Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Posts Tagged ‘spain’

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February 1, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: The Jordan Syndrome

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Some people just don’t know when to hang it up.  Even all-time greats like Michael Jordan couldn’t walk away with the grace we were all hoping for.  He was close, though.  In the sixth game of the 1998 NBA finals and behind by one, Air, with the clutchness that was so characteristic of his style of play, started to drive to the net in the closing seconds, pulled up and sank a mid-range winning jumper.  It was his third consecutive ring after returning from an early retirement, before which he had also been crowned for three straight years.  The dream ending to a dream-come-true comeback of a dreamlike career.  All he had to do was sling a leather coat over his shoulder in the locker room, take one more look at the court, and  head down the tunnel into eternity.  It would have been a storybook finish.  And it should have been.

 

Two years later, he returned to partially purchase, play with and hopefully turn around the hapless Washington Wizards in what would end up being two forgettable seasons.  Jordan’s place among the gods in Olympus is uncontestable; his numbers nearly unequalled; and his candidacy as the greatest player the game has ever seen, essentially unbeatable.  But there will always be that lingering question: why?  We all wanted that perfect ending…but, oh well.

 

Fastfoward to a very different scenario, to a very different country and situation, and a similar inquiry arises.  It’s January 31, 2018, and the Catalan regional government is once again grinding it out under the pressure of a deadline.  This time not with a declaration of indepedence in mind, but with hope of electing a new president of the region.  The December 21st elections had pretty much solved nothing.  Once again, the pro-separatists, despite losing the popular election, managed to win more seats.  The constitutionalist party, CC, had received the most votes of any party, but not enough to have the majority.  Not by a long shot.  And even if they pooled all the parties together, the fell short.

 

So, who was the nominated candidate?  Carles Puigdemont, of course.  And where was Mr. Puigdemont in this delicate moments of crisis when he was most needed?  In Brussels, of course, where he had been taking refuge since late October, after declaring independence and fleeing the country on the basis he could not be guaranteed a safe or a fair trial under the Spanish legal system.  Pretty much the rest of the leaders stayed behind and assumed the position, if you know what I mean.  Carles ran away, somehow thinking that he was establishing a kind of government in exile.

 

Well, there he still was, waiting to return triumphantly as the new president of the Catalan government; it is one of the more bizarre moments in one’s understanding of how life works, and let’s see why.  Puigdemont had a warrant out for his arrest, should he return to Spain.  There was a mild attempt to have him detained in Belgium, but the Spanish government didn’t make an all out effort because my guess is that they were happy to have him sulking abroad.  The farther the better.  And I think they were right.

 

Anyway, for some reason, Puigdemont had decided that it wasn’t necessary for him to even be there for the investiture, or for even his term in office.  He could just run Catalonia via internet and all would be hunky-dory.  I’m totally serious here.  The man was being chased by the law for civil and judicial disobedience, along with leading a movement to secede from the country (pretty serious charges if you ask me), and somehow he thought he had the constitutional backing to pull it off.  So did his supporters who, to my befuddlement, were still legion.

 

The Spanish government as well as the judicial branch were going to have none of it and told him in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “you ain’t a-going nowhere.”  But just to be sure, there were car checks, opening trunks and all, at the border and around the Catalan parliament to make sure wily Carles did not sneak in somehow.  Crazy, but true.

 

Well, as time was running out, the leader of the parliament, Roger Torrent, was still trying to make it happen, but Spain’s highest court had ordered him not to.  Keeping his promise both to the Spanish government as well as his own people, he chose to put off the vote until everything was in order.  The problem was, he had only one day left.  It looked like the battering rams were ready to crash their heads into each other needlessly once again.

 

Just why Puigdemont still sat atop the totem pole was a mystery to me, and I’m sure many others too, though no one was talking about it.  His swan song had been playing for quite some time now.  I could see it coming when:

  • He had to switch cars secretly inside a tunnel in order to show up at a polling station on October 1 when the separatists held .  Not very statesmanlike, if you ask me.
  • When he performed the now famous coitus interruptus during the first semi-declaration of indepedence.
  • When he failed to stand up to the central government when activating Article 155 (the constitutional authority to remove home rule from a region), time and time again.
  • When he waivered over and over again in the hours leading up to the official declaration of independence.
  • When he held the vote secretly so no one could be held accountable.
  • When he left behind his supporters, allies and constituents and fled to Belgium and let the others take on the Spanish justice system alone.

 

I kept saying to myself that it was inconceivable this man was not being being laughed out of town by his own people.  Did they admire his ability to fight on from a distance? Did they really think he bolted because otherwise the cause would be lost?  Did they really buy it?  You betcha.  At least some did.  Others were becoming increasingly frustrated with and irritated by the “problema Puigdemont”.  To some, he was becoming a liability.  A former star who wouldn’t accept his time had come.

