Rafael JM Herrero is a graduate student in the MFA writing program.
A wind of independence is blowing over Catalonia, a slice of Spain slightly larger than Hawaii. Along with Madrid and the Basque region, Catalonia is one of the three wealthiest parts of Spain. It boasts 7.5 million people (15 percent of Spain’s population), and 20 percent of Spain’s GDP.
This apparent desire for independence is surprising, being that Catalonia was never taken over by the Spanish state. Spain is the oldest nation in Europe as we understand nations today, and Catalonia was one of Spain’s founding members in 1469. Catalonia was a part of the territory that the Romans named Hispania, and since then has always been a cherished and integral part of Spanish history. The Catholic Kings, Isabel and Fernando, received Christopher Columbus on his momentous return from his first voyage to the New World with fastuous fanfare in Catalonia’s capital, Barcelona. The most important work of Spain’s literature, “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, was first printed in Barcelona. The list goes on, but members of the society in Catalonia are trying to rewrite history.
The desire to be independent is a fairly new movement in Catalonia. According to most historians, Catalonian nationalism started with Enric Prat de la Riba (1870-1917). In the 21st century, it seemed that most people had understood the American maxim: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The EU was created with the understanding that only union can bring about peace as well as might; both needed to face the challenges of the present and the future. Nonetheless, an undeniable amount of people in Catalonia seem to want independence.
Spain is one of the most decentralized countries in Europe. Since the transition to democracy in 1975 and the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Spain (only 20 percent larger than the state of California) is divided into 17 Comunidades Autónomas, an astonishingly expensive political system that grants these territories large autonomous powers. As a result, Catalonia today has its own government (La Generalitat), its own parliament (El Parlament), its own police (Los Mossos d’Esquadra), its own health care system (Catsalut), and its own educational system. Catalonia is also the territory that receives the most money from the Spanish government.
So why do so many Catalonians seem to want to be independent?
The answer is probably found in the populisms that are currently sweeping over the world, where orators are using the democratic system to increase their personal power and wealth by telling the masses what they want to hear. Catalonia is rewriting history books for children in its own interest. Corruption is rife in Spain, and Catalonia has more than its share of it. The first president of La Generalitat (1980), Jordi Pujol, is up to his eyes in corruption. He has confessed to maintaining secret foreign bank accounts and is accused of influence trafficking, bribery, and money laundering. His dauphin, Artur Mas, the current president of the Generalitat, whose salary is higher than that of Mariano Rajoy, the current Prime Minister of Spain, is at the center of accusations of a decades-long habit in his party of charging a secret three percent commission fee on all attribution of public works. Declaring independence would free the corrupt from the Spanish judicial wheels that have started to turn.
Mas states that the elections held in Catalonia this past September back his drive towards independence. However the numbers do not agree. Only 47.5 percent of the votes were for parties in favor of independence, 52.5 percent of the votes went to parties against or indifferent to independence and 25 percent of the population did not even show up.
The politicians in Catalonia are lying to their people. They deny current EU legislation which states that the declaration of independence in a territory previously belonging to a member state is de facto no longer part of the EU and must exit all of its agreements, including the Euro.
Catalonia is bilingual: it speaks Catalan and Spanish (“Castilian”). Nonetheless, its linguistic policies intend to eliminate the use of Spanish. Spain was formed on the precept of union while respecting the integral differences of the territories involved. The Basques speak Basque, the Catalonians speak Catalan, the Galicians speak Galician… Spain, since its inception, also accepted that its different regions had the right to have different laws. This is in stark contrast with France (where at the time of the French Revolution half of its population did not speak French), an example of a centralized state, whose goal was to stamp out all differences so its citizens would be equal in language and law (its different languages are now vestigial).
Language does indeed give identity and unite people. But the European Union has shown the formidable will to go beyond differences in language and foster cooperation, understanding, and diversity.
What if a member of the United States decided today to declare itself independent? Does the local population of that state get to decide? Or do the rest of the Americans citizens have a say? What would Washington do if a state unilaterally declared itself independent? This is what the government of Spain is now facing with its daughter, Catalonia. Let us hope that the sanity of oneness and the peace that it conveys will prevail.