Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 14

5:45 p.m.

We had a cup of coffee to kick off the evening. And then we planned.

          “We should probably do something,” I suggested convinced I had seen and said just about everything a person could about an eggplant.

          “Sounds good,” agreed Fernando. “But with this heat, there is only one thing I can think of. We should probably go swimming. Or at least go for a swim. It’s not the same you know.”

          “Oh, I could go for that!” seconded Laura as she caressed a tomato.

          “But first let’s get the car in the car port before it gets swiped,” warned Fernando with a wink.

          I was told I could leave the car outside but that it was better off in a neighbor’s garage. Would the neighbor mind? Of course, not. The neighbor was dead. The house was no longer occupied, but the car park was still available and perfect for keeping vehicles off the street.

          “If you say so,” I replied.

          “I do,” said Fernando.

          I backed up the recently deleted Comandante Sánchez Rubio Street, an effortless task since cars were rarely known to traverse it, did a two-point turn and maneuvered the vehicle until it was lined up perpendicularly with the entrance. All that was needed now was for someone to open the door, so I put the car into neutral and called out to Laura. “OK. I’m ready! Can you open the door?”

          “Why are you shouting at me? I’m right next to you in the driver’s seat.”

          “Yeah, but it makes me feel more macho when I bark out commands.” When I leave Madrid, I always feel a little inadequate in the masculinity department. People out in the country seem to work so hard. They enjoy hauling sacks around and often flaunt it in my presence. My heaviest load is usually no more cumbersome than a stack of final exams. I couldn’t quite share that kind of experience with individuals who heave bales of hay and handle scythes with dexterity, and expect them to respect me. It’s as if I needed to uproot a tree or something.

          “So making me get out and open the door in 110º heat is your idea of feeling macho?”

          “Someone needs to tame this 125-horse-power death machine.” I pressed down on the accelerator of my economy-size vehicle.

          “Bless your heart. So much for chivalry.” She tugged at the latch with a jerk and exited.

          “Can you handle the garage door?” I called out.

          “Oh, yeah. I hope so,” she replied facetiously. “I’ve been opening doors for a few years now. I should be all right. I’ll let you know if I need some assistance.”

          “You’d be surprised. Some of them can be real bitches.”

          Spain is considered one of the safest places on earth to live in. It routinely appears in the upper tiers in the world rankings of crime-free indexes, well ahead of nations which most people might, off the top of their heads, consider to be havens for scelerophobics, or people who have a fear of crime. These include Norway, Belgium and Ireland and other places where people tend to drink a lot but otherwise mind their own business.

          The welcome news from the crime reports is especially true of violent offences, the kind I like to be aware of before I decide to reside permanently in any place. According to a 2017 report, Spain was listed second lowest in homicides in Europe, just above Austria, and well below the EU average, which is pretty darn low itself, and a far cry from the numbers they rack up in countries like the United States, where the murder rate is five times worse. America always gets a bad rap for its astronomical killing statistics, and with an average of 15,000 homicides a year, we can safely say the stigma is reasonably justified. In contrast, it’s Europe touts itself as the global pacifist. Is it me, or am I the only one who has paused at least once in life to see the irony in it all? I mean, after Europe nearly wiped out half the human race in two world wars in the 20th Century, can we really say it deserves its reputation for being the paragon of civil behavior? How quickly we forget the loss of 90 million lives. The peoples of the Old Continent may know how to control themselves in traffic jams, post offices and high school proms, but when they do go off, few can hold a candle to them.

          Many traditional elderly Spaniards see things differently and will recall with nostalgia just how good they had it when Franco was alive and the streets were safe. Criminals were wary of exercising their profession in a society where the authorities would not bat an eye when bringing the full weight of the law on them. It appears to be one of the few dubious benefits of living under a police state. Immediately after Franco’s death, though, the country endured several years of crime waves as society’s delinquents enjoyed the freedom of working without the constraints of a dictatorial regime. That meant unfettered felonies and encumbered misdemeanors. Muggings increased, bank robberies flourished. Crooks had a field day until the new democratic system could get a handle on safety. I can personally vouch for the noticeable lack of security in Madrid’s neighborhoods during the 80s and early 90s and found myself victim of a couple of muggings. Nowadays they are rare.

