The Catalonia region of Spain voted in an Oct. 1 referendum to become an independent nation. The vote, declared illegal by Spain’s central government and the Spanish Constitution, comes after years of building tension discussion on the subject of secession.
About 900 citizens and 33 police officers were reported to have been injured that Sunday after riot police stormed polling stations, dragging out voters and firing rubber bullets into crowds, as reported by The Guardian. All of it was captured by smartphones and news cameras and spread around the world, creating a public relations disaster for the president of Spain, Mariano Rajoy.
In interviews with 14 BC students from Spain, some prayed for the unity of Spain, while others argued that Catalonia should be independent. However, almost none believe that the violence is acceptable.
“[Catalans] are trying to defend their right to vote and say if they want to be a country or not,” Georgina Rigol I Sala, a BC exchange student from Catalonia, said. “But the central government is responding with violence.”
This event comes as a result of a complex relationship between the region and the Spanish central government dating back centuries.
Miguel Saez Poveda, a BC exchange student from Madrid, explained that the region of Catalonia never existed as an independent political entity. Instead, it was part of a monarchy called the Crown of Aragon from 1162 to 1716, when Philip V of Spain took control of Barcelona.
In 1939, Francisco Franco’s dictatorship came to fruition and lasted until his death in 1975. Laia Clotet Vila, LGSOE ’18, highlights that Franco systematically repressed all efforts toward Catalan nationalism.
“Under his dictatorship, the government tried to stamp out all Catalan institutions, the Catalan language was forbidden and highly punished if used in public, and thousands of people were executed in purges,” Clotet said.
Right before his death, Franco named Juan Carlos I the King of Spain, who initiated a transition from the Francoist system to a democracy by establishing the Spanish Constitution of 1978.
But many Catalans at BC feel that the region has been treated unfairly under Spain’s current democracy. They also argue that the current constitution should allow for a legal binding referendum on independence in Catalonia.
“At the time the Spanish constitution was written, women could not vote, gay marriage wasn’t allowed, people were forced to do military service,” Elena Jimenez Asins, CGSOM ’18, said. “Then they changed the Constitution to make them legal.”
Students also complained that Catalonia’s revenues subsidize other parts of Spain, as reported in a CNN article. While the region hosts 16 percent of the Spanish population, it contributes around 20 percent of the Spain’s GDP, making it one of the country’s main economic powers.
Jimenez and Clotet explained that Catalonia attempted to achieve greater autonomy by forming its own constitution called Estatut in 2006 and holding a “non-referendum popular consultation” in 2014. However, the Spanish government has never attempted to reach a settlement, forcing Catalans to hold the referendum.
“The Spanish government has had a circular discourse about the unconstitutionality of a referendum, but has not adopted the smallest measure to listen its people and understand the reasons behind their frustration,” Clotet said.
She further explained that the current president of Catalonia and leader of the movement for independence, Carles Puigdemont, called for the Oct. 1 referendum, even though it was not supported by the Spanish government. He argued that voting and listening to the public should never be criminalized in a democracy.
On the day of the referendum, approximately two-fifths of the Catalan electorate participated, and 90.18 percent voted in favor of independence. But, as suggested in a CNN article, these numbers may not represent true public opinion, since supporters of remaining in Spain may have abstained from voting because it was considered illegal.
“The only way to go out of Spain is to do it out of the law, and that’s what we decided to do in the end,” Rigol said.
BC students have mixed feelings about the violence of the day. For most, it was totally unjustified. However, some disagree, such as Marta Gonzalez-Ruano Calles, a BC exchange student from Madrid.
“The government has to preserve the security and peace in the country, so I stand for it.” Gonzalez-Ruano said. “The government didn’t have any other option.”
Nonetheless, the violence is indicative of the much larger issue at hand about whether Catalans should have the right to vote on independence legally.
Spain is neither a federal state like the U.S. or a central state like France. Marta Cavestany Ribas, a BC exchange student from Barcelona, explained that it is a system characterized by autonomous communities that exercise their right to self-government within the limits set forth in the constitution and their autonomous statutes.
She went on to explain that while these communities have the ability to decide on education and how to manage money and regulate cities, there are certain decisions that only the central government can decide on, such as secession.
“I think the reason why the autonomous communities can’t vote [on independence] is because the whole of the country belongs to everyone,” Cavestany said.
Many Spaniards at BC also aren’t buying into the argument that Catalonia has been oppressed by Spain. Since it is one of the most prosperous regions of the country and its citizens enjoy a very high standard of living, it is difficult for any Spaniard to imagine why Catalans want to secede.
“We don’t want Catalonia to become independent because I think there is a symbiosis,” Poveda said. “We benefit from each other.”
Other BC students from Catalonia, such as Rocío Sánchez Ares, feel that it is impossible to suggest that staying part of Spain will benefit the region.
“I am proud Cataluña [Catalonia] stands up against a colonial nation that has historically violated its language, culture and killed its people going back to Franco’s dictatorship,” Sánchez said. “Cataluña does not need Spain to survive as an independent republic.”
Although many believe in the ethical duty to let citizens vote, independence could be costly economically in the short and long term.
Cavestany argues that Catalonia will be a very poor nation because the European Union has stated that Catalonia will not be allowed to become a member. If this does occur, it may be very difficult to negotiate fair trade agreements with its neighbors, Spain and France.
Catalonia will also have to create a new currency, since it will not be able to use the Euro. Many companies have already discussed relocating from Catalonia to Spain if secession occurs. The IBEX 35 tumbled 2.85% last Wednesday amid these concerns.
Cavestany realizes that she cannot help if someone feels Catalonian and not Spanish. But she is deeply worried about the consequences of withdrawing from Spain.
“I can’t fight the feeling but I can tell you the data, and that’s what’s going to happen,” Cavestany said. “I don’t want my children to live in a poor country out of the E.U.”
BC students from Spain all agree that dialogue between the Rajoy administration and Puigdemont is critical to reaching a consensus on this issue. Both sides have veered away from discussing the options, causing radicalism and hate to increase in the political arena. The E.U. has also avoided getting involved in the conflict, which some individuals believe is a mistake.
In the case that Catalonia declares independence, Spain could use Article 155 of the Constitution. It states that when an autonomous community acts in a way that surpasses its competences, the state can take control of the community.
“If Catalonia declares independence, the central government will send more police, and take control of the [regional] budget, healthcare, and education,” Jimenez said.
It does appear, however, that many Catalans are also pro-Spain and don’t want to make a choice between being Spanish and Catalan. Large crowds protested in Barcelona on Sunday to demand that Puigdemont hold off declaring independence from Spain, as CNN reported.
On Tuesday, the Catalan parliament will meet to discuss the referendum. This will test whether the conflict will escalate further or if he backs down from his strongly held stance.
While the referendum suggests that Catalonia hopes to become independent, people around Spain believe in achieving unity among government and the people.
“Now is the time to be together to fight for Spanish unity, regardless of your political opinion about anything else,” Gonzalez-Ruano said.
Featured Image by Francisco Seco / Associated Press