Snap Out of It: 80%! 80%! 80%!

You know, if the Spanish government ever had a chance to try and put the Catalan issue to rest once and for all, if there had ever been a golden opportunity to hush the tide of independence enthusiasm, the period right after the 2014 illegal referendum, slyly renamed “Consulta”, was the perfect time.  But before I get to that point, let me enlighten you on how the vote came to being, because it really is quite comical.

    The Catalan separatists had petitioned the Spanish government the right to hold a referendum on self-determination.  The national parliament rejected the proposal on the grounds the constitution did not allow for it.  As a consequence, a playful battle of terms and nuances invaded the process.  Instead of calling it a “referendum”, Catalan leader Artur Mas, a man who seems bent on becoming the founding father of his own country, decided to refer to the plebiscite as a “consultation”.  In other words, they were just asking the people what they thought, on a Sunday, in the hope they could circumvent the prohibition. However, since the whole idea was being promoted by the regional government (which seemed wholley bent on being its own nation), Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, appealed to the Spanish Constituional Court to impose a determination, and the judicial body, in foreseeable fashion, concluded the plan was illegal.  Totally bogus.

      Mas, who, in addition to being bent of become the first president of a new nation, was almost equally bent on outwitting the rest of Spain, immediately called off the “consultation” but suggested that an “alternative consultation” be celebrated which could only be organized by non-official groups and associations.  From the nationalists point-of-view, the scheme was pure genius; from a centralist’s perspective, it was painfully frustrating and a touch childish.  For the Rajoy administration, it was a first-class conundrum.  Tension continued to rise as the date approached, but short of intervening directly through the use of force, a measure which would have spelled disaster for the national government no matter how you sliced it and was both strategically and historically unthinkable, there was little for the pro-Spain supporters to do but let it take place.

       From a pro-Catalan standpoint, this pretty much amounted to a win-win situation.  The faction based its actions on the ground they were defending their constitutional right to freedom of speech, and there is certainly something to be said for that.  As much as it irritates the rest of Spain, the Catalans do have a right to express their opinions and feelings.  And, no matter what happened, they knew that was going to be their sole argument.

       They also knew beforehand that the results were going to be in their favor by a landslide because the majority of the voters were going to be pro-independence.  Wouldn’t this be an ideal opportunity for the opposition to voice its, well, opposition?  Indeed, but that would also mean legitimizing a vote which had been rendered unconstitutional by the country’s highest court, so that option was pointless.

        What happened in the end?

        Approximately 6,300,000 people had the right to vote.  The pro-Catalan goups had extended suffrage to 16- and 17-year-olds, possibly figuring that the younger generations owned a deeper sense of independence since they had been born and educated in a highly pro-Catalan climate.  Of that number, 2,305,290 individuals exercised that right, of which 1,861,753 voters said “yes” to independence.  That constituted 81%.  A walloping 81%.

        The nationalists jumped for joy as they championed a victory for freedom of speech and their cause.  The central government cried foul, dismissed the consultation and its results as a non-factor, and vowed to take everyone and their grandmother to court for civil disobedience.

         Now, what I like about this information survey is that it brings together so many elements of this major national affair, and explains why the Catalans want to leave, why the Spanish are making it easy for them to leave, how the Catalans manage to capitalize on what is in reality terrible news, and how the central government bumbles flubs every time they actually have victory at hand.

          First of all, let’s look at the numbers.  That 81% which appeared to represent a resounding triumph (even the BBC plastered the number as the number that “backed independence” in a bizarre showing of shoddy journalism) is based on the percentage of those who voted, which was little more than 37%.   While there is no, nor should there be, a minimum voter turnout to make a referendum valid, considering the separatists were working hard to prove to Spain and the world that the people of Catalonia were sick and tired of being run by Madrid, they certainly didn’t show it.  In fact, 81% of that number, means a paltry 29% of the potential voting population actually favored leaving Spain.  Those aren’t just discreet numbers, they are outright pathetic when pitted against other great movements of the world, like Scotland and Ireland.  If we were to sense that the nationalists were really as numerous as their proponents claimed, you’d expect something like at least 40% pushing to say “adios!”.  Instead, they could even get that percentage to the polls in the first place.