          While the numbers on crime were never that alarming, there was room for improvement and better data came. Dramatically. The murder rate has dropped 43% since 2005 to 292 intentional homicides in 2016. For a country of 46 million people, it’s a reasonably minor figure. Assault and violent theft are also fairly uncommon. Many of the worst violations take place more regularly among groups which are already behaving on the fringe of legality. So, unless you dabble in drug-trafficking, have a tendency to rub the Russian or Armenian mafia the wrong way, mingle with the dregs of society, or pick a fight with a drunken Brit the size of an EasyJet plane, chances are you will be free of any serious harm.

          Property crime is also much lower than it used to be and nothing out of the ordinary for a country this size. For example, whereas 420 people for every 100,000 have been victims of robbery in Spain, in Holland, locked firmly in the first position, 1,400 citizens and visitors report a similar crime annually. And Denmark is almost as bad. I used to think these places were archetypes of crimelessness, but to my stupor, they are actually paradises for burglars. Who would have guessed?

          Despite the encouraging data, the Spanish seem little convinced and continue to busy themselves bolstering their crime prevention measures to a degree that would appear inconsistent with the overall feeling of safety that pervades in this land. In fact, keeping personal possessions free from human intrusion is nearly a national obsession, when not a pastime. Hand the average Spaniard a padlock and their minds dance with delight at all the possible places they can dangle it from. It’s a paranoia so ingrained that when my Spanish friends cross the Atlantic Ocean to visit my country, they are flabbergasted when the see how lax we are in the States about security. Cars are left unlocked and homes are often shockingly easy to access. There is often a hundred ways to get in and the locks are so dinky they could be picked with a cotton swab. If a burglar wanted to get in, they could, it’s as simple as that. Even the dogs can often be cajoled with a box of Fig Newtons. Spaniards, however, often forget the one danger robbers in the U.S. are often confronted with when engaging in their lawless activities: they can and will get shot, and that’s a pretty good deterrent in itself.

          Back in Spain people don’t care for blowing each other away; instead they just fortify their worlds like banks and hope for the best. Properties and other personal assets are often gated, bolted, locked, doubled-locked, padlocked, chained, reinforced, shuttered, fenced off, rigged with alarms, equipped with cameras, lined with barbed wire, walled up and crowned with broken glass incrusted in cement, and then often populated with loud, undernourished and under-loved dogs that let out strident bursts of barking at the slightest encroachment of anything no more menacing than a butterfly. It can be a nerve-racking experience as you walk down the streets of these villages and are assaulted verbally by hounds of all sizes, shapes and vocal chords. They are clearly displeased with their existence and successfully convey their discontentment to each and every passerby.

          Accessing a home can be a challenge even for the owners. I once stayed at a beach apartment where I was required to get by four gates and two doors just to enter the apartment. Not so surprisingly, as I penetrated the environs of my holiday vacation spot, I found myself humming the opening tune of the TV series Get Smart.

          So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Laura have to take on multiple obstacles in order to get our Toyota into safe harbor. Entering the garage meant unlocking and opening an iron gate and pushing its doors wide open into a folded position; then using a second key to go through a small iron door which allowed you to reach a pin on one end of another larger iron gate, remove it, and slide it across. If you are on your own, you will have to race back to the car, assuming it’s still there, and drive it inside and under the corrugated tin roof to protect it from the punishing sunlight. Luckily enough, I could count on Laura’s adept abilities at breaking and entering, and the procedure was completed without an incident. Once we were out of the car, we locked it, pulled the handle to make sure it couldn’t be broken into, slid the main garage door back, slipped the pin on, exited the small door, turned the key to lock it, unfolded and pushed the iron gates back into position, held the two ends in place and introduce the key quickly to snap it shut. Then came the inevitable, “Oh, shit, I think I left my Tic-Tacs in the car,” or something existential like that.

Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 8

If you ever wanted to slip into a town like Cebolla surreptitiously, the best time would probably be five in the morning under the shelter of the night and the noise of the street cleaners, or five in the afternoon when everyone seeks shelter from the heat like a beetle beneath a rock. We pulled the car right up to the doorstep in order to minimize our transfer from vehicle to house and thus our exposure to powerful ways our sun can toast our skin, and got out. The heat pressed against our bodies heavily. Oppressive like being at the bottom of a pile-on. No real sound served as background noise. Maybe another car rumbling in the distance, the eerie rustle of poplar tree leaves at the command of a light convective breeze, or perhaps the thud of a bird against the ground after dying from sunstroke. The streets were so deserted I was half-expecting a bale of tumbleweed to come rambling by, which, according to what I have been told, would not have been an entirely inconceivable occurrence in those parts, just not very likely. I for one have never seen it happen.

          We were there to pay a visit to a Spanish family I had known since the first day I came to this country. They were the generous ones who had taken me in as a beer-bellied, pudgy, wide-eyed junior in college some thirty years before during my semester abroad in Madrid, when I planned to master the language in what I know realize was a laughable six months. They formed a part of a fleet of host families who seemed, from the very beginning, to look upon us Americans as hopeless, naïve, ignoramuses who needed a little more culture and a lot more Mediterranean food in our lives. I think mine actually pitied me.

          I was especially fortunate because we had a few things in common. To start with, both our families were large, making it a perfect match for me as I could adapt with relative ease to the general state of chaos that comes with mingling with tribal numbers. I used to think my family was a big thing back home. Irish-Catholic tradition. No contraceptives. Be fruitful and multiply, and all that. Eight siblings tearing up the Connecticut countryside. The principals of our private schools would uncork a bottle of Moet every time mom went into New York to deliver. My teachers never go my name right. I rarely owned something first hand. The joys and trials of the masses.

          But then I headed over to Spain and, whoa, my host family had taken us to the cleaners. Thirteen brothers and sisters. Some now with kids of their own. It was as if the Ruiz family had personally taken on the burden of repopulating the nation after the losses from the Spanish Civil War. As we speak, it is the human-manufacturing equivalent of ten Spanish couples today. The country currently posts one of the lowest birth rate rankings in the world.

          Large Spanish families are formidable clans to come up against. Even in small groups, a newcomer from a hamlet in say, northern Wales, might duck into a doorway thinking a riot has broken out. When their numbers pierce the dozen threshold, it is no longer really possible to discern what is going on or just how many are involved. The day I arrived, six juniors had bound an uncle to a chair in the center of the living room and were dancing around him making piercing whooping calls like a band of Comanche. I think I understood that this was being done in my honor. My Spanish back then had empowered me with all the communication skills of a piece of furniture, so I really had no way of replying with anything more significant than a word of baffled appreciation, “Gracias!”

          We hit it off, though, in our own way, establishing a mutual form of interface from the very beginning: I couldn’t make out a word they were saying for the first five months (especially at mealtime when they all spoke at the same time), and I can guarantee they couldn’t understand a word I was saying for the first five years; but eventually they grew used to me, which is what usually happens to people who know me.

          As the years went by, I became fully adopted by the family. Now most have settled throughout the country, mostly in different neighborhoods of Madrid or the metropolitan area, others in the provinces, and some even abroad in France and Germany. They get together for the major holidays and birthdays, and laugh, eat, drink, and outshout each other until it’s time to go home or we get booted from the restaurant. What both awes and marvels me at the same time about the Ruiz family is its diversity and, at the same time, ability to remain close. I know families which are all about the same and can’t stand each other. But this family had a publisher, a writer, an artist, a dentist, a priest, a nun, a Buddhist, a film producer, a teacher, an architect, a NGO officer, an accountant and a lawyer.  The political, moral and philosophical spectrum was just as colorful. These had all the makings for a melee at every sitting, and yet somehow they never broke down into warring. It defies all logic. Thankfully, logic can be wrong. In August, the family scatters and you can do the Tour de Ruiz by visiting each and every member, stage by stage. Beaches, mountains, plans, lakes. No ecosystem was left behind.

