Catalonia’s Martyrdom Strategy Doesn’t Have a Prayer

The Spanish region’s leaders believe punishment can be a path to redemption – as long as they’re not the ones who suffer.

Catalonia's dismissed leader Carles Puigdemont (right), along with other members of his dismissed government address a press conference at The Press Club in Brussels on Oct. 31, 2017.
(Aurore Belot/AFP/Getty Images)
Catalonia's dismissed leader Carles Puigdemont (right), along with other members of his dismissed government address a press conference at The Press Club in Brussels on Oct. 31, 2017. (Aurore Belot/AFP/Getty Images)

When Carles Puigdemont, until last week the president of the Catalan government, walked into the medieval palace that houses the government of Catalonia to ask the Catalan parliament to vote on a resolution to server ties with Spain, he was performing an act of political martyrdom. Puigdemont understood that the vote would trigger the invocation of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allowed the central administration in Madrid headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to take over the government of Catalonia, including the region’s police, courts, and broadcast system. Article 155 also opened the way for the prosecution of Puigdemont and his administration on rebellion charges. Should he be prosecuted and found guilty, he could face up to 30 years in prison.

There are many reasons to doubt the effectiveness and viability of Puigdemont’s self-willed martyrdom. As practiced by the likes of Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King Jr., and the suicide bombers of the Islamic State, martyrdom stands for the act of paying the ultimate price for one’s own beliefs. As a political strategy, however, martyrdom primarily aims to amplify suffering and victimization in the service of a cause, especially a seemingly quixotic or utopian one, like Catalan independence. But even by these more modest standards, Puigdemont’s strategy, in design and implementation, seems less a principled act of faith than a flailing prayer for redemption.

There are at least three reasons why Puigdemont might have found martyrdom to be an appealing strategy. For starters, it capitalizes on his roots in the Catalan village of Amer (in the province of Girona, the most fiercely nationalist of Catalonia’s four provinces), where he was born 54 years ago. Amer plays a highly symbolic role in the making of Catalan nationalism. According to Catalan mythology, Amer was founded in 949 A.D., one of the few moments in Catalonia’s history when the region was not dominated by a foreign power.

Puigdemont’s martyrdom also finds tremendous resonance in Spanish culture. Although no country has a monopoly on martyrdom, fewer are more identified with the concept of the martyr than Spain. It is almost impossible to speak of martyrdom without referencing the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Begun in 1478 under the reign of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Inquisition launched hundreds of “martyrologies” across the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish colonial possessions in the New World with the burning of heretics at the stake.

The Spanish Civil War was another fertile time for martyrdom, with the making of some 6,000 so-called “Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.” These were the nuns and priests killed by the Red Terror, the wave of killings by the Republican army and their allies, mainly Communist and anarchist militias, that targeted monasteries and churches during the summer of 1936. In 2007, the Vatican beatified 498 of these victims, putting them one step away from sainthod. At the time, this was the largest simultaneous beatification in the Church’s history. In 2013, at a ceremony held in the Catalan province of Tarragona attended by 25,000 people, the Vatican beatified an additional 500 “martyrs of faith” from the Spanish Civil War, bringing the number of such martyrs to more than 1,500.

Last but not least, Puigdemont’s martyrdom draws on a long history of violent repression of Catalan nationalists by Spain. Lluís Companys, the patron saint of the Catalan independence movement, is the embodiment of this history. Companys declared a Catalan State in 1934, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. For this action he was given a 30-year prison sentence. He was set free by the Popular Front government that came into office in 1936, but with Catalonia’s fall to Franco’s nationalist army that same year, Companys fled to France. After France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Companys was captured and returned to Spain, and he was later executed by Franco’s nationalist army at Barcelona Montjuïc Castle.

Unsurprisingly, Companys looms large over the contemporary Catalan nationalist movement. In the days leading to the declaration of independence, Puigdemont visited Companys’s grave near Monjuïc on the 77th anniversary of his execution. Speaking at the ceremony, Puigdemont bemoaned that authorities in Madrid have yet to honor Companys’s memory: “They persist in trivializing him.” The visit prompted People’s Party spokesman Pablo Casado to say that Puigdemont might “end up like” Companys. He later clarified that he meant that Puigdemont might end up in jail.

Whatever the roots of Puigdemont’s martyrdom, the hope seems to be that it will keep Catalonia’s separatist aspirations alive in the wake of what has been a less than impressive launching of the Catalan Republic. The Oct. 1 referendum on independence (in which 90 percent of voters chose the independence option, but participation of eligible voters was roughly 40 percent, well below a clear majority), not only failed to produce a clean break from Spain — it may have backfired.

