Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for December, 2017


December 30, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: An article called 155

Tags: , , ,

The Spanish Constitution was drawn up in 1978 and ratified overwhelmingly in 1979, and was originally hailed as a remarkable work of common sense and sobriety over emotion and frustration,  mainly because the country managed to overcome a civil war and nearly forty years of dictatorship, not to mention all the differences that come with them, and set up a monarchical democracy in a relatively peaceful manner.  It wasn’t easy.  Not only were there opposing political positions whose spirits needed to be curtailed and there were historical regions each with their own objectives to contend with.  It is said that the Founding Fathers sagaciously wove together a document that satisfied all of those factors.  Spain was ready to move on, they felt.


But from the start of the charter, the very delicate reality of Spain becomes apparent.  The second article of the preliminary section is a surgically worded statement that avers that the constitution is based “on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is comprised and the solidarity among them all.”  


I don’t know about you, but there is a bookful of topics to debate just in this 40-word clause alone.  And this may be the crux of the problem.   In the authors’ desire to be all-inclusive and yet concise and clear cut at the same time, the final product left many scratching their heads and wondering just what exactly it was saying.  Or trying to say.  The “indivisible” part was pretty straightforward.  This is what many pro-unity point to when they naysay the Catalans’ right to independence. Or anyone’s for that matter.  Honest Abe would have concurred.  The use of “indissoluble” merely reinforces that notion.  But in the second half, after that momentous semi-colon, things get rather messy.  All of a sudden, there are mentions of self-rule and nationalities.  What does nationality mean here?  It sounds to me like an official admission that certain regions are essentially nations with a nation.  As you can imagine, the authors and advisors bickered endlessly about this, and this was what they came up with. And a vast majority signed on.


Moving on, much of what you find in the constitution reflects values and structures that are present in many Western deomocratic government set-ups.  You have your traditional judicial, legislative and executive branches, checks and balances, a bill of rights, and whatnot.  There is also a section which deals extensively with the geographic-political make up of the nation.  Spain has 50 provinces, many of which clump together to form regional units known as Comunidades Autónomas which in reality are the historical and cultural regions of this land.   These regions are granted the right to self-rule in many areas, so much so that many argue the current political framework of Spain is a de facto federal state without actually being called one.  But the matter, as usual, is more complex.  The central government generally comes to agreements with the different regions on a case to case basis.  Its a practice that goes back to medieval times, which may sound quaint and so very Old World, but from a practical standpoint, was a questionable and risky way to run the country.  Many of the agreements are known as estatutos, and they are sometimes modified if the central government conforms.  This has been another point of contention.


What appears to be a whole slew of provisions made to allow greater freedom to the 16 comunidades autónomas in the country is not carte blanche to do whatever they want.  There are limits, even extreme ones, and most severe comes in the form of a rule known as articulo 155.  This terse clause clearly states that if a comunidad autónoma should fail to meet its obligations as outlined in the constitution, or should act in a way that severely detriments the general interests of Spain, the central government reserves the right to remove the powers of self-government until order has been restored. Just what constitutes a violation of those obligations is left wide open to interpretation, but we can safely say that unilaterally declaring independence from the nation is probably as good as reason as any for the national government to step in and take over.


Just how, was another matter. Article 155 had never been activated in the forty years of democracy, though a threat to use it against the Canary Islands for very different reasons, did take place in the 1980s.  So most people were in the dark as to what was going to happen next.  Except for maybe hypothetical extreme cases where immediate action was required, the process is subject to protocol.  First the regional president must received formal notification and be given time to react or respond.  If  the situation remains unchanged, the primer minister then presents the request to activate the article to the senate, a house which, contrary to its importance in the United States, is a relatively unimportant legislative body in Spain.  This was perhaps its most important intervention in four decades of existence.  The senate was controlled by Rajoy’s PP party and so any proposal was sure to be passed.


The first thing Rajoy did was give Puigdemont five days to clarify if he had in fact decared independence or not.  If so, then he was given an extra two days to rectify.  Should nothing come of that, the senate would vote on the issue two days later.  If it seems as if the national government was acting too slowly and fearfully, there are those who back that argument.   Some felt Rajoy should have enacted Article 155 months before or, at the very latest, once the Oct. 1 referendum was announced.  Some believe Spain would not have been in this position had it acted earlier.  Now it was too little too late.  At this point, the one positive part of the hesitation was that it also allowed for a few more days of room for a possible solution to arise.


It wouldn’t and it didn’t.




December 28, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Carles Puigdemont and the Heartbreakers

I was eager to get inside regional president’s head and figure out just what made him tick.  He was so different from his predecessors.  Jordi Pujol who in comparison seems moderate, turned out to be a money-hording fiend. He and his family amassed upwards of 30 million euros in laundered money and tucked them away in fiscal paradises all over the planet.  Artur Mas was a handsome and gallant man who gave you the impression he was going to charm his way to becoming president of his own country.  But Puigdemont just looked different.  Maybe it was that moppy hair, those glasses, that frail frame, the slight stoop and the hands that always met at the fingertips as he talked.  Maybe.  He had a school boy humbleness about him, sheepish.  And yet, if you gave him a pair of British prep school shorts, you could imagine him taking on the role of Angus Young and air jamming to AC/DC in his basement when no one was home.


Was he presidential material?  The following weeks would tell.  But one thing was for sure, he wasn’t the most law-abiding individuals out there.  Elected head of an autonomous region within the Spanish electoral system, he had endeavored to violate numerous of his country’s own laws, sidestep court rulings, ignore executive orders, betray his own sworn promises to defend the interests of all of his constituents, and use the nation’s institutions to declare independence from it.  Kind of.


Fascinating, to say the least.  Mindboggling would be a better choice.