          The father sadly passed away a few years back, but the mother was still alive and very much kicking. Victoria was originally from this town, though her children were born in several different provinces as if she had taken it upon herself to ensure that the country stayed balanced demographically. She was a curious blend of Spain in persona. She had been a smoker since well before the days filters were used, enjoyed a good caña every evening, drove a Range Rover, which she had flipped, not once, but twice, couldn’t stand the royal family, and yet was devoutly Catholic. She hated bullfighting, but loved bulls, detested La Liga, but screamed louder than anyone during the national team’s games, didn’t have a lot to say for flamenco, but could sing the entire repertoire of Spanish folklore music. Her voice, even at the advanced age of 82 was immaculate. It was her face that should be at the top of Wikipedia’s Spain page, not some goddamn coat-of-arms.

          The Ruiz’s had their own business in town. They used to package figs, the fruit of choice in those parts, and in order to do so owned plenty of land in the surrounding area; but for the most part, that was all gone by the beginning of the present century. Most of the members no longer lived there, so why bother? Their home was a handsome 19th-century building just off the main square, standing side by side with the old town palace that barely held its walls together. It must have been a fine and proud mansion in its day, though that day was a long time ago, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were said to have spent a night or two there on their way to Toledo. This was their “Washington slept here” moment.

          The rest of the year Victoria lived in her apartment in Madrid, but during the summer she would continue a classic tradition of going back to “el pueblo” and hang out with the neighbors more distant family and get some relief from the heat. The rest of the family would stop by and spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of days. No summer was complete without dropping in to good old Cebolla, a real La Mancha town. And as anyone knows from this country, La Mancha is a no nonsense region.

Unfortunately, this year, we were only able to spend one night with Victoria and her son Fernando, before racing back to Madrid. Little did I realize at the time that those 24 hours would somehow bring me back in touch with the Spain of the last twenty years. The Spain of the past 200. Perhaps the past 2,000 years. I wasn’t asking for this to happen. I rarely do. Sometimes, when you let yourself go, centuries can come rushing back as if they had never left.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 5

The Law of Historical Memory, once passed, was off to a solid start until the conservative Partido Popular returned to power in 2011. Then procedures stalled. The new ruling party acknowledged the existence of the law but removed all funding, citing Spain’s ailing economy as the main cause, and effectively bringing progress in this department to a screeching halt. It wouldn’t be until the left-wing parties combined to take over the regional government that there was a renewed effort to execute the law. Cebolla’s time had come, and the long and short of it can be found in the minutes of the town council meeting on the fateful April day in 2017. They met in the usual place, a simple room decorated with practicality in mind. There was a solid wood table aligned in a U-shape filling up much of the space, rose pink curtains flanking the windows, flags representing the region of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain and the European Union in each corner, and in the center a royal blue banner with the Cebolla coat-of-arms stitched on it. The symbols which comprise it are two wolves on the right, next to a fig tree above two crossed keys. Symbols which on the surface are so unrelated, you’d think we were looking at a rebus.

          The debate started with some remarks made by the opposition party, which I assume was the Partido Popular, the nation’s center-right party. The speaker, Sr. Doblado Sánchez-Horneros, “wanted to know more about the basis for the changing of the names and wanted to express his concern over the potential problems the proposed changes might cause some of the residents of the town, since some residents will be affected by having to have their home address changed and, in some cases, their business address as well. Sr. Doblado Sánchez-Horneros went on to add that while he understood the reason for three of the new names, as they were the names previously used, he did not see the reason for renaming Calle Jose Antonio to Calle Castillo de Villalba. Why not Calle Santa Ana. That was its original name.”

          The mayor, Silvia Díaz de Fresno, replied that “this subject had been discussed on numerous occasions and that they have to comply with the law, but that they were aware that this might be a problem for some residents and therefore they didn’t regard it as a priority (the fact that they had waited ten years made that clear to me). She added that she personally was not offended by the names but due to the fact there was a formal complaint made by the president of the Protection of Historical Memory, which denounced the existence of a street called José Antonio, it was their duty to obey the law because the law is there to be obeyed. As for the change in names, she agreed…that the choice of names of the three streets to substitute Calle Calvo Sotelo, Calle Gran Canaria and Calle Comandante Sánchez Rubio was obvious because they were the original names of those streets before they had been changed, as indicated in the report prepared by a town clerk, but regarding the change for José Antonio, this is simply a proposal and that if you  (referring to the opposition party) have an alternative which is better, she would be more than happy to discuss it, mainly because this matter was of no special interest to her. She had originally come up with Calle de la Igualdad (Equality Street), because it sounded light and easy, but after discussing it with the town clerk, he suggested using a name associated with the town of Cebolla, but notied that because there already existed a Calle Barriada Santa Ana, the creation of a Calle Santa Ana might be confusing. So they came up with the Castillo de Villalba because the old castle is located within the town limits though many people associate it with (nearby town) of Malpica. That’s why we have these proposals, but if the opposition party can come up with a better choice, they have no problem with looking at it and, if need be, accepting it, because they don’t want to politicize the matter.”

