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What’s Happening in Catalonia?

Gabriel Rufián

With leading separatist figures in prison or exile, and December’s elections producing a stalemate, what next for Catalonia’s independence movement?

Demonstrators take part in a protest to support former Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont on January 30, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos / Getty

Interview by
Borja Bauzá

Last December’s regional elections in Catalonia saw no significant alteration to the political landscape despite months of upheaval after the contested independence referendum on October 1. While the right-wing Ciudadanos gained new dominance in the pro-unionist bloc, pro-independence forces won 47 percent of the vote, giving them another slim majority of seats in the Catalan parliament. This was despite the fact that the main independentist leaders are either in jail or in self-imposed exile in Brussels.

Yet two months after the elections, Catalonia still does not have a government. While the Spanish government is requesting the separatist coalition present a “clean candidate,” Carles Puigdemont — who faces arrest on possible charges of sedition if he returns to Spain — insists that he’s still Catalonia’s legitimate leader.

Officially, the pro-independence movement projects unity on the issue of Puigdemont’s legitimacy, but some members of the center-left Esquerra Republicana (ERC) have expressed concerns. As long as Catalonia remains without an autonomous government, the Spanish government of the Partido Popular will continue imposing direct rule from Madrid — and some have suggested that it might be wiser to pick a different candidate in order to regain control.

Speaking to journalist Borja Bauzá, ERC MP Gabriel Rufián argues that the battle for Puigdemont’s right to be sworn in as Catalan president is tantamount to a battle for democracy, and that the Spanish left needs to get off the fence when it comes to Catalan independence.


BB

As a left-wing politician seeking Catalonia’s secession from Spain, how do you see the lives of the popular classes improving if independence is achieved?

GR

First, Catalonia’s independence would break the status quo — if we achieve our goals we’ll be able to recover the republican and socialist values that were stolen from us eighty years ago, with Franco’s uprising, the subsequent civil war, and the fascist dictatorship that followed. We will pursue equality and won’t allow the type of hereditary privileges enjoyed by Spain’s royal family.

I can understand why some left-wing politicians question our intentions, but they should look at CUP, the anticapitalist party that is also part of the independence movement. Why should anyone doubt their desire to disrupt the current order? Furthermore, it should be noted that the Spanish constitutional court has nullified forty-four parliamentary regulations passed by Catalonia’s government — regulations that were intended to fight against energy- and housing-related poverty. So, no, it’s not all about national symbolism. We want to break the status quo to start a new stage that will favor the popular classes.

BB

Not all the left-wing politicians in Catalonia support the independence movement. Some favor a pluri-national, federal Spain instead. Would you consider embracing this alternative at some point?

GR

This proposal is as useful as watching science fiction movies such as Blade Runner or Alien — it is entertaining, but that’s about it, really. One of the founding fathers of Galician nationalism, Castelao, used to say, “I stood for federalism until I realized that no one wanted to federalize with me.”

Let’s not forget that our leader, Oriol Junqueras, has been in prison for more than three months now and you can clearly see how his situation has strengthened the Spanish government’s position in the rest of the Spanish state.

However, those left-wing politicians you were referring to can count on us. We have supported every single initiative brought forward by Podemos in the Spanish congress — and we’ve been the only ones to do so, along with the Basque left-wing nationalists. We’ve even offered the Socialist Party our support if they go ahead with a vote of no confidence against Partido Popular, Spain’s governing party, even though some of its members have applauded the prison sentence against Junqueras. In short, we will support anyone in Spain who tries to fight back against the Right. The question is, will this be reciprocated?

BB

There were many demonstrations in Barcelona last fall. Most were in favor of the referendum on independence, but there were also numerous marches where people spoke out against it. In December, Ciudadanos, a party that stood against the referendum, won the regional elections. For those who understood this political situation in terms of “Catalonia versus Spain,” these events might have changed their perspective. Is Catalan society divided in half?

GR

Ciudadanos was the most electorally successful party, true, but the vote was truly won by those who can rule — the pro-independence coalition, that is. In fact, if you add up the votes received by JxCat, ERC, and CUP, you’ll see that the pro-independence coalition defeated those against independence.

Regarding the marches, it’s true that a lot of Catalans took to the streets to protest something they saw as illegal or perverse regarding the referendum. There’s some work to be done to engage those who haven’t supported the cause; we need to engage with these people and make our position clear. That’s why it’s very important to be present in the Madrid media, which is the media they watch, listen to, and read.

