It has been a dramatic few days in Catalan politics. Brutal repression met this weekend’s independence referendum — deemed illegal by the Spanish state —with over 800 injured in a crackdown by riot police.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was unmoved by international media condemnation, denying a referendum had taken place despite more than two million ballots being cast. The events, he said, were “repugnant acts against democrats.”
Madrid’s right-wing Partido Popular (PP) government looks set to continue its intransigent approach to the separatist movement, hoping it will ignite Spanish nationalist sentiments and place the country’s Left in a difficult position. Already, leading Catalan independence figures have been arrested and charged with sedition.
But the independence movement is pressing ahead — first with today’s general strike, the largest in the region’s history, and shortly, many anticipate, with a declaration of sovereignty by the Catalan parliament.
The most radical component of the independence movement is the anticapitalist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), who secured over three hundred thousand votes and ten parliamentary seats in the 2015 regional elections. Jacobin’s Europe editor Ronan Burtenshaw spoke to Lluc Salellas, a member of the CUP’s national executive, about recent events and the road ahead.
You knew before October 1 that the Spanish government opposed the referendum, but did you expect the level of violence we saw in the attempt to repress it?
No, we didn’t. We expected them to come to polling stations, we thought they would try to prevent the referendum, but we didn’t think the level of violence would be so extreme. It was indiscriminate, you could see in the pictures — old people, children, everyone was at risk.
Obviously our first emotion was anger, at the police and also at the state for this response. But there was also sadness. We thought, even though we were divided on this issue, we shared some common minimums about respect for people’s democratic and civil rights. They decided to cross red lines and make it clear that the unity of Spain comes before the rights of the people.
What was your reaction to Prime Minister Rajoy’s speech afterward, when he denied the violence and described Spain as an example to the world?
On one level, it was disbelief. I know Rajoy’s politics, but I expected him to base his speech in reality. I started laughing at points during it. On reflection, though, I realized how irresponsible and dangerous it was. That speech reminded me how important our battle is —if we don’t win it, the idea that governments can meet democratic expressions with violence will spread. This weekend it was Catalonia, but it won’t end here. We could see it normalized across Europe.
The European Union’s institutions haven’t exactly been supportive of Catalonia in the wake of the crackdown. The European Commission wholeheartedly backed Rajoy. Did you expect that?
It is worth saying that we saw some remarkable international support for Catalonia over recent days. For the first time in recent history we saw political leaders in Europe defend our democratic rights and condemn the violence used by the Spanish state. It’s a small change but it’s important.
At the same time, the CUP is aware that the EU is not really an internationalist institution — it is a “state squad,” a group of states who act to protect their friends. It is concerned with maintaining the status quo. The EU is hoping most of all that nothing in Catalonia disrupts the neoliberal economy. So we weren’t disappointed, we already knew how it would behave.
What was your opinion of the reactions of the Spanish left, from PSOE [the center-left Socialist Party] to Podemos and Izquierda Unida?
There are two blocs in Spanish politics. One is the PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos: they represent 71 percent of the deputies in parliament. They defend what Rajoy did over the weekend — they may say there was a little bit too much violence, but they supported sending the riot police to repress the referendum.
The other bloc is Podemos and Izquierda Unida. They are different from the first bloc and really criticized the repression. They openly support a referendum in Catalonia. At the same time, I do think Podemos’s statement was lacking in one crucial aspect: they say things would be different if Rajoy was not Prime Minister. Unfortunately, PSOE would be more-or-less the same. Especially since, if you want to change the constitution, you need 66 percent of the deputies in parliament. We are a very long way from that even if Podemos could influence PSOE to take a different approach to Catalonia.
Until this weekend the support for Catalan independence elsewhere in Spain was very low. There has been strong anti-Catalan sentiment even among the popular classes. Do you think the scale of the repression this weekend might change that?
After this weekend’s repression, the belief that Catalans are the bad guys while the Spanish state is virtuous should be harder to hold. Hopefully some people will change their minds. But it is unlikely that there will be widespread change. The idea that Spain is one country and one people is really strong across the country and classes. It would probably need three or four generations to change that — with different governments, education, media, and with a really different political atmosphere. It isn’t a short-term project.
