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The Catalan Revolt in the Spanish Congress

Mireia Vehí

The campaign for Spain’s general election on November 10 has been electrified by massive protests against the jailing of Catalan leaders. For the first time, the pro-independence left has given up its abstentionist stance — and it’s set to bring Catalonia’s revolt into the Spanish Congress itself.

Demonstrators hold up their phones following a week of protests over the jail sentences given to separatist politicians by Spain’s Supreme Court, on October 19, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Interview by
Simón Vázquez

Blocked streets, burning cars, and shocking scenes of police violence. In recent days, images of clashes in Catalonia have circulated around the world, as hundreds of thousands of people have protested the jailing of pro-independence leaders. The trigger came last Monday, when the Spanish courts sentenced the organizers of the unofficial 2017 independence referendum to prison spells of up to thirteen years. Over the last week, actions from the 25,000-strong occupation of El Prat airport to Friday’s general strike have gripped Catalonia — facing repression from not just the Spanish police, but also the forces of the Catalan regional government.

This may seem surprising given that Catalonia is ruled by pro-independence parties — the center-right JuntsXCat, led by exiled former president Carles Puigdemont, and the center-left Esquerra Republicana, led by former vice president Oriol Junqueras, today starting a thirteen-year prison sentence for “sedition.” Yet these forces are themselves anything but militant: indeed, when Madrid blocked the 2017 referendum, they each counted on the European Union coming to their aid by brokering a democratic resolution to the conflict. These naïve hopes were soon crushed, as Brussels turned its back on them; today, these parties have backed away from any sharp confrontation, and have sought to restrain the angriest protests.

The force that identifies rather more with the demonstrations is the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), an anti-capitalist movement created in 2012. Emphasizing local democracy and the call for a Catalan Republic, it has long refused to stand in elections to the Spanish Congress, even as it built up its representation in Catalonia itself. Yet with the Catalan question ever more central to Spanish politics, and a Spanish general election slated for November 10, this time the CUP has abandoned its abstentionist line. As one candidate Eulàlia Reguant put it in a radio interview, “no CUP activist wants to stand for the Madrid parliament, but the political moment calls for an intervention by the pro-independence left.”

The CUP’s lead candidate in Barcelona is the sociologist Mireia Vehí, who was also a member of the Catalan parliament at the time of the 2017 referendum. In an interview taking place just before the Catalan leaders were sentenced, she spoke to Jacobin’s Simón Vázquez about the blockages in Spanish democracy, CUP’s plans for the coming election, and how the Left can take up the cause of self-determination.


The Spanish general election on November 10 is the second to take place in 2019, after the previous vote on April 28 led to only inconclusive talks between Pedro Sánchez’s center-left PSOE and Pablo Iglesias’s Podemos. What is your analysis of why we’re facing this repeat election?


In order to analyze what’s happened since April 28 we have to talk about the wider situation in the Spanish state in recent years. Our analysis is that the pro-independence and anti-capitalist left and the Catalan independence movement are not in a position to mount a frontal offensive against the Spanish state like the one attempted with the referendum of October 1, 2017, with the material forces that would require. Nonetheless, what happened in that referendum and subsequent months has totally reshaped the reality facing both left- and right-wing forces in Catalonia and the Spanish state, as concerns the defense of the right to self-determination.

Another key element, in all this, is the capacity of the organized people not only to win rights for itself but also to be a constituent subject, able to shape the forms of poltiics. In Catalonia in recent years – and the referendum was a highpoint in this regard – there has been a collective exercise of mass civil disobedience, organized collectively and horizontally. On October 1, 2017 this was focused on self-determination, but it’s also a political praxis that takes place daily when housing unions and the PAH (“Platform for those Affected by Mortgages”) block evictions, or in the new trade unionism and the feminist movement.

Added to these developments is the persecution of dissent in Spain and the sentences to be passed in the trial of pro-independence leaders. These elements provide the framework for the state management of dissent, in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain.

