Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Posts Tagged ‘spain’

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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.  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.

 

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, which I’m sure they’re not.  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.

 

 

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November 11, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Honest Abe

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The pro-unity Spaniards may not be able find the answer they are looking for in the American Revolution, but they can come upon something more to their liking down the road of our relatively brief but intense history.  You must understand that the average Spaniard naturally sees the United States as one (not necessarily always happy) nation in which regional independence movements are unheard of.  People are first citizens of the United States and then of their respective states, if they so choose to feel that way.  That’s a fairly accurate depiction of the U.S. today, so you can’t blame them, but it wasn’t always like that…at all.

 

When I have a some extra time, I say, “Have a seat, and let me tell you a little story.”

 

Twelve score and 1 year ago, our Fathers initiated the control of a territory with a growth potential like nothing mankind has ever seen before or since, and created a nation under the notion that all men were equal.  Their interpretation of equality would naturally be questioned by today’s standards, as they didn’t have women or black slaves in mind, but you could argue that they did get the ball rolling.  It was, in fact, the issue of institutionalized bondage that would lead the country into its most important and lasting internal crisis in its history.”  That much most people can grasp.  What has escaped many is that behind it was a constitutional standoff – a power struggle.

 

You see, even though the thirteen colonies had what you could call a common ancestor, that is England, they had managed to acquire a feeling of individualism that led them to believe and behave as if they were practically little nations joined in a federation.  Its residents felt a greater allegiance to their state than to the country as a whole.  Never was this more clearly illustrated when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, then an officer for the United States Army, and one with a distinguished military career at that, was faced with the dilemma of which side to join.  Nowadays, that seems unthinkable, but back then it was a fairly common debate.  He was in fact opposed to the secessionist movement of the South for constitutional reasons, and so expressed it in writing.  But loyalty to his state was the question.  In short, he felt no state had a right to leave the union, but if his state of Virginia did choose to do so and was attacked, he would be left with no choice but to defend it.  Even if that meant abandoning his sworn duties to the federal government.  His decision is one of great controversy to this day, but let’s not go there.

 

What was at stake was the very future of the United States.  And regardless of the outcome, things would never be the same.  Abraham Lincoln was fully aware of this and summed up the trascendence of the moment brilliantly in his now famous Gettysburg Address.   It is unquestionably one of the finest speeches ever delivered in history, partly because it was so short.  The quintessential example of “less is more”.  Edward Everett, the Massachusetts politician and the main speaker of the day (can you imagine a time when the president’s oration took second billing?), devoted no fewer than a staggering two hours to his intervention before uttering to a, no doubt, relieved crowd, “Thank you for listening.”   And he still apparently didn’t get his point across. He was later said to have praised Lincoln for doing in two minutes what he couldn’t convey in 120.

 

“Damn straight!  Honest Abe wouldn’t put up with no bullshit like that.”  Maybe they didn’t word it that way in the heart of Madrid, but something to that effect.  While Lincoln’s stance was true, the flip side was that the South was just as determined to have things seen their way…and sent up half a million armed men to help pursuade the federal government.   Four years and 600,000 deaths later, the matter was settled and everyone was friends again…sort of.

 

So why should Spain care?  You see, nearly two score years after democracy was finally reestablished in this western European nation in 1978, the situation has an eerily familiar ring to it – with the exception, thank God, that we have not been plunged into a civil war.  Behind the age-old debate on how these regions fit into modern Spain is the issue of what the constitution has to say about it.  That is, just as Lincoln argued that the South didn’t have the right to leave, so says the Constitutional Court here, as it tries to contain the movement through judicial means.  And, of course, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and company subscribe to this wholeheartedly.  Spain is indivisible.  That’s what most traditional Spaniards purport.  They are dumbfounded by all this extremist separatism and struggle to comprehend while anyone would ever want to leave it.  They adopt an almost Eastern philosophy approach: that’s just the way things are.

 

The way things are is that Spain is still a very young democracy, which is ironic for one of the oldest countries in the world, and this current situation has come as a surprise to pretty much everyone but me.  Especially from a country with the delicate situation that it has had for such a long time.  This was almost bound to occur.

