What Happened in Catalonia?

Why the independence referendum turned violent.

People clash with Spanish Guardia Civil guards outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis on Sunday

Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty Images

In Catalonia on Sunday, Spanish forces cracked down on the region for attempting to stage an independence referendum. Hundreds were injured, and many people were unable to vote. Among those who did, around 90 percent voted for independence, at least according to Catalan numbers. The next steps from both Spain’s central government and the Catalans in favor of independence are unknown, but the crisis shows no signs of abating.

To discuss how things got this bad in one of Europe’s largest democracies, I spoke by phone with Sebastiaan Faber, a professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College and author of the forthcoming book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the ways in which Spain hasn’t outgrown the Franco dictatorship, how the financial crisis exacerbated Spain’s politics, and why this weekend will leave a permanent mark on Catalonia.

Isaac Chotiner: For people who don’t understand the deep Catalan desire for independence, at least among a sizeable chunk of the population, how would you explain it?

Sebastiaan Faber: There is a long-term explanation and a shorter one. The long-term explanation is really that Spain was formed as a state in the 1400s but never really ceased to be a multinational state. It was always composed of communities that really identified more as Catalan or Basque or Galician or something else than as Spanish. And that remains. There was a resurgence of those feelings in the late 19th century, and in the 1930s, when Spain became a republic, those feelings manifested politically in the desire for some sort of regional autonomy, and the granting of regional autonomy. Galicia, the Basque country, and Catalonia got special status as autonomous regions within the Spanish state.

But then, within the Franco dictatorship, which last from 1939–1975, those aspirations were harshly repressed to the point where people were not legally allowed to give their children a Basque, Galician, or Catalan name. They had to give them Castilian names. And all the other expressions of nationhood were also really repressed.

Then Franco dies, Spain becomes a democracy in the late 1970s, and the big question is what to do with this multinational identity. The solution that was found then, and generally thought of as brilliant or at least really well-suited for the situation, was to turn Spain into a semi-federal state where within the Spanish state there are 17 autonomous communities, including the Basque country, Galicia, and Catalonia. So the people in Catalonia have long thought of themselves as different from Spain with its own language and culture and all that.

So why has it bubbled up so passionately in the last couple of years?

The short-term reason is that conservative Spanish politicians and conservative Spanish parties have never really accepted the multinational nature of Spain, fully. This has to be because, I think, they evolved out of Francoism, and never really shed Franco’s vision of Spain as a proudly unified and fairly homogenous country.

In 2006, Catalonia expressed its desire to update its regional constitution. A new version of the statute was passed, and then approved by the Spanish parliament, so in principle things were good. One of the interesting things about this new statute was that it called Catalonia a nation, whereas in the Spanish Constitution it is called a nationality, not a nation. So there was some kind of upgrade. At that point, the main Spanish conservative party filed an appeal against the new statute with Spain’s Constitutional Court, which in 2010 declared important parts of the new statute unconstitutional. This was a slap in the face to many people in Catalonia, who saw it as yet another piece of evidence that Spain would never respect who they were or take their identity seriously.

And when I say identity, there have always been financial considerations. This involves the amount of control Catalonia has over its own tax revenue and the way the Spanish state distributes wealth and funds, in which relatively wealthy regions like Catalonia end up giving more into the national treasury than they receive out of it. But in 2010, we were one or two years into the Great Recession, and the awareness of being financially put at a disadvantage came on top of the indignation over what the court was doing.

Being at a disadvantage is one way to phrase it, but the other would be that they were more fortunate to live in a wealthier region and shouldn’t be so resentful about paying more into the pot.

Absolutely, you are completely right. The sharing of the wealth is something that is basic solidarity in regions of the same country. I think the fact that in 2010 it became way more of an issue had to do with the cutbacks that all of Spain was suffering, the austerity that was imposed by Brussels. And the cutbacks in Catalonia were more severe than in many other parts of Spain. They suffered more at that point. And I think psychologically, a lot of people in Catalonia no longer saw themselves as part of the Spanish family, so the notion of solidarity became a sense of “we are being robbed.” That was the phrase: “Spain is robbing us.” The apparent lack of affection and recognition was confirmed by this decision from Madrid that they couldn’t have the new statute.