Puigdemont had declared he would present his case to the Catalan parliament on Monday, October 9th, but when that was pronounced inviable by the central government, he changed the day to Tuesday.  I was beginning to wonder just how long this game was going to continue.  Tuesday came and the members of the regional legislative body were scheduled to meet at 6:00p.m. for what was supposedly going to be one of the most historic moments in Catalan history.  The time came and went, and no Puigdemont or declaration.  They had pushed it back an hour because they were working some points out.  Now, this may have seemed like an insignificant lapse of time on a universal level, but to the outsider, it appeared to be clear sign of hesitation.  About what, no one was really sure.  But if you are planning on telling Spain to kiss off at a specific time, you damn well better show up.  Rumor had it, the independence parties did not agree on the course of action or the wording, a suspicion which was more or less confirmed just a few minutes later when Puigdemont sort fumbled through some explanation that even though he didn’t have the votes or unequivocal proof that Catalonia should be free, he argued that it probably did have enough votes and, regardless, Catalonia had earned its right to declare itself independent.  This is some pretty baffling reasoning and a shrewd use of surgically extracting data to justify you ends which was, as many feared from the beginning, declare independence at any cost.  The crowds outside erupted with emotion as many believed that their time had finally come.  But orgasms last but a few seconds.  Just about the duration of their independence. I joke not.  And there was no cuddling afterward.


Once the roaring had died down, the crowd settled to listen to their fearless leader’s next words.  What they heard was anything but intrepid.  Before the minute was out, Puigdemont had slammed on the brakes and suspended the state of sovereignty temporarily in order to open up a round of talks.  Ok.  Let’s see if we’ve got this straight.  The famous procés, which was synonymous with “unstoppable path towards nationhood” finally, after a lengthy list of pursuasive, albeit, distorted ressons, culminated in a kind of formal announcement in favor of breaking away from Spain, and then they say they want to sit down and talk about it.  Just what was there to talk about?


I gotta be honest with you guys.  I felt sorry for the people out in the streets.  Regardless of their opinions, many as usual were everyday, ordinary citizens who had believed in a cause and had been led to think that this man was going to deliver the goods.  Everything that had been done in the previous few weeks made them think that independence was imminent.  However, he kept the ture intentions of his hand well hidden not only from the central government, but from many of his own supporters.  I would have been peeved, just as many were.  And even though with today’s highly unpredictable situation, one can never quite say where and how this will all end, if Carles Puigdemont ends up being a forgotten element in the secessionist movement, a non-factor, a has-been, we can look to this moment as the point where his downfall all began.


The rest of the world was equally left baffled and struggled to make heads or tails of what just happened.  Rajoy’s administration wanted to know just what had occurred.  Had Puigdemont and company declared independence or not?  International onlookers asked themselves similar questions. It just didn’t add up.


What was he thinking? Puigdemont may have been a victim of excessive fancy footwork.  Trying to appease all sides at once.  Calling for independence to content the most radical groups while asking for time to debate the matter as the more moderate supporters probably hoped for.  After all, despite all the rhetoric, having to leave the European Union was no laughing matter.   It was also possibly an attempt to make him appear to be the only reasonable half in the standoff.  The man offering to find a peaceful solution.  That might garner greater sympathy on an international level.  There is certainly some logic to it, but it was a miscalculation.  The outpouring of sympathy they had received just a week before had, for the most part, turned into cautious observation.


The Spanish government had learned its lesson from October 1st.  It was going to step away from the physical force, but stiffen its position on the political one.  The three main parties, PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos had banded together like a dam so leak-proof there was no where for the secessionists to move.  The pro-independence Catalans, on the other hand, were beginning to show signs of fissures. The fiasco on the evening of October 10th was proof of that.  Then there were knee-jerk reactions by anti-establishment parties, like the CUP which called on Catalans to withdraw their money from the Catalan banks which had moved their headquarters elsewhere.  The measure failed miserably.  Companies were pouring out of the region.


Then there was the articulo 155.






The Catalan Chronicles: Look! Another one!

Up until recently, one of the most celebrated dates in history, and in the calendar year for that matter, was October 12th, the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the new world.  It is still widely observed throughout the Americas, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm, depending on your political leanings and sensitivity towards the plight of the native Americans.  It’s not really vogue to say you are into Columbus these days no matter where you live, but you’d think that if you were the country that financed, sponsored, and supplied the transatlantic enterprise that ushered in the modern age, I mean if you were the nation that made ot all happen, you would want to shout it out to the four winds on an annual basis.


But, what do you know.  Barely a mention of the guy.  None in fact.  In Spain, the day has been annointed over the years with a whole slew of names like the Dia de la Raza, or Day of the Race, which sounds like something Hitler dropped into the Spanish suggestion box, or Día de la Hispanidad, or Day of Hispanic Culture, which appears all-encompassing and Today-friendly, though no one in Spain really refers to it as such.  In 1987, it was officially proclaimed Día Nacional de España y de la Hispanidad, a sort of Fourth of July here.  Most people completely ignored the announcement about as much as the Catalans ignored their own constitution.


What many sources perplexingly leave out is the name, Dia del Pilar, or the feast of the Virgin of the Pillar, Spain’s patron saint.  Many people still refer to it as the puente del Pilar, or the Pilar long weekend.  The fact no one can come to an agreement on what to call the national day, nor concur on why they are celebrating it, should give you an idea of the extent of Spain’s identity crisis.


In most countries where patriotism is involved, the reigning symbol has traditionally been the flag.  In America its presence is almost abusive.  My daughter Clara, when she was but a wee thing, would sit in th back seat of my car and spout out, “Look, another one!”  at every visible flag waving and draped from the houses in the towns of Connecticut.  It was July and they were legion.  The phrase was uttered so many times that Clara, in her innocence came to the conclusion that there “anotherone” was the word in English for flag.  She summed it up by saying she had seen many “anotherones” in the United States.  It was a image not so often shared back in Spain.


Just as Spain’s national holiday struggles to rally support the way you might expect from a traditional country, so is its flag the object of cautious support.  The distinctive red and yellow bands might triumph in traditional places like bullrings and main squares during fiestas, but for years your average visitor was hard pressed to find the kind of national pride most nations take on.  The reason was the following: the classic Spanish flag was for years linked almost inextricably, though inexplicably, to the Franco regime and other hard-line conservative thinking.  It is essentially the same flag from that period, but with the black eagle of the fascists being replaced by the royal seal of Spain.  The difference mattered much to some but little to others.  But with the exception of maybe the day Spain won the World Cup, snapping out the rojigualda (as it is known by) and hanging it from the balcony.  That is why October 12th was always quite notable for its notable absence of patriotism.


