Some people like to get just a general overview of what Spanish history is like so that it’s easier to understand the specifics. Today, I’m going to do just that. Do the impossible; pack 1 million years into twenty minutes. It wasn’t an easy task, but I think we pulled it off! Enjoy and let us know what you think!
CASTILLO DE LA MOTA – MEDINA DEL CAMPO
Today’s podcast features monuments and towns associated with the Comunero movement. We take you to Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Medina del Campo, Torrelobatón and Villalar de los Comuneros. If you enjoy history and traveling, here are a couple of ideas for you to find new ways to discover Spain. Hope you enjoy it.
In a place of La Mancha, whose name is not easily forgotten, on the morning of August 14, something historic took place. The events unfolded just beyond the crack of dawn, an ungodly hour for the middle of the summer holidays especially when an insistent heat wave, now into its third week, was battering the country with record high temperatures. The vegetation shriveled at frightening rates and turned the countryside into a mix of humbled colors that ranged from parched khaki to deathbed brown. After such an extended stretch of punch after punch of punishing heat, the thermometers no longer had the will to cool off at night, except for maybe between five and seven in the morning when near imperceptible variations might insinuate the sensation of descent. That fact, combined with the incessant shouting and laughing of the young people who hung out in the main square every night until three in the morning, made rest not only a challenge to the even soundest sleeper, it sometimes made it an absolute impossibility.
To add to the difficulty, members of the town’s public sanitation department come out in force first thing every day to perform a task which can only be likened to a battery of convicts laying down gravel with hydraulic equipment. It’s the town street cleaners and waste management teams making their way through the narrow streets with one purpose in mind: wiping up the carelessly strewn remains of the previous day. Their target was trash, and removing it at unreasonable hours is a widespread scourge that has tormented the dreamers of this country for years. Despite the obvious inconvenience associated with this activity, it is immensely popular among public officials everywhere. The local governments will tell you that the system allows them to freely sanitize the city while their citizens rest, but I am here to attest to the fact that it’s really actually proof of their immense sense of humor; the supposed beneficiaries of the service, meaning us, are jolted awake to a commotion which, when it catches you with the windows open, can seem seismic in dimension. Nothing about the noise they make appears in any way related to the improvement of urban hygiene. Quite the contrary. Yet by the time the townspeople awake and are on the run, the pavement is damp and spotless and ready to be soiled again.
On this day, though, a second unexpected pair of intruders came upon the scene and set up shop. Their intent was completely different and the time they expected to hang around extended beyond what people would consider to be common courtesy. But what did that matter? History was in the making, I tell you. And in the town of Cebolla, located on the western end of the province of Toledo, of the autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha, run-ins with posterity don’t come along very often. In fact, they are pretty goddamn rare.
So, I was out the other evening getting some last-minute item for my other half because it was February 14th and, even though we agreed that we would not fall for the bizarre tradition of having to demonstrate your love on a particular date just because the retail industry was putting pressure on us, I knew that wasn’t true. Which is why I found myself perusing around the Corte Inglés gourmet section along with half a dozen other men who were there for the very same reason and donning worried looks of inadequacy as time ran out. They were all about my age and clearly knew better than to believe the fateful words, “Don’t get me anything. I don’t want anything.”
There was also a small gathering of foreigners in the middle receiving a mini-course and tasting on Jabugo ham which had nothing to do with the challenge at hand and only served to distract my attention needlessly. I homed in on the chocolate stands and picked up a box of Belgian delights, truffles, even better, smirked triumphantly as I headed for the register and left my competition behind. Once at the station, I waited for the price to get rung up and then let my card hover over the machine so that my credit information can magically float over to its destiny and approval can be given. Yes, even after all these years, I can say that I still get a certain sense of satisfaction out of seeing the word “aprobado” pop up on that tiny screen. It makes me feel proud. It says “I’m solvent”, which is not something many writers can claim. The mirth is usually short-lived and by the time I have the receipt and bag in my hand it’s become a recent memory.
But this time I was assaulted by a simple quiz on customer satisfaction. At first glance it didn’t require much deep meditation. There were five faces in a row, emoticons for lack of a better word, each expressing different degree of satisfaction, or not. It started on the right with a furious expression and progressively improved until the final head on the left appeared to be laughing out loud which, no matter how successful my trip to the department store has been, I think is a rather overstated reaction to the otherwise ordinary practice of purchasing a product.