        Did the political pundits and members of government point this out and throw it in the Catalans face?  Nope.  They just went on about the vote being illegal, illegal, illegal.  And the pro-Catalans kept shouting, “80%! 80%! 80%!”  And that’s what reporters from international channels like the BBC sent over the waves.   Essentially, the Catalans got their butts kicked all over the field, but still won the game.  Often that’s all that counts.

         And that’s what I meant when I said all the way up top about 900 words ago, remember there was a point to this, that the Spanish government had a golden opportunity to say, “OK.  Let’s go for it.  We’ll hold a referendum in a month.”  Those in favor of remaining with Spain probably would have won hands down.  Or at least by a margin larger than the slim advantages that kept Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the United Kingdom.  While it’s not totally impossible, it certainly seems very unlikely that there is a hidden 21% of pro-independence supporters lurking that simply didn’t bother to voice their opinion.

       But who cares?  The Catalans still won, and in so many ways.  They did so by stealing hours of national and international TV coverage, which is just the kind of free publicity they like.  They also got a great deal of sympathy from the world for defending their right to exercise their freedom of speech.  Moreover, the civil disobedience lawsuits that followed did little more than fuel the movement even more.  People thrive on these actions and foster more ways frustrate.  They thrive on their opponents’ frustration.

       The event also made the separatists look like underdogs (which they are anything but intheir region), and everyone likes to root for the underdog.

Snap Out of It: Bipolar Catalan Shopping

Here’s a not so uncommon scenario: I’m going for a walk in Madrid with a local and discussing Spanish politics, and handful of topics which essentially has not changed in the past 30 to 40 years.  These include scandals, fraud, embezzlement, money-laundering, inside trading, tax evasion, contract bidding favoritism and other forms of abuse of power, mostly related to increasing one’s personal wealth, or the general state of the economy, which hasn’t seen the best of times lately, to the role of the monarchy in modern Spain and, invariably, nationalism…a thorn so big in Spain’s back, it’s practically a spike.

     And the conversation could run along the lines of “Those bastard Catalans, who do they think they are?  They’ve never been their own nation, they have no legitimate claim to be independent.  At the very best, they could be considered to be a part of Aragon, and the Aragonese don’t won’t to leave Spain.”  And least most of them don’t.  “Catalonia is a part of Spain and that’s all there is to say about it, and there are millions who live there who want it to stay that way.

     Then we stop at a supermarket and I get told not to go in because the store is owned by a Catalan company.  Given the time and the distance to the next grocery store, I talk him into giving just this once, and then we enter.  Once inside, many of the familiar products that have produced so many moment of joy and happiness to my mind, soul and stomach, are quickly banned from immediate consumption because they are either owned or produced within the territory of Catalonia.  Oh, it goes beyond cava, sparkling wine which mostly comes from that region, or fuet, the local salamiCatalan products and international products produced in Catalonia have essentially infested your average Spanish market.  It’s been like that for years.  And here are just a few worth naming to prove my point:

