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.”