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January 10, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: More Inconvenient Truths

A few years back, a Spanish comedy came out in theaters that would end up becoming the most popular film in this country’s history.  It was called Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Eight Basque Surnames) which is a reference to the sanguine purity of one’s origins.  An individual could not call themselves a true Basque if not all eight last names were Basque.  What does that mean exactly? How shall I explain this? You see, in Spain, a person has two last names; the first from the father and the second from the mother.  Each parent has two, totaling four.  So, following that system, if you go back and analyze each surname of all four grandparents and prove that they are all from Basque Country, then you are a true 100% native.  The movie was a sleeper blockbuster mainly due to the fact that it touched on so many previously thought taboo topics, like the Basque terrorist group, ETA.  A groundbreaking strip of celluloid, indeed.  It came to be the biggest hit at the box office ever, after Avatar.

 

It’s also a rather ordinary and overrated comedy, strickly speaking.   It’s fast-paced and quite cleverly done in spots, especially in the first hour, but it falls apart towards the end and becomes a kind of standard slapstick show that would entered the realms of oblivion had it not been for the groundbreaking subject matter.

 

Its popularity was so great that it caught the eye of the international entertainment world, and more than one producer even considered releasing it in other countries. There was just one problem: it was immensely difficult to understand abroad.  Many of the jokes were so inside they would go way over the heads of any foreigner but the most experienced.  One of the funniest moments for me is when Dani Rovira, the comedian who plays the posh young man from Sevilla, goes to the hometown of a Basque girl he’s fallen for, and says to her with his funny Andalusian accent, “What did you do to your hair, girl?”  It’s a cultural reference to the unorthodox way many Basque women, especially the radical ones wear their hair, but you would never come close to picking up on it without some pretty in depth knowledge of Spain.  Just it is tough to grasp much of what happens in this country when lacking all that is going on.

 

Spain, as we now know from its history, is chock full of cultures, the variety of which borders on stunning if you take into account its modest size.   All it takes is for one to cross the river bridge between Galicia and Asturias and even the houses look different. Drive from Navarra to Almeria in one day and you’ll be convinced you are in two different countries.   Spend a weekend in the city of Mérida and another in San Sebastian, and tell me what you think.  Planets apart.  So, when Catalan enthusiasts go on about how different and special their culture is, its their prerogative.  They’re absolutely on the mark.  They have a language, gastronomy, wine, music, traditional, arhitecture, etc. that are particular to their land.  Enough to warrant their forming their own nation.  After all, those are pretty much the ingredients anyone would need to claim sovereignty.

 

However, let’s consider some of the other  regions and see how they stack up against the rest of the country.

 

Regions with their own language: Catalonia, Valencia, Balearic Islands, Basque Country, Asturias, Leon (to a much lesser extent), Galicia, Aranese and Aragonese.  The big five are Spanish, Galician, Catalan, Basque and Valencian (which is really Catalan).

 

Regions with their own gastronomy: They all do.  Paella is from Valencia, gazpacho comes from Andalusia, Butifarra from Catalonia, seafood from Galicia, hake from the Basque Country, fabada from Asturias.  And that’s really the tip of the iceberg.  It’ can even be broken down into provinces.   Madrid has its cocido; thr black pudding from Burgos; the suckling pig and lamb from Segovia; the shrimp from Huelva; the turrón from Alicante.  It goes on and on. The same goes for its wine.  I wrote a book years ago on this very subject.  Someone told me I had done a book about Spanish wine, and I said that wasn’t true.  “I wrote a book about Spain through its wine.”

 

Regions with their own music:  Spain is world famous for its flamenco music. But that’s not all there is.  In Aragon, they have the jota, Madrid boasts its chotis, Galicia whirls around in a muiñeira, to mention a few.

 

Regions with their own architecture: One distinction these regions have are its country houses. Catalonia has its masías, Andalusia has its cortijos, Galician manors are known as pazos, Asturias has pretty indianos, and so on.

 

Regions with their own traditions: All of them. There are scores of them. It’s almost impossible to know where to start.

 

So, yes, once again, Catalans have every reason in the world to show off the many features that are so characteristic of their region.  But what in God’s name possesses them to believe that their culture is somehow so different from the other cultures of Spain that they deserve to form their own country is beyond me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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January 7, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: Inconvenient Truths 1

Catalan separatists have long prepared a list of circunstances that provides irrefutable proof that they are a nation unto themselves and deserve beyond a shadow of a doubt to be a sovereign nation.  In the next set of posts, I will address several of the points to both confirm that they are basically true and that they are, for the most part, irrelevant in the context of Spain and Europe as a while.

 

One of the most commonly asserted descriptions of the region of Catalonia is that is a land with its own history. Thanks, so is Rhode Island.  What else can they say?