Is Catalonia divided in half? Well, let’s vote and see! That’s the only thing we’re asking for — to be able to participate in a referendum and then accept whatever the outcome is. If the majority of Catalans want to remain part of the Spanish state, we’ll respect that.

BB

Traditionally, the separatist faction represented just a noisy minority within Catalan politics; not anymore. What happened in the last decade that helped the independence movement blossom into a force to be reckoned with?

GR

I think “15-M” has a lot to do with it. The indignados movement opened the way for two different processes. There was the Spanish one, from which Podemos emerged, and there’s the Catalan one, which is more focused on self-determination. The latter is more transversal than the former — it runs the gamut from the center-right nationalists to the most disruptive leftists. That’s what Podemos criticizes the most: our alliance with JxCat. But without them we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Also, a lot of people link the self-determination stance with major changes to come. Take Albano Dante, the former leader of Podemos in Catalonia, for instance. He’s someone who does not support independence but feels nonetheless represented by us after realizing the breakdown of the status quo starts with us.

BB

The October 1st referendum gathered a lot of international attention and sympathy. European leaders, however, closed ranks around the Spanish government. Were you taken aback by their reaction?

GR

I tend to be very critical of today’s European Union for the way it deals with the refugee crisis, among other crises. Nevertheless, many of us thought that pragmatism, which seems to be the dominant ideology in Brussels today, would play a role in this particular scenario. Catalonia is an economic engine and one of the wealthiest regions in Southern Europe after all.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying this reaction fell short of expectations — in some particular cases, the support for the Spanish government was quite predictable. In any respect, we do believe there’s some concern in Brussels regarding Catalonia. How would you explain the fact that the riot squad was called back on referendum day without having achieved anything? Someone called someone, that’s for sure.

BB

Despite the efforts of the Spanish government, the referendum went ahead. But it did not open the way for the Catalan Republic. Why not?

GR

The fact that we managed to vote was a victory for democracy, not just the pro-independence movement. Some of the people who were beaten up by the riot police actually wanted to vote “no.”

Some people argued that we weren’t prepared. Maybe it’s because I actually work in Madrid — I am an ERC congressman there — and so I know better, but that comment shocked me. People in Catalonia thought the Spanish government was going to behave in a more civilized way, and didn’t anticipate the way they actually behaved. But we did try to tell them ahead of time that the Spanish authorities were going to conduct themselves in the way that they did.

Having said that, I am never going to criticize the people who went ahead with the referendum and who are now either in prison or in exile facing a thirty-year sentence for organizing an expression of democracy.

BB

I would like to ask you about the proclamation of independence. What was its purpose? If it was only symbolic, was it worth confronting the Spanish government or, as Carles Puigdemont seemed to advocate, should you have taken a step back and called elections?

GR

In the weeks following the referendum, the Catalan government exhausted all avenues trying to start a dialogue with the Spanish authorities. We accepted every single intermediary who offered to help — from Kofi Annan to the Catholic Church. When it was leaked that Puigdemont was thinking of calling for regional elections [instead of proceeding with the declaration], both ERC and CUP disagreed. My party even released a public statement.

The purpose of the proclamation of independence that followed was, simply, to fulfill a political project backed by the Catalan parliament. That’s why I don’t get it when Puigdemont is accused of being “witless.” He was just trying to fulfill a political program. How does that show a lack of wit?

BB

In the end, it was the Spanish government that called for regional elections. At that time many thought ERC was going to surpass JxCat — especially since your leader was in prison while Puigdemont was giving conferences in Brussels. Why do you think it went the other way?

GR

Joaquim Form is also in prison, and he was affiliated with PdeCAT [the party that has since been renamed JxCat]. I think it would be wrong to start a competition to see who’s suffering the most.

Although it’s true that a political party is usually designed to win the elections, we find ourselves living in strange, exceptional times. The top priority at the moment is to fight for the same political project together and secure the majority of the seats in Parliament, just as we did in the regional elections.

BB

A few days ago, your fellow party member Joan Tardà said that Puigdemont should be “sacrificed” if doing so would allow a new Catalan government to form. He was widely criticized for his comment. Why insist so strongly on Puigdemont as president?

