magic on me. Like I said, it’s easy to agree with something when 500,000 people are screaming its merits.
At this particular moment, though, I find myself more in the pro-unity camp. This isn’t to say that the separatists don’t have certain legitimate gripes against the Spanish government. They do. And it’s not to say that I’m a fan of Rajoy. I’m not. His defining characteristic as a leader is colossal ineffectiveness.
But as this whole debacle drags on, I am becoming more and more convinced that Puigdemont is just a feckless, irresponsible huckster. If I have to listen to him spout off about democracy one more time I’m going to slap him upside the head with a 10-kilogram Iberico ham leg. Puigdemont swoons each time someone utters the word “democrácia,” but his take on the concept is murky at best.
He said well before the vote took place that if the “yes” side won he would declare independence regardless of voter turnout. If that was the case then why didn’t he just hold the vote in his kitchen and save everyone in Catalonia the hassle? “Jordi, Sergio, Xavi. You guys want to start a new country next week? Great. I’ll go notify the other 7.5 million Jordis, Sergios, and Xavis.”
His reliance on the results of the referendum grates on me, too. The referendum numbers are absolutely meaningless as a way to judge whether or not Catalans as a whole want to leave Spain. The vote was a wildly one-sided affair. Voter turnout was only 43%, and the overwhelming majority of “unity” voters stayed home because 1) the didn’t want to dignify the illegal referendum, and 2) they didn’t want to get punched in the face by the Policia Nacional. To use the results of the referendum as some kind of mandate to leave is a direct slap in the face to the approximately 50% of Catalans who don’t want independence from Spain.
There’s also the matter of Puigdemont plowing ahead with this referendum in the first place. The vote was illegal. I know, I know. Some laws are unfair and are begging to be broken. Still, there’s an argument to be made that while Spain is indeed stomping on democracy, Catalonia is doing the same thing to the rule of the law. Catalonia signed a constitution in 1978 agreeing to be part of Spain–forever. It was supported by 90% of all Catalans at the time. And while the Spanish courts and politicians have generally ignored everything the Catalan separatists have tried to say to this point, the separatists have lost some of the moral high ground by plunging ahead with this referendum.
Finally, there is an enormous difference between being oppressed and not getting your way. Puigdemont bangs the drum and revs up the separatist PR machine to make it seem like living here is a life sentence in a gulag. But I’ve had Catalans–even some separatist Catalans–tell me that life here is just swell. Just because people object when you ignore the constitution you signed, you ignore the will of the majority of people in your own region, and you threaten actions that will crater both your economy and every other region’s economy, it does not mean you’re oppressed.
Puigdemont, though, just rolls along and builds this narrative each day (with the help of a clueless Rajoy, of course.) The game looks like this: 1) Come to the table repeatedly with unrealistic demands. 2) Claim the other side is rejecting dialogue when they reject the same unrealistic demands they’ve already seen for months. 3) Wring your hands in dismay because the other side just won’t listen!
Ultimately, Puigdemont is nothing but a single-minded snake oil salesman who seems willing to burn the whole house down because, damn it, he wants his country back. He has no real plan about what to do once Catalonia gets independence. In fact, he’s said he’ll most likely step down once it happens. Don’t sweat the details or worry about how people will actually live, just win. Winning is all that matters. So every few days he saunters out to the podium wearing a haircut that looks like it was done with a weed-eater, throws red meat to his rabid fans who constitute a minority of the people, then sits back and grins as they take to the streets and to Twitter to shout down the rest of the country.
Really, have you ever seen such a thing in your entire life?