Enter the Catalan independence movement and, voilà, everyone is feeling quite Spanishy.  Finally.  You see, one of the by-products of the secessionist threat was a resurgence of pro-Spain pride.  And not for all the obvious reasons.  For Catalans in favor of independence to bolster their cause, they felt the need to make Spain look as nasty and mean as possible.  That’s also why the fiasco on October 1st looked so much worse, because it played into the hands of the secessionists.  Many Spaniards who otherwise were not prone to parading around boasting about Spain were suddenly spurred into defending themselves and their nation.  Spanish flags began to mushroom in towns and cities all over the country.  And the five-and-dime stores, owned mainly by Chinese nationals, as is customary here, made a killing on pro-Spain paraphernalia.  It suddenly felt good to be from Spain.


Then it was the pro-unity side’s turn to hit the streets and let their voices be heard.   Madrid chose Saturday, October 7th, in the Plaza de Colón (Columbus Square).  The reference to the famed mariner was probably unintentional.  What was no fluke was the fact the demonstration took place in the very same square where the biggest Spanish flag in the country waved.  This banner is so inordinately spacious that it borders on the ridiculous.  It’s dimensions take up 294 m2, almost the size of a basketball court.


Naturally little had been taking place in Madrid because the conflict was unfolding 400 miles to the east, so any chance to get into the thick of things was welcome.  In my case that meant moseying down to see thousands of people demand Spanish unity for the betterment of Spain and Catalonia, regardless of whether the Catalans were aware of it or not.  Not so surprisingly, there was a multitude there.  Just what constituted that number was a matter of ideology and political standpoint.  The organizers came up with ballpark figure of about 200,000 attendees, which is a pretty big ballpark if you ask me.  They seemed to base their numbers on objectives rather than objects.  The local police, generally a more reliable source, estimated that some 50,000 people were present.  That may have been low-balling it a touch, but not by far, from what I could tell.


The international press quickly picked up on this and gave it quite a bit of importance.  If they had any knowledge of demonstrations in Madrid, they would realize that the number wasn’t that high, when compared to others in the past, and that the rally took place but a stone’s throw from the Barrio de Salamanca neighborhood, which is a pretty and traditional bastion of conservative Spanish values.  It doesn’t take a lot to get a crowd that size out there.  It was a nice Saturday morning family outing, which could be timed perfectly with an aperitivo afterwards. Nonetheless, it was the first message to the world.


Far more important was the march for Spanish union which had been called for the next day in the very city of Barcelona.  The degree of response to the cry would be key to both sides.  If there was a silent majority out there, as the central goverment purported, this was thei chance.  On that morning, hundreds of thousands flooded the streets wielding both Catalan and Spanish flags in favor of Catalonia remaining in Spain.  Once again, the organizers claimed a staggering 1.5 million supporters showed up, but you get the feeling that was the pre-game figure they came up with no matter how many attended.  The police said it was more like 400,000.  My guesstimate is that it was closer to half a million.  Regardless, the numbers were nothing to scoff at.  I noticed that the media was finally starting to understand that the impression originally given that most of Catalonia was just dying to break away, maybe someone had tried to pull the wool over eyes.   Maybe someone who had been for decades claiming dead writers sympathize with their cause.  Things, in fact, were a lot more complex.


And they were only going to get more so in the future.



December 26, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Exodus, movement of the Euro

Tags: , , ,

During the first week of October, things could not have looked bleaker for the pro-union parties.  The Spanish government was licking its wounds from its disasterous performance on October 1st and learning that plugging a group of generally peaceful proponents of a democratic vote with rubber balls is not the way to garner sympathy from the general public; there were general strikes in protest that were crippling Catalonia; the foreign press and social networks were lighting up the internet with support for the victims of “Spanish oppression”; even King Felipe VI of Spain’s attempt to put things in their place had failed miserably.  The king is a good man, I guess, and he tries to help the monarchy return to the respectability it has lost over the previous few years as a result of some unseemly behavior by members of the royal family, but he doesn’t seem to carry much weight in the matter, if you ask me.  Three decades before, his father came to rescue when he ordered the fascist coup d’etat to back down, pretty much cementing his place of honor in contemporary Spanish history.  His son tried to pull something similar and almost got laughed out of town.  The problem this time was that the pro-independence Catalans are self-proclaimed republicans, that is, they are anti-monarchical, and pretty much could not care less about what the king has to say.   It was a hopeless cause from the beginning.  It was a hopeless result as a result.


But, alas, not everything was going the independentists’ way.  Poderoso caballero es don dinero, so goes the saying in Spanish as coined by the Spanish writer Francisco de Quevedo.  It translates rather literally as “Mr. Money is a powerful gentleman”, except the Spanish version rhymes and just flows better.  The English version which most succinctly sum up the poetic verse might be “money talks”.


You see, while a sizeable percentage of the Catalan population was getting all orgasmic about creating a new state, some of the region’s most important financial and business institutions had an entirely different course of action in mind: leaving.  Literally picking up and relocating to other parts of Spain…just in case.  They weren’t closing offices and laying off workers, or anything like that. They just moved their headquarters elsewhere to ensure they would remain in Spain.   It started with Catalonia’s two largest banks, Caixabank and Sabadell, and the major utilities like the water company and natural gas, construction and many, many others.  After a week, hundreds had packed up and settled on the other side of the hypothetical border.


The reason, in many cases, is not really so much a question of rejecting political reality as it is one of taking refuge from very real economic disaster, as becoming an independent country would mean being kicked out of the European Union and, as a result, the euro.  Secessionists tried to play down the importance of outflow, arguing that moving the headquarters didn’t mean anything, but that’s a total crock.  They were scared shitless, and for so pretty good reasons.  1. Fiscally speaking, moving your headquarters to another part of Spain means reducing corporate tax revenue for Catalonia, and that is never good.  2.  On an international level, this looked horrible.  How can you convince the world your movement is bonafide if all your major corporations, including your main financial institutions are going awol? What kind of message does it send to investors abroad?


A dreadful one.  Catalonia had already suffered a drop of nearly 75% in foreign investment in the third quarter…before the real tension got going.  As a result, it lost its position as second in this category to the Basque Country.  One can only guess at what has happened since then.  We will find out soon enough, but as of December, more than 3,000 firms have packed up and gone, and the exodus has not ended.  Radical nationalists, often of the anti-establishment nature, will tell you that they are willing to ride out the storm if it means achieving sovereignty.  But many of them are the people without tbe moolah.  You should ask the ones who have it and you will get a very different answer.