GR

What Tardà said the other day made the headlines, which struck me because it’s actually the same thing we’ve been saying for the past four years: no one is above the political project, no one is above the independence of Catalonia. And Tardà is right: it’s imperative for us to restore the Catalan government. That was the main goal of the three pro-independence parties last December, when we decided to take part in the elections called by the Spanish government.

Having said that, I must say that fighting for Puigdemont is not a fixation. Although in exile, his name was at the top of JxCat’s electoral list. Just because someone sitting in a Madrid office wants him gone from politics doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to fight for his restoration as Catalonia’s legitimate president.

BB

My impression is that Puigdemont has become a symbol of the resistance against the Spanish authorities, hence the massive support he enjoys among secessionists. But shouldn’t the independence movement leave its symbols aside and focus on the political arena? By forming a new regional government, for instance.

GR

We are standing for the restoration of the Catalan parliament, and we are standing for the December elections results. That’s not symbolic. That’s political. And the fact that the Spanish left is silent on this raises the question of who’s next. The Spanish state is experiencing a regression and that’s not good news for the democratic system.

BB

You’ve mentioned the criticisms you often hear from members of Podemos, among others, about being allies with JxCat, a party known for being pro-austerity. I think it’s fair to ask why a left-wing party such as ERC allied itself with the right-wing nationalists.

GR

But aren’t we fortunate to have right-wingers like them? JxCat has actually imposed taxes on the financial industry and talks about the Republic. I’d love to see Spain’s Socialist Party doing the same thing, but instead they vote against Podemos’s initiatives in the Spanish congress.

Furthermore, there hasn’t been any peaceful, successful self-determination process in the world whose successes haven’t hinged on different political forces. The multidimensional, plural character of the independence movement is paramount to the achievement of our goals. Like it or hate it, but in politics you can’t confront the status quo without powerful allies. You can’t change Catalonia without JxCat.

Podemos members should also ask themselves, when they criticize us, why they seek JxCat’s support in the Spanish congress when they try to pass initiatives and why they seek the Socialist Party’s support to overthrow the Spanish conservatives from the government. I would never criticize them for trying to join forces with those in the Socialist Party who want to see us imprisoned — I’m well aware that’s how you deal with things in politics.

BB

Prior to becoming allies with JxCat, ERC was part of a left-wing government in Catalonia known as the tripartite — the three-party coalition. When did your priorities change?

GR

It was in 2010, when the Spanish constitutional court, after four years of deliberating, finally decided to annul some parts of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. It took away some of the sovereignty that was given back to us after Franco died. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities in protest. Suddenly, some right-wing politicians started to listen to the people, and that’s when we told them that they could count us in. This is also around the time when CUP joined the pro-independence movement. The court’s decision changed Catalonia’s political landscape.

BB

You’ve openly criticized Pablo Iglesias and other prominent members of Podemos several times in the last few months. What’s the relationship between ERC and Podemos?

GR

The criticisms you mention are basically responses to some of the statements Podemos leaders have made regarding the situation here in Catalonia — when they said they supported neither the attitude of the Spanish government’s nor ours. I believe that in life one can remain equidistant for a certain amount of time, but not forever. Fraternity is a two-way street. But the message many in Podemos have been delivering lately is “now is not convenient.” Anyway, and as I said before, Podemos can count on us regardless of these disagreements.

BB

Many in the Spanish left fear that the Catalan independence movement will not only fail in its efforts to secede, but that it will also cause Spanish nationalist sentiment to grow. What would you tell these skeptics?

GR

That they should be even more skeptical towards the federalist fantasy they pursue. Facts are facts, and the only real menace to the status quo that the Spanish left also wants to confront right now is Catalonia’s self-determination process.

When some in Podemos say, “you should be quiet so as not to stir Spanish fascism,” I always reply that fascism should not be put to sleep but destroyed. What if the Spanish authorities decided to persecute the Spanish left as a whole? Would they stay calm? I know they believe there’s an alternative. Podemos has been trying to change things through Spain’s institutions for some years now, without success. Podemos needs the Socialist Party in order to change the Spanish political landscape. But the Socialist Party has long been aligned with the Spanish conservatives and that won’t change in the short term.

There’s always been a Spanish left advocating revolution. But now, with a revolution finally at their doorstep, some Spanish leftists say they’ll take a rain check.