 

Forty years ago, while Americans were lining up to watch Animal House and Grease, in Catalonia people were queuing to participate in the last official referendum.   Ironically, Catalonia was the region with the fourth highest percentage in favor of ratifying the constitution, with 90.46% voting yes, with 70% participation.  Many pro-separatists will argue that things have changed, and undoubtedly they have…in every scenario and in many ways.   But can the same really be said of Catalonia and the rest of Spain?  Are things really that different, or, have they changed in a way that they appear to be?

 

 

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November 3, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Independence Day

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Every once in a while when some kind of humilliating debacle grabs the headlines, people here reach for the sky and clamor, “Spain is different!”  They look at me all bummed out and whimper, “I bet these kinds of things would never happen in the U.S.”   What they want to hear me say is that they are right and explain that in America Puigdemont would be doing time in Texas long ago.  Not that Lone Star State is known for coming down hard on political outlaws, but the name does somehow satisfy the Spanish’s basic understanding of places in the United States where no criminal would ever like to be incarcerated. And, as you can imagine, saying “he’s doing time in Rhode Island” just doesn’t have the same effect.  So, I give them what they want.  I provide comfort.   “Oh, he’d be picking up soap every day in Waco, trust me.”

 

They nod firmly, pleased by what they have heard.  “Fucking-A.  That’s the way to do it.”

 

Then I get to the sad truth.  Unfortunately, when people Madrid here look to American history for solace, they don’t always get what they bargained for.  This is why. The War of Independence came about by:

  • A people with no prior history as a nation.
  • Separatists who claimed they were being robbed by the state.
  • National leaders who created their own parliament to legislate their next moves, and…
  • Ignored British laws, overlooked judicial decisions and flat out defied royal decrees, and…
  • Declared independence unilaterally, the way it’s usually done, folks, and…
  • Renounced an institutionalized monarchy and proclaimed a republic, and…
  • Propagated their message through a fairly well-oiled propaganda machine which often highly distorted the facts, and…
  • Counted on less than half the population for support, at least at first before the British came in and started breaking heads.

 

What do you know.  Essentially this is an outline of many of the ingredients that go into the Catalan independence movement.  Many of the acts and actions that many of us find unacceptable, all the illegal measures, the sedition, the inciting of passive and not so passive resistance, were also perpetrated by the Founding Fathers of my homeland.   Ironically, the Catalans could make a case for their secession by using the birth of the United States as a model.  Shit.  Does Puigdemont know about this?  I’m not sure if anyone (much less his own supporters) cares what he thinks at this point after he bolted to Belgium, but you never know.

 

Plus, the American movement wasn’t exactly the same, was it?  To begin with, times were quite different back then.  The colonists had already left England a century and a half before looking for the freedom to do as they wished.  They were already predisposed to no longer putting up with the kind of crap you had to deal with in Great Britain, and that sense of freedom would only augment with time.  The people did not get the proper representation they deserved and had little say in how their land should be governed.  The monarchy back then was a lot more powerful than the figurehead is today.  And even though George III was not the evil authoritarian that my elementary school textbooks made him out to be, it was clear he was not keen to make things easy for the colonists.  So he used force.  A lot of it.  Not only did that damage the British cause, it also triggered an unexpected complication.  As Howard Zinn put it, “victory was made possible by the existence of an already-armed people.  Just about every white man had a gun, and could shoot.”

 

And they did.  The active participation of the French and Spanish, who were always game for screwing over their arch-rivals, proved key too.

 

The American Revolution was also very much of a transfer of power from the wealthy in the United Kingdom to the wealthy in the colonies.  The driving forces behind America’s inception was none other than the ruling class of the New World, which meant there were no members badly in need of a proper haircut and wearing bizarre T-shirts two sizes too small marching down the aisle with a smirk as they voted for to break away from the motherland.  There were scores of grown men who also could have done with a visit to the barber, but who owned so much money, land and slaves, they couldn’t give a damn what others thought.

 

Catalonia’s ruling class (economic power), on the other hand, made it very clear in the early days of October that it had no intention of joining in the seccionists’ games.  Logically, they saw nothing but trouble from being kicked out of the European Union, and told the leaders of the movement (in probably less cordial words) that they could basically go perform lewd acts on each other and enjoy their freedom on their own.  The threat of leaving the euro can do that to individuals and entities of substantial wealth.  I wouldn’t know personally, but I figure that’s the case.

