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Catalonia's Separatist Catatonia


by Austin Bay
November 27, 2012
Catalonia, with the city of Barcelona as its Mediterranean hub, occupies modern Spain's northeastern corner. "Occupies" does double duty in the Spain-Catalonia political conflict. Catalonia's more extreme nationalists swear their region has been "occupied" by various Madrid-based governments for four to five centuries. Time to secede from Spain and create an independent Catalonia! 
 
However, Spain's national government -- located in dreaded Madrid -- says secession is unconstitutional. It opposes Catalan secession. 
 
Ignoring Madrid's warnings, in an election held last Sunday, Catalans demonstrated overwhelming support for self-determination as a common desire. 
 
Or is it a bewitched itch? Since 1985, I've argued that a tantalizing mass enchantment with the forbidden (and perhaps fatal) fruit is a more apt description of the Catalan case. 
 
I'll revisit 1985 in a moment. Sunday's 2012 election also demonstrated that a definitive, common political program that will satisfy the common desire continues to elude the Catalan electorate. Pro-self-determination Catalans split their votes among a hodgepodge of parties with an assortment of political programs. The two largest pro-independence parties, the center-right Convergence and Union and the far left Republican Left Party, have drastically different economic and political visions of a sovereign Catalonia. 
 
The common Catalan desire fractures, radically, into mutually exclusive futures. 
 
In Catalonia, however, the common desire fractures democratically, because "occupying" Spain is a democracy. 
In the early 1980s the Convergence and Union won decisive victories in Catalan regional elections. Spain's government had ended the Franco dictatorship's ludicrous anti-Catalan restrictions, but Convergence and Union demanded more autonomy. However, unlike Spain's Basques, or Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army, or 10 dozen other ethnic separatist movements on the planet, the Catalans chose peaceful politics, not violence. 
For that against-the-grain reason, peaceful politics in lieu of armed revolt, in the 1985 edition of "A Quick and Dirty Guide to War," James F. Dunnigan and I chose to devote a chapter to Catalonia as "an example of unresolved ethnic and historical rivalries" that simmered beneath the Cold War and still afflicted many European states. 
The Catalans had a few could-be killers. "Anarcho-syndicalists" in the near-defunct National Confederation of Labor Party occasionally extorted "revolutionary taxes" from Catalan businesses afraid of being bombed, but when these thugs were caught, Catalan courts sent them to jail. 
 
The conflict had all of the historical, economic, cultural and ethnic elements found in the bloodbaths of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. Long memories haunt these conflicts. Catalan activists also invoked ancient grievances. 
While researching the book, I read an article in which a Madrid-despising Catalan nationalist damned modern Spain as a relic empire forged by Castile and Aragon. Elsewhere on the planet, suicide bombers blow up buses based on far flimsier historical interpretations. In Catalonia, however, democracy and the rule of law channeled grievance into rhetoric and politics. To the Catalans credit, no single party, and no single leader, even Jordi Pujol, managed to harness grievance as a vehicle to dominating power. 
 
In 1985, Madrid sought to preserve Spanish central authority by meeting soft Catalan demands for economic development. Recognizing Catalan linguistic and historical uniqueness was a reasonable request. The Spanish civil war devastated Catalonia; union with Spain was preferable to renewed mass bloodletting. 
In 2012, the ground has shifted a bit. Madrid believes legitimate soft demands have been met. One stripe of Catalan secessionist now claims Madrid's politicians plunder Catalan wealth to subsidize poorer regions. Cooler observers, noting that national governments have to pay for armies and embassies, ask if these Catalan wannabe nationalists are really prepared to shoulder genuine national costs.
 
How will it play out? In 1985, it was clear that Catalonia would stick with Spain. Utilitarian concerns and common sense were antidotes for secessionist enchantment. I speculated that there was a slight chance Catalans would ultimately press for "secession within union" -- the creation of a Catalan state militarily and economically tethered to Spain. This would be a federal Spain of a sort, but one arrived at by democratic means, by Catalans and the rest of Spanish electorate. 
But based on this week's election, Catalans still haven't decided what kind of Catalonia they want. Separatist catatonia is, in effect, a vote for the status quo. 
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