To be honest, I don’t known really what they were asking me to rate. Was the store all right? Did I find what I was looking for? How well the woman performed her duties at the cash register? Was I happy being the dumbfuck who actually answers these questions? I’ll confide that when I’m feeling particularly rebellious in today’s otherwise tame society, I refuse to provide the store with my zip code. It’s sort of last bastion on self-respect.
I’ve seen these gimmicky things at store entrances, but I had never had one stuck in my face without previous warning, so I kind of panicked. I put my index finger on the second face, the one that was smiling, because honestly, the chuckling one just didn’t seem to fitting. It was past eight o’clock at the end of the long day of work and, once again, I had caved into the truth.
But as I stepped away, I started thinking about my decision. I would quite go as far as to say I was regretting it; perhaps I should have been better informed. What if the woman had expected the far-left option? What if I had disappointed her? What if the smiley face was a little too cheerful for such an un-enthralling episode? Shouldn’t I have just to the middle ground? It was fine, and that was all. No need to throw a party. But here was the biggest question: what the hell was the Corte Inglés doing by making me spend the five next minutes of my life questioning whether or not I had done the right thing, when all I wanted to do was pay for the goddamn Belgian chocolates? It just ain’t right, I tell you.
After the stunning results from the December 21 elections, stunning for their lack of stunningness, everyone went home and paused for five days of uninhibited eating and drinking in a festivity known as Christmas.
The yuletide in Catalonia, just like everywhere in the Old Continent, is full of ancient traditions, and two are worthy of mention, because if the nationalists were to ever have a solid claim on their region being different from the world and, thus, entitled to sovereignty, by God, these are the ones. Hold on to your seats and read on:
One entails a unique member of the nativity scene, or crèche, which is a representation of the birth of Christ. They are found all over Spain, in churches, shops and schools, and no home is complete without one…unless of course you are Muslim or Jewish. Components of the basic kit include the Holy Family, as you would expect, three Wisemen, a couple of angels, a handful of shepherds, and an ox and donkey. But the display is rarely that simple. It can be extremely elaborate, depicting various scenes from the Christmas story, and often has sand, moss, LED lights, watermills, and even running water gurgling about on occasion. The expanse, extension and dimension of your crèche can often be a reflection of your values, economic status or ostentatious personality. The number of figures can run into the hundreds, as can the cost to collect and assemble them. They often represent every aspect of life back then…and in some cases, life today.
One such character, peculiar to Catalonia, is known as the caganer, a curious bloke whose mission in this world is to depict a typical Catalan farmer squatting down and defecating. I shit you not, excuse the pun. His finished product is always included and has a striking resemblance to the emoji turd, but without the eyes and mouth. Just what would possess anyone to insert such a profane figurine in such a holy scenario without fear of getting reduced to a pile of ashes? And who could it have been? Like anything in life, there had to have been a first. I mean, you have to wonder about the look on the faces of those present when they heard for the first time, “Why don’t we add a statue of a guy taking a dump?”
The Catalans say it’s all a pagan tradition having to do with the renewal life, and I’m not one to refute that claim. There does exist a vulgar phrase in Spanish in which a bowel movement is known as “planting a pine cone”, so maybe there is a relationship. One thing is for sure, though, the Catalans have taken the custom on with uncommon affection and pointing out where the crapping dude is in the crêche is generally at the top of the list when you visit any home. Every year at the Christmas markets, where the statuettes can be purchased, there are scores of variations, and instead of being a bumpkin from rural Catalonia, the heads represent famous personalities, oftentimes politicians. In December 2017, to no one’s surprise, Puigdemont and Rajoy caganers were especially abundant.
Jumbo size versions of a caganers also exist. In 2010, in the Maremagnum mall, a 20 ft. tall caganer was erected. And since no caganer is complete without a big pile of poop beneath the butt, I can assure you nothing was spared on this occasion.
As astounded as I was, at first I chalked this tradition up to one of those oddball rituals that make the world so amusing and off the wall. But it was when I learned about another annual custom, also performed at Christmas, that I came to suspect that the Catalans were, to say the least, scatologically-curious. Here’s another gem: whereas in Spain you have a choice of gift-bearing visitors, Santa Claus (Papá Noel), the Baby Jesus (El Niño Jesús), or the most popular threesome of them all, the The Three Kings (los Reyes Magos), somewhere in the northeast of Spain, things are decidedly different. Don’t panic, this has nothing to do with St. Nick pooping under the tree or anything like that. The Catalan Kris Kringle is a log with bright eyes and a pleasant smile and two sticks attached to it to prop it up as if they were legs. So far, so good. A cute, little mascot with a plausible relationship to the season. After all, we do have a yule log, so the symbol seems season-appropriate and, on paper, kid-friendly. A blanket is draped over the trunk and we certainly get the feeling that we are tucking ourselves into a snug winter’s evening.