 

Catalonia’s history can be traced back to prehistoric times. It was an important trading region, we can see that commerce was important to these peoples even back then, for the Greeks and Romans. During the four hundred year presence of the Empire, Tarragona was unquestionably one of the most important cities in the Iberian Peninsula.  It has the capital of the massive swath of land that stretched across the north of Spain.  Later Catalonia fell under control of the Visigoths and afterwards the Muslims.  Once they had been expelled, the County of Barcelona started to take form and expanded into a region that would eventually be known as the Principality of Catalonia.

 

Having explained that, here’s what could be said about much of the rest of Spain.  It was inhabited by tribes since the stone age, was a major trading partner for the Phoenicians, the Carthiginians, the Greeks and Romans.  It also came under rule from the Sueves, Alans, Visigoths and Byzantines.  After the Muslim conquest in 711, many of the northern regions began to push the invaders back and created their own regions, a number of which developed into their own counties, duchies and even kingdoms.  Little by little they began to merge or fall under the influence of the kingdom with the greatest power, Castile, and would eventually become Spain.  If you want, I can go on to the rest of Europe and pretty much point out the same. Instead I’ll limit myself to specific cases in Spain.

 

Historical regions in Spain which could match, if not outdo, Catalonia in this category include:

 

Andalusia, which was arguably the most important region in ancient times.  Cadiz, founded by the Phoenicians, is currently the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe.  Before that, the territory was run by Spain’s most successful pre-classical civilization, the elusive Tartessos.  Ironically, some Catalans claim Tartessos was actually located in their region over a thousand miles away.  Why?  Who knows.  Anyway, Andalusia was the port-of-call for the metal trade in Spain.  gold, silver and tin were of particular demand.  It was also from where wine, olive oil and women (this is true) were sent to the capital of the Roman Empire; Sevilla was the birthplace of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, and Cordoba was where the philosopher Seneca first saw the day of light.  During the Muslim occupation, this city was considered by many to be the intellectual and scientific capital of Europe.  And after those lands were reconquered, by the Christans, four vassal kingdoms existed for many years.

 

Cartagena is the second most important city in the region of Murcia and its most important port.  It comes from the word Cartago Nova, or New Carthage.  It has been around since the times of Hannibal.  After the Muslims were removed, the territory became known as a vassal kingdom to the crown of Castile until 1812.

 

The region of Valencia was also a major region in ancient times.  The Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans often disputed commercial rights there.  In fact, it was the seige tha Hannibal laid on the city of Saguntum that triggered the Second Punic War.  The Kingdom of Valencia was formed in the 1230s, when Jaume forced the Muslim occupants out.  Hollywood immortalized this period in the movie El Cid.  It officially remained a kingdom until 1707.

 

Estremadura remains today to be a fairly rural part of Spain, it stands out, among other things, for porducing some of Spain’s finest cured ham.  Back in classical times it was home to one of the most important Roman cities in Spain, Emeritus Augusta (today Mérida).  It was a major stop on the precious metal trade route and founded as a home for veteran soldiers.

 

Galicia is the northwest of Spain also started out as a Roman province. The complete and massive walls around Lugo are testimony to that age. And it was its own kingdom off and on from about 400 AD until officially 1833. The city of Santiago de Compostela was the third most important pilgrimage site in all of Christianity, after Rome and Jerusalem.

 

Asturias earned a special spot in history for being the region which sparked the beginning of Christian Spain’s reconquering of their land from the dominance of the Muslims.  This was where their breakout began.  It was a kingdom in its own right until 910AD.

 

Leon took over from Asturias and became a major force in the Middle Ages. It was also its own kingdom and capital of the country from 910-1230.  Even after it joined Castile, its cities continued to be important and influential political and economic hubs well into the rise of the Spanish Empire.

 

Castile started out as a county, but by the 1o65 became a kingdom in its own right.  It later absorded many of its neighbors and become known as the Crown of Castile and essentially the source of the concept of modern day Spain.

 

The Basque Country was its own kingdom but is inhabited by such fiercely independent people, that no one seems to have ever fully subjected them.  Not even the Romans bothered to try.

 

The Kingdom of Navarre was a small but important kingdom in the Middle Ages.  You may recall Catherine of Navarre from your days of European History.  It was established in 824 and remained independent until the early 16th Century.  It didn’t officially disappear as an institution until 1841.

 

The Kingdom of Aragon took even greater prominence. It may be even more familiar with Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and his longest lasting spouse.  She managed to survive being beheaded and was quite possibly, though this may surprise you, admired by her humping-happy hubby.  Aragon was turned into a Crown and came to rule over parts of France, Italy, Greece, Spain (obviously) and Tunisia, as well as Andorra, the Balearic Islands, and, are you ready for this, the principality of Catalonia.  This is the truth that really irritates the Catalans.  They’ll jump and down and scream that their region was joined through marriage to the kingdom of Aragon and that both territories were agreed their own institutions of self-government.  That is absolutely true.  In fact, it’s an inconvenient truth for the traditional Spaniards.  But the name, the prestige and the power lay, and in increasing measures, in the crown of Aragon.

