Understanding the Catalan Crisis: Emilio Silva on Winners and Losers

November 19, 2017
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Pro-independence supporters during a rally in Barcelona on 11 September 2017. Photo Màrius Montón. CC BY-SA 4.0

Pro-independence supporters during a rally in Barcelona on 11 September 2017. Photo Màrius Montón. CC BY-SA 4.0

The escalating conflict between Spain and Catalonia led to the country’s deepest constitutional crisis since the transition to democracy. Journalist Emilio Silva reflects on the short- and long-term impact. “For someone on the left, the confusion in terms of priorities and alliances is hard to understand.”

On Friday October 27, a narrow majority of deputies in the autonomous parliament of Catalonia voted to make Catalonia an independent republic. The vote occurred 26 days after more than two million Catalans had cast a ballot for independence in a referendum that the Spanish courts had declared illegal—and despite the fact that Spain sent in thousands of police to prevent the Catalans from voting. Also on October 27, the Spanish senate in Madrid approved a set of measures to impose direct rule on Catalonia, revoking the self-government that the region has enjoyed since the adoption of Spain’s current constitution in 1978. As the central government in Madrid, headed up by Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), fired the Catalan President and his cabinet, they immediately called for regional elections on December 21. Meanwhile, the Catalan politicians who helped lead the way to independence face serious criminal charges.

The dramatic developments of late October followed years of escalation in the standoff between Catalonia and the Spanish state. The conflict cuts across the political spectrum. While the parties pushing for independence include the center-right PDeCat, the center-progressive Catalan Left Republicans (ERC) and the radical-left, anticapitalist CUP, the pro-Spain parties calling for direct rule include the ruling PP, the neoliberal Ciudadanos, and the Socialist Party, which has also supported the imposition of direct rule. Podemos has opposed both direct rule and unilateral independence, calling for a binding referendum on independence as Scotland was allowed to celebrate.

In late October, we spoke with Emilio Silva, founder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, about the short- and long-term impact of these events.

Who will come out winning from this crisis?

It’s hard to know who comes out winning, and even harder who will come out losing. In fact, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the crisis is the Partido Popular. The standoff between Madrid and Barcelona has reconciled the party with its electorate. The noise generated by this process allows the PP to hide the numerous corruption cases for which it’s currently on trial, and to pass several political measures that aren’t very popular. The referendum of October 1 allowed Rajoy to return to the good graces of an electorate that was bothered by the PP’s corruption or its management of the economic crisis. Those voters have now come back to the fold because they support Rajoy government’s defense of Spanish unity. You could almost say Rajoy and his voters are living a kind of new romance.

Emilio Silva receiving the ALBA/Puffin Award, 2015. Photo Len Tsou

Emilio Silva receiving the ALBA/Puffin Award, 2015. Photo Len Tsou


“Rajoy and his voters are living a kind of new romance”


Beneficiaries, too, are the Catalan right, which has its own corruption cases going back to the era that Jordi Pujol was president. Those cases, too, have ended up practically buried in the media and disappeared from the map of public opinion. Seen from Barcelona, the conflict with Madrid has helped improve the image of the Catalan right. President Puigdemont, for example, is now seen by many as a centrist, almost progressive politician. Even in the speech he gave after Rajoy fired him as President, Puigdemont spoke of a Catalan Republic whose citizens would live in equality, liberty, and fraternity. Well, that’s the same Puigdemont who, as mayor of the city of Girona, had put padlocks on supermarket dumpsters to prevent those who had no other resources from taking food from them. In this identity dance, the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, have also benefited. In May 2011, they were terribly repressive of the protest movement, and during a protest on November 14, 2012, it was the Mossos who blinded a protester with a rubber bullet. Major Trapero, who until recently headed up the Mossos, was among the staunchest defenders of those actions.

Who comes out losing?

Everyone who was already on the losing side before. They lost during the process and they’ll continue to after it’s over. I’m talking about those who are occupying the most socially fragile spaces of Spanish society. What has this process done to change the actual, objective living conditions of someone who has had to drop out of school at 16, who will be cheap labor his whole life, and will not be able to escape from that situation because those politically responsible have not bothered to give him opportunities to get ahead? The whole thing reminds me of the image of two elephants who destroy the grass they’re standing on when they’re fighting—but also when they’re making love.

Among the losers, too, are the movements fighting for social and political causes that the noise generated by the Catalan process are keeping from view. And perhaps there is a Spanish left that’s lost the opportunity to demand all the “rights to decide” we don’t yet have: whether we want to live in a monarchy or a republic, for example; whether we want the rich to pay more or fewer taxes; or whether the state should stop giving 11 billion euros to the Catholic Church every year. There are many things we’ve not been allowed to decide on since the return of democracy forty years ago. And this could have been a good opportunity to put those on the table.