Patience. It just so happens that in the days leading up to Christmas, family and friends begin to slip gifts under the blanket (I understand this might be a spoiler for those under ten, though my guess that represents 0% of my limited readership), and practice is continued until it is plump full of presents. Then on Christmas Eve, or whenever the family chooses to engage in the ceremony, children dance around the log, tapping it with a stick (more earnest efforts might go as far as striking it) and sing a song after which they produce a gift for whomever the tag says its for. Exactly what are the kids doing? Well, and here’s the troubling part, they are bashing the fictitious character until he excretes a present. I shit you not, again. Should anyone have any doubts about my story or its aim, consider the name: cagatío, which roughly means “the crapper”.
So, there you have it. Uniqueness. A raison d’etre. A justification. Certainly something you can take to the United Nations and aver that no one on this planet does that. We can start raising the estelada.
Believe it or not, as odd as they are, I think they are terrific traditions. I really do. They add color to tradition and are a tribute to the whacky diversity of humanity. The human condition. But there were others who had made a point of it of poking fun at Catalan independence, and in a way that caught just about everyone off guard.
On December 26, a Catalan organization known as “Barcelona is not Catalonia”, invented to counter to the widely used “Catalonia is not Spain”, formed a petition on the website change.org demanding independence for a “historical” region in Catalonia which they called Tabarnia. Never heard of it? Not surprised. Nor had anyone else in Spain up until that date. There was, and is, little that is historical about this territory which, for all intents and purposes, is made-up. Invented. Fabricated. But as absurd as it may sound, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Tabarnia is supposed to be a region which represents a section of Catalonia that voted for the most part in favor of the pro-unity parties. They claim that the rural parts of Catalonia are unfairly overweighted when it comes to parliamentary representation because all it takes is about 20,000 votes in secessionist-heavy cities like Lleida to win a seat, while you need 46,000 in Barcelona. The result is that separatist Catalonia is over represented. By a lot.
But the arguments don’t stop there. The platform uses many of the points their counterparts rely on to defend their dreams of separating from the rest of the country. Why? In part to prove the absurdity of the independence movement and, two, to suggest that if they aren’t careful, the same will happen to them.
The movement has been taken as a joke, a clever bit of political satire, meant to provoke the ire of the secessionists with their own arguments. Separatists have taken the bait in some cases, while others just dismissed it as a sideshow that would grab headlines for a few days and then disappear. That is a possibility, but not necessarily a definite. Why? Because it’s there. It’s been said. And therefore it exists. And it will continue to be a humorous jest until it stops being one. Should Catalonia ever succeed in separating, these residents who probably run into the millions may just have a larger say in the matter. Especially since they represent in many cases Catalonia’s economic backbone.
And after that? Then, within Tabarnia, there will be smaller communities and subzones which will want to join the new nation. Russian dolls will crop up all over the place. And there will be no end to it.
And the wheels, they go round and round…
Ya estamos de nuevo. Al lado de mi casa hay una pastelería que dicen que elabora posiblemente el mejor roscón de Madrid, reputación que provoca una avalancha de clientes del barrio, y de más allá, cada 5 y 6 de enero. Hasta la tele hace una visita anual para realizar su reportaje sobre este lugar mítico y entrevistar a los clientes que soportan colas kilométricas y largos ratos en la calle en todo tipo de tiempo (este año ha tocado el mejor regalo que los vecinos de Madrid podríamos desear: la lluvia). Es una pastelería de primera, no cabe duda, pero su roscón…no sé yo. Es un roscón muy tradicional, pero mucho; de esos que te dejan diciendo, “Madre mía. ¿Qué hago con esto?”
A pesar de tenerlo tan cerca durante años, nunca había comprado uno hasta hace una semana cuando tenía que llevar algo a una merienda navideña y opté por uno pensando que el momento había llegado. Entré en la casa de mis amigos anunciando lo que había traído, su procedencia, y la fama que tenía para quedar de puta madre con mis ellos y limar comentarios por si era una mierda porque, ya sabes, cuando sirves algo de supuesta alta calidad, la gente suele pensar que algo ha fallado con su paladar antes de pensar en el producto. Y así fue. Al probarlo, lo masticaban y reflexionaban antes de pasar sentencia. “Hombre,” empezó uno. Pero de repente paró para intentar tragar y así dejar de hablar Jabba the Hutt. “Está bueno. Muy bueno. Lo que pasa es que a mí me gusta mojarlo en café o chocolate.”