The way the Spanish media approached this weekend showed one of the reasons this attitude persists. There was only one channel that televised what was happening. The other ones had cartoons, travel shows, or sports. It would have been possible to watch them and believe that nothing significant was happening in Spain. And even the media that did report on the repression often did not show the most dramatic images, or chose to cover alleged flaws with the voting. There was a lot of manipulation — and it has been like this for years.
One of the most common criticisms made by the Left in Spain about Catalan independence is that the movement has been based in part on separatism for one of the country’s wealthiest regions, that many who support it are motivated by not wanting to contribute as much revenue to Madrid. As a left-wing independentist, how do you respond to that argument?
This argument is part of the logic of the right-wing independence movement. It was prominent a number of years ago along with the slogan “Spain robs us.” But it is not one of the most important points today. If any left-wing Spaniard came to Catalonia and listened to what people say at meetings, they wouldn’t hear those points. They would hear about democratic and civil rights. They would hear people arguing that the Spanish state cannot represent them anymore, not just as workers but as Catalans.
The last fifteen laws we have passed in the Catalan parliament have been banned by the Spanish state. But these are not independentist laws — many of them are social laws: for example, a law about sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, a law banning energy companies from turning off people’s electricity, and a law for a higher minimum wage. We want to use our autonomy to improve people’s lives and we are forbidden. People see this and respond. They want to decide the future of Catalonia and that is not possible in the current arrangement.
But specifically on this question of remittances, the CUP has said for a number of years that an independent Catalonia should pay money to poorer parts of Spain in the transition. It doesn’t have to be a short time, it could be twenty or thirty years. We don’t want these regions to suddenly lose money. We are internationalists and we are in solidarity with workers and the poor in Spain.
How significant is today’s general strike in Catalonia? What will its impact be?
Today we have seen the biggest general strike in the history of Catalonia. It was supported by the Catalan trade union movement, all of the pro-independence parties, and other left groups such as Podemos’s regional affiliate and Barcelona en Comú.
There was a very widespread stoppage: almost everything closed from small shops to public institutions and transport. In total, more than fifty roads were blocked, which has significantly disrupted the transport of goods. It wasn’t just in Barcelona, either. In Girona, one of the regional capitals, there was a demonstration of 50,000. The city’s population is only 100,000, so it will be the biggest protest in the city’s history.
On the one hand, the strike opposed this weekend’s repression. But it also had many republican themes, with people hoping that a Catalan Republic will be declared by the Catalan government. I expect the size of the strike and demonstrations today will accelerate that process.
It has been a fast-moving few days in Catalan politics. What do you expect to happen next?
The next step is the declaration by the Catalan parliament. We still don’t know exactly what it will entail but we hope it will be a proclamation of a republic. That should happen by the end of the week. The mass demonstrations of recent days will continue through the week and probably reach their highest point around the declaration. There will also be symbolic actions to defend it, probably ones that will have an impact on the economy here and in Spain.
The aim is to put the declaration on the table with Catalan, Spanish, and international representatives and negotiate. At the same time we expect the Catalan government will try to act as an independent government, encouraging the Catalan people to respect its mandate and do things like pay taxes to it.
The Spanish state will probably try to use Article 155 of the constitution to definitively end our autonomy. They may also arrest the Catalan president, as well as other political figures. If this happens, the streets will rise up and we will have a major confrontation. The independence movement has a lot of people — I estimate up to a million — ready to be very active in this campaign over a long period of time. It won’t be easy for the Spanish state to repress a movement of that size.
What you are outlining is a radical scenario of civil disobedience. But, at the moment, the independence movement is led by figures from the center-right and center-left. These are not the kinds of people you would expect to lead such a dramatic rupture. Does the CUP calculate that the Left will take the lead as this confrontation escalates?
The people have been ahead of the political parties for the last six or seven years in Catalonia. The streets have pushed the movement forward and forced the parties to be less conservative.
If the scenario develops as I laid out above, the parties will have to adopt positions to meet it. The Spanish state doesn’t want to negotiate — so centrist politics don’t have a place, they have no alternative path toward which to divert the struggle. You cannot meet repression like what we have seen with moderation, the people won’t support it. In the last five years, the PP government hasn’t come forward with any offer to resolve the situation. I don’t think that will change.
The movement has already moved to the Left — the laws I mentioned earlier were a sign of that, they were social measures supported even by the center-right. The streets have an idea of something new in Catalonia, something bottom-up. Every political actor will need to respect this if they are to retain their position.