  • Water: Font D’or, Font del Regas, Fuente Liviana, Malabella, Mondariz, Veri, Acquapanna, Aquarel, Badoit, Evian, Font Vella, Fontvella, Lanjarón, Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Salus, San Narciso, Viladrau, Vitell, Volvic
  • Olive Oil: Borges
  • Snack foods: Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, Lays, Matutano, Pringles, Ruffles, Santa Ana, Tuc
  • Rice: Nomen
  • Coffee: Bonka, Nobel, Bonka, Cafitesse, Dolce Gusto, Marcilla, Nescafe, Nestle Gold, Piazza d’Oro, Pilao, Ricoré, Soley
  • Sweets: Golia, Pez(2), Smint, Solano, Chupachups, Mentos
  • Cereal: Cheerios, Chocapic, Crunch, Estrellitas, Fibre, Fitness, Golden Grahams, La lechera, Nesquik
  • Chocolate: Colacao, Ferrero rocher, Gnutella, Kinder, Lindt, Nocilla, Paladin, After eight, Bounty, Caja Roja, Choclait chips, Crunch, Dolca, Kitkat, M&M’s, Maltesers, Mars, Milkybar, Nesquik, Netsle, Quality Street, Snickers, Twix
  • Meats and sausages: Argal, Casa Tarradellas, Casademont, Embutidos Mercadona, Espetec, Fuet Espuña, La selva, Noel, Vic
  • Cookies: Artiach, Artisabores, Chiquilín, Cuetara, Dinosaurus, Filipinos, Marbú Dorada, Rio, Fontaneda, Marie Lu, Principe, Yayitas
  • Ice Cream: Camy, Carte D’Or, Cornetto, Extreme, Frigo, La lechera, Magnum, Mars, Maxibon, Miko, Nesquik, Nestle, Pirulo
  • Dairy Products: Ato, El castillo, Okey, Quesos Hotchland, Actimel, Activia, Dan’up, Danone, Flora, Ideal, La lechera, Ligeresa, Royal, Sveltesse, Vitalinea
  • Butter: Artúa, Flora, Ligeresa, Tulipan
  • Bread: Brooks American Sandwich, Panrico, Bimbo
  • Pizza and Pasta:  Buitoni, Casa Tarradellas(3), Hacendado Pizzas, La cocinera
  • Soft drinks:  Nestea, Kas, Ice tea, Tang
  • Cakes: Bollycao, Dip Dip, Donetes, Donuts, Eidetesa, Horno de Oro, Mañanitos, Qé!, Bimbo cao, Martinez, Tigretón
  • Soup: Knorr, Maggi
  • Sauces:  Solis, Calvé, Hellmans, Ligeresa, Maggi
  • Tomato paste:  Solis, Calvé, Hellmans
  • Frozen products: La Sirena, Maheso
  • Wine: Alella, Ampurdán, Bach, Conde Caralt, Costers del Segre, Ederra, Heredad Torresano, La vicalanda, Legaris, Leiras, Marraso, Nauta, Nuviana, Oroya, Penedés, René Barbier, Scala dei, Septima, Solar viejo, Terra Nova, Valdubon, Viento sur, Vionta, Viña Pomal

    And that’s just a reduced list.  We haven’t even gotten to the rest of the home.  Most of those brands are household names and half of them have found their way on to my shelves at one time or another. To leave them out would mean to exclude a substantial portion of everyday foodstuff in Spain.  And yet, radical pro-Spain supporters, sometimes known as españolistas in quarters where many people aren’t in favor of staying within the union, are willing to boycott anything that has been manufactured in that region.  Whole websites exist devoted to making the consumer aware of just what brands not to patronize and provide a Spain-friendly alternative.   They even provide insight into how to detect on the label if the product is of Catalan origin.

     The irony of this is that the majority are furious at Catalonia for wanting to become independent.  “Don’t you blame them?” I ask. “You treat them like shit.  You don’t want to support their economy, but you insist they stay in Spain.”

     Somehow, like so many things in life, they have a ready answer.  “We don’t wsnt to give them our money, because then they turn around and use it to backstab us.”

     Oh, brother.  That’s a tough knot to undo.  It’s no wonder things have reached the point they have.  Many companies are threatening with abandoning the region, while others have joined the cause.  As for the profits being used to boost the Independence movement, that most certainly is an exaggeration, and doesn’t help improve relations between the two.


Snap Out of It: Jaume Joycet, the Catalan

24 years ago, on April 23 to be exact, I was flipping through a weekday edition of the International Herald Tribune during my first true spring in Spain.  Back then, the daily  was practically the only way to keep abreast of what was happening outside the Iberian Peninsula, and I was startled to come upon a full-page advertisement with a headline that read something like “Today, even Joyce would have felt Catalan”.  I’ve tried to track down the exact wording, the internet is great at retrieving past archives, but I think even this one has slipped through the web’s sticky trap. Trust me, though, it went something to that effect.

      What I do recall vividly was that a not-so-short string of writers of universal prestige was included as candidates for Catalan-pride Day, none of whom were living at the time making it conveniently difficult for them to refute the claim.   was the fact a region in Spain was promoting itself as a separate entity.