Catalonia has always prided itself in its long and successful history as a land of merchants, traders, entrepreneurs and shrewd business practices.  That’s why it alone makes up about 20% of Spain’s economy.  Ironically, this strength which they use to argue that they are the nation’s turbine and thus deserve to be their own country (that makes no sense whatsoever, but nor do most of their arguments), just happens to be the area which is doing the most damage to their cause.  Money is their true king.




December 8, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Something doesn’t seem quite right

Tags: , ,

It is tempting to say that the central government had fallen for a trap when it ordered members of the law enforcement to get involved.  It’s tempting, oh, so very tempting.  By doing so it would have at least taken some of the sting out of the blunder on that fateful Sunday,  October 1, but the truth of the matter was that this was a totally avoidable situation and it probably had more to do with the fact the government thought it could pull it off than anything else.   A bit of arrogance, if I dare say.  Why did they think that?  I really have no idea.


First, let’s get a few facts straight.  Let it be known that, as a rule, security forces in Spain are very restrained, honorable and dutiful professionals who are respectful of citizens’ rights, helpful and perform their jobs very well.   They had been calm and collected throughout the weeks leading up to the referendum and kept their poise in a land where they know they aren’t loved.


On that day, though, things got out of hand.  Quite a bit so.  Maybe they were following orders; maybe the nerves got the best of them in some cases; but there were casualties.  Just how many is hard to say, but it wasn’t a handful.  The Catalan government registered initially somewhere in the neigborhood of 900 individuals requiring medical attention as a result of police charges.  These were hardly flattering numbers for a force that was supposed to keep law and order in a highly tense situation.  But were they all caused by the police charges?  The next day, the Catalan government was forced to clarify that the number they had given the day before referred to all the patients and not necessarily those hurt in the riots.


But the damage was done and the separatists had a field day.  The ANC tweeted that not since World War II had the streets of a European city seen so many wounded.  The ANC is an association that promotes Catalan culture, but it doubles as a propaganda machine for the independence movement.  It is known to do so without the slightest scruples regarding accuracy.  It has also proven itself in the past to have a rather liberal interpretation of history.  For example, according to its seminars on Catalan history, it turns out that Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Cervantes were actually born in Catalonia.  Why? Because they say so.  By the way, they also discovered America fifteen years before the rest of Spain. Why? Because they say so.


It doesn’t stop there.  In the 16th Century it was the world’s supreme super power, with strength so great it can only be compared to the United States in the second half of the 20th Century.  And, let’s see, the entire apparatus of the Roman Empire owes its success almost exclusively to the Catalan cities of the time.  We would all get a good laugh out of this if it weren’t for the fact that so many people who attended these courses believe it.  It’s also called indoctrination.  Or just plain lying.


None of my bitching, of course, should take away from the fact that there were instances where the police adopted an attitude that many would consider abusive.  Including me.  This is not anything I read about.  I watched it with my own eyes as officers bushwhacked their way through crowds with uncommon zeal, dragged elderly women away and fired rubber balls into crowds.  What was wrong with that? Don’t law enforcement officials have to take drastic measures from time to time? Well, maybe. In fact, one of the most graphic images sent around the planet that day, one of a man with a bloody face, actually came from a demostration five years earlier, and the culprits then were the regional police, the mossos d’esquadra.  So desperate were some to depict the Spanish police and its alleged brutality that they resorted to fake news.


So, yes, there were times when these things happened.  But this was not one of those times.  The majority of the protesters were serious about their cause but they were generally everyday citizens practicing passive resistance.  That day the police should have been there to ease tensions, not rile them.


The use of the police was not just short-sighted, it was just plain dumb. After all, what had they hoped to achieve? Stop the referendum.  Despite the effort, 2.5 million Catalans still deposited their vote in the ballot box. So we could chalk that up as an utter failure.  And I don’t know where to start about Spain’s public relations image.  Someone up top had forgotten that in today’s society anyone who has a smart phone, in other words everyone, is a potential graphic reporter, each with a twitter account cocked and loaded and ready for action.  The international community looked on with dismay.  Even the United Nations considered investigating to see if their were human rights violations.  How embarrassing is that?


There was so little to gain, and so much to be lost.  And for a while there, it seemed as if Spain had lost everything.


While it appeared as if the independence backers were basking in the attention they were getting, they made some mistakes too.  The errors wouldn’t become immediately evident to many, but they would be costly down the road. What were they?


1) To begin with, 45 minutes before the polling stations were opened, the government of Catalonia announced that, given the situation, voters no longer had to go to their own assigned location but could now vote anywhere.  This may have seemed like a cunning trick to undermine Spain’s efforts, but it was a poorly thought out decision. By doing so, they effectively began to delegitimize their own referendum, as no foreign observer in their right mind was going to vouch for such a chaotic situation.  There were videos of the same person voting at different stations on the same day.  Cameras filmed people stuffing unattended ballot boxes in the streets.  There were towns with 200 residents registering over a 1,000 votes in favor.  These all but confirmed suspicions.


2) They also decided to use translucent but not transparent ballot boxes, as was customary, once again raising concerns about the validity and transparency of the vote and posterior count.


3) That evening, with just 43% participation (and 39% in favor of indepedence), Carles Puigdemont announced he had enough support to recommend that the Catalan parliament initiate the process of independence, in accordance to the law they had passed weeks before.  This statement made the international community consider two points: first of all, Puigdemont needed a refresher course in what constitutes a majority; and more seriously, it became clear to some that all the talk about democracy was just a pile of manure.  The feeling was the separatists had intended to go ahead with the declaring independence no matter what the results were.  The referendum wasn’t proof, it was an excuse.


And finally, one nagging point started to surface.  One that I believe even Puigdemont and company had become too blind to see.  These were democratically elected officials, sworn to uphold the institutions of not just their region but those of the country as a whole, who had sidestepped the law, ignored supreme court rulings, walked all over the rights of the majority of its constituents, and were now overtly encouraging civil disobedience, while at the same time constantly changing the rules of the game so that they work in their favor.  And all in the name of liberty and justice for all.  You get the feeling they thought they had it in the bag.  That the rest of the world was going overlook all that and leap to their defence to save them from the bad old Spanish Inquisition.  But not everyone was taking the bait.