 

Even those vacation hot spots, the Balearic Islands, had their own Kingdom of Mallorca, which also managed to exist until 1715, when the War of Spanish Succession finally ended and the House of Bourbon took over, establishing the crown of Spain, essentially as we know it today.

 

So there you have it.  Catalonia unquestionably has its own distinct history, and one that it should be and is rightly proud of, but guess what? So does everyone else.  It’s a liutle secret they don’t want you to know about.  In fact, just about every other region in Spain has at one time or other been an independent kingdom of its own, except for Catalonia.  That’s what I call pretty damned ironic. If the pro-independence Catalans like to stick out from the crowd for being different, they could probably make a case for how little independent they really were when compared to their neighbors.  Over centuries, the principality belonged to Aragon, France and finally Spain.  Sure enough, they will tell you that they have had their own set of laws, their own government (the Generalitat), and so on, but so what?  Just about everyone else did too.  Does anyone else sense an inferiority complex here?  I do.

 

Despite what it may appear to be, this is no attempt to mock the importance of Catalonia, nor make fun of its past.  Its people have every right to feel proud of it.  What I question is its use as a way of making a distinction between it and the rest of Spain, when its the rest is of Spain which is equally, if not more deserving, of that distinction.  This is what Spain is.  A nation of nationalities.

 

The world out there is frightfully ignorant of those facts.

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January 6, 2018

La Soledad de Ser Un Roscón de Reyes

Ya estamos de nuevo. Al lado de mi casa hay una pastelería que dicen que elabora posiblemente el mejor roscón de Madrid, reputación que provoca una avalancha de clientes del barrio, y de más allá, cada 5 y 6 de enero.  Hasta la tele hace una visita anual para realizar su reportaje sobre este lugar mítico y entrevistar a los clientes que soportan colas kilométricas y largos ratos en la calle en todo tipo de tiempo (este año ha tocado el mejor regalo que los vecinos de Madrid podríamos desear: la lluvia).  Es una pastelería de primera, no cabe duda, pero su roscón…no sé yo.  Es un roscón muy tradicional, pero mucho; de esos que te dejan diciendo, “Madre mía. ¿Qué hago con esto?”

 

A pesar de tenerlo tan cerca durante años, nunca había comprado uno hasta hace una semana cuando tenía que llevar algo a una merienda navideña y opté por uno pensando que el momento había llegado.   Entré en la casa de mis amigos anunciando lo que había traído, su procedencia, y la fama que tenía para quedar de puta madre con mis ellos y limar comentarios por si era una mierda porque, ya sabes, cuando sirves algo de supuesta alta calidad, la gente suele pensar que algo ha fallado con su paladar antes de pensar en el producto.  Y así fue.   Al probarlo, lo masticaban y reflexionaban antes de pasar sentencia.  “Hombre,” empezó uno.  Pero de repente paró para intentar tragar y así dejar de hablar Jabba the Hutt.   “Está bueno.  Muy bueno. Lo que pasa es que a mí me gusta mojarlo en café o chocolate.”

 

Los demás que también carecían de la saliva suficiente para articular palabras se limitaron a asentir con la cabeza.

 

¡Mentira! ¡Mójate, tú, hombre!  No me vengas con historias.  Estaba más seco que un vaso de cal.  ¿Qué te esperabas cuando coges un pan normal, le privas de toda humedad, le adornas con unos copitos de azúcar, frutos azucarados y le bautizas con un nombre majestuoso? Pero daba igual.  El fenómeno rosconero sigue.  Es uno de los grandes misterios del sector pastelero.  El puesto elevado en el ranking que tiene este bollo disfrazado deja perplejos a muchos.  A mí incluido.  Lo que pasa es que no está de moda reconocerlo.

 

Pero os aseguro que hay una minoría, posiblemente una mayoría, silenciosa ahí fuera.  Y no solo vive en Cataluña.  He notado que están deseando salir del armario, pero necesitan un empujoncito.  Yo no digo nada, Dios me libre, porque basta con que critique algo para que el patriota dentro de cada uno de ellos sale y empieza a alardear sobre las cualidades sin paralelo de la tarta.  “Cualidades sin paralelo” suspiro.  “Nunca mejor dicho.”  Pero claro, cualquiera se lo dice.