All this helps us understand what has happened since April 28. The PSOE won the elections in what was a situation of crisis for the regime — a crisis that has become evident since 15M [the anti-austerity protests beginning in 2011] and the fight over Catalan independence. Pedro Sánchez’s party was victorious in a situation where the [right-wing] Partido Popular (PP) has been hit by corruption cases and no longer serves as a conservative right able to act as a cohesive force. The PSOE has become the new instrument for reconstituting the regime and the state apparatus.

There is another central point, here, regarding the European Union as a whole. Faced with Brexit in the United Kingdom, which has shaken its stability, the latest election results in Italy [i.e., successes for Matteo Salvini’s Lega] and the advance for the far right in France, Pedro Sánchez and the PSOE have become a decisive actor in sustaining the stability of the European Union. This has strengthened the PSOE greatly, but objectively it faces a very difficult challenge in guaranteeing stability and smooth governance. It wants to generate consensus for a “second transition,” but with the substantial difference that after the 2008 crisis in Spain there is no economic boom and there is conflict everywhere.


How would you analyze the other political forces, and especially the situation of the Spanish left, during the debate over the potential formation of a PSOE-Podemos government?


Within this logic, the Spanish left has played a very complex role. Indeed, the Catalan conflict is striking at the belly of the beast — the Spanish Congress. Here, the Spanish left is trying to take what is, in fact, a very awkward position, a kind of democratic neutrality in which it defends the right of self-determination in the abstract but at the same time — and in more practical terms — clearly condemns what is actually taking place in Catalonia.

Rather than defend a clear, radical, left-wing logic — even if a social-democratic one — the Spanish left’s battle over the formation of the government has been entirely lukewarm. All criticism of the European Union, debt policy, and the state’s border policy is left by the wayside. It wants the PSOE to count on the Left, just like the geringonça arrangement in Portugal [where the Socialists have relied on the external support of the Left Bloc and Communists]. For its part, the Esquerra Republicana — the Catalan social democracy — has tried to play the role of a party of state [by backing the PSOE unconditionally], like the historic role of the PNV [the Basque right]. Meanwhile the Catalan right has broken into many factions.

In this situation, we thought it obvious that the negotiations on the formation of the government would fail, because the PSOE was not interested in them succeeding. What interested this party was, instead, to provoke fresh elections where the historic two-party system of PSOE and PP would be strengthened, at the expense of third parties like [the liberal and Spanish-unionist] Ciudadanos, which all polls predict will lose heavily on November 10.

This is a battle that goes far beyond concrete questions of government. It’s a matter of fighting for the stability of the regime and, indeed, of the European Union. For its part, the pro-independence left has decided that it will occupy all available political and media space. When the Catalan left decided to commit itself to self-determination and independence, it saw this process as a vector for democracy in the Spanish state and in Europe. The real-world developments have proven our argument correct.


But why is the CUP standing in the Spanish elections only now, and not in the previous contest on April 28?


At both the CUP’s Political Council in March — the first time the pro-independence left discussed whether to participate in the Spanish Congress elections — and the last Political Council, where it did decide to participate, the arguments for and against were the same. This illustrates the contradiction in which the pro-independence left finds itself caught.

In March, the Political Council decided against participating. Many argued that if we did make it to Congress, we would not have — or would only insufficiently have — the necessary basis in a movement able to build organization and generate the necessary popular power to impose itself on the state. In September, a similar assessment was made. But faced with a growing repressive offensive in the Spanish state, the argument that had already been made in March — that is, the need to occupy all possible political space — won out.


What political program have you prepared for the November 10 elections?


Our stance is that we cannot put all our eggs in the institutional basket. At a time when communists are being thrown out of institutions around the world, the pro-independence left has to clearly fight for socialism as its political approach. This means a socialism for the twenty-first century, which puts human life at its center and in which feminism, anti-racism, and environmentalism are not ornaments gathering dust in the corner, or mere slogans, but central political proposals.

This approach translates into the construction of a tactical political program [for the November 10 elections]. First this means the demand for amnesty — understood as an amnesty for all those in jail, exile, and facing charges. It mustn’t involve them seeking “pardon” for their “crime” — rather, it means wiping the slate clean. However, while we emphasize the fight to release the prisoners and against repression, just as the moment demands, we also clearly link this to a defense of the right of self-determination.

