What happens in Catalonia?

A letter to a friend who wants to understand what Catalan nationalism is about.

La maravillosa dolça Mar nos envía copia de una carta escrita para una amiga extranjera que vive en Barcelona y quiere entender qué pasa en Cataluña. Completo e impecable. Lea, disfrute y envíeselo a sus amigos extranjeros.

About me

I was born and grew up in Barcelona. My father was from Barcelona and my mother Italian. I had a normal and quiet childhood. My father was a militant of Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya (CDC), the leading Catalan nationalist party, but would not miss any official football match of the Spanish national team. When I was 8, my most precious treasure was a booklet from a CDC congress with the handwritten signatures of Jordi Pujol and Miquel Roca, two leading Catalan nationalist politicians. For some time at that early age, next to my bed I had a poster of Jordi Pujol until a friend of my brother scratched it painting a pig. I was a member of the Barca football club, and would go every week-end with my father to watch the team play. In time of elections I would spend hours before the match distributing publicity of the nationalist party with my dad. Despite the fact that my mom was no nationalist and that my father was actually rather moderate, I was very clear that a true Catalan supported Jordi Pujol and read La Vanguardia. El Periodico, another newspapaper, was for socialists, while El Pais was for Spaniards, most probably “fachas”, although I did not quite know what that word meant. One day, still in primary school, I went with some friends to a birthday party. I remember that the gate-keeper told us something and as he was reading El Pais I told him “facha”, which basically means fascist. That poor man felt outraged at my insult and went to complain to the mother of my friend who asked me to apologize. I did, and I did not forget that moment. Thirty years later I am, I want to believe, much wiser and can appreciate my childishness at that time. What strikes me now, instead, is to find around me so many grown-ups still behaving like a 10 year old kid, inflexible in their ideas, accepting stereotypes, and insulting whoever does not fall in their mental scheme as “facha”. So many people, like a ten-year old kid, accepting the mental framework promoted by nationalism which has become, over the years, more and more radicalized. So, just to be clear, I am no nationalist, and I do not support Catalan independence.

It is not about history

The Catalan government has promoted and funded a think-tank called, with astounding honesty, Institut Nova Historia (New History Institute). The Institute has been publishing books and organizing conferences stating that Cervantes or Santa Teresa were Catalan and that the perfidious Castilians conspired over the centuries to rob Catalonia of such glorious figures. If you are tempted to believe this kind of stories (not history), hold on, cause the same institute claims that Erasmus of Rotterdam and Leonardo da Vinci were Catalan too, and that the Roman Empire only became glorious when it absorbed Catalonia. We must believe thus that it was not the Castilians but the globe that conspired to rob Catalonia of its glories. This may be an extreme example, but only slightly more extreme than things that you may have heard such as the (false) conquest of Catalonia in 1714 by Spanish troops. All this could make us laugh but is actually something very serious. Two years ago, the regional government organized a pseudo-conference with the title of “Spain against Catalonia” to “analyze” the “300 years of political, cultural, linguistic, economic and media repression of Spain against Catalonia”. You live in Catalonia, so, do you see us Catalans as oppressed? Obviously, no serious historian attended the masquerade, and the most influential foreign historians such as John Elliot and Henry Kamen, severely condemned such a poisonous politically driven act of propaganda. The problem with propaganda, though, is that repeated continuously permeates some minds seeding hate and galvanizing in believers the need to respond to the imaginary oppression; something which can have dramatic consequences. It is impossible to ignore the long-lasting influence that the Roman Empire had on the formation of modern Europe. In its History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Churchill describes how the Roman occupation of England created an enduring cleavage between England a Scotland. In Italy, after the fall of the Roman Empire and despite the fragmentation of the Italian peninsula in a myriad of states, the idea of pertaining to a same nation remained and the aspiration of reuniting the peninsula was transmitted over the centuries until 1861 when it became effective. Spain, the Roman province of Hispania and then the land of the Visigoth Kingdom was no different. Even during the years of fragmentation that followed the Muslim occupation of the peninsula, a feeling remained of sharing a certain common identity, based on religious, historical and cultural grounds. In The Prince, written at the beginning of the XVI century, Macchiavelli saw in the unification of the peninsula and the birth of Spain a model for Italy. Thus he praised in many passages of the book the king Ferdinand of Aragon as the model to be followed by the Italian prince that had to reunify the Italian peninsula. The interesting thing about the unification of Spain, as opposed to the unification of other countries, is that it happened naturally, as the two crowns of the time, Castille and Aragon, coalesced to fight foreign enemies such as the Muslim occupiers and France and develop a global empire. As it happens with many other countries, the history of Spain has had ups and downs and internal struggles, but these have never been along the lines of Spain versus Catalonia. The war of 1704-1714, to the succession to the Spanish throne, had nothing to do with the independence of Spanish regions. Ironically, despite what separatist claim, is with the Bourbons that Catalonia became a prosperous Spanish region. Life went on and people thrived. In 1804, when the Napoleonic troops invaded Spain, Catalans fought vehemently against the French invader in defense of the Spanish Crown. Catalonia remained actually strongly traditionalist and monarchical. In 1827 Catalonia went through the Guerra del Malcontents (War of the Disgruntled), a new revolt against the central government asking now, actually, for the mildly liberal government to be removed, a stronger absolutism by the Bourbon King Ferdinand VII, and the re-instauration of the Inquisition Tribunal! Not to talk about the civil war, which was a disgrace but which was fought across ideological, not regional, lines.