What do you make of how the Spanish government responded this weekend?

I think what happened Sunday was scandalous and horrifying and really saddening in many ways. I am talking about the ways in which the security forces—and especially the imported security forces from the rest of Spain, less so than the autonomous police force—cracked down very harshly on citizens who wanted to vote. I think those images are horrible. But they were foreseeable and they were avoidable. The Spanish state had already over the past weeks taken plenty of measures to make the referendum invalid. The validity was already undermined enough, and this display of brute state force was unnecessary.

The fact that it came to this takes two parts. One is that the conservatives in Catalonia embraced the urge for independence that was growing after the 2010 decision, and embraced it in a fairly opportunistic way to prevent the erosion it was showing [in the polls] because of corruption and the response to the austerity measures. It saw a chance to strengthen its base even though it never was pro-independence.

For the conservative government in Madrid, being inflexible in Catalonia and flexing its muscles in Catalonia—it has also been electorally advantageous to adopt a harsh and zero-tolerance attitude. There is an interesting way in which two parties who are on the same side politically have been engaged in a game of chicken, which for both has served to strengthen their electoral base. Everyone knew these trains were going to crash, but neither one had short-term electoral incentives to change course or break.

How do you break down the Catalan population that wants independence?

Among the actual population, there are between 40 and 50 percent who genuinely want to be independent. So the movement is real, at the level of civil society. What politicians have done with that movement is a different question. Among the 40 or 50 percent, they are politically all over the map. It could be a Catholic baker from a small town, or an accountant from Barcelona, who thinks Catalonia would have its finances in better order, and doesn’t feel Spanish. Or it could be a 20-year-old immigrant from North Africa who moved to Catalonia, and feels very much part of the Catalan project and doesn’t feel part of Spain at all. It also includes leftist activists and militants who believe the only way to achieve social change towards equality and social justice is to have a smaller and more manageable and republican Catalonia, as opposed to the larger parliamentary monarchy with strong conservative tendencies. Some of them don’t consider themselves nationalists and don’t care about flags and anthems; they want a progressive republic. If the only way to get that is to ally with a conservative party with economic policies [they] strongly disapprove of, so be it. As soon as [they] get it, they can drop the alliance and fight for progressive politics.

Do you buy the number that the Catalan government is putting out? That 90 percent or so voted for independence?

I think so, yeah. There was a nonbinding referendum in 2014, and the numbers aligned with that. Turnout would have been 40 percent or so, and of the people who turned out, 90 percent voted for independence. It makes sense because people who were against independence would not have gone out and voted. There was no real campaign for the no vote.

If the central government had reacted more reasonably on Sunday, what do you think would have happened after the votes were tallied?

I think the reasonable actions should have started way early, but if it had done what it did up until yesterday and then decided to just let the vote happen, and not send in the police like it did, I think the government would have had a stronger case going forward. It looks like the Catalan government is going to unilaterally declare independence, so it looks like the escalation will continue. The bluff-calling will continue. And then the Spanish state, forced into reactive mode, will likely react with judicial measures and officially revoke the autonomy of Catalonia, which is something the Spanish Constitution allows for.

I think the effect of Sunday is that the Catalans won the image war. Any person in Europe or the United States will look at this and say, “They just want to vote and old ladies are being hit in the head.” And they got to vote. The Spanish prime minister kept saying that the referendum will not happen. Well, people voted. And then the prime minister comes on Sunday and says it didn’t happen. I think Madrid has lost a lot of ground.

That said, I think the endgame is unclear. I think the endgame among the Catalan elite—especially the Catalan conservatives who have spearheaded this—is to force Spain into a negotiation that will perhaps lead to another statute of autonomy but not independence as such. But the problem is that many of the people who voted Sunday really want independence and really believed that their vote Sunday will get them there. So even for the politicians in Catalonia who are willing to think pragmatically and think of this as a negotiation, part of their electorate will never forgive them for what they will see as a betrayal.

Think about what people put on the line Sunday. They took a huge risk. And we all know that experiences like these, if you are part of it or a child or even older, these are formative experiences in people’s identities. This will leave a legacy in Catalonia. People will remember this day.