      First of all, allow me to set the stage for you:

     April 23 is World Book Day, which is why I can recall the date, not because I have a prodigious memory.  This celebration did not become official since the UN declared it so in 1995, but in Spain it goes back decades, where it has taken greater popularity than in other countries, especially in Catalonia.

     The reason this date was chosen has to do with oft-claimed, though poorly verified, rumor that Cervantes and Shakespeare both died on the same day of the same year.  This is a close call but no cigar. The author of Don Quixote actually passed away on April 22, and was buried on the 23rd, while the Bard departed from this world on April 23, but according to the Julian Calendar, which was still in effect in England at the time, meaning he really held on for another days before kicking the bucket.    The point it is, it wasn’t the literary world took a shot that year.   Wordsworth, by the way, would also join this club in 1850.

     Not all Catalans were aware of this, but they did already have their own tradition linked to this date: St. George’s Day, or San Jordi (as it is known here), the patron saint of Catalonia.  Celebrations go back centuries, as did one particular custom, that of giving a rose as a present to a loved one.  This apparently started back in the 15th Century.  Then in 1923, a union of that tradition with literature was established thanks to a bookseller who decided that a book could be there perfect gift for a man, to complement the flower for his beau.  A tad of machismo there, if you get my drift, but a nice touch all the same, and a pleasant removal from a toolkit.  It also represented a poetic angle so typical of the artistically-inclined and refined Barcelona.  The practice has been growing in popularity ever since and even extended into other parts of Spain.

      This bit of background helps us to understand why on earth such a an advertisement would ever even exist.  What it doesn’t explain, is why it would find its way into the most important international newspaper of the day and take up so much space.  That’s where politics slip in.  You see, this was no mere chance to take pride in local custom, no call to end world illiteracy, no gratuitous display of cultural selflessness. It was an orchestrated action to put Catalonia on the map…not the map of Spain.   No one I knew had even heard of Catalonia and, before I set foot in the country, I hadn’t either.  Its anonymity was common knowledge.

       As I look back at it now, I am ever more convinced that it was not the product of a hair-brained attempt to make the world think that the land which was home to the great city of Barcelona was its own country in 1991, but a patient and deliberate campaign to make Catalonia known as an independent nation at some point in the future.  Any point.  When, was the the question.  And the timing could not have been more deliberate. Barcelona was just a year away from becoming the center of global attention for two weeks during the 1992 Summer Olympics.  Now was the time to get the ball rolling.

        Was I the only one who realized this?  Would anyone in Manchester pick up on the detail?  What about the Americsn expat in Singapore? Would they detect what the message was all about?  In Madrid it would have plowed through like a bulldozer, but how many Spaniards read the Herald Tribune?  How many knew enough English?  Who would have cared?  It was just those pesky Catalans pretending to be their own country.  Dream on.  I still hear Spaniards swear that the Catalans are just playing hardball so that they can get more autonomy as a region.  Better autonomy?  A region?  Just a week ago they pronounced what amounted to be a declaration of independence. Just how deep can you stick your head?  That’s when the Cher within me, and I’ll have you know I don’t feel like Cher very often, comes out and recalls the moment when she lays one of the best slaps in movie history on Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck as she coolly advises with her best New York accent, “Snap out of it!”

        That’s what so many people have needed to hear over the years.  So after more than 20 years of putting off talking about the subject because, as a rule, I avoid writing about political issues because, as a rule, they hardly change over the years and because, as a rule, people’s political opinions are a generation behind the times and because, as a rule, it’s risky business for a foreigner to get involved.

       But that quarter century has gone by and I feel equipped enough to take on the challenge, and because I feel it’s time now.   I am drawn not to the debate of whether or not Catalonia should be independent, it doesn’t really matter at this point, but by all that surrounds the confrontation.  Just like the story of human of the Titanic, every possible element of human nature emerges in those final fateful minutes; and just like Bob Dylan observed with acerbic accuracy in Desolation Row, “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn / Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”