Los demás que también carecían de la saliva suficiente para articular palabras se limitaron a asentir con la cabeza.
¡Mentira! ¡Mójate, tú, hombre! No me vengas con historias. Estaba más seco que un vaso de cal. ¿Qué te esperabas cuando coges un pan normal, le privas de toda humedad, le adornas con unos copitos de azúcar, frutos azucarados y le bautizas con un nombre majestuoso? Pero daba igual. El fenómeno rosconero sigue. Es uno de los grandes misterios del sector pastelero. El puesto elevado en el ranking que tiene este bollo disfrazado deja perplejos a muchos. A mí incluido. Lo que pasa es que no está de moda reconocerlo.
Pero os aseguro que hay una minoría, posiblemente una mayoría, silenciosa ahí fuera. Y no solo vive en Cataluña. He notado que están deseando salir del armario, pero necesitan un empujoncito. Yo no digo nada, Dios me libre, porque basta con que critique algo para que el patriota dentro de cada uno de ellos sale y empieza a alardear sobre las cualidades sin paralelo de la tarta. “Cualidades sin paralelo” suspiro. “Nunca mejor dicho.” Pero claro, cualquiera se lo dice.
No. Así no se hace. Hay que esperar. Hay que hablar de diferentes roscones en diferentes sitios y dejar que salga todo de manera natural. Hasta alabarlo. Normalmente, unos minutos después, uno de mis oyentes me interrumpe y dice, “Es que el roscón a mí…” y lo sigue con una mueca que manifesta sus verdederos sentimientos hacia la sosa masa cocida. Continúa. “Es que no es mis preferidos…”
¡Ahí está! Oigo en mi cabeza la voz de un comandante ficticio gritar. “Brian! The eagle has landed! ¡Al ataque!” A partir de entonces se abre una mesa redonda sobre el tema, y a los pocos minutos unas seis o siete personas empiezan a confesar que el roscón, sin ser horrible, no convence mucho si no tiene un poco de chocolate o nata. Es decir…sabor. En resumen, se convierte en una sesión de terapia. Les aseguro a todos que pueden seguir hablando y estar tranquilos. “Todo se quedará dentro de estas paredes.”
Se relajan. “No sabemos qué es lo que les falta…”
“Finura.” Les ayudo. “La que tiene un pandoro, por ejemplo.”
No tiene más. Y no soy el primero en opinar así. Hace años escuché por la radio a Gomaespuma hacer un sketch sobre los reyes magos que iban a hacer huelga ese año en parte porque no aguantaban el roscón. En sus palabras, “Es tan seco que no hay quien le hinque el diente.”
Sin embargo, la popularidad de esta tarta, paradójicamente, se ha disparado en los últimos años. Exponencialmente. Y lo que era un “one time deal”, es ahora un constante. Cada año sacan los roscones con más antelación. Antes de Reyes; antes de Año Nuevo; antes de Navidad. Vale para cualquier motivo, cualquier ocasión. Y cuando llegan estos últimos días de las fiestas, la cosa se nos va de las manos. Una auténtica explosión. Roscones por doquier. Y de todo tipo. Sin relleno, con relleno de nata (mucho más recomendable), relleno de chocolate, trufa, cabello de ángel, etc. Y para acompañarlo, sidra achampañada para hinchar el estómago, o chocolate espeso para simplificar matarte directamente.
La masacre de estos pobres doughnuts es incesante. Hay familias que comen uno la noche del cinco, otro para desayunar al día siguiente, otro después de comer y otro para merendar. Y siempre cabe la posibilidad de que llegue para cenar un amigo de la familia con otro de trufa amantequillada, para no ser menos, por supuesto. La mayoría remata el día con un eructo suprimido y un “Jo. Creo que me he pasado estos días.”
Las colas para entrar en las pastelerías son más largas, los precios más injustificables y los tamaños son tejanos. Justo ayer vi a dos vecinos entrando en el portal, sujetando cada uno un extremo de una caja que medía más que Pau Gasol. Dije, “¡Qué suerte! ¿A quién le ha tocado una pantalla HD?”
“¿Qué dices? Ni pantalla, ni leches. Es un roscón.” Contesta uno.
“Madre mía. La próxima vez pide a Amazon Prime que os lo mande. ¿Vais a poder con todo esto?”