Self-determination was central to the beginning of this conflict, and as a political framework it is also the umbrella for many other civil and political rights. This also means attacking the direction of travel in the European Union, with its drive toward the centralization of power, decision-making, and sovereignty. What self-determination does is restore the ability to decide — that is, it gives sovereignty to the people, and is thus a battering ram that causes cracks in both Spain and the European Union.

The Catalan Countries have been broken by the crisis. To guarantee the rights of all, we need to develop a socialist, feminist, environmentalist, and anti-racist project. Especially in a part of southern Europe punished by a troika determined to do everything to guarantee the free market and economic growth. These stances — amnesty, self-determination, and the guarantee of rights — are not our strategic program, but a tactical one with which we will go to the Spanish Congress.


Did standing in the municipal elections but not the April 28 general election or the European elections leave you out of the running?


Surely it did hurt, from a purely electoral perspective. But neither the CUP nor the pro-independence left have ever just done politics in electoral terms. And at that time militants considered the best thing to do was to build a movement, prepare for the [prison] sentences [against Catalan leaders], and prepare the organization and the movement so as to later be able to take the fight to the Spanish state. Now, militants have decided that as well as building a movement it is also right to stand in the elections. But given a certain communist and libertarian political culture which we have — indeed, one that characterizes us as a country — such decisions are not taken to get more votes but rather in correspondence to a certain political analysis.


Does this departure from CUP’s previous abstentionism mean that the pro-independence left will participate in all future electoral contests?


No. Honoring their disobedient, horizontal, and collective culture, CUP and the pro-independence left make decisions in strategic terms. Each decision is analyzed on its own terms and in a strategic key. This time, militants have decided that it is correct strategically to go to the Spanish Congress, but future electoral participation will be decided on a case-by-case basis.


The CUP has talked about making Spain ungovernable, or even causing a “blockage” in Spain’s government. But it’s already proven impossible to form a government in Spain — so why the need for change?


The CUP is going to the Spanish Congress to do politics, and that means making concrete proposals in a generous spirit. I’d say it won’t be the pro-independence left causing a blockage — that’s something that exists in Spain already. Indeed, the PSOE has encouraged this situation in order to provoke early elections and pick up more votes. The blockage is something generated by the regime in its attempt to close the opportunities opened up since 2011 [i.e., by forcing a return to two-party politics].

Another factor in this situation is the constant threat of a possible tripartite right-wing coalition uniting the PP with Ciudadanos and [the far-right] Vox. This is a fundamental element that the PSOE and the Spanish left have used to justify their own coalition attempts and electoral campaigns. There’s a fear of the Right, the far right, and unfortunately, we now find ourselves with twenty-odd fascist MPs in Congress.


What differentiates the CUP from other leftist forces?


Our reflection connects with what Costas Lapavitsas has repeatedly said in his analysis of the Left in Europe: that is, there is no radical-left party in Europe that is making a radical critique of the European Union. Nobody is clearly stating the truth that the European Union is a machine to kill people at sea, to generate evictions and suicides, and to centralize sovereignty.

If there is not a strong left to oppose the European Union, we are merely handing over terrain to the far right. We see this in France, in Hungary, and, indeed, throughout Europe. The fear of the far right must not stop the Left doing its own politics. So, we will go to the Spanish Congress to do left-wing politics, without fear or embarrassment, and to explain and teach people about socialism, even if people say that this is crazy. What seems crazy to us is to continue supporting the EU and capitalism, which systematically murder women, workers, and migrants at sea.


The CUP has decided to stand by itself — why has it not built alliances with other political forces?


There was no time to build broad coalitions for the election, after CUP militants decided to run. But when we do politics in the institutions, we see them not as a comfortable space, but as a battlefield. In the institutions the working and popular classes always lose, not only because these institutions are built to reproduce privilege but also because they operate according to individual, liberal, and conservative forms of representation.

In the elections we will, formally speaking, be standing alone. But within the organization and the movement we will articulate the alliance policies that define the CUP’s stances in the Spanish Congress. The decision on the CUP MPs’ tasks in the Congress will involve a whole political space including the organizations of the anti-capitalist and pro-independence left.