 

What’s more, the region does have its own parliament, its own governing laws, its own fiscal administration (that means they can tax).  It has been granted the right to have its own police force and schooling system.   As for democracy, no fewer than 11 regional elections have been held (in addition to the national ones), with pro-Catalan parties dominating.  One can hardly say they have been victims of mistreatment over the past 40 years since the Franco regime disappeared  (that is, from a time when they really had a good reason to want to separate); they have enjoyed plenty of autonomy, as well as plenty of chances for the independentists to want to garner enough support for their cause.  But that doesn’t seem to have happened as of yet.

 

Does any of that really matter when your final goal is to become your own country?  When you’ve got it in your head that you will not rest until to you pull down every last Spanish flag, do you care about those details?  Not really.  You just ignore the facts and plow ahead.  Your mission is not over.  And that’s where things get messy.

Uncategorized

October 29, 2017

Tha Catalan Chronicles: John Hancock

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So, one of my brothers texted me Friday saying, “Catalonia declares independence.  Wow!”

 

I wrote back almost instantaneously, “It’s about time.  Took ’em long enough.”

 

I could sense his puzzlement.  “Aren’t you shocked?”

 

“Actually, I’m relieved.”

 

Not that I was embracing the announcement as something good for Spain, or Catalonia for that matter, because it isn’t; it was just that it was like the tenth time in two weeks the president of the region, Carles Pudgemont, was supposed to make this proclamation and his political stuttering was beginning to get on my nerves.  It stirred the New Yorker within me.  “Get on with it, already.  Don’t be a pussy.”

 

For weeks we have had to listen to “we are going to declare independence, we declared independence, we suspended our declaration of independence, maybe we declared or maybe we didn’t declare, if we did declare it we aren’t going to tell you, next time we are really going to declare it, we mean it, we really mean it, and on and on,”  The climax came when Puigdemont announced Catalan independence on October 10th and 40% of the population was brought to the brink of a communal orgasm, only to backtrack 8 seconds later and say, “but let’s wait for another day.”  It was a baffling and unprecedented show of political coitus interruptus.  I honestly don’t think anything like it has ever happened in history…so at least they have that to say for themselves.

 

Anyway, on Friday he finally mustered up the courage to do it; through a silent vote, mind you, so that the Spanish authorities couldn’t point the finger at anyone.  I guess it’s an astute move from their point of view, but it isn’t quite what you’d call the ballsiest gesture in the world.  Not the kind of intrepid defiance you’d expect from these things.  No valiant individual standing in front of an approaching tank and what not.  Certainly not in the spirit of the American declaration 241 years before when each and every rebel present personally signed on the dotted line for King George III to view.   John Hancock, the famous statesman and merchant, wrote his name so large you could read it from across the room.  It was essentially an autographed version of him flipping the bird at the British monarch.

 

In fact, the only one to show their vote was a member who voted “no” in the parliament session, and possibly because he didn’t want to be mixed in with the secessionist crowd.  Most of the opposition parties had already left the room anyway, so the decision was a foregone conclusion.

 

Oh well, different country, different century, different circumstances; best not to compare the two too much…but I will one day, trust me.

 

Anyway, the point is, though I had no plan to write about this subject, a number of people in my circles of friendship have suggested the idea, and so far I have eschewed the idea fearing I would be getting stuck in a quagmire on a very sensitive issue…and I would be.  In other words, I was being a pussy.  But the hispanologist within me, the historian inside, has gotten the better of me.  That and my better half is tired of me standing in front of her with a coffee mug in my hand grousing to the backdrop of morning radio, “Can you believe what they said?!  That’s outrageous!”

 

“Honey, it’s eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.  Go tell the rest of the world and let me sleep.  Thank you.”

 

OK, so I will tell the rest of the world.  I’ll be a John Hancock.  That’s the queerest thing I think I’ve ever written, but I’ll leave it in.  You don’t get to “be there” for a country on the verge of falling apart every day, so I might as well make the most of it.  Plus, while there is a growing percentage of balanced reporting on the issue, still too much of what is published and posted out there is superficial and doesn’t even come close to understanding the complexity of the conflict; nor do many of the fly-in reporters have the knowledge of Spain as a whole to approach the subject with the know-how that one needs.  I once saw a link to an article titled “The Catalan Crisis in 300 Words”.   Sorry.  Can’t do it.  It’s almost insulting the writer should try.   The first section went like this:

 

What is Catalonia?
Catalonia is an autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years.
The wealthy region has its own language, parliament, flag and anthem. It also has its own police force and controls some of its public services.