It is not about culture

You say that Catalan culture is different from that of the rest of Spain. Yes, Catalonia is different. But in being different is Catalonia any different than other regions in Spain? In the Middle Ages Catalonia was part of the Crown of Aragon together with Aragon and Valencia. Each had separate institutions, Cortes (a kind of medieval proto-parliament), history and culture. Thus, while being different, Catalonia is hardly more different than Aragon or Valencia. Even within the rest of Spain, many other regions have had a distinct history (think of the kingdoms of Asturias, Leon, Galicia, Castile, Granada), or a distinct language, such as Galician, Basque, Bable, Valencian. By saying this, I am not belittling Catalan culture. I am Catalan myself and proudly so. By saying so, what I want to underline is that Spain is a diverse country and that Catalonia is no exception. Spain was born from an amalgam of people with some differences but with a common history and religion and with a common global purpose. Despite what separatists say, due to the way it came to exist, Spain has managed to maintain and preserve the very particular cultural specificities and languages of the regions of which it is composed. Just compare the situation of Catalonia with the situation of the French Roussillon, what the nationalist call North Catalonia. Roussillon had been traditionally part of the Crown of Aragon. It was actually the need to defend the Roussillon from the French threat that led King Ferdinand to seal the alliance with Castile through the marriage with Queen Isabel. For almost two hundred years, the scheme worked. Then in 1640 Catalonia revolted in protest to the demand that it contributed its fair share in the military campaigns of the Crown and France took the opportunity to annex Roussillon and Cerdanya. If you compare the situation of Catalan culture and language in both sides of the Pyrenees the difference is striking. Catalan is well alive in Spain, so it is hard to see how being part of Spain is a threat to Catalan culture. When Catalan artists like Joan Bosca wrote in Spanish in the XVI century it is because they chose to do so. In the same way we adopt English today as a global lingua franca, Spanish was adopted for centuries, not only in Spain, as the lingua franca of empire. It was the most powerful man of the time, a German emperor, born in Flanders, who learnt Spanish only in adulthood that said “you cannot expect me to speak anything other than my Spanish tongue, which is so noble it should be learnt by every Christian”. I am talking of course of Charles V. Much later, that Catalonia was part of Spain was no obstacle for the Catalan Renaixença or Renaissance to take part. And the Catalan Renaissance was no obstacle for its protagonists to feel Spanish and to praise Spain in Catalan. Verdaguer, who lived in the second half of the XIX century and became possibly the greatest Catalan poet, wrote the Virolai, an hymn to the Virgin of Montserrat, patron of Catalonia but historically object of devotion in all of Spain. The song itself is amazingly beautiful, so if you have not heard of it yet, look for it in youtube. But Verdaguer did not see Catalan and Spanish identities as separated, but as one part of another. Montserrat is a Catalan symbol and thus a Spanish symbol. Referring to the Virgin, he wrote in Catalan: of Catalans you will always be the Princess, of Spaniards the Star of Orient, be for the good ones a pillar of strength and for sinners a heaven of salvation. In the original version (later modified by nationalists) he added Queen of Hearts, Spain invokes you / give us shelter in your blue mantle. His true masterpiece (again in Catalan) is perhaps L’Atlantida which concludes with a praise of the Spanish Empire which is about to be born and its civilizing and proselytizing mission.

