The Ghost of Franco Still Haunts Catalonia

Mariano Rajoy’s use of violence against separatists wasn’t an aberration. It was an authentic expression of Spanish conservatism.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on February 24, 2015. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on February 24, 2015. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

Nothing is certain after Sunday’s manic referendum in Catalonia, where separatist forces pushed for an independence vote amid a crackdown by the central administration in Madrid that included declaring the vote unconstitutional, disabling the internet, and, ultimately, physically preventing people from voting. According to Catalan officials, 844 people were injured, including 19 national police and 14 Civil Guard officers, resulting from violent clashes at voting stations in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and Girona, a stronghold of the independence movement located along the Franco-Spanish border.

Now the political class in Madrid and Barcelona, alongside the rest of the world, is trying to make sense of two basic questions: Why did the vote come to this much violence? And how will Spain move forward from here? The latter question concerns the country’s future. But answering it requires addressing the former question, which concerns Spain’s past — specifically, the relationship of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his party, the conservative Popular Party, or PP, to the country’s rich history of right-wing repression.

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A few immediate takeaways about the referendum stand out. First, the vote appears to have solved very little. According to the referendum’s organizers, the vote was a resounding success for separatist forces. Despite Madrid’s best efforts, the separatists managed to get more than 2.2 million people to the voting booth; and 92 percent of voters endorsed independence. But there was no independent monitoring of the vote, so there’s nobody to corroborate what the organizers are reporting. And the 2.2 million voters represent only about 40 percent of eligible voters.

Of course, the separatists can legitimately claim that Madrid suppressed the vote. But an earlier referendum, which Madrid allowed to go forward without any interference in 2014 — the so-called trial balloon referendum — drew a virtually identical turnout, some 2.3 million voters, 81 percent of whom voted for independence. Essentially, only a determined minority of pro-independence voters seems willing to participate in these referenda, and a silent majority that opposes independence appears to be boycotting the vote. Indeed, prior to the referendum, polls consistently showed that, by a small margin, Catalans preferred to remain part of Spain.

Second, Catalonia won the public relations battle. In particular, separatists got the images they most desperately wanted: that of Civil Guard officers stopping people from voting. The point was to display to the rest of the country and the world Madrid’s villainous ways, and, on that front, separatists more than succeeded. Many Spaniards, even those opposed to an independent Catalonia, were upset by images of the national police firing rubber bullets into the crowd, dragging people from voting stations, and wrestling protestors. Spain’s leading newspapers and major politicians, including Ada Colau, the leftist mayor of Barcelona, who is ambivalent about Catalan independence, condemned the violence and called for Rajoy’s resignation. EU officials also expressed concern about the violence, as did many European heads of state.

It is unclear, however, what the value of this PR victory will be for the separatist forces. Led by Carles Puigdemont, the separatists intend to convene the Catalan Parliament next week to declare Catalonia’s independence. But the declaration could backfire. There is pressure within Catalonia for the separatists to enter into negotiations with Madrid over a new autonomy charter that could fulfill the demand that triggered the conflict in the first place: fiscal autonomy for the Catalans. Among Spanish regions, only the Basques have such a privilege, even though Catalonia, as one of the most affluent regions in Spain and, in fact, all of Europe, has long complained that it sends more money to Madrid that it gets in return by way of investments. Expanded autonomy may not be enough for Puigdemont and other hardcore separatists, but it might put a crack in his pro-independence coalition, which was fragile to begin with.

Moreover, the separatists’ “victory” has not translated into greater international support for Catalan independence beyond expressions of sympathy over the chaos surrounding the referendum. After the vote, the EU stressed, yet again, that the crisis was one for Spain to solve on its own and that an independent Catalonia would not have automatic admission into the EU. These stances are in keeping with the organization’s goal of keeping a lid on nationalism and populism across the continent. The Trump administration spoke unambiguously against Catalan independence in the days prior to the referendum. There is no sign that the violence surrounding the vote has changed the American position. If anything, Donald Trump, a self-professed law-and-order president, was probably impressed with the show of military strength by Madrid.

