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.

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