“Claro. Y mañana otro.” Contesta el otro con orgullo. Porque Dios nos libre de tomar sobras. Hay que tener uno nuevo para cada ocasión o eres un agarrado. Nada engorda tanto como los bolsillos de los pasteleros.
De todas formas, debo reconocer que tengo mucho cariño al roscón. Por ser cómo es y por no tener complejos. Tengo debilidad por los del súper, los que cuestan poco y que tienen una masa que se parece a la de una tarta. Me reprocha un amigo, “¡Anda! Esos no saben a roscón!”
“Lo sé. Por eso me gustan.” No me atrevo a añadir que también me gusta ese chocolate de brik. Hay uno que me ha seducido porque ganó el premio 2017 para el “Sabor del Año”, lo cual me fascinó. Sabor del Año. Y no en una delicada loncha de jamón de bellota, sino en un litro de chocolate industrial. Los misterios de estas fechas no dejan de sorprenderme.
Asumo las limitaciones de este bollo glorificado, y disfruto de él como cualquiera…que es lo que uno debe hacer con todo en la vida. Feliz Año.
During the first week of October, things could not have looked bleaker for the pro-union parties. The Spanish government was licking its wounds from its disasterous performance on October 1st and learning that plugging a group of generally peaceful proponents of a democratic vote with rubber balls is not the way to garner sympathy from the general public; there were general strikes in protest that were crippling Catalonia; the foreign press and social networks were lighting up the internet with support for the victims of “Spanish oppression”; even King Felipe VI of Spain’s attempt to put things in their place had failed miserably. The king is a good man, I guess, and he tries to help the monarchy return to the respectability it has lost over the previous few years as a result of some unseemly behavior by members of the royal family, but he doesn’t seem to carry much weight in the matter, if you ask me. Three decades before, his father came to rescue when he ordered the fascist coup d’etat to back down, pretty much cementing his place of honor in contemporary Spanish history. His son tried to pull something similar and almost got laughed out of town. The problem this time was that the pro-independence Catalans are self-proclaimed republicans, that is, they are anti-monarchical, and pretty much could not care less about what the king has to say. It was a hopeless cause from the beginning. It was a hopeless result as a result.
But, alas, not everything was going the independentists’ way. Poderoso caballero es don dinero, so goes the saying in Spanish as coined by the Spanish writer Francisco de Quevedo. It translates rather literally as “Mr. Money is a powerful gentleman”, except the Spanish version rhymes and just flows better. The English version which most succinctly sum up the poetic verse might be “money talks”.
You see, while a sizeable percentage of the Catalan population was getting all orgasmic about creating a new state, some of the region’s most important financial and business institutions had an entirely different course of action in mind: leaving. Literally picking up and relocating to other parts of Spain…just in case. They weren’t closing offices and laying off workers, or anything like that. They just moved their headquarters elsewhere to ensure they would remain in Spain. It started with Catalonia’s two largest banks, Caixabank and Sabadell, and the major utilities like the water company and natural gas, construction and many, many others. After a week, hundreds had packed up and settled on the other side of the hypothetical border.
The reason, in many cases, is not really so much a question of rejecting political reality as it is one of taking refuge from very real economic disaster, as becoming an independent country would mean being kicked out of the European Union and, as a result, the euro. Secessionists tried to play down the importance of outflow, arguing that moving the headquarters didn’t mean anything, but that’s a total crock. They were scared shitless, and for so pretty good reasons. 1. Fiscally speaking, moving your headquarters to another part of Spain means reducing corporate tax revenue for Catalonia, and that is never good. 2. On an international level, this looked horrible. How can you convince the world your movement is bonafide if all your major corporations, including your main financial institutions are going awol? What kind of message does it send to investors abroad?
A dreadful one. Catalonia had already suffered a drop of nearly 75% in foreign investment in the third quarter…before the real tension got going. As a result, it lost its position as second in this category to the Basque Country. One can only guess at what has happened since then. We will find out soon enough, but as of December, more than 3,000 firms have packed up and gone, and the exodus has not ended. Radical nationalists, often of the anti-establishment nature, will tell you that they are willing to ride out the storm if it means achieving sovereignty. But many of them are the people without tbe moolah. You should ask the ones who have it and you will get a very different answer.
Catalonia has always prided itself in its long and successful history as a land of merchants, traders, entrepreneurs and shrewd business practices. That’s why it alone makes up about 20% of Spain’s economy. Ironically, this strength which they use to argue that they are the nation’s turbine and thus deserve to be their own country (that makes no sense whatsoever, but nor do most of their arguments), just happens to be the area which is doing the most damage to their cause. Money is their true king.