As a friend of mine put it.  “I want to believe these guys, but something just doesn’t seem right.”





The Catalan Chronicles: Who had that brilliant idea?

Tags: , , ,

Back in February, 1981, as I was whiling away my youth watching reruns of the Odd Couple, during a special session of the Spanish parliament in which Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was expected to be sworn in as interim prime minister, a colonel from Spain’s paramilitary force, the once feared Guardia Civil, literally marched into the chamber and ordered everyone to hit the deck.  When the members of parliament, in their stupor, were slow to react, he fired several shots into the ceiling to speed things up.  It worked.


Amidst the growing concern that Spain’s young democracy was spiraling out of control (a belief brought about, in part, by the increasing demands for independence by nationalist groups in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia), the Spanish political right, spearheaded by old Francoists and some of the armed forces, reverted to doing what it liked to do when it felt its country’s values and traditions were at risk: it tried to overthrow a legitimate government by means of force.  I figure they thought it had worked for them in 1936, so why not give it another go.


It boggles the mind to think that, at a time when virginy Lady Di was preparing for her future wedding with Prince Charles, there was actually a Western European country that found itself embroiled in something you’d think only happened in certain developing nations.  But, as they say here, Spain is different.  This event was the Kennedy-assassination moment for Spaniards.  The 9/11 for more recent generations.  Everyone who was aware back then can recall just exactly where they were when it happened.  Since the voting was being broadcast live on TV, much of that “everyone” was sitting in their living rooms watching in horror.  Tanks were rolling through the streets of Valencia.  Gunshots had been fired. There was real fear that Spain would be thrown into another civil war.


The coup attempt did not last long, thank God, since it was a failure. King Juan Carlos I, in his finest hour for sure as head of state, ordered the insurgents to obey him as their commander-in-chief and give themselves up. The constitution was the only way to go. Democracy was saved. Morevover, much of the expected support for the uprising had failed to materialize anyway, so after twenty-four very tense hours, the crisis had come to end.


Now, none of these scenarios were really being shuffled on October 1, but their effects on the memories of the Spanish, in addition to the years of Franco oppression, were long-lasting.  And let’s not forget that Rajoy’s own party, the PP, had been founded by former member of the Generalisimo’s regime.  Let’s also get something straight.  The PP is not a far right, fascist party, as some would have the world think.  It would generally be considered center-right by today’s standards.  But its image is another matter.  I mention these points because they still have an effect on Spanish psyche, and they would also be mentioned in the following days by some members of the international press.  And that made it very obvious that it had to tread very carefully when dealing with the Catalan situation.  Any show of force would be magnified manifold.  Everyone seemed to understand that except, it seems, for the PP.


The Rajoy administration had guaranteed there would be no referendum.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  That may be fine and dandy, but just how it planned on preventing people from heading out to the polls was the million euro question.  Especially in today’s high tech world, where just about nothing is preventable.  But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.


The authorities chased down all attempts to set up a vote, some more effective than others, but overall, the end result was that the world was witnessing a government try to keep its own people from holding a democratic process.  Oops. That didn’t look good.  And no matter how hard the government tried to get the message out that it was merely defending the constitution, that’s not how it looked.  Lincoln was doing the same in 1861, but with a noticeable difference.  The South was trying to defend its right to self-determination based on its belief it could continue with legalized human bondage…and that was a hard sell for the international community, even back then.


On top of that, the national government simply did not possess the means or manpower to see its plan through.  Anything short of a military occupation was going to be insufficient, and that was not an option.  Part of this problem of understaffing was due to the fact that the Catalan regional police force, the mossos d’esquadra, could not be relied on as their allegiance was under serious question.  Ensuing events would prove these suspicions right.


And there was one more downside to the government’s verve to shut down the vote: rather predictably, it only produced an even greater desire to challenge authority.  It’s pretty basic psychology.


Anyway, October 1 came, and I whipped up some pancakes, made myself some good coffee and sat down in front of the TV to watch Spain fall apart before my very eyes.  It was a dark and rainy morning, but by eight o’clock, there were mile-long queues lining up outside of schools around the region, formed by thousands of Catalans willing to defy the government.


The law enforcement personnel went into action by trying to break through human barriers, many formed by families of the schools where the polls were, as well as other committed pro-independence supporters.  The results were predictable.  The police, all decked out in their imposing riot gear, took to trying to ram through the walls or just peel people away.  There was plenty of shoving, tugging and shouting.  On occasion, they employed their truncheons far too vigorously.


“So,” I thought to myself as I watch the story unfold before me, “who the hell came up with that brilliant idea?”


The phantoms of the past were running rampant through the streets of Barcelona.


December 7, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: The Guns of September

Tags: , , , ,

The Catalan government gave everyone just about three weeks to ready themselves for the referendum, so within hours of the passing of the independence law, everyone dropped their plates of paella and raced to position themselves for the great clash.  I had just gotten back from Portugal and was trying to get a handle on just what the hell was going on.  I mean, this was Spain, for Christ’s sake…the independence movements were supposed to be talked about…not really acted upon.


Deep down, however, I knew this was a run-in which had been a long time in the coming.  I had students from the 1990s swearing on the Bible that Spain would not collapse into another Yugoslavia Reboot, but they didn’t know what I did.  They hadn’t seen the James Joyce ads in the Herald Tribune.  They hadn’t detected the tunnel being dug beneath the castle walls.  The Spanish also failed, it seems, to understand that all those years of pacting with nationalist parties just to have control over parliament was going to land them with a hefty bill.  After decades of wrestling over issues, compromising, conceding and rescinding, bickering back and forth, it seemed, though, that this time there would be no negotiating.


Prime Minister Rajoy chose a route that was fairly clever, even for Rajoy, and on paper it made sense. He let the judicial branch dictate his policy for him.  All he had to do was execute the court orders. This meant that it wouldn’t be his conservative Popular Party depriving the Catalonians of their desire to vote.  He would be obeying a higher law known as the constitution.  No one could accuse him of acting unilaterally.