Sees the angel of Spain, charming and beautiful,
that yesterday with gold wings pinned Granada,
widen them today as the starry one,
and make the broad earth his mantle.
Sees the Spanish Empire bringing

the Holy Cross tree to the new hemisphere,
and the world in its shadow bloom,
embodying the wisdom of heaven

Despite what you may have heard, Catalan literature and artists flowered too in time of Franco with poets and writers such as Josep Vicenç Foix (National Prize in Spanish Literature of 1984, although he wrote in Catalan), Josep Pla, Salvador Espriu, and many others. Some were actually rather critical of nationalism, and have thus lost the favor of the current official nationalist establishment. Sadly, the true enemies of Catalan culture are instead nationalist themselves, for two reasons. First, because Spanish language and Spanish culture are part of Catalan culture, and by denying this and removing Spanish symbols and elements from Catalonia and Catalan culture the nationalists are trying to erase an important element of our Catalan identity. Second, because culture in Catalan language has been subordinated by the nationalist regional government to the indoctrination of society and the construction of an official and unique Catalan identity. If I said that nowadays Catalan government has reduced Catalan culture to three things (the football club of Barca, political propaganda masquerading as a comedy show in Catalan TV, and Catalan porn). I may be exaggerating, but only slightly. It is actually no joke that the Catalan government has subsidized porn movies just because they were shot in Catalan language!

