Politics within Catalonia

Catalans wave the Catalan flag to show their desire to become an independent republic. Photo courtesy of @BreakPol_News

Lilyana Espinoza | News Editor | The USD Vista

USD perspectives on illegal referendum to declare independence from Spain

Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions in Spain and tensions between the Spanish and Catalan governments have been building for centuries.

The President of the Catalan government since January 2016, recently called for a referendum to establish the independence of Catalonia. A referendum is a vote by the people in which the President attempted to prove the Catalans want to be independent from Spain.

Junior Jenna Rochon is currently studying abroad in Madrid and recognized the tension between Spain and Catalonia while visiting the wealthy city of Barcelona.

“Even when we were there, our professors told us it was better to speak English in public than Spanish because of the tensions,” Rochon said. “That is the only place we were told that because usually people are rude to you if you speak English, but it’s worse if you speak Spanish.”

Professor Martin Repinecz, who teaches Cultural History of Spain at the University of San Diego, gave insight on the events that led Catalonia to this point.

Protesters gather in the streets of Spain wearing white clothing to display peace. Photo courtesy of Jenna Rochon

“The country we know as Spain was formed by the gradual union of smaller kingdoms and territories over the course of several centuries throughout the Middle Ages,” Repinecz said. “Many of these smaller areas retained a distinct sense of identity and culture, and Catalonia is no exception. For hundreds of years, Catalan language and culture were marginalized by the political and cultural hegemony of Castile and its language.”

Repinecz explained the repression of Catalan identity under Francisco Franco’s rule.

“However, Catalan identity experienced a resurgence in the late 19th century, and political Catalanism gained traction in the early 20th century,” Repinecz said. “Yet, under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939-75, only standard Spanish was allowed to be used in public spheres or taught in schools. Consequently, Spain’s other languages and identities, including Catalan, were heavily suppressed.”

Repinecz recognized one of the main reasons that Catalans want independence is for financial reasons.

“Catalonia, as one of Spain’s more prosperous regions, feels that its wealth is unfairly distributed to poorer regions of Spain,” Repinecz said. “The recent push for independence draws on both of these feelings.”

Despite the Spanish government declaring the referendum illegal, there was a vote for the referendum, but Catalonia did not expect the push-back that it received from Spain, according to The Independent.

Repinecz elaborated on what Catalan independence would mean for Spain and the European Union (EU).

Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, and is located in the north-east region. Rita Srekais/The USD Vista

“A successful secession of Catalonia would give momentum to other separatist movements in Spain and throughout Europe, which EU leaders believe would weaken a post-Brexit EU even further,” Repinecz said.

In order to prevent voting on the referendum, Spanish police were positioned throughout the streets of Catalonia. Nevertheless, Catalans made their way to the poll booths — some managed to place their votes while others were attacked by Spanish police.

Over 800 Catalans were injured during the attempted referendum, according to CBS News.

Derek Brendel, USD International Studies Abroad Coordinator, recognized that police brutality was a strong way of handling the referendum.

“It is very difficult to justify police brutality in most situations,” Brendel said. “Controlling crowds has its challenges and hopefully moving forward Spanish law enforcement will be able to diffuse similar situations peacefully.”

According to CNBC, after the referendum it was reported that 90 percent of voters voted to become independent; however, that was only 42 percent of the total Catalan population.

Sala said she has many questions for what will happen when she returns to Catalonia after her semester at USD.

“So what happens if when I come back I am in a new country not recognized by anyone?” Sala said. “The coin, my passport, where I am from — I would be from an illegal country? What is an illegal country?”

Pol Ulier Bernaus, a current USD international student from Andorra, a state that borders Catalonia, is worried for what the future holds for his Spanish family back home.

“My father went to take money from the bank because they are saying probably next week they will be blocking bank accounts and he was nearly robbed today,” Ulier said. “Catalan people are getting really nervous about what is going to happen after the independence, if they get it.”

According to Ulier, Catalan independence efforts are causing a lot of uncertainty and may have negative effects.

“If Catalans do the right thing and the right process of getting into the European Union and arranging all the economy to make a new country, then of course Catalonia will prosper and be bigger and probably one of the wealthiest countries in Europe,” Ulier said. “With that, then Spain would lose a lot. But if Catalans don’t do the right thing, which is not what they are doing, then we will lose a lot.”

The people of Spain showed their support for a united Spain. Photo courtesy of Jenna Rochon

Professor Aldara Fernandez Sierra, a Madrid native, explained that although she found the way Catalans were approaching independence wrong, they deserve the chance to be heard.

“For me, and for many Spaniards, [Catalans] are part of the country and they are part of our identity,” Fernandez said. “So that makes you think how can anyone leave like that? But it’s true that there is a history of many regions deciding to be independent so we should let them choose, but inside of the boundaries of the law. Personally, I don’t share that point of view. I understand I am from Madrid, but at the same time I think that they should be heard.”

Elena Diaz, a USD international student from Galicia, Spain, recognized that both parties have done wrong and no one action excuses the other.

“I think the [Spanish] government got frustrated and just took the easiest way out, which is violence, but it was clearly wrong,” Diaz said. “However, that still doesn’t excuse the [Catalans]. I think dialogue is the only solution I see this working.”

Spanish citizens in Barcelona wore white to promote a peaceful solution for the heated feud between governments. Others in Madrid dressed in the Spanish flag to show Spanish unity.

Recently, the President of Catalonia addressed the public regarding his stand on the road to Catalan independence. He plans to continue seeking independence; however, he is currently suspending the declaration of independence. The president found that dialogue with Spain is the responsible way to continue with the road toward independence.