          The bill was passed and the names approved. The changes are as goes:

CURRENT NAME NEW NAME
Calle Calvo Sotelo Calle La Froga
Calle Gran Canaria Calle La Nueva
Calle Antonio Primo de Rivera Calle Castillo de Villalba
Calle Comandante Sánchez Rubio Calle Los Frailes

The opposition party abstained from voting, which is what these groups normally do when they don’t want to vote against progress but aren’t willing to support the other party either.

          The street sign had finally been taken down, but hardly a soul seemed to care, except for the neighbor whose sleep had been disturbed. In towns like Cebolla the whims of political parties don’t impact their world very much. They have other pressing matters to tend to, like annual crop yield, rampant unemployment and urban flight. These are communities which on the outside seem impervious to the fast-paced world of the major cities, and to an extent they are. Cebolla rarely grabs national attention because one gets the feeling that hardly anything ever changes here. And yet, if you look closely, the outside world has managed to touch this municipality more deeply than one can ever imagine. To such an extent, you’d think you were looking at all of Spain itself.

Six hours later, a pair of visitors was racing towards the heart of this town at blistering speed unaware of the events which had transpired that very morning. Their lives would never be the same again.

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 4

Back in Cebolla, there were four street names that were under scrutiny. One was Calle Calvo Sotelo, in honor of José Calvo Sotelo, a right-wing politician whose greatest contribution to posterity in his life was undoubtedly his death in 1936. A conservative monarchist who advocated a return of the royal family to preside over the turbulent years that led up to the Spanish Civil War, Calvo Sotelo (in Spain they often go by their last two names) was considered to be one of the leading voices of his day. He wasn’t bashful about his opinions either, expressing on more than one occasion that if the government could not establish order in the streets, the army should. There are clearly more democratic ways of conveying popular discontent with an administration’s performance, but this proposal actually coincided with an age-old tradition in Spain to simply remove a government by force when things didn’t go well. As you would expect, advocating a military intervention tends to polarize any nation. Those in support of his vow to “Make Spain Great Again” looked favorably upon his hardline approach, and he began to attract a greater following. Those against his views, regarded him with plenty of fear and loathing.

          Calvo Sotelo’s soaring career was cut short rather abruptly by a bullet that came to a stop in his head. In July of 1936, tensions in Spain were as high as they had even been in decades. Five years after the monarchy had been ousted in a referendum, the fledgling Second Republic teeter-tottered as it struggled to find a balance in the dizzying ideological scenario of the day. The political right was outraged by the loss of traditional Spanish values; the Church was incensed by the growing numbers of atheists; the socialists were irked with the Church; the communists miffed about the socialists; and the anarchists were pissed off with just about everyone. And if you add to that the disgruntled nationalists from three different regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) who wanted to separate all the together, who had a cocktail christened “chaos”. That very summer, the nation was on the verge of falling apart and would, in fact, begin to disintegrate before the month was out. But first, events would have occur to set the explosive situation off.

          On July 13, a group of soldiers detained Calvo Sotelo at his home and, in an act of cold-blooded revenge for the murder of a pro-government officer José Castillo just hours before, stuck him in the back of a truck, shot him and dumped his cooling body next to a cemetery which, if you think about it, was a kind of bizarre gesture of humanitarian consideration on the murderers’ part given the circumstances.

