Just What Exactly Is Going On in Catalonia?

Two days ago, there were 40,000 protesters marching in the streets of Barcelona (situated in the economically comfortable, autonomous region of Catalonia) in support of an “independence referendum”. The Spanish government, led by prime minister Mariano Rajoy, reacted by declaring the referendum illegal, arresting Catalan officials, freezing the region’s access to public funds, and raiding newspapers to stop the spread of promotional materials. So amid the chaos, it’s hard to say what’s exactly happening.


At times it looks like a free-speech, independence rally of the sort we might recognize here in the States as reminiscent of the Tea Party; at other times it looks like a separatist group trying to secede from the union a la Texas or South Carolina circa 1861. It’s hard to understand the emotional drivers on both sides without being on the ground.

But the factual drivers, from The Federalist, are these:

The autonomous region of Catalonia has once again called for a referendum for secession from Spain, and all hell is breaking loose. Although the vote is still two weeks away, this week has seen a marked increase in tension and conflict between the two sides that’s quickly reaching a boiling point. The government in Spain, which calls the planned vote illegal, has frozen Catalonia’s access to public funds so that they can’t be spent on organizing the referendum. It is also trying to shut down its access to ballot boxes, although the Catalan government says it has 6,000 of them hidden away.

On Wednesday, the Spanish military arrested 14 high ranking Catalan officials and raided 41 Catalan regional government departments across the region. They have also raided newspapers to look for documents having to do with the referendum, following a judge’s order. This caused more than 40,000 protesters to take to the streets of Barcelona on Thursday night, which then provoked the Spanish government to send troops into the city. Tens of thousands are gathering again in the city today for more protests.

The Federalist writer, Megan G. Oprea, who edits a foreign policy newsletter, theorizes that the protests are in line with increasing frustration in Europe over the centralization of power in the hands of quasi-governmental groups like the European Union (EU); and a wish by a culturally and ethnically distinct people (which the Catalans are, even speaking their own language) to have more say in the decisions that affect them. In short, she says, it’s less about independence and more about choice and democracy.


But depending on who you ask, that assessment changes. POLITICO reports that the Catalan “agitator-in-chief” sees the independence movement as primarily a “progressive” cause.

Gabriel Rufián…[is the] 35-year-old Spanish-speaking lawmaker (and avid supporter of the national football team) [and] the author of tough tweets and viral headlines that have made him a key voice in the campaign…Rufián is keen to avoid any suggestion that the secessionist movement is nationalist in the traditional sense. He avoids nativist slogans, and tries to portray independence as a way to get rid of Spain’s fascist heritage, to protect social rights and even to act as a trigger for positive reform across the whole country.

“We’re doing this for the rest of the state as well … for Spain, in short,” Rufián told POLITICO, arguing that the only way to further “democratize” Spain is for people to vote in the Catalan independence referendum on October 1. “Francoism didn’t die on a bed in Madrid on November 20, 1975; it will die in a ballot box in Catalonia on October 1, 2017,” he tweeted this week.

Rufián’s comments have a ring of old-school socialism about them. Most socialist states start with a movement, led by charismatic leaders, punctuated with calls for freedom from the existing power structure, only to end up a workers’ nightmare of fealty to the those same charismatic leaders who encouraged them to break away.

As usual, the media is divided on how they spin what’s happening on the ground in Spain. One thing is for certain, though, as it almost always is when there’s turmoil in the streets: a lot of the frustration hinges on the economy and the division of resources. Prosperous Catalonia is tired of propping up Spain to the tune of a 49% income tax, higher even than the capital of Madrid.


A word of advice to Catalans who sincerely desire more choice: when there’s money involved, the despots come out of the woodwork.


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