“The Left has lost the opportunity to demand all the ‘rights to decide’ we don’t yet enjoy”


Demonstrators in Madrid calling for dialogue. Oct. 7, 2017.

What has the crisis revealed about the Partido Popular (PP), the Socialist Party (PSOE), and Ciudadanos?

On the one hand, it has revealed that we continue to live in the 19th century. Spain still hasn’t solved the tensions from that time. Back then, the more conservative liberales pushed for centralization, while the more progressively minded among them were willing to cede some power to the peripheries. Those positions are now represented by the PP and the PSOE. That said, it’s also become clear that PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos form a front capable of blocking any real change. We can’t forget that ten years ago, the politician with best approval ratings was then Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, because in those years he dared to defend a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia. But it was the PSOE itself that, through parliamentary procedure, trimmed that same statute again. [Although the new statute was approved by Spanish parliament in 2006, the PP filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court that, in 2010, declared it unconstitutional.] 

The fact that PP and Ciudadanos are on the same page is natural, because they belong to the same political right. But the Socialists could have applied pressure and helped define different positions. Then again, this is the PSOE that has allowed Rajoy to return as Prime Minister. In fact, when it comes to the vision of the Spanish state, the PSOE has been on the same page as the PP for decades. 

What has the crisis revealed about Podemos? 

Podemos has seen itself in a very complicated bind. One the one hand, it’s the largest national party to support a binding referendum on self-determination in Catalonia—although it’s also made clear that it would prefer Catalonia not to become independent. What Podemos aspires to is a new state structure in which Catalonia would find a better fit, have more competencies and enjoy more self-rule. On the other hand, there are many things on which the Podemos leadership in Madrid and some representatives of Podemos in Catalonia don’t see eye to eye. This has complicated the situation tremendously, and will continue to complicate it in the run-up to the Catalan elections in December. And even Podemos has not been able to come up with specific proposals for a new, multi-national governance structure. If it doesn’t come up with them before the Catalan elections, it will pay in terms of votes.

Podemos has done really well in the regions with historically strong nationalist movements. Its good results in Catalonia and the Basque Country have been perhaps most surprising. But the situation in Catalonia now may well weaken Podemos electorally. At the same time, we don’t know what electoral price Podemos will have to pay for its position on Catalonia in the rest of Spain, either. There are many on the left, even among Podemos’s own constituency, who don’t understand why Podemos would allow a binding referendum on independence in Catalonia. When Carolina Bescansa, one of Podemos’s original founders and a great expert in electoral sociology, pointed out that Podemos should be talking more about Spain, Podemos removed her from her seat on the Constitutional Commission in the Spanish parliament.

What do you make of the manifestations we’ve seen of extreme right-wing Spanish nationalism?

The whole process has also encouraged a much nastier, more conservative Spanish right, which is much closer to Francoist culture than it normally appears to be. But the Spanish right is self-enclosed. The fact that international media like CNN or the New York Times put the police repression of the October 1 referendum on their front pages may irritate Rajoy, but doesn’t really hurt him at all. Two critical lines in a low-quality, rabid-right newspaper like La Razón would be much more harmful.


“The process has encouraged a much nastier, more conservative Spanish Right.”


Those of us in the rest of Spain have seen Spanish flags appear hanging off balconies, and the recovery of authoritarian attitudes in day-to-day life. We’re fearful that the hard right is busy rearming. This would have serious consequences in many areas of society, including the defense of historical memory.

What has surprised you most in the Catalan conflict?

Perhaps the volatility of symbols and their meaning. Just a couple of years ago, the Mossos d’Esquadra, the autonomous Catalan police, was hated among broad sectors of the left who’d suffered their brutal repression. Now for many they’ve become a symbol of all that’s good.

Personally, as someone who considers himself an internationalist, I have been surprised to see how the Catalan left has supported the pro-independence Catalan right. The fact that the Left Republicans (ERC) or the CUP have voted in favor of budgets that, for example, included a thirty-million dollar subsidy for private schools that separate students by gender, and that help erode other public services, not just education but also healthcare. This confusion in terms of priorities and alliances is hard to understand for someone on the left. After all, if Catalonia had managed to become independent, what we would have seen would have been the birth of another capitalist state.

Emilio Silva is a journalist and founder of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, winner of the 2015 ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism. Sebastiaan Faber teaches at Oberlin College.

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