          There is debate as to whether the captors intended on doing him in or if it was just a major fuck-up. Research into the matter suggests that the latter seems the more likely. But if it was just a mistake, it was real doozy. His assassination did not cause the Spanish Civil War, but it is safe to say it effectively cemented a collision course which had been long in the making. For those unfamiliar with Spanish history, this was the “Archduke Ferdinand killing moment” of the Spanish conflict. The act the triggered the tragedy. Calvo Sotelo became an instant martyr for the fascist cause. His death ignited anger throughout the country, and undermined the credibility of the government, which was already quickly losing its grip on law and order. What’s worse, it persuaded a general who had been banished to the Canary Islands –I guess there are worse places they could send– by the name of Francisco Franco to become more pro-active. Apparently, he had had second thoughts about the uprising, mainly because he didn’t want to get hanged by his balls if it failed. With the situation spiraling out of control, he made up his mind that it was time to join the coup. Four days days later he was on a plane heading for Morocco to take charge of the seasoned legionnaires of the Africa army stationed in that Spanish protectorate and lead them in the crossing to mainland Spain. Calvo Sotelo had become a martyr. It was only fitting his memory be perpetuated in the streets of Castile.

          Another street in question was named Gran Canaria, after the third largest island of the Canaries. It’s a beautiful volcanic landmass and a haven for vacationers from around the world. Why was this seemingly innocuous reference to a pretty tropical isle so offensive to the sensitive Spanish ear? Maybe we should be asking, what such a place is doing being honored in a small, unassuming Spanish town to begin with. The connection is obvious once history comes into play. Franco, as we know, had not been sent to the Canary Islands to catch up on a little R&R for a job well done, but rather had been reassigned to the archipelago by the Spanish government because they saw him as a threat to the nation’s legitimate constitution. Time would prove they were right to feel that way. They just came up short in their efforts to prevent what know seems to be the inevitable.

          Then there was Calle Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera in honor of another major figure during that period. Son of the former dictator of Spain Miguel Primo de Rivera (yes, there has been more than one), he went on to found Spain’s version of the fascist party, known as el Falange. When war broke out in 1936, he was put in jail cell in Alicante, officially serving a sentence for possession of firearms. He was later tried for rebellion, even though he was in the slammer when the uprising started, condemned to death and shot on November, 20, 1936, the same day Franco would pass away 39 years later. He is currently buried in the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen near the El Escorial, in the province of Madrid, basically next to the caudillo. While José Antonio’s mausoleum-mate may soon be expelled from the grounds, he has been allowed to stay as a true victim of the war. His body will be taken from the altar and re-interred in a less privileged spot.  

          And finally you have Comandante Sánchez Rubio, a figure so unknown no one seems to even recall even his first name. He was just a soldier from Cebolla who happened to be stationed in Cebolla when Franco’s forces took over. Honored in his day as a local hero, he was on the black list for being on the wrong side at the wrong time. So, tough luck; he’s out!

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 3

What in the name of Sam’s hell was going on? The law, that’s what. Implementing the law, more like it. On April 27, 2017, a full fifteen months before the early morning skirmish of Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz, as it has been come to be known, a meeting of the Cebolla town council was held to address the matter of changing the names of several streets in the town in accordance with the Law of Historical Memory, a controversial piece of legislation which had been passed by the Spanish National Parliament a full ten years before in 2007. The Law of Historical Memory has been one of the most hotly debated decrees in recent Spanish memory, as is anything having to do with the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. It was passed with the hope of bringing closure to a very painful time in this country’s recent past; it may have just opened the wounds further.

          For some Spaniards, though, closure had already occurred decades before when the Generalissimo died on November 20, 1975. The ensuing period of switching from a repressive dictatorship to a democracy under the format of a constitutional monarchy (known as La Transición in Spanish) played out without too much trouble. I say this with a large degree of hesitation, but let me explain. Those involved in the Transición look upon the achievement with pride. The image one has of those years is that of a peaceful and level-headed process, where sanity superseded visceral emotion, where pragmatism outdid revenge. And it’s fairly accurate in the sense that the country did not implode or rewind back to the explosive days of the 1930s. Society more or less cohered. But goodwill and pleasantries were not across the board by any means. Terrorist attacks by numerous separatist and Marxist groups inflicted hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded. And you can’t ignore the fact that parts of the most conservative sections of the armed forces attempted to overthrow a legitimately elected government in 1981. By no means was it perfect sailing, but the Spanish seemingly pulled it off.