There has been a surprising resurgence of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia in the past month. On Oct. 8, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to demonstrate against independence and in favor of Catalonia remaining a part of Spain. This was the “awakening of the silent majority” that rejects independence, as the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia put it. On the day after the declaration of independence, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Barcelona in opposition to independence, far outnumbering those celebrating it. They were clearly buoyed by Madrid’s takeover of Catalonia. But as reported in The New York Times, the prevailing mood was one of reconciliation. The paper noted that the demonstrators “struck a moderate note, with many saying that they felt Catalan and Spanish and wanted to remain both.”

Puigdemont’s martyrdom strategy has short-term and long-term objectives. In the short term, the strategy aims to engender sympathies for Catalan independence abroad by amplifying the suffering of the Catalan people, and, by extension, demonstrating the authoritarian nature of the Spanish state. This suffering, it is hoped, will compel the international community to intervene in Spain. The hoped-for scenario is that of Kosovo in the 1990s, where human rights abuses by the Serbs provoked a U.S.-led NATO intervention. The main long-tem goal is to socialize future generations of Catalans into the separatist struggle by exposing them to greater suffering at the hands of Madrid.

Both objectives hinge on Madrid’s continuing to overreact to the provocations by the separatists. Accordingly, Puigdemont may now be hoping the Spanish state’s invocation of Article 155 — which has allowed Madrid to govern Catalonia directly, at least until the Dec. 21 elections — will be accompanied by even greater violence, or at least authoritarian rhetoric and legal maneuvering to match what happened on referendum day. Puigdemont’s reaction to the prosecution of two separatist leaders accused of interfering with the state’s effort to prevent the referendum provides a preview of how he might exploit for martyrdom purposes the prosecution of his own administration on rebellion charges: “Spain jails Catalonia’s civil society leader for organizing peaceful demonstrations. Sadly, we have political prisoners once again,” a not-so-subtle allusion to Franco’s prosecution of Catalan nationalists.

Whether the strategy of political martyrdom will succeed in Catalonia is far from certain. For starters, so far it hasn’t been easy for the separatists to portray themselves as victims of Madrid’s villainous ways. A social media campaign intended to publicize the images of violence of the day of the referendum, as part of a Help Catalonia campaign designed to raise world awareness of the repression of the Catalan people, was exposed as “fake news” by the Guardian after it was revealed that some of the images of violence used to trigger sympathy for the Catalan people were not actually of the violence that took place in Catalonia. Charges by the separatist movement that the mayhem of the referendum was “unprecedented” for a modern European democracy have been debunked by the fact-checkers from El País as “a myth.”

Demonizing Madrid as tyrant and a human rights offender could also prove difficult given Spain’s fine record of upholding political, civil, and human rights since embracing democracy in 1978, when the country enacted one of Europe’s most liberal constitutions — a constitution that was approved by the Catalan people by some 90 percent, above two points higher the national average of 88 percent. Spain’s record on human and political rights, as compiled by international nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House, is one reason why the international community has shown so little desire to intervene in Spain. Curiously, that record is strongest when it comes to protecting the rights of culturally distinct communities. The Catalans and the Basques have some of the highest levels of home rule found anywhere in Western Europe.

Finally, if political martyrdom is to succeed in Catalonia, Puigdemont will need to begin to demonstrate the quality that makes martyrs, well, martyrs: courage. So far, this has been in short supply. Indeed, Puigdemont’s behavior since the referendum is far from a profile in courage. Right after the referendum, when he had the chance to declare independence, and when public enthusiasm for independence was at its most fervent high, he wavered. He declared independence but then quickly suspended it to pursue negotiations with Madrid. The suspension led to weeks of confusion about where he stood on independence, and it was only after he was called a traitor by the more radical elements of the separatist movement (whose support in the Catalan Parliament had kept him in power until he was removed from office by Madrid) that he pulled the trigger on independence.

Even the declaration of independence was anything but courageous. On Oct. 27, when the Catalan parliament voted for independence, it did so via a secret ballot and after the opposition had walked away from the hall in disgust. And since declaring independence, Puigdemont has all but gone silent, leaving his followers wondering what comes next. Two days after the declaration of independence, the only thing the Catalans heard from him was a prerecorded message urging the citizenry to “mount a democratic opposition” to Madrid’s takeover of the region.

Recent reports have Puigdemont leaving Spain for Belgium, the nation with the most generous policy of political asylum within the EU, for fears of being arrested by Spanish authorities. If that proves true, Puigdemont would be putting a big dent on his fledging martyrdom narrative. After all, there is no martyrdom without suffering.

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