The Ghost of General Franco: How the Catalan Bid for Independence Entered Purgatory

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Written by Daniel Mollenkamp

On December 21, a rather undemocratic election was held in Barcelona. Madrid had called the election to repopulate the Catalan parliament, which it had ousted and jailed following a referendum sponsored by that parliament in October that favored independence, which the Spanish courts had declared unconstitutional.

The president of that parliament, Carles Puigdemont, had already fled to Brussels, where he turned himself over to a court in Belgium, which was studying a European arrest warrant against him. He declared himself the frontrunner for the upcoming election, while simultaneously disputing the legality of the manner in which it had been called. From exile in Brussels, Puigdemont, the now deposed president of the Catalan parliament, tried to run an election campaign. Deposed Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, and some members of parliament, had already been jailed on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement by the Spanish National Criminal Court; similar charges were drawn up in the Supreme Court for other members of parliament (two Catalan separatist organizers had been jailed in October on similar charges).

Breezing in from his perch in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy whipped up votes for some of the pro-unionist factions in Barcelona, hoping that this election would nullify the pro-separatist forces Madrid had done so much to put down, including sending a militarized police force, La Guardia Civil, to rough up voters in the October referendum.

In whatever obscene horserace this had become, the outcome would likely be somewhat inconclusive. And indeed, the polls sent to me by my Catalan contacts showed it was neck and neck between pro-unionist Ciudadanos (center-right) and the pro-independence Esquerra (left), each uncomfortably resting around 46% in the days leading up to the vote.

Proximate consequences

Separatists carried the vote. Holding a total of 70 seats, the three separatist parties retained control of the parliament, which has a total of 135 seats. No single party has a compelling grip on the parliament, though the separatists hold the majority. Puigdemont was reported to have declared victory for Catalonia and defeat for Spain from exile.

The election was framed as a “reset”. But the vote gave a result not entirely dissimilar to a previous election with pro-independence movements gripping a parliamentary majority around 2015. Though the unionist rightwing seems to have been the winner. It is unclear whether or not there’s a broad independence coalition. Inconclusive, indeed.

Rajoy has failed to quell either the incentives that led to the pro-independence referendum or the resentment to Spanish governance, generally. With nominally pro-independence forces in parliament, the question could well come up again. The only dis-incentivizing factors I can think of are that the separatists will need another member of the Eurozone to back the play for independence, and that the economy of the region is in shambles. In other words, the pro-separatists could have succeeded (and presumably still can) provided they secure some international support.

Accusations of fascism and Francoism littered the discourse, at home and abroad. At one point, the jailed Catalonian parliament members were described as “political prisoners” by Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau. Former PM of Belgium, Elio Di Rupo, called Rajoy an “authoritarian Francoist” on Twitter, (which has been elevated to an international posting board for political statements). El País, a pro-Spain newspaper, called this the equivalent to calling Angela Merkel a totalitarian Nazi. I even heard Puigdemont compared unfavorably to George Wallace—the man so pro-segregation that he shamed the entire Jim Crow era American South, highlighting the injustice of the racial caste system in America—for violating procedural rules. But this venom was spat both ways: an ex-mayor of Terrassa was called a “quisling” and a “disgusting faggot” for taking the view that the referendum was illegal.

Reportage from the Nation Magazine made the following assessment: 

“The government’s approach has also undermined judicial independence, eroded civil liberties, and reversed decades’ worth of decentralization… The Catalan right has borrowed from Rajoy’s playbook, also using the escalation of tensions to whitewash its own history of corruption and enthusiasm for austerity.” (Emphasis mine.)

The Spanish moves made a mockery of the moral case for union. Madrid’s suspension of the parliament (done by invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution) stripped them of the hope of greater fiscal autonomy, sending a general threat to other regions who might be eyeing decentralization or autonomy. It also seems premised on the idea that the Catalans actually declared independence, which is only partly true since the referendum was suspended in the hopes of negotiation. Rajoy’s takeover of local government functions (including police, education, public TV and radio) is hard to locate a real precedent for. Essentially, this gave rulership of region to the elements that were pro-Spain (the ones who were trounced in the elections. This doesn’t restore “normalcy” as the Rajoy faction claimed it would, but nullifies democratic rule).

Still, the Catalan economy is in ruins. Whatever else one may say about these events: it appears as though Rajoy has condemned Catalans to a sort of purgatory.

This was opportunism for Puigdemont, plainly. It seems obvious that he hoped to get votes, increase regional autonomy, and rebrand his party, which used the situation to cast itself as the Catalan European Democratic Party.