          How was it done? First of all, it wasn’t easy. You see, having your government run by a fascist dictator for 36 years is a stain on any country’s resume, but to help with the healing process, a Pact of Forgetting was agreed upon in 1975 by parties and factions on both sides of the political spectrum so as not to stir up unpleasant memories of the past. The feeling was that by not addressing the horrors of the past and not demanding anyone own up for their wrong deeds, the nation could focus on caulking the fissures and bringing about a smooth transition. This unofficial deal was institutionalized two years later with the Law of Amnesty of 1977, by which the parliament formally released any and all political prisoners, deleted their police records, and banned criminal procedures against anyone from that period, regardless of which side they were on. Basically, the idea was to erase the board and reset.

          The political far right was game for the idea. Who wouldn’t want to be criminally responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations and get away with it scot free? The political left earned a reputation for acting with extreme generosity and uncommon understanding. Having achieved that, everyone leaders then got together to create a new framework for Spain’s future. All sides sculpted a well-thought-out constitution, restored democracy and got on to being just another stable Western European country, with great museums, terrific vacation spots, an unmatchable historical heritage, outstanding cuisine, annual entries at the Eurovision Song Contest, and to top it off, a World Cup soccer title in 2010. What more could a European country ask for?

          Meanwhile, reminders from the past were slowly but surely being plucked away from visibility. Between 1980 and 2000, statues, signs, monuments which had in any way honored the Franco period had been retired from public view, many times under the cover of the night to avoid confrontation. Streets were renamed, as were squares, fountains and other landmarks. Plaques were unscrewed and pried off building walls, paintings and pictures sent to the basement or just tossed all together. The cleansing was fairly comprehensive, but far from complete, especially in the small towns, where the vestiges proved more resilient. Was enough, enough, or was a more thorough job required?

          In 2007, the Socialist Party, under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, decided to propose a bill to deal with a number of issues associated with the sensitive past which had not been fully addressed. These went beyond just unhinging a bust or rechristening a lane. They also included financing the locating, identifying and exhumation of bodies buried in many of the countless number of common graves that littered the country, where the remains of an untold number of victims of the war lay. The most high-profile controversy was the mother of all disinterments, that of Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos Basilica (The Valley of the Fallen). The Franco-period church-monument-monastery built in honor of all victims of the Spanish Civil War, was never meant for the caudillo himself to be there in the first place, as he was not a victim of the war. He personally asked not to. But that is precisely where he ended up. The result was predictable, since the landmark acquired a kind of pilgrimage status for those who yearned for the days when you good suppress your opponents instead of rely on democratic voting. And while participation in these tributes has waned since the first few years, the fact remains, the old dictator still occupies a place of honor in the side of a mountain twenty-five miles from Madrid. 44 years later, left-wing parties are in the midst of a legal dispute with the Franco family, as they dispute where his final resting place will be. He’ll probably go, but when and where is a mystery.

          The Spanish Civil War and Francoism still hold a firm grip on the psyche of parts of this society, even though many citizens are hopelessly unaware of it. In fact, the two Spains that historians often refer two have their origins in conflicts that hark back to the 19th Century, but it’s the war “la Guerra” that continues to be most relevant to them.

          It may be tempting to say that bickering over events that occurred 40, 50, 60, 70 and up to 80 years ago is absurd, but it’s a more complex issue and more widespread phenomenon than people think. Some Americans, for example, are still coming to terms with visible reminders of their very own civil war. They may wrestle to recall the name of a general or a battle or even forget which century the conflagration took place, but that doesn’t matter. There are matters left unresolved, they’ll say. Just in the past few years, statues have been toppled and flags taken down, and crowds still fill the streets on occasion to protest the commemoration of former Confederate soldiers and leaders. Mind you, we are talking about an event that took place 150 years ago. So, it’s not really for us to judge others, which is a shame, because judging others is one of my favorite pastimes.

The Catalan Chronicles: The Jordan Syndrome

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!

The Catalan Chronicles: Seriously

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.

 

 

 

 

The Catalan Chronicles: A little Help Please

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.

 

 

 

The Catalan Chronicles: Catalonia is not Spain

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.

 

 

The Catalan Chronicles: An article called 155

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.