 

No. Así no se hace. Hay que esperar.  Hay que hablar de diferentes roscones en diferentes sitios y dejar que salga todo de manera natural. Hasta alabarlo.  Normalmente, unos minutos después, uno de mis oyentes me interrumpe y dice, “Es que el roscón a mí…” y lo sigue con una mueca que manifesta sus verdederos sentimientos hacia la sosa masa cocida. Continúa. “Es que no es mis preferidos…”

 

¡Ahí está! Oigo en mi cabeza la voz de un comandante ficticio gritar.  “Brian! The eagle has landed! ¡Al ataque!”  A partir de entonces se abre una mesa redonda sobre el tema, y a los pocos minutos unas seis o siete personas empiezan a confesar que el roscón, sin ser horrible, no convence mucho si no tiene un poco de chocolate o nata.  Es decir…sabor.  En resumen, se convierte en una sesión de terapia. Les aseguro a todos que pueden seguir hablando y estar tranquilos.  “Todo se quedará dentro de estas paredes.”

 

Se relajan.  “No sabemos qué es lo que les falta…”

 

“Finura.” Les ayudo.  “La que tiene un pandoro, por ejemplo.”

 

“¡Eso es!”

 

No tiene más.  Y no soy el primero en opinar así. Hace años escuché por la radio a Gomaespuma hacer un sketch sobre los reyes magos que iban a hacer huelga ese año en parte porque no aguantaban el roscón. En sus palabras, “Es tan seco que no hay quien le hinque el diente.”

 

Sin embargo, la popularidad de esta tarta, paradójicamente, se ha disparado en los últimos años. Exponencialmente.  Y lo que era un “one time deal”, es ahora un constante.  Cada año sacan los roscones con más antelación.  Antes de Reyes; antes de Año Nuevo; antes de Navidad.  Vale para cualquier motivo, cualquier ocasión.  Y cuando llegan estos últimos días de las fiestas, la cosa se nos va de las manos. Una auténtica explosión.  Roscones por doquier.  Y de todo tipo. Sin relleno, con relleno de nata (mucho más recomendable), relleno de chocolate, trufa, cabello de ángel, etc.   Y para acompañarlo, sidra achampañada para hinchar el estómago, o chocolate espeso para simplificar matarte directamente.

 

La masacre de estos pobres doughnuts es incesante.  Hay familias que comen uno la noche del cinco, otro para desayunar al día siguiente, otro después de comer y otro para merendar.  Y siempre cabe la posibilidad de que llegue para cenar un amigo de la familia con otro de trufa amantequillada, para no ser menos, por supuesto.  La mayoría remata el día con un eructo suprimido y un “Jo. Creo que me he pasado estos días.”

 

Las colas para entrar en las pastelerías son más largas, los precios más injustificables y los tamaños son tejanos.  Justo ayer vi a dos vecinos entrando en el portal, sujetando cada uno un extremo de una caja que medía más que Pau Gasol. Dije, “¡Qué suerte! ¿A quién le ha tocado una pantalla HD?”

 

“¿Qué dices? Ni pantalla, ni leches. Es un roscón.” Contesta uno.

 

“Madre mía. La próxima vez pide a Amazon Prime que os lo mande.  ¿Vais a poder con todo esto?”

 

“Claro.  Y mañana otro.” Contesta el otro con orgullo. Porque Dios nos libre de tomar sobras. Hay que tener uno nuevo para cada ocasión o eres un agarrado.  Nada engorda tanto como los bolsillos de los pasteleros.

 

De todas formas, debo reconocer que tengo mucho cariño al roscón.  Por ser cómo es y por no tener complejos.   Tengo debilidad por los del súper, los que cuestan poco y que tienen una masa que se parece a la de una tarta.  Me reprocha un amigo, “¡Anda! Esos no saben a roscón!”

 

“Lo sé. Por eso me gustan.” No me atrevo a añadir que también me gusta ese chocolate de brik. Hay uno que me ha seducido porque ganó el premio 2017 para el “Sabor del Año”, lo cual me fascinó.  Sabor del Año. Y no en una delicada loncha de jamón de bellota, sino en un litro de chocolate industrial. Los misterios de estas fechas no dejan de sorprenderme.

 

Asumo las limitaciones de este bollo glorificado, y disfruto de él como cualquiera…que es lo que uno debe hacer con todo en la vida.  Feliz Año.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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January 5, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: Clouds

If Joni Mitchell had written a song about Catalan separatism, the lyrics might have gone something like this:

 

I’ve looked at democracy from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s democracy’s illusions I recall; I really don’t know democracy at all.

 

Absolutely. No questions about it.  It doesn’t cease to amaze me how two diametrically opposed sides can actually base their defence on essentially the same argument: democracy and democratic ideals.

 

The democractic ideal the separatists are talking about is the right to self-determination; the right to vote; the right to decide one’s future.  It forms the cornerstone of any serious civilization.  The pro-sovereignty band centers its appeal for international support on the argument that the Spanish government is denying them that very basic entitlement.  In short, “we just want to vote, and they won’t let us.”   And, Lord knows, on October 1st, we the world actually got to witness the extremes to which the cental government was willing to go in order to deprive the citizens of Catalonia of that very fundamental prerogative which should be available to all citizens.  The separatists were right.  It sounded irrefutable.  It sounded perfect.  It sounded like something Patrick Henry would scream, “stick it to the bastards!” to.  Who wouldn’t support them, damn it?