This all might have been treated more scornfully if it were not being thought of as an internal European matter.

Rajoy made the comment: “España es una gran nación.”; Spain is a mature democracy.

However, one of the more noticeable trends in this little melodrama offers what might be called historical context, explaining how this seemingly obscure squabble is really linked to fascism and Francisco Franco, and thus explaining why the name of Francisco Franco was so wantonly tossed around by both sides.

The legacy of fascism and ‘preserved disorder’

The lingering impact of fascism in Spain, which ended in 1975 with the restful deathbed of General Francisco Franco—the most effective and banal of the fascist figureheads—can still be felt in Barcelona.

Indeed, the corpse of Franco might be said to haunt Spain’s national politics, in much the same way as the impression left by the National Socialist party still hoovers over other members of the Eurozone. In Catalonia, which is one of the richest regions of Spain, after all, this has had an almost empirical effect.

The post-Franco 1978 constitution marked the replacing of fascism with democracy in Spain. It also held promise for a rebirth of Catalan self-rule. Ironic, then, that this would become the basis for purging the Catalan parliament and jailing no less than 12 of its members.

Catalonia had emerged as one of the fiercest anti-fascist areas in the lead up to Franco’s rule. And for that, they suffered. The regional language was outlawed, for example, one of the punishments dealt out by Franco once he had gripped power.

The old-world charm instantly evoked by even the name of Barcelona can be partly traced to international writers involved in this conflict.

But Franco’s expiration promised a change to that. A democratic constitution sent a clear message: the dictator is dead, even if he did die peacefully and while still in power.

But this mood, this feeling of revival for the region, soured. A 2006 statue of Catalan autonomy was struck down in 2010 by the Spanish constitutional courts. It would have, among other things, honored the Catalan language above the Spanish in the region—and thus allow Catalans to conduct their governance in the language of anti-Francoism. It also recognized Catalonia as a “nation”. Its peeling left a bitter taste from Madrid for some in the region, as if the region had collectively bitten into a peeled lemon, thinking it was an orange. It was described to me by Catalan contacts as akin to a “spit in the eye.”

If the refusal to honor the Catalan 2006 acknowledgement of Catalonia as a “nation” was a spit in the eye, then this new “crisis” was a swift kick to the cojones.

An old Richard Daley quote, given near the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago, of which this conflict in Barcelona is somewhat reminiscent, springs to mind. The lawman is not there to create disorder—wheezed the old party boss and mayor of Chicago, who was desperately trying to shut down protest against Vietnam—the lawman is there to preserve disorder.

Other’ Barcelonas

In 1937, as artillery shells battered the hotels of Madrid, shaking and smashing the very hotel he was staying in, the American writer John Dos Passos remarked that he couldn’t help but think of the “other Madrids” he had known. Dos Passos’ comment came during the civil war that ended the highly romanticized prewar period in Spain.

That civil war, which marred Spain, also marked the ascendance of fascism in Europe, which itself prefigured the conquest of fascism across the globe.

Much of the charm that Spain evokes for Americans can probably be traced back to the pre-war period. For us, Barcelona was Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and Jon Dos Passos. And later, it was the land of resistance to fascism, where George Orwell took a bullet to the gizzard and nearly died.

While the name of Barcelona might still evoke an old-world charm, this translates less and less into wealth and stability for the beleaguered Catalans, who have seen business flee, and who have also seen their elected leaders arrested, and 43% of whom have faced down militarized police forces in order to vote, in the name of law and order.

It would seem as though the squabble in Barcelona is anything but over. Madrid’s ousting of the parliament did nothing but delay the timeline of the pro-independence movement, since it failed to remove either the incentives that led to the pro-independence referendum or the resentment to Spanish governance.

If the impetus for this referendum was a desire for more economic self-determination, as has been suggested, the result was anything but. Strikes permeated Barcelona just days after the initial referendum vote (Business Insider reported that 3,026 companies had moved their legal domicile from Catalonia as of December 13th; retail has dipped; and there may be impending and massive belt-tightening measures from Catalan businesses; tourism is down, and unemployment up).

Some estimates tossed around at the beginning of this whole thing claimed that the disparity in what Catalans were paying in taxes to Madrid, versus the services they were getting back, though exactly how much is hard to estimate. Figures quoted by the BBC put it around 10 billion euro in 2014. More to the point, the Catalan economy made up nearly 20% of the Spanish economy. It may be telling to see what happens to these figures moving forward.