He also managed to get his party’s historic rivals, the Socialist Party, PSOE, and a young and good-looking center-right party, Ciudadanos, to join in alliance.  It was almost unprecendeted.  But then again, so was the situation in Spain’s young democracy.  The other major national party, the rehashed left wingers called Podemos, shied from the union. You see, its leader Pablo Iglesias hates Rajoy so much, that he just couldn’t bring himself to supporting the country’s head of state for the betterment of nation.  Iglesias was also within a whisker of overtaking the Socialist Party as the country’s main left wing force.  The implosion of his country seemed, puzzlingly, like the ideal moment to go for the winning touchdown.  Instead, he shot himself in the foot.


Iglesias was a proponent of the referendum, which is legitimate enough.    He just forgot that he was backing a group of politicians which had basically just flushed democracy and the law down the toilet, and wiped their butts with the constitution.  Iglesias also failed to recall that his own party represented much of the rest of Spain and not just Catalan interests.  So, when at a political rally, he stood over the podium in his characteristic haunch, raised his right fist and shouted “Visca Catalunya!”, or “Long live Catalonia!” in Catalan, it goes down as one of the most boneheaded acts in recent Spanish history. It’s not just me.  His own constituents made him aware of this screw-up, as support for his party fled like rats on a sinking ship.


Puigdemont and company were playing the “poor little us” routine, seeking international sympathy for their cause.  And they were adept at it.  Afterall, if you know nothing about the issue, as was the case for most people, you think to yourself, “Of course, they have that right to decide for themselves. Those bad old Spaniards!”  And for much of the 20th Century, they weren’t the nicest guys in town.  Forty years of ultra-conservative dictatorship under the Franco regime had made their mark.  That may seem like a long time to many, but consider this: one of the most heated debates in the United States this year had to do with what to do with the old Confederate Civil War statues that stood in many cities.  It’s a conflict that came to an end, at least on a military level, over 150 years ago.


Defending democracy and the right to hold a referendum was the separatists’ strongest argument, and the Spanish government’s weakest.  Ironically, defending democracy and the duty to uphold the constitution was one of the national government’s best points.  All the same, the separatists went for the jugular with their rhetoric.  They threw in “Franco” here and there, “fascism” when they could, and “oppression” quite often.  All the familiar ghosts from the past.


In the final couple of days leading up to the referendum, you got the feeling the Rajoy administration was doing everything in its power to ensure that the world had that very negative image of Spain.  It was persecuting councilmen, jailing leaders for sedition, threatening with taking legal action against mayors who disobeyed court orders, tracking down and confiscating ballots from warehouses, roping off professional printing centers, shutting down websites, demanding Google remove sites which provided information on polling districts.  At the same time, it was trying to pursuade the international community that the referendum meant nothing.  It sure didn’t look that way.


Then October 1 came.











December 6, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: If first you don’t succeed…

One of the bigger concerns of the many the Spanish government has about allowing a refrendum is that the people who are really passionate about holding one, i.e. those who want change, are inclined to never be satisfied with the results.  After all, status quoers are often relieved to see such radical proposals shot down and prefer to put everything behind them once the whole ordeal is over with.  And they usually get their way because, what the heck, most people don’t want to leave their comfort zones, so independence referendums tend to fail.


Consider the Scottish situation.  After an exemplary process and vote in 2014, the Scottish movement in favor of independence took a greater blow than expected, with little over 44% supporting an exit.  That’s a sizable margin by most standards, especially considering that 85% participated.   Essentially, the Scottish Nationalist Party was taken to the cleaners.  The events took place peacefully, and the both sides accepted the decision.  Yes, the losers accepted the decision, but they didn’t give up the fight.  Why? Because if your final goal is to live to see your land become a sovereign nation, anything short of that is going to be, well, unacceptable in the end.


Full victory, nothing else, as Ike would have said.


Ironically, pro-independence sky-rocketed in Scotland in the ensuing months, and ever since the Brexit vote to leave the EU, an outcome hardly anyone expected and one which the Scots strongly opposed, there has been a resurgance of talk about holding another referendum because the UK’s departure was not in the plans for Scotland when they voted to stay.  There may a shred of logic to their reasoning, but let’s face it, just about any excuse is good enough to call for another plebiscite.


Spain’s main government is caught in this dilemma.  Till this day, its biggest strategy is to basically ignore the notion altogether.  You can’t do it, and that’s that.  The constitution backs them up, and so do Spaniards who like Real Madrid and stabbing heavily wounded bulls, but it’s shakey ground for many.  In the 2014 consultation, their line of argument was that the election was totally illegal and, therefore, not valid.  If you give it no consideration, you avoid granting it any legitimacy.  Then it proceeded to press charges against Artur Mas for disobeying court orders.  This was an understandable stance because, afterall, he was.  The man was holding public office and was in theory bound to uphold the law.  You’d think, at least.   Still, the Rajoy administration’s disdain for Catalonia’s desire “just to have that one chance to vote” began to work against it.


New regional elections in 2015 scrambled the political scenario once again.  I dare not venture into trying to give you a rundown on the alphabet soup of parties that vied for control, mainly because they have changed over and over again in the past fifteen years.  Plus, many are alliances of smaller parties which, after the elections, join other alliances to run the show.  This system often makes it possible for coalitions to be formed through political pacts, but it can also get messy when differemces over policy arise and mistrust simmers.  All the same, the pro-independence parties loss the popular vote by two points but carried the majority in parliamentary seats.  They named Carles Puidgemont, a shaggy haired official who looked like he came straight out of a British boarding school, who announced that before his tenure was up, Catalonia would be an independent nation. That’s a pretty tall order.


Madrid and Barcelona wrestled over the issue well into 2017. In June, Puigdemont announced that a referendum would be held on Oct. 1st, and the political stage was ablaze that summer.  Even so, most people I knew thought nothing would come of it.  They thought because that is what many Spaniards have believed for decades.  It just won’t happen.  Well, sorry.  On September 6th, the Catalan parliament voted in a new law that said they could.  The opposition walked out in protest before the vote took place.  In their opinion, 52% of the voters were been pushed aside.  The secessionists didn’t care.  They were going to steamroll their agenda over protocol to the very end, no matter what the rest said.


Full victory, nothing less.