 

Let’s ignore the fact they had to even pose the question (though that should give you an idea of how unfamiliar people are with the subject).   Everything about that text is essentially true.  There isn’t a single lie there.  It’s also one of the most misleading statements in writing, because what the writer has basically done is describe half a dozen regions in Spain, and if you remove the “its own language” factor, he is depicting all of the regions of Spain.  To suggest Catalonia is unique in this sense grossly misrepresents the truth about Spain overall (and much of Europe for that matter).  Based on the information, I’d say some of the other regions have a much stronger case for independence (many were their own kingdoms for God’s sake), and they ain’t bitching day and night about how bad life is them.  But maybe the author didn’t know this.  Maybe they did.  Or maybe the fact they had only 300 words to emit a fact fart out online hindered getting the full story out there.  And this is where things get messy.  Maybe they should stop trying to sum complex issues up in 300 words.

 

I hope this will be a fascinating sociological and historical anaylisis that goes beyond the Ramblas of Barcelona, or even the frontiers of Spain.  Nationalism is a perplexing easily misunderstood topic.  I don’t even know what it means half the time.  So, I’ll do my best; but if anyone out there is familiar with the way I do things, you can expect some surprising but relevant angles.

 

So, just what the heck is going on?  We’ll take a look.  But first, I’ll have to tell you how I feel about it in general.

COSAS QUE NUNCA ME CONTARON DE LA HISTORIA

October 15, 2017

Things They Never Told Me About Spanish History: Celts & Bunnies

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If there ever was a time a teacher of mine devoted an iota of their lesson plan to a bunch of stone age graffiti inside a dank cave in the north of Spain, it would have amounted to little more than an utterance before moving on to the other side of the Mediterranean where things were really hopping.  The Middle East, and more specifically Mesopotamia, was rather busy establishing what would end up being the bases of all of modern civilization.  A daunting task, to say the least, and it certainly kept their minds occupied.  Nowadays a region often maligned for being backward, in the dawn of ancient times, Mesopotamia and its peoples were at the head of the progress pack in almost every way.  Let’s see just a smattering of what our friends from Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia (and later Phoenicia and Egypt) would contribute to the betterment of mankind: agriculture, irrigation, metalworking, medicine, writing, engineering (including dams and large buildings), urban design, the wheel, coordinated transportation, arithmetic, accounting, banking, money, astronomy, and, of course, beer and winemaking.  And that’s just the important stuff.

 

So there was good reason for the teacher to focus our attention on developments there, but that doesn’t mean nothing was shaking in other parts of the Mare Nostrum; we just weren’t privy to it.  The Iberian Peninsula was quite active, if you want know, and even if you don’t, I’ll be telling you about it anyway.
Just what was it like back then?  Legend has it, and this seems to be confirmed rather fervently by wishful-thinking environmentalists, that the land was one lush forest.

 

So fraught with vegetation was the territory, according to the story handed down over the generations, that the classical Greek geographer, Strabo, was said to have claimed that a squirrel could cross the span of the land, from coast to coast, without ever having to touch the ground.   A shocking bit of news if you are in any shape or form familiar with the average landscape in this country, especially around the middle part.  Either the plains were really once that loaded with forests or the rodent was equipped with bionic legs.

 

There is, however, yet another explanation: it’s total bull.  Strabo never mentioned the animal, let alone its extraordinary feat.  That’s reason enough to cast doubt on the whole story.  Has deforestation taken its toll on the country over its three thousand years of history?  Why not.  My home state of Connecticut was nearly stripped naked in just two hundred before the forests began to come back, so there is no telling.

 

Chances are, though, the change was not as dramatic as some would like to believe.