Third, Madrid lost, but it cannot be counted out. The making of this defeat was long in coming and is rooted in Rajoy’s dogged refusal to entertain negotiation with the Catalans. From the onset of his premiership, in 2011, Rajoy has ruled out any concessions to the Catalans, especially on the issue of taxes collected by Madrid in Catalonia. With the entire Spanish political class and the EU demanding that Madrid enter into negotiations with Catalonia, Rajoy now has little choice but to come to the bargaining table. His recent statement that “my door is open to anyone” is a welcome development.

But it remains to be seen whether at this very sensitive juncture in the crisis that Rajoy can muster the know-how to solve the crisis or at the very least to lower its temperature. So far his default mechanism has been to show Madrid’s capacity to break the will of the Catalans, and he still has plenty of ammunition left in his arsenal. He can arrest or suspend any public official in Catalonia who dares to declare the region’s independence, and that includes the highest-placed members of the Catalan government, such as Puigdemont. He can withdraw the statute of autonomy granted to the Catalans as part of the democratic transition that followed the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, which Spain’s 1978 constitution allows for in the case of a national emergency. Rajoy could also financially starve Catalonia by stopping the flow of money to the region. Few people actually expect any of this to happen — but prior to the vote the prime minister said he would resort to all legal measures to stop an independent Catalonia.

It is nonetheless mystifying why Rajoy, a seasoned politician, allowed the crisis in Catalonia to mushroom into a full-fledged constitutional crisis that threatens the very integrity of Spain. Equally mystifying is why, knowing that the world’s eyes would be fixed on Catalonia, he chose to display Madrid’s brute power to subjugate a rebellious region. After all, he already had the courts and much of the political class (save for the separatists in Catalonia) on his side, and no major international actor had officially endorsed the referendum; even Google had agreed to disable an app to tell people where to go vote. So why the use of force then? This is where historical perspective becomes necessary. It’s impossible to make sense of this question without understanding how right-wing forces in Spain have traditionally overreacted, to put it mildly, to the issue of sub-nationalism.

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Broadly speaking, the Spanish right has always seen sub-nationalism, which has thrived in the 20th century in the Basque Country and Catalonia, as the biggest threat to the Spanish nation. The drive toward regional autonomy was one of the main triggers of the Spanish Civil War. That iconic conflict began in 1936, with a rebellion by Franco’s nationalist army, which opposed the extension of autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country, two regions that historically have seen themselves as culturally distinct from the rest of Spain, especially because they have a different linguistic heritage. By 1936, the left-leaning Second Republic — the popularly elected government in place from 1931 to 1939 — had already granted limited autonomy to the Catalans and the Basques and was on its way to granting autonomy to a third region, Galicia. The end goal of republican leaders was a Spanish federation; it would have granted equal powers to the various regions of Spain and reduced the power of the central administration in Madrid.

Upon seizing full control of Spain, in 1939, Franco imposed a policy of limpieza, or cleansing, that centered on eliminating any trace of republican Spain. The use of the word “cleansing” was not a mere euphemism; rather it reflected the Franco regime’s belief that Spain’s body politic had been contaminated by a foreign virus that needed to be exterminated. This entailed executing hundreds of political dissidents in the wake of the Civil War in concentration camps, including socialists, anarchists, and regional nationalists, and stealing an untold number of newborn babies from their “red” mothers to give to conservative families to adopt. Franco also canceled the autonomy charters that the republic had granted to the Catalans and the Basques and banned all regional languages and symbols (including the Catalan language, its flag, and national holiday, the Diada).

Franco then moved to impose a policy of cultural homogeneity across the Spanish national territory, which was reinforced by an attempt to quarantine the nation from foreign influence and that exalted Spanish nationalism. This was, essentially, Castilian nationalism, as defined by the “achievements” of the Castile-based Spanish monarchs, such as the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, in 1492; the conquest of the New World; and the spread of Christian civilization and the Spanish language, also known as Castilian, around the globe.

