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Crisis in Catalonia Evokes Memories of Spain’s Dictatorship

Encouraged by their president, Carles Puigdemont, Catalan leaders voted to declare independence from Spain after going ahead with a banned referendum on Oct. 1.

According to ABC España, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy suspended Catalan autonomy, dismissing its parliament and government and organizing new regional elections for Dec. 21 in response. Catalonia’s regional parliament then declared independence on Oct. 27 following the failed referendum. Spain’s Constitutional Court annulled Catalonia’s declaration of independence by describing it as a “serious attack on the rule of law,” according to the Court.

As the battle between the Spanish leaders and Catalonia’s separatists continues, the situation evokes memories of Spain’s dictatorship for Catalans. Francisco Franco, the dictator, reigned Spain with an iron fist from 1939 until his death in the 1970s.

According to The Washington Post, these bitter memories of Franco’s rule are of a time where their language, Catalan, was banned from schools and people were forced to adopt Spanish given names. Many Catalans are being led to believe that their oppressive history might be coming back, judging from the stories about Catalan leaders being exiled and imprisoned, Catalan media outlets being under threat and national police using excessive force to break up last month’s independence referendum.

In Catalonia, people say those remnants of the Franco era never fully went away, even if Spain made a transition to democracy in the years after the death of Franco. The Franco era was handled with a “pact of forgetting,” an “informal agreement that made any treatment of the most difficult episodes of Spanish histories, such as the horrific violence of the Civil War, unnecessary and unwelcome,” according to The New York Times. The pact left Spain’s painful history without closure.

Catalans are reminded of the ugly past everywhere. According to an interview with The Washington Post, Xavier Andreu, owner of the crowded military-antiques shop, said that Franco’s appeal endures, referring to the busts of the ex-dictator which are still manufactured and are a popular item in Madrid and elsewhere.

They also point to Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate, who they say has tried to put an end to separatism, not by persuasion but through force and fear. They claim that his center-right Popular Party never fully rid itself of its past after having been founded by Franco-era officials.

Spanish leaders are not helping settle down the Catalans’ fears either. Pablo Casado, a spokesman for Spain’s ruling party, recently warned that if former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont declared independence, he could wind up with a fate similar to that of a previous Catalan leader during the Spanish Civil War, who was executed in 1940.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Sebastian Balfour, an emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics, said, “I don’t think that we’re seeing the response of an old Francoism in the present.” He continued, “What we’re seeing is a sort of repressive constitutionalism: ‘This is the constitution, and we’re not negotiating it.’”

But some Catalan nationalists believe the situation is far less complicated: The Spanish government is using fear tactics, just like in the Franco years.

“They want to alienate the Catalan population from the Spanish government. And they want to impose it through fear,” said Ermengol Gassiot, head of the Barcelona branch of the hard-line CGT trade union. “Given the legal repercussions, they hope people will cease to push for independence. This is a return to the strategy employed by the Franco.”

In response to the crisis, the Spanish government fired Puigdemont and eight former members of the Catalan cabinet, then later issued an international arrest warrant for Puigdemont. They turned themselves into the police in Brussels and were released from custody a day later. Puigdemont and at least 20 Catalan politicians face charges including disobedience, sedition, and the misuse of public funds.

According to The Guardian, tens of thousands of Catalans gathered on Nov. 11, waving Catalan independence flags, holding up banners announcing, “SOS Democracy,” shining phone torches in unison, and chanting “Freedom!” Puigdemont tweeted during the protest, “Your light reaches us in Brussels and illuminates the path we must keep following.”

For many Catalans, Rajoy’s takeover of Catalonia last month and the dismissal and imprisonment of its leaders “represented a return to Francoism,” said Pelai Pagès, a historian of the Spanish Civil War at the University of Barcelona in his interview with The Washington Post. “History is not so far away.”

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