 

While the red squirrel still exists in Spain, the Spaniards are fascinated by this little creature and can see packs (of people that is) following them all over Retiro Park, the tru boss by numbers is the one and only rabbit.  In fact, and this was a big revelation for me when I first heard about it, the very name of the country has its origins in this lupine creature.  Word has it, the Phoenicians, we’ll get back to them in a little while, were so bowled over the infinite number of bunnies hopping around that they name the land I-spn-ya (land of the rabbits).  I shit you not.  Some hardcore Spaniards question this theory through and through, feeling it isn’t dignified enough, especially when you consider the animal is also used in Spanish as a connotation for female genitalia, but it seems to be the story that holds up the best.

 

In addition to a ton of rodents of different sizes and shapes, there was also quite a bit of human activity.  Not necessarily the kind that erected 500ft pyramids or who laid down the foundations of the modern legal system, but they were certainly keeping themselves busy staying alive.  This was when I learned that there were lots of them. To simplify matters they came in two basic forms: the Celts and the Iberians.

 

“Really?  The Celts?  The ones who lived in Ireland?  The ones who gave us basketball in Boston?”

 

My friend Pepe insisted that it was true.  “The even have their own bagpipe.”
Well, it turns out once again, that my old friend Pepe was telling the truth.  The bagpipe has existed in the northwest of Spain since the Middle Ages and probably made its way to the British Isles later.  Who would have guessed?  The same can be said of the Celts themselves.  Recent genetic studies show that many original Britons and Irish are closely tied  to the Celts from the Spain, DNA-wise,  and most likely came from that region when the fishermen sailed up to those parts around 6,000 years ago.  What do you know…that really must irritate the Brits to no end.  And that, of course, gives me a good laugh.

 

Anyway, as I was saying.  You had your Iberians and Celts and when they met, took a fancy to each other, and got drunk and horny, they produced Celt-Iberians.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  There were literally scores of tribes and nations roaming around the land.  Here is just a sampling:  you have your Vettones in Extramadura, your Vaccaei in the Salamanca area, your Lusitani in Portugal (that’s where they get the name of the ill-fated ship the Lusitania), the Carpetani in the middle of the land, the Oretani near Jaen, the Turdetani in Andalusia, the Astures in Asturias, the Vascones in the Basque Country (they have always been there), and so on.  There’s just no end to it.  Some were more advanced than others, but true progress wouldn’t come until the boys from the other side of the Mediterranean showed up.  Then things really started rolling…as we will see.

Spain

July 24, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 1

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Boy, every year I get worse at this.  Some people, actually a lot ot people, call this blogger burnout.  I call it having a total lack of time to sit down and do one of things I like best: write…and write about Spain.  Writing takes time, just like any kind of exercise.  It requires dedication.  When I go running, when I plan on running, I can take months before I actually take that first step, but after about day three, I start craving the activity.  The same kind of happens with writing.  It is soooo easing to slip out of the habit, no matter how much you enjoy it, primarily because, if you take it seriously enough, you don’t want to post a piece of crap.  And to avoid that, you have to take the time to make it worthwhile.  Not that I haven’t been spending time writing on other things; I just haven’t bothered to share it with anyone.

     Plus, luckily for me, not much has been going on this year so far.  Spain voted for no party to run the country and seven months and another election later, the situation is still the same.  The Partido Popular has taken a slightly tighter grip on power, but it’s still a far cry from the majority it needs.  The Socialist party is totally adrift, and Podemos is finally learning what it’s like to me on the other side of the court.  Things were a lot easier when all it had to do was take pop shots at mainstream parties.  Ciudadanos, trying to be like another Podemos but better dressed and more appealing to the rich young Spaniards who like to feel they are being radical, has begun to come across as an absurd alternative altogether.  So, I get the feeling that there is a lot of meeting the new boss, the same as the old boss.

       A good scream by Roger Daltrey would be nice here.

       The seemingly little impact that this state of non-government, this legislative limbo, is both encouraging and disparaging.  The former because it means a stable country can continue to carry on with its duties despite no one really directing it.  The latter because it suggests how insignificant ruling parties really are.  And let’s not mention the fact the political stagnation means nothing is really getting done.  Try doing that at your place of work.

      Ok, I’m off to see some friends who have a new casa rural in La Mancha.  I’ll start a month long road trip…the way they used to to them.  With no place in mind, La Mancha is a perfect destination to start off with. It’s the place of dreaming the impossible the dreams.  Trust me, once you are out there, dreaming can get pretty wishful.  But, as the song goes, I could really use a wish right now.

