The Shipwreck of Catalan Freedonia

Original Article: El naufragio de la Freedonia catalana
Published: 5 Jan 2018

Of all the obstacles that the Catalan independence process has faced, there is one that perhaps we still haven’t overcome. “If it weren’t for the fact that there are more than 200,000 Catalan public servants who are not prepared to give up a few months of their salaries, we could already be independent,” a councilor once said. Everything is easier if the people agree to go without eating.

The anecdote comes from Lola García, journalist and deputy director of La Vanguardia, in her book El naufragio. La deconstrucción del sueño independentista (The Shipwreck: The Deconstruction of the Independence Dream), published by Ediciones Península. At this point, the number of books about the independence procés has not surpassed the number of related legal cases, but it’s close, and for that reason the reader might be tempted to skip this one. But the book is one of the best journalistic accounts available about the biggest crisis suffered by the Spanish political system since 1977, a crisis with several aspects that make it difficult for just one book to capture all of the nuances.

The procés has been many things, but there is one that stands out above the rest. It has been the largest popular mobilization in a Western European country in the past decade, and it has maintained its strength for a number of years. Half of Catalan society has greatly increased its aspirations for self-identity, in contrast to what they saw as a state in decline — the Spanish state — troubled by a deep economic recession, as in the rest of Europe. From there, independence supporters passed the torch to their politicians, because in the end, secession is not obtained via one demonstration every year, no matter how massive. That was the moment in which their problems began.

García’s book centers on the nationalist politicians as protagonists, not exclusively, but the most important. It doesn’t go well. They promised that independence was a viable objective, that the Spanish government would be forced to call for a referendum, or if not, then the EU and European governments would feel obligated to call for it, and that everything was planned so that the day after a referendum, a viable Catalan state would be proclaimed with all the legal apparatus and economic support necessary to function perfectly.

None of that happened.

A constant for its supporters in this process has been the conviction that it was going to succeed. It was a sentiment that came from the top, and that convinced many. “This approach to present the process towards independence as a way forward without sacrifice, in which it is only necessary to amass large doses of hope and good wishes, has been one of the great discursive successes of the process,” writes García. But the fact that it worked as discourse doesn’t mean it was honest or realistic.

Obviously, you don’t get very far in politics with a pessimistic approach. A “yes” has a greater capacity to sustain a movement than a “no” or a “maybe.” In the matter of the emotions, there is no comparison.

The hopes of the independentistas have been reaffirmed in the streets year after year. But it also can’t be denied that it was fueled by the Generalitat (the Catalan government). Before La Diada (National Day of Catalonia) of 2012, the Govern (the Catalan executive branch) handed organizational responsibility to the president of the board of regional media and the director of TV3 (Catalan television). They were told that “we have to help fire up the demonstration to the maximum, to achieve the most massive turnout possible.”

Some of the plans that were later outlined by Carles Viver Pi-Sunyer — who had been vice president of the Spanish Constitutional Court — and with which “structures of state” would be created, were leaked to the media in 2014, “to give the impression that all the preparations were being made to launch an independent Catalonia and that it is not only technically but also politically feasible, and also that it is closer than ever.”

The Role of Artur Mas

The initial impetus came from Artur Mas. The heir to Jordi Pujol abandoned the path of negotiation that Pujol had promoted during his 23 years as president of the Generalitat; Mas personified the avant-garde of the procés. “His message was simple: If this politician, considered a prudent and honest director, opted for this route, it was because it was possible,” explains García. “Mas was an indispensable asset in helping the independence process gain momentum in broad segments of Catalan society.”

Artur Mas saw the success of the independence message during La Diada in 2012, and he decided to take the lead. “We have not gone crazy,” he said. Madrid would have to negotiate. Europe would not be able to do anything else but welcome us with open arms. He called early elections, convinced that he would succeed — with a campaign poster that many said had a certain similarity to Charlton Heston’s Moses that identified him with “the will of the people.” In the end, he failed at the polls.

But there was no turning back. García explains that in Catalan politics, it’s not permitted to take a step back, or to find a way around an obstacle. Even a hint of doubt is punished by an accusation of high treason: “For the courageous, in contrast, who maintains his inflexible positions, he is placed in the robes of a hero; and unable to avoid it, he ends up enjoying the gratitude he receives, but he is useless in politics.”