 

The central government, on the other hand, resorts to the notion of democracy when trying to dismantle the entire independence movement.  In fact, they tend to justify their whole defence by acting in the name of democracy.  They assert that when you steamroll a popular majority with an agenda that will remove them from the country they want to belong, it is equally undemocratic, and you have to admit they have a point there.  They also insist that they are defending the constitution, which is a legal manifestation of the democratic framework they all agreed to. And it’s valid too.

 

Is it possible that they are both right?  It is, but it ain’t easy.

 

You see, every time the Catalans request a referendum, they get handed a copy of the constitution they overwhelmingly voted for (that is, democratically) and are told to open to the Page 1.  “Read and weep,” say the constitutionalists.  “You see, here’s the part where it unequivocally states that Spain is one nation and that it’s indivisible and indissoluble, and that you agreed, supported and swore to uphold and respect?  Do you have any further questions?”

 

The indissoluble part is easy for the separatists to sidestep because they can always say, “Spain doesn’t have to be dissolved.  It can exist as long as it wants. We just aren’t going to be a part of it.”  But the first word, you know, the tiny part about Spain being “indivisible”, is a little trickier.

 

The only way for them to get around it, if they are to stick to playing by the rules, which they hardly do, is to find a way to show that the constitution had somehow failed them, that it is being used to violate their rights and that it is not the charter they had ratified.  Spirit had disappared.  The love was gone.  They needed what is commonly called a reason. Or, in other words, an excuse.

 

Enter the Estatut of 2006.  As most of you will not recall, so I will refresh your memories, the constitutional framework of Spain was set up in such a way that the central government would formalize written agreements with the separate Comunidades Autónomas, on a region to region basis.  The divisions were mainly determined by historical justification.  I have always thought, with the greatest of humility mind you, this was a compromise from the post Franco period that was destined for disaster, and I think that history is proving me right.

 

The first modern Estatuto was passed in 1979 and it gave Catalonia plenty of the powers the constitution had promised it would.  But barely twenty years had gone by when there were grumblings by the nationalists (that’s what the future separatists were called back then) that the situation was unbearable. Not enough powers, not enough competences, not enough control, not enough recognition.  A new accord, a more up-to-date covenant, needed to be reached between the two if they were to live in harmony.  So one was presented to the Spanish parliament, analyzed, interpreted and reworded in hundreds of places and finally sent to both houses for a vote.  It passed in both despite the vociferous objections of two very strange bedfellows: the PP, who felt the documents were infested with unconstitutional issues (and they were probably right), and the left-wing ERC, a republican party clearly in favor of independence, who deemed the document a joke and an insult to those sought total and complete separation from the  rest of Spain.  And they were right too. But in the latter’s case, they abstained in the senate vote in order to ensure the estatuto went through because, as you know, a bad estatuto is better than none at all.

 

The approved accord was handed over to the Catalans themselves for a referendum.  Apparently there are referendums and referendums, and this was the kind that you could hold in this country.  Turnout suggested the locals were less than enthusiastic about the whole deal to begin with.  Final participation was an anemic 49.4%, of which, about 74% said yes.  Doing the math gives you a paltry 37% of the entire Catalan population had actively manifested itself in favor of the proposal.  And that’s if we round it up.  So, when Mr. Puigdemont refers to the famous Estatuto which had been proposed, passed in parliament and ratified in Catalonia as proof that democracy had sided with him and his cause, we can rest assured that he is leaving out some pretty important details.

 

The Catalan president also asserted that the Constitutional Court’s decision to declare 14 articles of the   Estatuto unconstitutional to be an affront to democracy.  I’m not making it up.  He literally says that in his speeches, so I’m merely drawing from that source.  Why? The estatuto had already been drawn, voted on and passed.  It was essentially undemocratic, when not altogether illegal, to obtain in a judge’s chambers what could not be obtained in the voting booth.  While it can be argued rather successfully that the PP was just acting in response to its defeat in parliament, it’s also true that Puigdemont chooses to ignore the fact there is a safety switch inherent in any solid democratic design known as “checks and balances”, which is there to ensure none of the three branches of government can fully run the show.  The constitutional court exists for that very reason.  It reviews laws, accords, agreements, and lower court cases, when it is asked to do so, and decides on its constitutionality.  No serious democracy can live without it.  Anyone with any basic knowledge of political science is familiar with this.

 

I will avoid an in-depth analysis of the points under dispute because, A) I am not an expert in Spanish constitutional law and B) the subject could take up the space of an entire book itself.  Suffice it to say that, given the extensive length of the agreement (over 200 articles involving an incredibly wide range of issues), chances are somewhere a conflict of interest with the constitution would arise.