December 5, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: The R Word

Tags: , ,

One of the emotionally charged issues regarding the Catalonian independence movement is the famous referendum, or R word, as I call it, because it’s probably the debate that irritates both ends more than any.  It’s the event that has contributed to both sides ramming head on into each other.  It’s also where you have to deal with the most absurd argument of this argument and probably the most childish behavior.


First of all, let me make it clear that I have always been in favor of a referendum for a couple of reasons, not the least being that people should and do have a right to decide what they want to be.  A chance to determine their own future, so to speak.  Especially if enough of them want it to happen.  It’s as universal a right as you can get.  I also feel that not allowing a referendum has been one of the Spanish government’s weakest links in its defence of unity. It makes it look inflexible and authoritarian (not a good thing as we still live in the wake of the Franco era), foolishly democratically unfriendly, especially when comparisons are made with Scotland and Quebec (though I’d like to see Vermont try to hold a referendum and see what the federal government would say), and finally, it was just a plain marketing blunder on their part.  You can say what you want about the Catalans, but they always have to referendum on their side.


In my humble opinion, Spain had a golden opportunity a few years ago.  They could have allowed a referendum, assisted in its process and handling, ensured it was done correctly and, barring some catastrophe, won by a sizable margin, because, let’s face it, the numbers weren’t there for the secessionists. Not by a long shot.  And then the Spanish government could have always shown the world, “hey, they had their chance.”  But that’s neither here nor there.  They didn’t.  Why?


1. First of all, because the constitution does not contemplate this eventuality.  Once you’re in, you’re in for good. Honest Abe Lincoln certainly would have seconded that, and the Spanish government certainly does too.


2. There is nagging worry that if the central government allowed the separatist Catalans to have a stab at self-determination, they would in some ways being granting legitimacy to their cause, which in many ways would undermine the previously mentioned belief that independence is not an option.  So why let them vote on it?  There is some logic to this argument, which is a rarity in this story.


3.  Even if they did allow a plebiscite to take place and a predictable NO vote against independence was to take the day, chances are the separatists would fight on.  In other words, the referendum would only be valid when the desired result was finally obtained.  That sort of makes sense because independence supporters have a record of behaving in such a way.


4. They argue that over the past forty years, Catalonia has held plenty of regional elections which in their own way give the Catalans a right to express their feelings.


5. They didn’t feel like it.


Some hardcore Spaniards advocate a referendum but insist that all of Spain have a say in the matter, which is utter balderdash, as the results would be a foregone conclusion and the real subjects involved would be totally overlooked.  A mental masturbation by ultra-conservative unionists envisions the rest of the country voting to actually oust the region from Spain.  Now wouldn’t that be funny.  Catalonia would probably stay in if only to defy the will of Spain!!!


Regardless, whether the central government liked it or not, time finally came for a referendum.  The year was 2014, and the president of the region, Artur Mas, had decided that Catalonia needed to decide its own future, for a whole bunch of reasons.  These included growing frustration with the way the goverment was handling the economic recession, and another had to do with the Constitutional Court, at the behest of the PP, repealed or retouched 13 articles from the newly signed agreement from 2006. This supposedly infuriated the Catalans, though the remaining 215 articles were apparently left alone.


As usual, the national government opposed the idea, the national parliament rejected it by a landslide and the courts outright banned it? But the Catalans went ahead with it anyway, passing laws that made their aims possible and thus sidestepping protocol.  There has been a consistency with this.  If playing by the rules doesn’t get you what you want…just change the rules.  The vote was no longer a referendum but rather a legally vague term known as a Consulta.  This sort of semantic fooling around has run rampant on both ends.


Mas also made a few astute adjustments regarding just who could vote.  Three new groups were added: legal residents from foreign countries, minors who were 16 and 17, and just about any voter from abroad who ever spent a day in Catalonia.  There were unquestionable benefits to their inclusion.  The foreigners living in Catalonia would be less likely to feel allegiance to Spain as a whole and prone to identifying with the interests of the region; the teenagers were from a generation of Catalan youth heavily influenced by years of schooling where anti-Spain sentiment was widespread; and clearly anyone who wanted to send a message from abroad, it was apt to be the kind of individual who adopted a kind of nostalgia for the motherland or fatherland or homeland, what have you. Few examiners have picked up on these details, but I can assure you, they were important.


The vote took place in many schools and was financed in part with public money, even though it had been declared illegal.  It was held on November 9, and this time the police didn’t decide to bash heads, thank God.  The day transpired without an incident.  To date, it was as close to a true plebiscite on self-determination as they have ever come.


The next day, the Generalitat (Catalonia’s government) announced that a whopping 81% had voted in favor of independence.  It was an overwhelming majority.  A landslide.   Mas jumped all over the results and claimed it was a rousing success, which of course, it wasn’t.  Here’s why.  The finagling of participation eligibility meant no one really knew just how many people could potentially vote.  But one was for sure, it was a lot more than usual.  The number of final voters hovered around the 2.3 million mark, and that, while no small figure, constitutes about 37% of the voting population (according to the most serious estimates).  81% of that percentage means that in reality, only about 30% voted in favor of breaking away.  That’s right, 30%.


Some may argue that participation was low because the consultation was rendered illegal, but let’s face it, when people want to be defiant, those matters are of little importance.  If larger numbers had wanted to flock to the polls, they could have.  But they chose not to.  All the same, the separatists were sharp about getting that 81% number out there, and it’s still referred to in international stories on the subject. Mas had managed to turn what I considered to be semi-flop into a great achievement.  It would not be the first time or the last.


The central government completely misread the situation and wasted a golden opportunity. They dismissed the vote as illegal and inconsequential.  It had no validity, so who cared?  Well, a lot of people did. Afterall, 2.3 million voters is nothing to turn your nose up at.  Mas didn’t have a lot to work with, but he had enough to make noise.  Plus, it seemed pretty much clear as day that, were a formal referendum to be held, the no vote was a shoe in.  The unionists had it in the bag.  And once they had held one, no one, absolutely no one could say Catalonia was never given its chance.


So instead of capitalizing on the situation, the national government did what irresponsible people do when they are in debt and get a bill in the mail.  They turned on the TV really loud, watched endless episodes of Pawn Stars, and pretended it didn’t exist.  It just never happened.  This total lack of regard for the Catalan independence movement, this foolish hope that it would just go away by itself, was a whole lot of wishful thinking.  Why?  Plus, it was a little late for that.