30 Days of Christmas

January 23, 2015

The Thirty Days of Christmas 23

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There is a way to make it stop. A way to get out it. A place to go when you feel just can’t eat anymore. It’s not home because that’s where all the turrón is, lying there on some shiny ceramic platter just begging to be picked up. And you will succumb to the temptation. More than once. You just leave the city and flee the danger, the madness, and the disease. Boccaccio sent his characters away from the plague soy they tell their 100 tales in Decameron. Why couldn’t I skip town to stay out of reach of the nearest marzipan figurine?

     When I need a place to and get away from it all, I find it just about an hour away from the center of Madrid in a bucolic and astoundingly unspoiled valley to the north of the capital called el Valle de Lozoya, and a village known as Alameda. This time I took up temporary residence in another nearby town, the largest in the region, called Rascafría. The name translates liberally as frigid wind, which should give you an idea of the kind of climate one might encounter there, especially in winter, but rest assured that this is not the icy tundra, though it is somewhat higher and frostier than many would imagine.

     The valley gets its name from the Lozoya River, which trickles down from the lofty Sierra de Madrid and carves its way through the land. The contents of this waterway softly pass by fields, woods and hamlets before spilling into a large reservoir known as the Embalse de Pinilla. One of the few positive legacies ever attributed to Franco, and even this one is debated, is that fact he took measures to ensure Spain, a rather dry country in many regions, had a fairly extended and steady supply of water in a land where rainfall is anything but steady.

     When Spaniards are not drinking alcohol, which at this time of year seems only at breakfast, water is a common alternative. In fact, it’s basic drink on an everyday basis…not soda or milk, which was what I was nurtured on. It makes a difference. The first time I came to Spain, I lost about 15lbs in the first three months, and part of it had to do with my being nourished with simple glasses of water at every meal. That and the rest of the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is a standard regime that Spaniards tout as being the reason why they don’t have to pay for two seats when they buy airline tickets and stuff like that. The nutritional plan gets its strength from its balanced nature. It relies, sometimes too heavily, on olive oil, but also includes well-distributed amounts of fish, fruit, vegetables, legumes and beans, meat, bread, dairy…the whole deal. Basically everything you were told to do when you had your healthy eating class but never actually followed. You can in the States, but it almost sounds as if you are making a statement when you do. Here, it is second nature. That’s why some may be astounded to find kindergarten students jollily munching on chickpeas and carrots and fresh fish. They might even marvel at the sight. Especially since it’s not such an uncommon sight.

     Much as the Spanish would like to brag about how complete their diet is, and it can be despite the massive incursion of fast food over the past fifteen years, history shows it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the heavenly blend of comestibles didn’t arrive to the heart of the country until fairly recently. Up until the 1960s, Castilian gastronomy was anything but balanced, weighted in all types of beans and salted pork and fish and lacking in many vitamins. It sounded as if the Spanish ate less and farted more. The present-day setup of three square meals represents more of an amalgamation of different diets and eating habits from around the country. Together they forge one of the finest range of food available to an omnivore…by the way, if you are vegetarian, go find another country.

     And, of course, copious quantities of the old H2O never hurts. And if you live in the Madrid metropolitan area, all the better, because there you can enjoy some of the finest tap water the country can offer. Many foreigners, especially Americans, are wary of putting their lips to a glass for fear they will end up spending the weekend within the confines of their hotel bathroom. Heck, I know a lot who refuse to drink their own water let alone put their bowels on the line with another country’s version. I remember growing up hearing horror stories about France’s water, I don’t know why, but it probably explains why their bottle mineral stuff is so famous worldwide, and I can personally confirm, much to my displeasure, that everything they say about Mexico’s Montezuma’s Revenge is a reality. A very real reality. But the agua in the mountains of the Madrid, is a totally different story. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s nearly a sin to order a bottled version from some other region when you have such a terrific hydro-delicacy at your fingertips. The fancy water with the ever-fancier packaging is becoming ever more popular in this day and age where even the most basic necessities need to be sealed in gourmet fashion. Asking for a free pitcher is now frowned upon. Alas…nothing seems to come for free anymore.

     Well, that’s where I headed. That’s where I went. I ran to the hills, for the hills, to burn off some calories, take in deep breaths of fresh air and…have some great, great meals. Guilt-free pleasures.