The Process that Devours Politicians

Mas is one of the first victims of this process that quickly devours politicians and parties. In his case, he was also a symbol of a corrupt political system, as the conviction for expropriation of the Palau de la Música showed, where 4% commissions were charged to the Palau by the treasurer of Mas’s Convergència party, in the name of the party.

At this point, García abandons the consciously detached role of journalist — not neutral, because no one is neutral anymore in Catalonia — to judge as a terrible mistake that Mas accepted the conditions of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and stepped down in exchange for its support to form the Govern after the 2015 elections: “The acceptance of the CUP’s blackmail was another step in the wrong direction, because the anti-capitalist group only represented a negligible minority of the Catalan population.” The CUP’s 10 deputies (8.2% of the vote) were anything but negligible, because without them the independentista bloc lacked an absolute majority.

Maybe the author is thinking that without Mas’s exit, Carles Puigdemont would not have appeared at that moment. That cannot be disputed. Neither can the fact that the former mayor of Girona was part of a new generation of politicians who were independentistas first, and members of Convergència second.

It was stated earlier that the procés generated politicians with inflexible positions. The Shipwreck tells of a dinner among friends in January 2017 when Puigdemont shared his belief that everything would end with open conflict (“it’s going to make a scene”). He was even more categorical speaking about himself: “I will not be a coward like Mas and Homs.”

There are few incentives to negotiate, which always involves giving up something, if the priority is not to become a coward. Puigdemont would discover that soon enough. García also writes that the stubbornness of the central government is the other factor that helps to explain the absence of an effective dialog between Madrid and Barcelona. García quotes a senior official in the Spanish government who in 2012 said, boldly and not very intelligently: “We don’t even spend two afternoons a month dealing with Catalonia.”

In that period the economic crisis monopolized the attention of the political system, and there was no interest in paying attention to what had started to happen in Catalonia. One notes that García, like many journalists and politicians in Barcelona, doesn’t understand the lack of insight, and passivity, of Rajoy and the People’s Party (PP). She is not the only one, but it’s clear that no one wants to negotiate when both sides present non-negotiable conditions that the other side cannot accept, and when each side believes that the strategy of antagonism will benefit it at the ballot box.

Even so, “not even two afternoons a month” reveals to what degree some politicians allow history to slap them in the face.

After the October 1 referendum, there was another opportunity to confirm that the nationalist politicians didn’t have everything as well-planned as they had claimed in public: “The day after the referendum, confusion took over among the independentista leadership. There had been a meticulous plan made up to the day of the referendum, but once the goal was achieved, no one had thought in detail about the next steps to take.” It was not what they had led their followers to believe.

“This is a Betrayal”

In the end, Puigdemont was caught in the dynamic that punishes those who have doubts about victory no matter how much the reality justifies their doubts. He made the decision to call regional elections within a legal framework and under certain conditions. “I don’t want to be president of Freedonia (the imaginary country from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup). I refuse to go around handing out cards of a nonexistent republic,” he told an audience consisting of councilors, deputies, and members of the independentista organizations.

Marta Rovira, secretary general of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), reacted immediately: “This is a betrayal.” ERC leader Oriol Junqueras hadn’t supported Puigdemont, but neither did he show strong opposition. (García maintains that Junqueras “never speaks sincerely when there is more than one person before him. Only if the conversation is face-to-face, in private. And not always.”) In the streets, the unease grew until Gabriel Rufián’s tweet exploded: “155 pieces of silver.”

Puigdemont threw in the towel. He had not obtained a promise from Madrid not to enact Article 155, but it was Rufián’s tweet that made clear what the price was for that betrayal. “My people have left me,” wrote Puigdemont in a message to lehendakari (Basque President) Urkullu. A few days later, Puigdemont got into a car destined for Belgium.

In the book, García offers several examples of how the Rajoy government ignored events in Catalonia for too long. To look at the present-day Catalan Govern of Quim Torra and the People’s Party of Pablo Casado, it doesn’t appear that the politicians have learned their lessons. The crisis has not ended; perhaps we have yet to see its worst moments. We will be watching when the Supreme Court rules on the procés. García writes, “It is a story whose ending has not been written.” Maybe that ending won’t be known in the foreseeable future, and we will need more books to understand it.