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.