It is, sadly, about less noble human instincts

Some of my friends are infuriated by this but the feelings that I see fueling separatism are dramatically negative: greed, xenophobia, ignorance, selfishness. Nevertheless another great Catalan poet, Joan Maragall, warned already at the beginning of the XX Century that behind Catalanism there were two driving but opposing forces. One, the love of Catalan culture was positive, but the other, hate of every Spanish symbol, was negative, destructive. I am afraid that today, in the minds and hearts of separatists, the driving force is the second. This is no accident. Catalan nationalism was really born after the collapse of the Spanish Empire in 1898, with the loss of the ultramarine territories of Cuba and the Philippines. The Catalan bourgeoisie had benefitted enormously from trading with those territories and was a strong supporter of military intervention to defend what remained of the Spanish empire. Indeed, one of the most popular Catalan havaneras (often sung in the beach, around a fire while drinking cremat), is called El meu avi (My grandfather), and is basically a praise (in Catalan) of those patriots (Catalans) that fought in Cuba to defend the Spanish nation. After the war the local bourgeoisie, frustrated with the collapse of Spain, saw the need and the opportunity to lead Spain in a new direction. More recently, with the return of democracy, Catalonia has fallen prey to local landlords. Jordi Pujol, who as a kid I learnt to admire as the father of Catalans, was not only a nationalist, but as well a racist. The man that governed Catalonia for more than 20 years and is the political father of Artur Mas, the current president of the regional government, wrote in the 1970s about workers from Andalusia coming to work to Catalonia: “The Andalusian man is not a consistent man, is a lawless man. He is a broken man (…) generally a little man, a man that for hundreds of years has been starving and living in a state of ignorance and cultural, mental and spiritual misery. He is a rootless man, unable to have some broad sense of community (…) I have said it before: he is a man destroyed and anarchical. If by force of number came to dominate while still dealing with his own perplexity, he would destroy Catalonia. And introduce his anarchic and very poor mentality, that is, his lack of mentality”. Let me remind you that such lesser Andalusian men include geniuses such as Velazquez, Garcia Lorca, Picasso, and 2 out of 7 Spanish Nobel prizes! Much more recently, only 10 years ago, his wife was indignant in TV that the president of the Catalan regional government was born in Andalusia and had a Spanish name. Can you imagine Barbara Bush in TV complaining that the president of the US was a black man, and one called Barack? Pujol was a racist, but not a stupid man. In the 1980s, he took the opportunity given by the goodwill of most Spaniards and the central governments (and possibly, too, their stupidity) to take control of the education system in Catalonia. Spanish-speaking teachers had to look for employment in other regions of Spain given that from then onwards all education was to be in Catalan. Interestingly enough, nationalist in the 1970s defended in the Spanish Parliament the right to have schooling in Catalan reasonably arguing that educating a kid in a language other than his mother tongue impaired his learning process. Nevertheless, as soon as they took control of the system, they had no remorse in inflicting to the kids of others what they complained it had been inflicted upon their kids. As a result, Catalonia is possibly today the only region in the world where a family cannot educate their kids in the national language which is, by the way, the mother tongue of most Catalan people! Characteristically of the neo-language they mastered and perfected, nationalist called this normalization. A more appropriate word would be abomination. I have no kids myself but I have many friends that given this situation are sending their kids to private and foreign schools rather than to the public schools. Others, with less means, are sending them to the public Catalan-only schools and are deeply frustrated. As a result of this policy Catalonia is one of the regions with the highest rate of school failure in Europe. Education is in every country the main pillar on which national identity is built and preserved. It is the case in every country I have lived in, such as Italy, France, the USA, Indonesia, Malaysia and Tanzania. The national flag is raised in schools and the national anthem is sung. Spain, because of the stupid association of national symbols with the Franco era, is an anomaly. And nationalist have taken advantage of this opportunity, promoting their flag, their anthem and their imaginary nation. The idea was repeated everywhere. Already thirty years ago Catalan mass-media were inundated with publicity from the regional government to let us Catalans know that we were different through slogans such as “we are six million people”, “we are a country of Europe” and the like. As a result, some people have had little opportunities to know the many great things about Spain and feel part of it. They may ignore that the doctrine of human rights was firstly developed in the 1500s by Spanish theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria. They ignore that it was the School of Salamanca that at the end of the same century first developed a monetary theory of quantity and value. That Spain had in 1814 the most liberal Constitution in Europe, and the absolutist European power had to invade Spain in 1823 to remove the liberal government and reinstate the absolutist monarch. Some may know that an Italian gave his name to America, but will ignore that it was a Spaniard (Elcano) the first to circumnavigate the globe, and another (Urdaneta) that after years looking for a viable route first crossed the Pacific from Asia to America actually completing the very first globalization process. They will ignore most of the common history that amalgamates and makes a nation great. Josep Tarradellas, a former president of the regional government or Generalitat which lived in exile from 1939 till 1977 and a member of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, which is now a feverously separatist party, denounced already in the 1980s the nationalist policies in Catalonia, the useless and unnecessary confrontation with the rest of Spain. Of Pujol’s nationalist government he said: “It is clearly trying to hide the failure of the entire government action and the lack of moral authority of those responsible (…) The megalomania and the personal ambition of some people have led us to the current sorrow state of things (…) If we have reached this point is due to the attitude that began the very same day the current president of the Generalitat (Mr. Pujol) took office (…) The nationalist leaders are using a well-known and widely discredited trick, playing the persecuted and the victims. And thus we read statements such as that Spain oppresses us, boycotts us, curtails our autonomy, despises us, forgetting that it was them that, to conceal their political incapacity and lack of ambition to do things properly, started the actions that could only lead us to the situation in which we now find ourselves (…) Division will be deeper every day, and move us more and more away from our goal of consolidating democracy and freedom”. In 1990, some of the newspapers that now support separatism denounced in their pages a strategy of the nationalist government to take control of all elements of civil society: cultural organizations, sports organizations, and the like. The process has only gone forward and the economic crisis has given the opportunity to traditionally minority separatist groups to gain significant new support. These new separatists are obviously not driven by the love of Catalonia, their culture and their grandparents, given that things have not changed in that respect in the last 5 years. They see negative news about their country and they are reasonably ashamed. Less reasonably and rather simplistically they believe the solution to bad news is to print a different passport. They have seen their standards of living decrease; their prospects for future advancement diminish. They do not know why and they want an alternative that gives better opportunities for their kids. And this is what the separatist propaganda offers them. “A country with ice cream for dessert every day”, claimed one of their adds. They are told that Spaniards rob them. They believe that with independence they will pay less taxes and be richer. In this respect, the rise of the separatist movement in Catalonia is not any different than the recent rise of populist parties in Europe such as the Front National in France and not much different than the raise of extremist groups in Europe in the 1920s. Given all this, the reasons for which I am not a separatist are basically 2. First, I am no fanatic. I am pretty happy being Catalan as a Spaniard, and I do not feel I need a different country to be whatever I want to be. Second, I just do not share the diagnostic of the situation in Spain and the recipes to cure its illness. I believe Spain is going through a very deep crisis, but I do not believe it is because Spaniards are inherently bad, lazy, corrupt or worst than anybody else. Accepting our own responsibility when it comes to corruption or cronyism, the crisis has much to do as well with stronger global economic and financial forces, magnified last decade by the monetary unification process in Europe, and the solution has little to do with being independent from Spain. I believe that our energies should be focused on addressing the existing problems and becoming a better society and a better country, tackling corruption, improving education, the business environment, governance and institutions. Unfortunately the separatist movement is actually wasting an extraordinary amount of energy in the wrong direction, trying to create a new country from a region which is suffering from exactly the same illness, if not worst, than the rest of Spain and actually doing nothing to address any of the existing problems. Let me finish with saying that, although I am convinced that we will not see an independent Catalonia, I am now rather pessimistic about its future. I believe that the propaganda promoted in Catalonia over the last years by the irresponsible regional government may not permeate the majority of the population but will have a significant and lasting impact on part of society creating in it an enduring division. Too many Catalans have grown deep inside a hatred of what they are, of their neighbors and brothers. We have seen too often in Europe, and in more remote places such as Rwanda and Burundi, how easy is to create the seed of hatred between brothers through victimism, lies and propaganda. And much worst, what this brings”.

Sweet and well informed Catalonia…

What happens in Catalonia? |