 

Then a little miracle happened.  A miracle for the constitutionalists, that is: the very next morning, the TV channel Telecinco released a breaking news report in which several messages written to a colleague, and former Catalan minister and fellow outlaw in self-exile, Toni Comín, in which the once and future head-of-state admitted he had been outplayed and that everything was lost.  The texts were sent through an ultra-secure though relatively unknown messaging service called Signal, a company which sure to benefit from the publicity.  They were snagged on camera and just too juicy to keep to themselves.

 

Puigdemont, just about as the same time he was defying Spain’s demands on the international scene, was essentially admitting defeat surreptitiously.  He was caught big time.  Actually, Comín was the culprit because it was his cell.  Some even suggest the “friend” let the messages be filmed so as to force Carles out of contention, but that seems unlikely.  Though, you never know.

 

The very next day Puigdemont admitted the messages were his.  It was, in my humble opinion, a perfect time to throw in the towel.  The tenth perfect time, but nonetheless a perfect time.  He tweeted what many thought might be his capitulation.  Here’s how he did it: “I am human and I, too, have moments of doubt. I am also the president and I will not fold or back away out of respect for the gratitude I feel towards – and the commitment I have – to the citizens and the nation. Onwards!”

 

Lord have mercy.  Michael…take another shot, please!

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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 26, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Exodus, movement of the Euro

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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.

 

 

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December 8, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Something doesn’t seem quite right

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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.”

 

 

 

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The Catalan Chronicles: Who had that brilliant idea?

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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.

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December 7, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: The Guns of September

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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November 16, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: What would James Joyce Say?

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A whole helluvah long time ago when I was in my first year here and still had a vision of Spain with the innocence of a virgin, I was in my host family’s home and lounging on my bed, which was one of those low-rise thingies that were still the standard back then.  They were known as camas individuales and I have always been curious to know just who that individual was on whom they based the dimensions.  What I can say is that safety concerns due to inordinate height from the top of the mattress was not an issue.  If ever you were to roll over the edge and let gravity take over, your knee and elbow would break the fall before you actually initiated your descent.

 

Anyway, as I was saying.  I was flipping through the International Herald Tribune, which was the only main source of news from abroad back then, when I stopped and stared at a startling full-page ad that read in big letters, “Today, even James Joyce would feel Catalan.”

 

I grimaced as I shifted my position in the bed and read on.  “What the heck is this all about?”

 

It turned out that the whole deal was seemingly about San Jordi (the feast of St. George), which is on April 23, in case anyone is interested.  San Jordi is the patron saint of Catalonia, which is why so many males from that region go by that name.  April 23 is also International Book Day, the anniversary to the day and year of both William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes. Yes, they both kicked the ink well on the very same day.  Talk about your loss to literature.  The Catalans have a very nice tradition of giving a book and a rose as a present on that day.  No doubt it is a custom which counts on the fullest support of the florist and publishing guilds.  It’s also so veeeery European chic. I happen to think it’s a very cool idea.

 

Anyway, that provides a little context.  But that only solves part of the mystery.  Why in an English-speaking language newspaper? And why all that money thrown into sharing a local but obscure custom?  I’ll tell you why.  Because it really wasn’t about San Jordi at all.  You see, once the reader got past the eye-catching headline and the quaint story behind the day, the announcement got down to the meat of the matter.  The pretext, the excuse, the real reason.  The whole fuckin’ kit a caboodle.   The rest of the information provided went something to the effect: Catalonia is a nation with its own language, its own history, its own traditions, etc…and so on, and so on.  We’ve heard this all before.  Does this all sound familiar?

 

This wasn’t an opportunity to share cultural diversity for the benefit of those who wish to know more about world; this was a piece of independence propaganda shrouded in a clever bit of publicity, which included the name of several well-known writers who, if we were to go by the claim, would also possess a special affinity for Catalonia that day.  It was also posted and, presumably, paid for by the Generalitat, Catalonia’s regional government.  The year was 1991.  Way before the economic crisis, or the rampant political scandals or any other recent development the ill-informed reporter mentions.   What was happening back then in that neck of the woods? Well, Barcelona was readying itself to host the summer games of 1992, an event so costly it obviously needed to look to numerous sources for financing.  The central goverment was by far the biggest public investor, footing 37.7% of the bill, compared to 18% that the regional government chipped in.  Then the Catalans showed their appreciation in one of the baffling ways possible…by trumpeting to the international community they have really nothing to do with Spain.  What a bunch of sweethearts.

 

What does this show? Simple. It shows that back in the early 1990s, the campaign to sell the independence story to the world was on its way. The world wasn’t listening very much, but that didn’t matter.  Maybe one day it would, and that was OK by the nationalists.

 

And what about Joyce?  What would he have to say after all? Would he feel Catalan?  Your guess is as good as mine.  He probably would have wanted to have as little to do with the issue as possible.  But there was little he could do about it because he was dead.  For a long time.  As were the rest of the referenced authors. The nationalists had cunningly chosen to tag opinions to people who could no longer give their own opinions.