Love no more? Catalonia and Spain

By Michael Lederer

Photo Credit: Michael Lederer – The two-arms-raised replica of the Statue of Liberty was a gift to the town of Cadaqués from the manager of Salvador Dali.

CADAQUÉS, Catalonia, Spain – Dispatch from Spain’s Cold Civil War.

Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics are local.” In today’s world, no politics are local.

Both Donald Tusk from the European Union and Donald Trump from the United States have issued recent statements supporting a view of the Catalonian conflict as an internal matter. Yet the very fact that both leaders felt called to comment on it reveals that Barcelona’s relation to Madrid has the easy potential to affect wider interests even as far away as Washington.

Today, the European Union is the #1 trading partner of the United States. America has a vested interest in the stability of Europe. And yet – from a looming Brexit to a populist nationalism sweeping through so many European capitals to separatist movements from Catalonia in the south to Scotland in the north – that stability is in question today.

If Catalonia separates from Spain, the fear in Washington is not only a weakening of Spain (and thereby Europe in its entirety), but it is also emboldening other secessionist movements: Scotland from the U.K., Flanders from Belgium, South Tyrol from Italy, and Lombardy and Veneto from Italy – even Bavarian separatists wishing to split from Germany might redouble their efforts.

In 1937, combined forces of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the lesser known George Washington Battalion saw over 3,000 Americans join the struggle within Spain. The conflict then, as now, did not end at Europe’s Atlantic shore. The ripples from Spain’s coast turned into a tsunami that swept over America and beyond. We would ignore Catalonia now at our peril.

At the entrance to Cadaqués stands a replica of the Statue of Liberty with not one but two arms raised, holding high two torches, thus implying that twice the freedom is to be found here as in New York. The statue was a gift to the village from Dali’s manager, a wry comment that still speaks to us today. America, liberty, freedom, Catalonia – some here are seeing those connections more clearly than ever since just a short time ago Catalonia issued its own Declaration of Independence. The region’s now-deposed leader Carles Puigdemont put his John Hancock on that document with the same flourish as an earlier generation of rebels had once done in Philadelphia. The scent of rebellion is in the air.

Only a few steps from my door are the ruins of the 9th century stone watchtower Castell de Sant Jaume. They used to keep watch for pirates from this hill. During the Spanish Civil War 1936-39 there were gun placements up here. That Civil War, anything but cold, is much on people’s minds these days. As the world knows – old news at today’s 24/7 pace – over two weeks ago, the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona declared Catalonia’s independence from Spain. Almost as quickly as you could say “no” (same word in English, Catalan, and Spanish), the Spanish parliament in Madrid invoked Article 155 in the national constitution, allowing it to sack Catalonia’s regional authorities and instate direct rule pending new elections called for on December 21.

This piece is less about what is happening here than what is not happening. Yet. This is not 1936. No one is shooting. As far as I know and hope no one is planning to shoot. Not a sandbag in sight. Why? First, because this is not about a clash of political systems. Communist vs. Fascist vs. Anarchist. This is a struggle between democrats in Madrid and democrats in Barcelona. The pendulum today does not swing half as wildly as it did then. Sporadic violence during the October referendum was the exception, not the rule. Widely, swiftly, rightfully condemned.

Secondly, despite Washington’s interest, this struggle still is largely self-contained. While Mister Putin might enjoy seeing an E.U. coming apart at the seams, this is a far cry from the proxy struggle that saw German-backed Nationalists take arms against Soviet-backed Republicans in a Spanish Civil War that served as dress rehearsal for World War II. In the absence of such outside provocateurs, for Catalonians this is less an existential struggle than a struggle of the heart. Still, history is chock full of crimes of passion, and a struggle of the heart can grow bloody quickly. So far, the worst to happen here in Cadaqués is that yesterday, at one of the bars in the village, one man slapped another in the heat of argument.

Finally, and most importantly, many Catalans are opposed to independence and remain committed to an enduring kinship with the rest of Spain. They view the assemblage of seventeen distinct regions as a big strange complicated family, but family nonetheless. Another reason for opposing independence is that Catalonia already enjoys a large degree of autonomy. The Catalan language is used and taught in schools here; the official Catalan flag flies proudly beside the flag of Spain. A significant autonomy exists in culture, education, communications, health, policing, self-governance. The days of Franco – i.e., Madrid, not allowing sight, smell, taste, sound or feel of anything Catalan – are long over.

In this last referendum on October 1 – called for by Catalan secessionists but deemed illegal by the central government in Madrid – only 42.6% of Catalan voters participated. In this new election on December 21, which hopefully will be supported by both Madrid and Barcelona, we will find out the true sentiments. Those preferring a known outcome rather than full expression of Catalans’ wishes will oppose this vote. They know what they want and don’t want to risk anything else. But if the point is to get an accurate pulse on what the people here yearn for, this is the chance to do it. Madrid has invited the opportunity. Both sides should use these next two months to make their best case. Let’s hope for full participation this time. The stakes warrant it.

It has been said that today is tomorrow’s yesterday. Tomorrow is watching us. One day, we will be those proverbial grainy figures in the photos of history books. War is great in films, books, paintings. Few would wish for Hemingway to have written about polite arguments, or for Picasso to have painted scenes of, say, a couple quarreling in Guernica. But in life, and death, war sucks. I love this village. I hope that slap will remain the worst we see here.

Michael Lederer is an American writer who lives in Berlin and Cadaqués. His novel Cadaqués was published in 2014.