A Secessionist Abroad

The president of Catalonia will have the vanilla.

Carles Puigdemont, president of the government of Catalonia, waves to supporters in Barcelona on Jan. 10, 2016. (Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)
Carles Puigdemont, president of the government of Catalonia, waves to supporters in Barcelona on Jan. 10, 2016. (Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

Carles Puigdemont, the president of the government of Catalonia — bespectacled and shaggy haired at 54 — surveyed the passing monuments and museums in Washington, D.C., as we skirted the National Mall in his black SUV. This was his first time in the United States. “Seven million people visit here each year,” he informed me, gesturing vaguely toward one of the Smithsonian museums. “The same as the population of Catalonia.”

It was early afternoon on a cloudy Tuesday in March, and we were headed to The Monocle, a restaurant on Capitol Hill where generations of legislators and their coteries have hobnobbed over steaks and crab cakes, and where you might have to pass a signed photo of Dick Cheney to use the bathroom.

“During the Women’s March, the Mall was covered with protesters as far as the eye could see,” I told Puigdemont. He asked how many had attended. Maybe half a million, I said.

“In Catalonia, we get more than a million people in the streets on National Day,” he said. “And that’s out of 7 million.” He pressed his phone to the car’s window and snapped a photo.

When we got to the restaurant on D Street, the delegation made its way to a white-clothed table toward the back of the wood-paneled dining room, a series of D.C. aphorisms emblazoned along the top of each wall. One of them read, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

The restaurant was full of patrons, none of whom seemed to recognize the almost-world-leader in their midst. An advisor passed around a phone so that the entire company — a group of eight that included Catalonia’s foreign minister and the head of its delegation to the United States — could see the latest excitement: a tweet by a Washington Post reporter noting Puigdemont’s visit. The president ordered salmon, followed by a generous portion of vanilla ice cream and an espresso, which came not in an espresso cup, but at the very bottom of an oversized mug, resembling a nearly finished cup of coffee. Puigdemont examined it quizzically.

When Matteo Renzi, then the Italian prime minister, visited Washington last year for Barack Obama’s final state dinner, the White House rolled out the red carpet. It’s not hard to imagine a president of Catalonia — which is just larger than Bulgaria and just smaller than Switzerland in population, has a higher gross domestic product per capita than Spain, and contains Barcelona, one of the largest cities in Europe — receiving similar treatment. But one fact gets in the way: Catalonia isn’t a real country.

The National Day demonstrators that Puigdemont mentioned take to the streets each year to agitate for their region’s independence from Spain. Puigdemont — the former mayor of Girona, one of Catalonia’s largest cities — is a staunch secessionist, and his ruling coalition in the regional government wants to leave Spain. But the region remains firmly under Spanish control.

Once we’d finished lunch — and the Catalans had paid — we headed over to CNN en Español for a quick taped interview, after which Puigdemont met briefly with a few members of Congress in their offices. (I was not invited to these closed-door conversations.) Later, Puigdemont told me they had discussed “normal things.”

“We try to explain what’s happened in Catalonia,” he said. They asked, “What do you think of European Union or Brexit?” — questions he called “neutral, without a previous point of view.”

Catalan independence tops the list of polarizing issues in Spanish politics. But in the United States, it’s met mostly with mild curiosity. Puigdemont, who spent decades as a journalist before entering politics, is versed in the contrast between this domestic contentiousness and foreign indifference. In 1994, he published Cata … What? Catalonia as Seen by the Foreign Press — a book about articles like this one.

Catalonia’s view of itself, and interest in the way others see it, must be understood in the context of Spain’s 20th-century history. During his almost four-decade reign, Spanish dictator Gen. Francisco Franco suppressed Catalan identity and banned the Catalan language. Since the drafting of democratic Spain’s constitution in 1978, the region has enjoyed a degree of autonomy, continuing a centuries-old tradition of self-governance.

In recent years, support for the independence movement has grown, with more people in favor than against, according to a poll conducted last year by the regional center for sociological research. For many Catalans, the current configuration is unsatisfactory. The region claims only limited fiscal and political autonomy. It has its own parliament and executive bodies, with extensive control over its affairs. However, Catalonia produces more value for the government in Madrid than it gets back. Many Catalans believe they bear an unfair tax burden and blame the central government for the country’s debt crisis. Critics of the independence project see the region’s identity politics as a mask for these economic concerns.

Madrid has indicated that it doesn’t intend to let go of a fifth of Spain’s economy or Barcelona, its second-largest city. In March, Spain’s constitutional court barred Artur Mas, Puigdemont’s predecessor, from holding office for two years because he ran an independence referendum in 2014. The poll he organized was symbolic and nonbinding, but nonetheless constituted an act of criminal civil disobedience in the eyes of the justice system. That hasn’t stopped Puigdemont’s plans to hold a referendum in September. According to his vice president, he is willing to declare independence unilaterally if Spain tries to block the vote. When asked about the possibility of meeting the same fate as Mas, Puigdemont answered with bravado. “This is not important,” he said. “If we are barred from public office, there will be another person, and another person, and another person. … Nothing will change.”

Western Europe is no stranger to independence referendums. Scotland held one in 2014, choosing narrowly to remain in the United Kingdom, and may well hold another one soon. Independence supporters hope to save Scotland from Brexit entirely or rejoin the EU independently. That’s where Catalonia comes in. Some have suggested that Spain could play spoiler to the EU’s speedy reintegration of Scotland to avoid the precedent it would set for Catalonia.

“No one now in Europe is questioning that independent Scotland will remain an EU member,” Puigdemont told me. “No one [except in] Spain disagrees with this point of view.”

Just over a mile from the Spanish Embassy, the imposing edifice of which takes up nearly a block on Pennsylvania Avenue, is the Delegation of Catalonia to the United States, Canada, and Mexico. I met with Puigdemont in that office, on the third floor of a nondescript 12-story office building on K Street above a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, the morning following our lunch at The Monocle. A map of Catalan borders and cities in some bygone time hung in an otherwise empty corner of the sparse office. The cartographer had left off the rest of Spain.

Puigdemont and I sat in the delegation’s small conference room and discussed his previous evening. The day earlier, he told me he’d planned a night out on the town, mentioning his love of theater and gospel music, and asked for recommendations.

He and some friends had hoped to get into a jazz club near his hotel in Georgetown. “But it was full, and also expensive,” he said. So they stood outside, where he could hear that the music “was very good,” then gave up.

“I went to the hotel to sleep,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @bsoloway

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