Catalonia At Crisis Point: Region Poised For Violence As Key Trial Looms

Two years ago this week, Catalonia witnessed its greatest political turmoil since the death of Franco. An illegal referendum, organized by pro-independence politicians, resulted in a spate of clashes between voters and the Spanish Civil Guard, whose bloody baton charges went viral around the world. Within weeks, regional leader Carles Puigdemont had fled into exile, his declaration of independence in tatters. Twelve other separatists were in jail and the Catalan Parliament had been suspended.

It would be wrong to say this week’s anniversary opened fresh wounds. In truth, they never really healed. The two sides continue to bicker ceaselessly, and last week’s discovery of an alleged terror cell, run by hardline separatists, has poured further fuel on the fire.

As Spain’s Supreme Court prepares to sentence the jailed independence figures, fears of fresh violence are growing. While Catalan politicians call on their supporters to channel the spirit of the 2017 referendum and create a “democratic explosion,” the Spanish government is threatening to invoke article 155 again. And millions of ordinary people risk being caught in the middle.

Changing narrative

It’s easy to forget that, until recently, the separatist movement enjoyed only modest support. In the mid-2000s only 15% of Catalans identified as independentistas, and the region’s primary grievance was financial rather than political. Ordinary Catalans complained that they were being exploited by Madrid, forced to prop up Spain’s poorer regions and fund ludicrous projects such as the ‘ghost airports’ which have sprung up around the country. They rallied against the fact that the Basque Country had its fiscal privileges and the wealthiest of all Spain’s autonomous regions did not.

But the needle shifted dramatically around the turn of the decade, driven by the global economic crisis and the failure of Mariano Rajoy’s hapless government to arrest it. Instead of trying to console its Mediterranean bread-winner, the Spanish establishment went on the offensive. In 2010, an infamous Supreme Court verdict struck down several clauses in Catalonia’s regional statute, including the “preferential” treatment of the Catalan language in regional administrations and communications networks.

Over the next seven years the independence movement became a self-propelled missile, fuelled by its own failures. The Spanish government’s refusal to countenance any sort of climbdown causes a mutation of the narrative; instead of muttering about exploitation, ordinary people now talked of subjugation, and reasoned that they had no choice but to break away. Separatist leaders seized on the sentiment to hold illegal referendums in 2009 and 2014.

Finally came that third vote in 2017, the one that finally pushed the Spanish government too far. By imposing Article 155 and jailing the leaders of the ‘Process’, the Madrileño ministers might have thought they had stemmed the separatist tide. But, if you talk to ordinary Catalans, it’s clear the differences are as entrenched as ever.

Independence supporters still bristle at the brutality meted out to those who voted on October 1, and the fact that their figureheads have spent more than two years in jail without sentencing — while the police officers who launched that all-too-literal crackdown have never been sanctioned. They claim they have a right to decide their own future and insist that the Spanish government is repressing their language and culture.

The unionists say that this repression is a myth, pointing out that Catalan is the compulsory first language of schools and local government (despite that inflammatory ruling in 2010). According to them, it’s the separatists who have used aggression and intimidation on several occasions, most recently towards a female journalist during pro-independence demonstrations this week. And they point to recent polling figures which show that well under half the Catalan population supports independence (the referendum of 2017 may have returned a 90% majority in favour of independence, but this only equated to around 40% of the total voter base).

Tipping point

Matters came to a head last week last Monday (September 23) with the discovery of an alleged terrorist plot fomented by members of the ‘Republican Defense Committees’ (CDR), a hardline separatist group which has staged direct action in the past. Members of Spain’s Civil Guard reported the discovery of explosive materials as well as plans for a ‘D-Day’, which would have supposedly coincided with the sentencing of the jailed separatist leaders this month, and witnessed assaults on the regional parliament and other key targets. Nine people were arrested, although they insist they were simply creating fireworks for a local festival.

According to some reports, the plot goes right to the top of the Catalan political establishment. Spain’s EFE news agency claims that one of those arrested had met regional President Quim Torra before the police raid, and various outlets suggest Torra knew about the plans. Whatever the truth of these allegations, Torra and other secessionist politicians have fuelled the speculation by refusing to condemn the CDR. Instead, they have accused the police of mounting a “stitch-up” designed to “criminalize a peaceful movement”, and voted to expel the Civil Guard from Catalonia.

