October 6, 2017

What’s going on in Spain? What does it mean for us?


Here we are, starting yet another month of 2017 with violence erupting all over the world. On October 1, the people of Catalonia were to vote on the autonomous community’s independence from Spain. The referendum had been endorsed by the Catalan parliament but declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain, and voters across the region were met by a brutal police response that led to over 900 reported injuries. Since then, thousands of Catalonians have participated in protests throughout the region, including a general strike, with Catalan President Carles Puigdemont ignoring the national government’s threats and vehement opposition.

The left in Spain has a long tradition of rich and layered opposition to authoritarian control. While they ultimately lost their Civil War against Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s regime in the 1930s—leading to thirty-six years of fascist rule under the strongman—liberalism won out after the monarchy was reinstated in 1975. With the financial crisis hitting Spain hard in 2008, a stronger, more organized left began to emerge in the country, seeing victories in government later on during the Occupy movement in 2013. In Catalonia, and its capital Barcelona especially, a movement for independence has always been a consistent part of cultural and ethnic identity (See also, however: the Galician and Basque regions).

During the Spanish Civil War, unions and leftist organizations within Catalonia (“Catalunya” in Catalan) fought tooth and nail against Franco’s attacks on Spanish democracy. In our recently published Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook, historian Mark Bray details resistance to Franco across the left, marking a vital moment in the history of anti-fascism. Unions, anarchists, and socialists fought to claim their rights against the looming fascist threat of a military government. Their ultimate defeat, as Mark notes, was due in part to fighting among the opposition forces, which strengthened Franco’s regime (sound familiar?):

The most visible manifestation of this intra-left conflict was the May Days street fighting of 1937, when the communist-backed Catalan police seized the Barcelona telephone exchange which had been under anarchist control. Four days of street-fighting ensued as the anarchist CNT and the Trotskyist POUM attempted to defend the gains of their revolution from the attacks of the police and armed communist units. Ultimately the CNT leadership negotiated an end to the conflict in order to avoid the full outbreak of a civil war within the civil war… All of which is to say Spanish anti-fascism was an uneven patchwork of transcendent unity and sectarian conflict.  

Fast forward to today, and some of Spain’s internal strife feels pretty similar. Catalonia has hoped to vote for independence many times, most recently in 2012 and 2014. Always at the center of the conflict, it seems, are questions of Catalonia’s role within the larger Spanish economy.

Indeed, while much of the recent discussion centers on Catalonia’s strong cultural and linguistic identity, this most recent push for independence is also partially driven by economic concerns — many in the region, particularly in Barcelona, share a sense that it is the Catalan economy that’s largely kept the country afloat.

A few weeks ago, Al-Jazeera published an overview of Catalonia’s economic power, writing, “The region, in the northeast of Spain, is buoyed by industry, research and tourism — but burdened with a heavy debt.” Catalonia accounts for nineteen percent of Spain’s GDP, is the country’s top exporting region, has one of its lowest unemployment rates, and is generally a hotbed of tourism, tech development, and manufacturing. The report continues, envisioning what Catalan independence might mean for the European (and presumably, global) economy: regardless of its status with the European Union, if it secedes, Catalonia could throw Spain into another economic depression (massive debt, fifty percent unemployment, etc). This would be a win neither for the EU, which was formed in part to combat economic inequalities across the continent, nor for the left.

Now, the legitimacy of the Catalan referendum is being called into question by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and both sides are turning to the law for vindication of their actions.

Two important issues are at play here. The resentment among Spain’s economic elite is disheartening, and we should be critical of all the motives that are currently coming into play. At the same time, it is certain that the violence, terror, and authoritarianism witnessed in Barcelona this past week should not be tolerated in any form. Our own nation is no stranger to civic unrest being met with police brutality. As is detailed in the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division’s Federal Reports on Police Killingswe’re all too aware of what happens when the law is manipulated and played against a country’s citizens. Much as police brutality in the US must be scrutinized on a national and global stage, so too must we stay concerned with abuses of power abroad.



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.