By Injae Lee
Seeing as Oriol Junqueras is a politician, one would not be surprised that he is a skilled orator. However, in an interview with the International Business Times on June 29, Junqueras, a senior member of the pro-independence Catalan autonomous regional government, used his hands more than his voice to explain the centuries-old Spanish-Catalan conflict: Spain, literally on one hand, had its own history, ambitions, and priorities; Catalonia, on the other hand, diverged from the rest of Spain. If Junqueras and his government has their way, on October 1, the Catalan people will go to the polls, and the future of their homeland—and all of Spain—will be squarely in their hands.
The history of Catalonia begins far back in the classical age. Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, Catalonia and southern neighbor Valencia were colonized by the Carthaginian empire, only to be conquered by the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. For the next six centuries, Catalonia became part of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior, prospering and progressing under Roman rule. Following the Fall of Rome, Catalonia underwent waves of conquest, warfare and instability spurred by conflicts with the Visigoths, Arabs and Franks, until finally emerging from the ashes of the Spanish March as the independent County of Barcelona. Catalonia’s history becomes intertwined with Spain at this point, becoming unified under royal rule with the neighboring kingdom of Aragon. When King Ferdinand married Queen Isabella of Castile, Catalonia became part of the new Spain, unified for the first time in centuries. However, Catalonia mostly stayed autonomous until the 1700s, when the new Bourbon dynasty introduced new reforms to unify and preserve the Spanish Empire. Although the reforms were successful at first, Imperial authority was shook in the nineteenth century by war, civil unrest and disorder; at the same time, Catalan identity was renewed, with a revival of the dying Catalan language, a new cultural movement advocating for Catalan art and literature, and push for more autonomy for the region, if not outright separatism.
The roots of the modern democratic Catalonia are most clearly visible in the Second Spanish Republic. Under the benevolent Republican rule, Catalonia had near-complete autonomy, basic freedoms and rights, and Catalan culture flourished. However, in 1936, right-wing military generals resentful of the monarchy’s removal launched an uprising against the left-wing Republican government, and Spain was soon plunged into civil war. Although Barcelona and the region quickly became a bastion for the Republic, holding off the Nationalists for most of the war, factionalism between the Communist and Anarchist groups led to the Republican collapse, and in the closing months of the war, Catalonia was conquered by Franco and his fascists. Under Franco’s tyrannical rule, the Catalan culture was suppressed, Catalan autonomy revoked, Catalan nationalism silenced and Catalan language oppressed. During this dark period, resentment and resistance against the central government in Madrid began to brew, and the core of today’s modern separatist movement can be linked to the Nationalist repression.
Following Franco’s death in 1975, Juan Carlos I became king of Spain, and instead of preserving the autocratic, fascist government that had lasted for nearly 40 years, the King modernized and democratized Spain, returning broad autonomy to provinces such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, and holding the first free elections in Spain since the Republic had fallen. Catalonian culture underwent a kind of renaissance during this time, with the Catalan language being taught in schools again, and individual culture once again being revived and even encouraged. However, the financial crisis of 2008 greatly damaged the bonds that democratization had largely succeeded in healing. During the recession, Catalonia’s unemployment rate went up to 19% (just below the national average of 21%), and resentment has brewed among Catalans who feel that their province—the wealthiest in Spain—contributes more to the central economy than the others and that the central government has started to underfund services to help ailing southern regions. With this combination of lingering resentment from Franco’s rule, a weakened economy and a neglectant central government, the perfect formula for separatism began to emerge yet again.
Despite all this resentment and controversy, whether Catalonia will leave Spain is still up in the air, rocked by instability and terrorism attacks in the region. On June 9, the New York Times reported that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont announced an independence referendum on October 1. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the central government in Madrid has responded furiously to the referendum, vowing to block efforts to hold it, with the support of the courts, and to maintain Spanish unity no matter the cost. As the date of the referendum nears, uncertainty and instability have grown. It will be very difficult to hold a binding referendum in the first place. The central authority can invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to personally take control of the regional government—although this would be a drastic and unprecedented step for Madrid. Even without the invocation of Article 155, the courts would most likely declare the referendum illegal and non-binding, as they did with one in November 2014. Although that referendum did go in favor of independence by over 80 percent, only 2.3 million of Catalonia’s eligible 5.4 million voters participated. With another referendum—this one possibly binding, due to increased political interest—coming closer, polls show that those opposed to Catalan independence are slowly increasing and those in favor dropping steadily. Although the result of the referendum is still uncertain, the vote has most certainly split Catalonia in two. According to the Guardian, the separatist campaign is splitting apart, with a minister in the regional government sacked for suggesting the referendum will fail, and three more members—including the police chief—stepping down. Instability and terror have also wracked Catalonia in recent weeks, with a terror attack in Barcelona killing 16 people and injuring dozens. With instability and uncertainty taking their toll on the province, on October 1, when the people of Catalonia go to the polls, they will take matters, as Junqueras would say, into their own hands—with the fate of Spain squarely in their palms.