The Catalan issue
To the average western reader, Catalonia is a vaguely familiar term for a place either associated with Barcelona and vacations, or to the horrifying images of voters being attacked by riot police. However, for the past couple of years, the issue of Catalonia has been markedly absent. And general public awareness has faded into the question I always get when I say I am from there, “Is that still going on?”. The answer is yes. But whenever I try to explain exactly what it is this conflict is about I struggle to find the right words to compress everything into a small potent package. So as an ex-tour guide I thought it best to try to explain where this conflict comes from with a small tour of the city of Barcelona.
Understanding the history
Outside the cathedral of Santa María del Mar in Barcelona there is an eternal flame burning. Directly in front of this flame there is a strange square which seems to sink into the ground, if one were to walk a little further into this square you would be able to see a small verse engraved on the granite wall.
“Al fossar de les moreres no s’hi enterra cap traïdor,
fins perdent les nostres banderes serà l’urna del honor.”
“In the Fig tree grave no traitor will be buried,
for even when we lose our flags it shall be the urn of our honor.”
That small square is a mass grave that was paved over and later rediscovered through the above mentioned poem. It holds the bodies of many of the defenders of the city of Barcelona who fought against a French-Spanish siege. It wasn’t until after dictator Franco’s death that Catalan cultural associations were able to create pressure groups to renovate and dignify the tomb, as before it had been a car park.
About 300m along there is a small square in front of an old religious school, in the middle of the square there’s a huge weeping willow next to a small fountain. The walls of the School are damaged with deep scars running across its walls in all directions. Directly across from the tree there lies a small plaque reading:
“Here 42 persons, most of them children, died during the fascist’s bombardment of Barcelona in 1938.”
The result of an air raid by Italian aircraft loaned to the Franco regime by Mussolini, the first bomb struck the square the children used as a schoolyard, killing 30 people, nearly all of them children. A second bomb hit the same spot 2 minutes later, killing the desperate neighbours clawing through the debris to get to the children. Bringing the total up to 42.
If you kept walking for about 1.5kms you would reach the top of the mountain that overlooks Barcelona’s port, Montjuïc, and with it you would discover the military castle at its peak. A place from where the Spanish Government repeatedly bombarded the city in order to pacify its rowdy citizens. An event which occurred so often that it actually inspired a quote from a famous 19th century Spanish General, Baldomero Espartero.
“For the good of Spain one must shell Barcelona once every 50 years”
Not coincidentally this place was chosen by the city’s fascist conquerors in 1939 to bring, hold, and execute political prisoners. Among those executed was Lluis Companys, Catalonia’s elected president who was captured by the Nazi Gestapo, brought to Spain, court martialled and shot in the castle moat in 1940. His last words were:
If we then came down from the mountain and walked across the bay we would arrive at the popular Barceloneta neighbourhood which was built for fishermen to live next to their area of work. Every now and then I would go there with my Grandparents, both of whom were small during the civil war and both lived in Barceloneta. My Grandmother would recall:
‘Look here, in this street, me, my mother, and my brothers ran towards the bomb shelters, but by the time we were on the street it was too late. The bombs were already falling and so my mother stopped us in the middle of the street and said: ‘I don’t want to die with any of you alone, if we die, we die together.’”
When we would turn the corner my Grandfather would shuffle to a stop next to the square and say:
”Here is where my mother’s fruit stand used to be. I remember coming back from school to find it had been hit directly by a bomb, I remember digging through the rubble for half an hour thinking she was underneath before my mother found me.’”
If we turned around towards the mountains that surround Barcelona and walked for a couple of kilometers we’d run into the University of Barcelona. An institution which grew to be one of the many beating hearts of the new Spain that came about after the Transition to democracy in the 80’s.
Autonomy returned to Catalonia and elections were reestablished. An economic boom without precedent took ahold of Spain and there was hope for the future. However, even then, tensions remained. As a part of the deal to secure democracy, a law of total silence was passed. This ensured that the crimes of the Franco regime could not be dug up or brought to court. The military, the paramilitary civil Guard, the Judiciary and the Police were all left in the hands of the same bureaucrats and generals of the old regime. All of this meant that even during democracy when my Grandfather saw that my mother had a -School in Catalan!- sticker on her folder he shouted:
Do you know what they could do to you if they saw you with this!?
These kinds of stories are sadly very common across Spain. However, in Catalonia they have taken a particularly nasty turn. They are seen as not only an attack on innocent individuals, but an attack on a whole identity. Similar in many regards to Pearl Harbour or 9-11, many Catalans feel as though these events are unresolved conflicts which strike at the very core of who they are. It does not help the fact that Spain has yet to achieve or even attempt a serious reconciliation between the two sides of the civil war, let alone a reconciliation between ethnic and cultural minorities and the Castilian majority.
Returning to the Fig Tree grave,we would see that every 11th of September, the day when the city finally fell in 1714, representatives of local institutions go to the eternal flame in Fig tree Square to pay their respects and to those who died defending the freedoms of the people. One could find it surprising that a part of a country commemorates the day of their defeat by the rest of the country. However, as we have seen, this has been a constant theme in Catalan history with rebellion, civil war, and declarations of independence against Spain taking place in: 1640, 1680, 1701, 1846, 1931, 1934 and finally 2017. And it was on that same day in 2012 that the whole issue of Catalan independence really hit off once again. A massive protest was organized and every year since then hundreds of thousands pour onto the street every 11th.
If we finally concluded our visit by returning to the airport to go back home we would find that even that lifeless building was the sight of some of the most incredible tension between pro-independence protestors and the police. After the referendum of 2017 the central government sacked the autonomous government and put the leaders of the independence movement on trial. Some fled and some stayed behind. Those who stayed behind were then convicted of sedition and mis-use of public funds, condemned to up to 13 years of prison time.
Upon hearing the news, Catalonia exploded into a frenzy of revolutionary activity through the use of an encrypted and anonymous organization which communicated through Telegram named Tsunami Democràtic. The protests were some of the most heated ever seen since the Civil War. And the most spectacular of which was the spontaneous mobilization of thousands of people who marched through the highway to block Barcelona Airport. They were greeted by tear gas, riot police and batons, however they succeeded in cancelling over 108 flights.
These protests died down with the inauguration of a new left-wing government which has entered into negotiations with pro-independence Catalan parties. However, negotiations are yet to bear any fruit and many are skeptical of the government’s intentions as the PSOE (Govt) has previously supported the incarceration of Catalan leaders and the suspension of Catalan autonomy. One can only remain hopeful that future leaders can rise above the mediocrity on both sides which has allowed the situation to devolve to this point. A necessary step in going beyond previous mistakes is understanding each other’s perspectives on this conflict. I hope that this tour will at least help someone to understand a little bit more about the conflict and bring us a bit closer to a solution.