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.”
Back in February, 1981, as I was whiling away my youth watching reruns of the Odd Couple, during a special session of the Spanish parliament in which Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was expected to be sworn in as interim prime minister, a colonel from Spain’s paramilitary force, the once feared Guardia Civil, literally marched into the chamber and ordered everyone to hit the deck. When the members of parliament, in their stupor, were slow to react, he fired several shots into the ceiling to speed things up. It worked.
Amidst the growing concern that Spain’s young democracy was spiraling out of control (a belief brought about, in part, by the increasing demands for independence by nationalist groups in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia), the Spanish political right, spearheaded by old Francoists and some of the armed forces, reverted to doing what it liked to do when it felt its country’s values and traditions were at risk: it tried to overthrow a legitimate government by means of force. I figure they thought it had worked for them in 1936, so why not give it another go.
It boggles the mind to think that, at a time when virginy Lady Di was preparing for her future wedding with Prince Charles, there was actually a Western European country that found itself embroiled in something you’d think only happened in certain developing nations. But, as they say here, Spain is different. This event was the Kennedy-assassination moment for Spaniards. The 9/11 for more recent generations. Everyone who was aware back then can recall just exactly where they were when it happened. Since the voting was being broadcast live on TV, much of that “everyone” was sitting in their living rooms watching in horror. Tanks were rolling through the streets of Valencia. Gunshots had been fired. There was real fear that Spain would be thrown into another civil war.
The coup attempt did not last long, thank God, since it was a failure. King Juan Carlos I, in his finest hour for sure as head of state, ordered the insurgents to obey him as their commander-in-chief and give themselves up. The constitution was the only way to go. Democracy was saved. Morevover, much of the expected support for the uprising had failed to materialize anyway, so after twenty-four very tense hours, the crisis had come to end.
Now, none of these scenarios were really being shuffled on October 1, but their effects on the memories of the Spanish, in addition to the years of Franco oppression, were long-lasting. And let’s not forget that Rajoy’s own party, the PP, had been founded by former member of the Generalisimo’s regime. Let’s also get something straight. The PP is not a far right, fascist party, as some would have the world think. It would generally be considered center-right by today’s standards. But its image is another matter. I mention these points because they still have an effect on Spanish psyche, and they would also be mentioned in the following days by some members of the international press. And that made it very obvious that it had to tread very carefully when dealing with the Catalan situation. Any show of force would be magnified manifold. Everyone seemed to understand that except, it seems, for the PP.
The Rajoy administration had guaranteed there would be no referendum. It just wasn’t going to happen. That may be fine and dandy, but just how it planned on preventing people from heading out to the polls was the million euro question. Especially in today’s high tech world, where just about nothing is preventable. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.
The authorities chased down all attempts to set up a vote, some more effective than others, but overall, the end result was that the world was witnessing a government try to keep its own people from holding a democratic process. Oops. That didn’t look good. And no matter how hard the government tried to get the message out that it was merely defending the constitution, that’s not how it looked. Lincoln was doing the same in 1861, but with a noticeable difference. The South was trying to defend its right to self-determination based on its belief it could continue with legalized human bondage…and that was a hard sell for the international community, even back then.
On top of that, the national government simply did not possess the means or manpower to see its plan through. Anything short of a military occupation was going to be insufficient, and that was not an option. Part of this problem of understaffing was due to the fact that the Catalan regional police force, the mossos d’esquadra, could not be relied on as their allegiance was under serious question. Ensuing events would prove these suspicions right.
And there was one more downside to the government’s verve to shut down the vote: rather predictably, it only produced an even greater desire to challenge authority. It’s pretty basic psychology.
Anyway, October 1 came, and I whipped up some pancakes, made myself some good coffee and sat down in front of the TV to watch Spain fall apart before my very eyes. It was a dark and rainy morning, but by eight o’clock, there were mile-long queues lining up outside of schools around the region, formed by thousands of Catalans willing to defy the government.
The law enforcement personnel went into action by trying to break through human barriers, many formed by families of the schools where the polls were, as well as other committed pro-independence supporters. The results were predictable. The police, all decked out in their imposing riot gear, took to trying to ram through the walls or just peel people away. There was plenty of shoving, tugging and shouting. On occasion, they employed their truncheons far too vigorously.
“So,” I thought to myself as I watch the story unfold before me, “who the hell came up with that brilliant idea?”
The phantoms of the past were running rampant through the streets of Barcelona.