 

Not so surprisingly, the issue that got the most headlines was the use of the word “nation” to describe Catalonia.  The constitution describes Spain as “one indissoluble nation made up of nationalities”.  The Catalans preferred to be called a “nation”.  The court said that was an unncessary distinction. And neighboring regions complained that the Catalans were trying to gain a status of preference over the other comunidades autónomas.   And the PP feared this was a way of allowing another symbolic step towards declaring independence one day.  After all, if Spain was admitting as much, then they should have the right to be their own country.  Critics of that position claim that if the PP had let things alone, hadn’t ruffled any feathers, everything would have been fine.  But that’s a highly debatable argument.

 

But there is no question that it aggravated the situation immensely.  When the Constitutional Court sided with the PP party, all hell broke loose.  It was time, said the Catalans, to break free.  The excuse had arrived.

 

If you are asking yourself if this insane current clash in Spain is partially the result of a war of semantics, an almost childish bickering over “nation” and ” nationality”, you’re right.  As incredible as it may seem, you’re right.  You’re right, I say.

 

 

 

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January 3, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: Seriously

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Now that it was clear that Puigdemont was not going to spill the beans and confirm or deny the current status of Catalonia, you could sure as hell bet he wasn’t going to rescind on whatever it was he did or didn’t do.  Or at least that’s what I thought.  But, in fact, in his second missive, he shed a little more light on the subject.  It was briefer, God bless him, and it opened with some bizarre reference to how participation numbers (which could never be verified) were greater than the minimum required by the United Kingdom in its Brexit vote.  This was done to add credibility to the results of his illegal referendum.  Of course, what another country decides on its own procedures has nothing to do with anything, but the fact that a formal leader of anything or anyplace feels they can use it as irrefutable proof of legitimacy is both half comical and half disturbing. Anyway, moving on, Puigdemont went on to talk about his continued desire for dialog because, as he asserted, “I got the votes, sugar, and you know it.  So let’s sit down and talk.”  If he didn’t, the president would have to remove the suspension of the semi-declared independence and make formal the decision he had not voted on…yet.  Or something to that effect.  Uh…Ok…

 

“Let’s keep them in the dark on this one. It’s going to really piss them off,” he must have surely whispered to his supporters as they toasted with the some cava, which is the Spanish form of the champagne, but a hell of a lot cheaper.  That bottle of Freixenet that you snatch up at the liquor store checkout counter for next to nothing is one of them.  Cava is an institution in Catalonia and the sparkling wine of choice for the rest of Spaniards who, as a rule, don’t like to shell out a lot for their alcohol so champagne is normally out of the question.

 

As opposed to other winer appellations in Spain, cava does not know geographical limits.  It can be made anywhere in the country as long as the producer adheres to the specific making method and pays the annual fee that allows it to be called it such.  Catalonia is by far the largest producer of the cava; the two are practically synonymous.   But others have begun to make their presence known over the past few years.  One region that has grown in popularity is Extremadura, which is ironic because the two, at first glance, appear as culturally opposed as two zones can get.  Sophisticated northeast Spanish coast vs. The backwards western countryside.  Well, in keeping with the saying, “every cloud has a silver lining”, the winemakers in Extremadura clench their fists in victory every time the Catalans do something to further irk the Spanish market, which is pretty much all the time these days, because they reap the benefits of the fallout.  You can guarantee the Catalan producers are shaking in their boots at the prospect of a catastophic Christmas campaign.

 

So Rajoy, who by this time must have been kicking his cat on a daily basis and screaming down the halls of the Palacio de Moncloa (the Spanish version of the White House) “This guy is driving me nuts!”, had the chance to have a chat with his opponent.  Maybe it was the moment to find out what this was all about before he lost for his country 20% of its GNP.  You had the feeling that Puigdemont was suggesting that he really wasn’t in favor of independence at all, but was just using his massive support as political clout to tell the Spanish government to stop screwing around with the Estatut, or autonomy agreement made between the Spanish government and Catalonia.    If that was true, he was making a big mess of things, because a lot of people were now banking on him to lead them to the promised land.  And if independence was he final objective and all he was trying to do was biding some time, then the Spanish government was right to be suspicious of his true intentions.  But there was no doubt, the opening for a negotiated way out had apparently arisen.

 

So, Rajoy returned from a congress in Brussels of European leaders, made his way to the press room and gave his response, which, no matter how you look at it, was certainly up front and to the point: you’re all fired.  We’ll be taking over from here, once I get senate approval, and we’ll vote on this within the next six months.  See you at the polls.

 

In other words, he had formally activated Article 155 on Saturday, October 21.

 

Well, as you can imagine, the separatists had a field day with this.  They were all crying “coup d’etat” this and “Franco” that.   Essentially, this was the end of the good life as we know it.   Meanwhile, Puigdemont announced he would be making a formal announcement on TV that evening, and I just knew what that meant.  He was going to do it.  This was it.  He promised he would.  I had a dinner party to go to but told my friends that I would be attending on one condition only, “as long as I can watch your country fall apart live.  And don’t worry, I’ll bring the wine.”