December 2, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: A long, long time ago

Tags: ,

There is an excellent book on socio-economics written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner called Freakonomics which was actually a collection of articles discussing a whole slew of totally unrelated issues with no apparent purpose at all…not wholly unlike my teaching style.    In their case, however, they actually had one thing in common: they were willing to look at issues in unconventional ways.  They were also effective.


Not so surprisingly, the authors’ conclusions were often no less eyebrow-raising and, on occasion, shocking, when not altogether controversial.  Good books should be like that.  For example, they explored the notion that the crime rate in the 1990s in America did not decline dramatically due to increased sizes in the nation’s police force, as was commonly believed at the time, but rather as a result of an entirely different event which had taken place twenty years earlier: the introduction of legalized abortion. The assertion was startling to many and even dismissed by some experts.  But one thing was unquestionably valid: the writers reminded us of just how important it was to think out of the box when trying to study the cause of certain phenomenon.


This book invariably came to mind when I started reading numerous articles in foreign newspapers and noticed that time and time again they would suggest that the Catalan independence movement really was a product of things going awry in the past ten years: major causes ran from the economic crisis to the corruption scandals involving members of the ruling party, the conservative Partido Popular (PP), the repealing of the Catalan Estatut, which is a kind of agreement the region had with the Spanish government.  When you are talking about a conflict which predates any living Spaniard today, no matter how many years he has added to his life expectancy thanks to the fabulous Mediterranean diet, is there really any truth to it?


Granted, it is true there was a rough spell of economic inactivity, which the PP had inherited for the most part from the previous administration.  The problem was so ginormous that it wasn’t like they could turn things around overnight.  Everyone had to tighten their belt and suck it up.  And it sucked.  We teachers in Madrid had our Christmas bonus payment withheld.  It really wasn’t actually a bonus at all, but rather a 7% cut in our salary that year, let’s stop kidding ourselves.  We didn’t take to kindly to it at the time, but it sure beat lining up at the unemployment office.  Eventually we were all paid back, but it goes to show lots of people all over the country were feeling the squeeze, not just the Catalans.  And you don’t see us wanting to separate from Toledo. Please.


And it’s also true that the PP as a ruling party had also done just about everything a party can do to undermine its own credibility, with over 800 cases nationwide of unethical and outright illegal behavior and practices under investigation, making it one of the most criminally-investigated political formations in recent memory.  I tell you, if you want to learn how to have your reputation as a trustworthy individual go down the toilet while in public office, these are the guys to talk to.


The party has finally tried to take a tough stance on these abuses of power, but the damage was done.  In the 2016 elections, they lost 56 seats in parliament and 3.5 million votes.   A blistering knuckle-rap if there ever was one.  Another consequence was the founding of two new parties which have, for the time being at least, done away with the two-party system and are playing a crucial part in the most recent developments.    One party is a kind of conservative-leaning, but not really right wing party, known as Ciudadanos.  It’s hard at times to really know what these people represent, but one thing is for sure, all the leaders are really good-looking, which must be a prerequisite to becoming a candidate.   The left wing, which had been in tatters for years after totally misreading the winds of change in Spain’s rise to prominence, abandoned the old traditional parties and regrouped under the guidance of a pony-tailed former college professor named Pablo Iglesias.  I’ll tell you more about him at another time because he’s done a fine job of tanking his own cause.


No, those aren’t the reasons. They are merely the most recent episodes in a very, very long series of events which have stymied unity and union in this country.  And, as you can expect, just where you want to begin depends heavily on what your perspective is.  Let’s take a look:


  • Pro-union Spain likes to go back to the very dawn of time to dig up proof that Catalonia has never, ever, ever been its own country.  And even if they wanted to play fair and pick up at the beginning of the Christian Reconquest, their position is essentially the same.  Their argument is flawed if only for the reason that the fact they haven’t been their own country, doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to become one. Duh.
  • Hardcore Spaniards also point to the fact Catalonia was only a county and then a principality, and for centuries belonged to the Kingdom of Aragon, as in “Catherine of” fame, and they have a point…but only to a point.  Catalonia did have its own institutions back then too.  Its courts were among the earliest in Europe.
  • Independence supporters sometimes cite the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1704), as Catalonia’s first true attempt to break away. They claim they backed Archduke Charles to be king and not Philip V, and the Philip imposed his will on the Catalans.  That’s B.S.  They actually welcomed defended Philip at first, and only switched sides when they felt threatened by the influx of French commerce.
  • The Catalans often hark back to the 19th Century, and the cultural and nationalist renaissance that soared in many parts of Spain, not just Catalonia, not to mention Europe, where Germany and Italy were forming.
  • Skipping over to the 20th Century, Spain was a monarchless republic, as most are, in the 1930s, and it was at this time that Catalonia claims to have declared independence under Lluis Campanys. The Spanish government, as well as many conservative Catalans, did not look upon that with favor, and suppressed the movement.  He would later be freed and ran Catalonia during the Civil War before having to go into exile. Poor man, he was later detained in France, extradited, jailed and finally executed.  Naturally, he is a major hero of the Catalan cause.
  • The Franco regime is often a referred to as a blemish in the pro-Spain movement. Forty years of bliss for conservative and traditional Spaniards whose consequences, forty years later, the country would in part be paying a price for.  At least say some.  If by 1978, those with power, those with first-hand knowledge were letting bygones be bygones, it is sort of hard to understand why those who had nothing to do with try to use it as an excuse.
  • Pro-Spain advocates love to allude to the 1978 Constitution as their starting point.  It flat out says the country is based on the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” Yeap, and 90% of the Catalan voters supported that statement.
  • Yeah, but then the opposition will say that they were let down by the system and to longer believes in the constitution.  This might be valid if it weren’t for the fact that, if anything, Catalonia has increased its autonomy since then. It enjoys more freedoms than forty years ago and lives a perfectly healthy and happy existence…unless you want to be independent, that is.

Conclusion.  What would the freakonomists have to say?  I couldn’t begin to guess. I’m not as smart as those guys.  But if I had to go out on a limb, I’d say that just around the time constitution was passed at signed, a number of people smiled silently and said to themselves, we’re not done yet.


We still aren’t.