This stance is stoically supported by Omnium, the pro-Catalan cultural association whose president Jordi Cuixart was among those arrested in October 2017. Speaking to InsideOver, an Omnium spokesman said that the Spanish government has been condemned for the use of torture by the European Court of Human Rights on various occasions (the condemnations primarily relate to the treatment of terror suspects) and said that politicians in Madrid are simply trying to thwart democracy in Catalonia.

“It would be irresponsible [for the separatist politicians] to publicly condemn people for violence which hasn’t occurred or for events that haven’t been proved,” the spokesperson said. “The whole world knows that ours is a peaceful movement. Our pathway has always been one of non-violent action. 

“We’ve been organizing demonstrations of more than a million people for 10 years and there’ve never been altercations. The only violence we’ve seen up until now, the only one the world has seen, is the violence committed by the national police forces to obstruct the referendum of October 1 2017.

“It’s clear that the presumption of innocence is essential under the rule of law, especially where judicial investigations are secret. This is something that hasn’t happened. Quite the opposite, in fact: we’ve seen how the Spanish press published parts of the investigation and how information was filtered out to criminalize the independence movement.”

“Don’t play with fire”

Unionists disagree, however. In the Catalan Parliament, the centre-right Citizens Party has accused the separatists of supporting terrorism, comments which resulted in the expulsion of the group’s leader. Undeterred, Citizens has since tabled a motion of no-confidence against Torra and accused him of collaborating with the CDR. Meanwhile, national Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has warned secessionist politicians not to “play with fire” and warned that he is prepared to suspend the Parliament again.

One of the loudest loyalist voices is provided by the Catalan Civil Society, which purports to build bridges between Madrid and Barcelona. Its spokesman told InsideOver: “We see it as irresponsible that a person in charge of the Parliament says this when he has previously encouraged the CDR to push forward. 

“Torra has said before that, in his circle, there are a lot of ‘CDRs’. The guy is trapped between emotional impulses and the reasoned approach that he’s obliged to apply as president of all Catalans, not just one part. It’s a great responsibility.

“Anything can happen when a governor, instead of calming down a situation and appealing for people to come together, appeals to and feeds these groups. Maybe it’s for political support, maybe for financial support — because this has happened in Catalonia for years — but this guy is feeding the spiral. I don’t want to contribute to [the m unrest] but he’s contributing to a spiral that won’t end well.”

Increasing fears

The fallout continues. Spanish newspapers continue to release details of the ongoing investigation, including allegations that the CDR cell planned to blow up motorway bridges and collapse power lines. The reports are only fuelling fears of fresh violence when the 12 jailed separatists learn their fate, sometime in the middle of this month.

For the separatists, these are political prisoners who were jailed for expressing their democratic right and should never have served a single day. For the loyalists, they’re a dirty dozen, who mounted a coup d’etat and should be punished accordingly. Whatever verdict the judges in Madrid pass down, one side is going to be outraged.

Catalonia’s police forces declined to comment when asked by Il Giornale about their preparations for sentencing day. But Spain’s interior ministry has already ordered around 500 officers to be sent to Catalonia, and the number could rise to 2,000. The Mossos d’Esquadra police force has released a statement saying it is prepared to dispatch “the maximum number of resources” to deal with any disturbance. Undeterred, the CDR has promised a string of fresh actions to sow “chaos” across the region.

Will things turn violent? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two sides view the prospect of violence very differently.

Omnium tells us “there will be no violent uprising. We will never justify violence, we come from a pacifist tradition. We think that non-violent civil disobedience is the way forward and we’re certain of the passivity of the Catalan people, as they have demonstrated over many years.

“Not even when innocent and unarmed people were being beaten at the voting centres during the referendum did the society behave violently.”

However the Catalan Civil Society suggests “there’s worry. There will be an escalation of tension, because there are people who think this [radical] stuff. People who have been deceived by propaganda. If they deceive you and you get frustrated, the outrage, a hyper-exaggerated reaction, will occur.

“We might see some last, desperate attempt… someone might do what we’ve seen with these guys who were preparing explosives and wanted to take down power and telephone lines to generate chaos. They can’t go forward any other way and some desperate people who’ll try anything.”

The society says that, if things do get out of hand, the Spanish government should “rise to the challenge and do what’s necessary,” even taking control of the Catalan Parliament again if necessary. In reality, however, Sánchez and his government are facing a horrible dilemma. Like those Supreme Court judges, they know that they will stoke the fire with whatever decision they make — and that this issue isn’t going away.

Meanwhile, the people of Catalonia wait. Most of them probably thought that October 1, 2017, represented a never-again moment, a cue for dialogue to finally take over. But few would now bet against one of the world’s sunniest regions plunging into darkness again.