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.