After the transition to democracy that followed Franco’s death of natural causes in November 1975, autonomy was restored to the Spanish regions, starting with Catalonia, which at the time was regarded by Madrid as the most moderate of the separatist regions. Unlike the Basque Country, where an explosion of ethno-nationalist violence erupted during the twilight of Francoism, in Catalonia peace prevailed throughout the change in political regimes. Catalan was thus seen as a test case of how much the Spanish right would tolerate regional autonomy. A pivotal development of this process was the return to Spain from France of Josep Tarradellas in October 1977, the exiled president of the Generalitat of Catalonia (the official name of the Catalan regional government). “Ciutadans de Catalunya, ja sóc aquí!” (Catalan for “Citizens of Catalonia, I am here at last!”) were Tarradellas’s memorable words upon his arrival in Catalonia.

As was the case during the interwar years, the right responded swiftly and violently to the reintroduction of regional autonomy, which was perceived to be a threat to national unity. On Feb. 23, 1981, Spain lived through the trauma of 23-F the attempt by the military to derail the process of democratization. On that date, Lt. Col. Antonio Tejero, alongside some 200 armed officers from the Civil Guard, stormed into the Spanish parliament and held the parliamentarians hostage. Their hope was that King Juan Carlos would use this opportunity to regain control of the nation and return it to authoritarian rule. The king, instead, went on national television to reassure nervous Spaniards that the transition to democracy was moving forward and that the coup plotters would be severely punished.

Once the democratic order was reaffirmed, the creation of a system of 17 self-governing regions was concluded. The system is not, technically speaking, federalism, since the various regions do not have the same degree of autonomy. Instead, each region has its own autonomy pact with Madrid that stipulates the degree of autonomy granted by the state. It is this autonomy arrangement that the Catalans have been trying to upgrade since 2006 by gaining greater control over their financial affairs.

Rajoy’s party, the conservative PP, has come to accept regional autonomy as a reality of democratic politics in Spain. This acceptance is part of the remarkable reinvention of the Spanish right in the post-Franco era from a dark authoritarian movement into a mainstream conservative force. But this is not to say that the party is naturally inclined toward enhancing the autonomy of the regions. After all, the PP is a recreation of Alianza Popular, the neo-Francoist party born right after the democratic transition.

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Nor does acceptance of regional autonomy mean that the right has abandoned traditional notions of Spanish nationalism. This was pointedly revealed when the social democratic administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero undertook the painful process of forcing Spain to confront its dark history with the 2007 Law of Historical Memory. That past was left for the most part undisturbed during the democratic transition with the so-called “pact of forgetting,” since almost everyone agreed that revisiting the past at that point, especially the question of who was responsible for the Civil War, would not be productive for the process of democratic restoration.

Zapatero’s “memory” law condemned the Franco regime as illegitimate, allowed for reparations for those victimized by the dictatorship — like restoring the pensions of those who lost their employment due to their political affiliations — and ordered the removal from public spaces of monuments honoring the old regime. But strong opposition from the PP, the military, and the Catholic Church prevented any attempt to prosecute former members of the Franco regime and to organize a truth commission to chronicle its political sins. Subsequent to the passing of the law, the PP and its conservative allies have opposed efforts to revise school textbooks to reflect a more accurate history of the Civil War and the dictatorship and a new identity of Spain as a multicultural nation.

To be fair to Rajoy, no other head of government in the post-Franco era has had to contend with the provocations of Junts pel Sí, the separatist coalition in control of Catalonia since the 2015 regional elections. At his swearing-in ceremony, Puigdemont refused to pledge his loyalty to the Spanish Constitution and the monarchy. To add insult to injury, the portrait of King Felipe was covered with a veil during the ceremony. Even many Catalans supportive of independence were unnerved by the separatists’ behavior. The referendum they convened was, technically speaking, illegal since it contravenes the constitution. And throughout the referendum campaign, the separatists peddled multiple falsehoods about the relationship of Catalonia and Spain, none more egregious than the claim that more autonomy for Catalonia cannot be achieved within the existing system of regional autonomy.

But, ultimately, Rajoy will bear the judgment of history if he proves unable to find a way to keep Spain united. And that judgment will be especially harsh if he continues to resort to the violent methods reminiscent of his conservative party’s authoritarian predecessors.

Photo credit: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of Democracy without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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