 

That evening, the leader went on the air and gave his impression of the Spanish government’s move to send him to the unemployment office. He expressed his disappointment and frustration at the central government’s resistance to talk and reiterated that he had only been looking for dialogue and a solution to a problem he had basically started. I couldn’t quite figure out what about Rajoy’s decision that had caught him off guard. He had basically told everyone that was what he was going to do.   Anyway, he spoke in Catalan, and presented the usual grievances.  The Catalan institutions had been violated, that never since the days of Franco had such a thing occurred, that the constitution had not been respected (by him, he forgot to add), and that the Catalan people would no longer put up with it.  This of course was just what the separatists wanted to hear, so there were no surprises so far.

 

Then he did pull something out of his hat.  He spoke in Spanish, of all things.  He addressed the Spaniards and tried to instil fear in them by warning that what was happening to them could happen to any Spaniard at any time; that democracy was risk.  After that, he went further, and spoke English. I believe this is a first in the history of Spanish TV, and spoke directly to Europe and gave them the old democracy spiel again, the right to determine their future, called Catalonia an ancient nation, ended with a perplexing thought: “you should know that what you are fighting for at your home, we are also fighting for in Catalonia. And we will continue to do so.”  So it was all about rights and defending rights.  What Mr. Puigdemont had omitted was the fact he represented a land where in the most recent election the majority had voted against pro-independence parties.  What about their rights?  Was he, as the leader of their region, fighting for them?  Apparently, everyone has the same rights, but some people have more rights than others.  Orwell would have enjoyed this immensely.

 

After that, I let go a mental drumroll as I awaited the big moment. After all, he had stalled on three previous occasions, the Spanish said they were going yank him from office, there must a sliver of defiance within him. Ladies and genetlemen…the next president of Catalonia…Carles Puigdemont! Or something like that. The next two words deviated a great deal from that expectation: good night.

 

Good night, was right.  I give up.

 

 

 

 

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January 2, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: A little Help Please

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On October 11th, Prime Minister Rajoy’s administration firmly requested that Puigdemont kindly respond to the following question: did you in fact declare independence?  After the bizarre performance the day before in the Catalan parliament, no one seemed to know.  The president of the region had five days to reply.  The following Monday, just an hour before the deadline was up, the Catalan leader sent his answer.  He wasn’t especially concise about it.  In no fewer than 650 words, Puigdemont verbosely said nothing.

 

Instead, he returned to much of the rhetoric he and his supporters had been using for the previous couple of months, pointing out why Catalonia deserved independence and sidestepped the “declaration” issue by placing emphasis on all that he had been doing to find a solution to the confrontation.  It was his intention to seek dialogue in order to reach an agreement, at the behest of requests made by sources from Catalonia, Spain and the rest of the international community.  The purpose was clear in my opinion.  The president of the regional government wanted to gain time and hopefully sympathy from people abroad as well as provide proof that the only one who was really being level-headed and sincerely making an effort was him and that it was Spain who was being unreasonable.

 

That was an understandable strategy, but flawed for a number of reasons.

 

First of all, much of the international community, regardless of what was ablaze on the social networks, had already made up its mind about the situation.  At least the ones who call the shots.  Catalonia was not an independant nation and would not be recognized.  As long as the Spanish stopped bashing heads, there would be no interference.  Puigdemont did not seem to understand or accept this. His only real ally was Belgium, of all places, but we’ll get to that at another time.  Still, the separatists were desperate for recognition.  The success of their campaign rested on it.  Just a little help, was all they needed. But all was quiet.

 

Secondly, no one could quite understand what the “dialog” part was all about.  Essentially he was saying that he was going to lead Catalonia in its path to sovereignty, but was up for sitting down and chatting about it with the prime minister whenever he was ready.  Everything was negotiable.  Puigdemont was once again being wishy-washy and sending totally mixed signals.  If his end game was get a little more autonomy for Catalonia, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it.  If he was determined to see the Catalan independence through, just what was there to discuss?

 

On the other hand, the Spanish government, for better or for worse, had established its position and rallied its allies.  There would be no discussions until the Catalan government officially declared that it had not declared independence and had abandoned its campaign to separate. That was the starting point.  There was considerable criticism from many who said that this very intransigence was pushing the nation down the road of utter catastrophe.  I think that the government had no choice but to dig in at this point.  It had accused the separatists of breaking just about every law except for jaywalking.  It was no longer in the position to relent and negotiate with them.  Its big mistake was that it had waited so long to draw the line.  Now it was hanging onto unity by a toe nail, and looking bad too.

