Ever-Polarizing Political Climate In Spain Brings Catalan Protests Into Third Week

Nine- to thirteen-year prison sentences of Catalan separatist leaders, handed down last week by the Spanish Supreme Court, have sparked violent protests and unrest in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. The sentences have been long awaited since the leaders were arrested in 2017 for organizing a  referendum on Catalonia’s separation from Spain, followed by a unilateral declaration of independence. After a long trial, on 14th October, these leaders were officially convicted of crimes including ‘sedition’ and misuse of public funds. Although they were cleared of the more serious charge of ‘rebellion,’ many Catalans nonetheless viewed the long prison sentences as extreme and unjust, enhancing their determination to leave a nation in which they feel culturally undervalued and economically exploited. 

 Protesters took to the streets of Barcelona as well as El Prat airport to express their outrage against the length of the incarcerations, claiming they are unjust and undemocratic. The protests are becoming increasingly violent due to a common feeling of unjust treatment and political powerlessness. So far, there has been extensive damage of public and private property in Barcelona. El País reports that property damage on the streets has come up to CAD$3.9 million by 22nd October, only a week after the protests started. They also report a drop in corporate sales by 30-50% as a result of the protests and street damage.

Former and current Catalan government officials agree that the rulings are unjust, however most are opposed to the violence. Two days into the protests, the current Catalan president, Quim Torra, commented: “this has to stop right now. There is no reason or justification for burning cars nor any other vandalism. Protest should be peaceful.” The protestors who chose to use violence and inherently represent the separatist movement as a whole, threaten the reputation and possibly the legitimacy of Catalan independence by associating it with irrationality and violence.

 The outrage of Catalan separatists is not only fuelled by the prison sentences, but by what they represent within a historical context in which attempts to gain more autonomy from Spain have repeatedly been repressed by the Spanish government. After Spain unified in the late 15th century, an attempt to break away in the mid-17th century failed. Periods of repression gave way to periods during which Catalonia enjoyed significant autonomy. This ended with General Franco’s 1939-1975 dictatorship, during which he completely oppressed the Catalan people. The memories of this repression are still alive among today’s demonstrators.

Following the death of Franco, a 1979 Statute of Autonomy granted Catalonia considerable autonomy, and in 2006 a new Catalan Statute of Autonomy even defined Catalonia as a ‘nation.’ In 2010, however, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared the 2006 Statute of Autonomy unconstitutional. At the same time, the 2011-2013 economic crisis led many Catalans to believe that relatively prosperous Catalonia was being forced to subsidize the rest of Spain. The consequence was the birth of a new separatist movement, as Catalans increasingly saw themselves as victims of central Spanish institutions outside their control.

According to the ‘Wilson Initiative,’ a website created by a group of internationally-respected Catalan academics, the only solution is “self-determination in Catalonia in order to help its citizens decide their own future, free from fear or unfounded threats.”

Following the polarizing effects of the referendum, the convictions, and the violence, there seems to be little scope for a negotiated compromise between the Spanish state and Catalan nationalists. Catalan society itself is polarized, with opposition to independence about as strong as support for it. It is difficult to see how a right to self-determination and the maintenance of the current Spanish constitutional court may coexist, given the current hostile political climate. The best that Spain seems to have to offer Catalonia at this point is a continuation of its current autonomy. For many Catalans, this is unlikely to be enough.