 

Of the entire letter of of reply, nothing stood out as surprising to me as the word “debilidad”.  That is, Puigdemont argued that his actions from the previous week should not be seen as a sign of “weakness” but as a show of moderation and goodwill towards resolving the confrontation.  Now, I don’t know about you, but as I see it, the very appearance of the word should be regarded as regrettable from the separatists’ point of view, because the fact that they even mentioned it means that they themselves may have felt that way, or were aware, at the very least, of the possibility they had given that impression.  And they had.  Basically they confirmed for much of the world that they had blown the opportunity of a lifetime the week before, and were trying to fix.  That only made it worse.

 

If a lughead like me can pick up on it, the Rajoy administration must have jumped for joy.  It easily saw it as proof of growing indecision amongst the independent Catalans, which merely encouraged it to tighten its position.  Now, with both sides fully committed and really no room to back down and save face at the same time…they put on their crash helmets and braced themselves for the big crash.

 

All I can say is thank God these guys were not heading the Cuban Missile Crisis.

 

 

 

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The Catalan Chronicles: Catalonia is not Spain

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When you want to start your very own country, it’s always good to try and get the word out there that A) you exist, and B) how you want to exist.  Things had come a long way since the days when paying for a page in the International Herald Tribune was pratically the only way to achieve world exposure.  Now it can take just a button-push away.  And for free.

 

The Catalan government actually set up delegates, or unofficial embassies, known ambiguously as “missions”, in key countries around the world to begin to pursuade key role players that their cause was one worth siding with.  By 2015, the plan was to open an additional 50 offices.  It may seem incredible, but this was actually perfectly legal.  I mention this because it is worth bringing up when I hear that the pro-independence cause is being oppressed by the Spanish government.

 

Separatists also used high-profile events to send messages out to the world.  One of the most commonly employed was hanging very large signs which read “Catalonia is not Spain”, from the stands during major FC Barcelona games.  Barcelona’s soccer team has also been the pride of and joy of Catalonia for decades (in the past victories against Real Madrid were the Catalans’ only way of earning bragging rights over the Franco regime), and for good reason.  The club put together arguably the finest side in world soccer history for about ten years of this century.  It was stunning to watch.  But the franchise was also nationalist (Catalan nationalist, that is) and has become ever more visible in its political leanings.  While there is nothing new in Europe about certain teams representing certain socio-economic sectors or particular regions, it is rare for one to be so vociferous at an official level.  This is even odder when you think that FC Barcelona belongs to the Spanish Liga, and without it, would collapse, should it ever have to end up playing in an all-Catalan league.

 

Chances are FC Barcelona would never go for that.  The economic consequences would be catastrophic.  Nor would much of the world football scene like to see such a powerhouse relegated to second or third rate leagues.  Staying in the Liga cannot be ruled out, joining the League 1 in France (like Monaco) is another, and some have even suggested the Blaugranas could be incoporated into England’s Premier league.  But here’s the thing: all this talk about the importance of being your own country, having your own government, nation, etc. is vital Catalan identity, and yet when it comes to major bucks and king soccer, it’s time to look for a solution.  Had FC Barcelona been staunchly opposed to independence, one could naturally feel inclined to make exceptions for them because, after all, they would be victims.  But that’s not the case at all, and my knee-jerk reaction is that they should stay in all-Catalan league for better or for worse.  After all, that’s what the Scots do and they support the Scottish framework.  None of this a la carte independence.

 

And what’s with the use of English?  Ironically, Catalonia has gone to extreme lengths to eliminate (erradicate, if you will) Spanish from its region.  It obviously hasn’t achieved its goal, but it has had an impact.  Many young Catalans are hopelessly deficient in their use of Spanish, the official language of their country.  I can personally attest to this.  This obstacle not only makes them feel less secure about their relationship with the rest of Spain and, as a result, less likely to venture beyond their world, it makes them feel less Spanish.  And the separatists like that.  The sad thing is that Spanish is one of the healthiest languages in the world, it’s the second most widely-spoken in terms of native speakers and it’s growing in major powers like the United States.  Ironically, for all of their love of Catalan, when they have to get to word out there, they ignore their mother tongue and choose English, which has even less to do with their culture than Spanish.

 

In the days leading up to the Catalan government’s deadline to respond, English was used in videos to garner more sympathy from a abroad.  The Catalans used a carbon-copy of a video from made in Ucrania years ago to reinforce the idea they were only trying to defend and that the Spanish government was just trying to oppress them.  The pro-unity side came up with their own (in English no less!), with some teenage girl whose American accent was so good she sounded like she hadn’t spent a day in Madrid.  Either she had a great teacher or her mother was from Wisconsin.  It was an equally obnoxious propaganda piece full of half truths about how happy people are in Spain and how unfair those Catalans were.  I almost wanted to barf.

 

It seemed like everyone was abandoning their principals in the hopes of defending them. And newspapers around the world were still starting their coverage of what issue with “What is Catalonia”?

 

At least every American has heard of Spain, even though many think it’s in Mexico.

 

 

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December 30, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: An article called 155

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.