JOHN CARLIN. The Catalan Argentinians

Oct 22, 2019

The treatment of the Catalans by the Spanish government over the last decade has meant that support for an independent Catalonia has tripled. If Madrid had agreed to a referendum years ago it is almost certain that the vote for independence would have been lost.

Throwing the nine Catalan political leaders in jail for two years without trial and then sentencing them to a total of 100 years jail was pouring petrol onto a very small fire. The reason for such stupidity in Madrid is that the politicians from the rest of Spain could sense an electoral advantage in taking a big stick to the Catalans.

Some Spanish politicians want to believe that Barcelona has become Beirut, and what needs to be done now is to send in the tanks. I coincidentally received a message from Beirut on Monday, the day the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan independence leaders to one hundred years in jail. A friend who lives in the Lebanese capital sent me an excerpt from the 1915 speech of an Irish independence leader during the funeral of a martyr to the cause, when Ireland still belonged to the British.

“The defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us, and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything. They think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! they have left us our Fenian dead.”

The Defenders of the Spanish Realm have not yet given any dead to the Catalan Fenians, but they insist on giving them martyrs. In addition to the grotesquely disproportionate sentences for the nine for “sedition” (an appropriate medieval term) there is the even more scandalous decision of the judges for keeping them in prison for a couple of years before putting them on trial. That is what Amnesty International calls “imprisonment without trial.”

And now they are shocked that there is violence in the streets of Barcelona. Violence generates violence, ladies and gentlemen, and if imprisoning the independence leaders with and without a trial is not violence, the meaning of the word must be reinterpreted. The youngsters in Barcelona might be lighting the matches, but the adults in Madrid are supplying the petrol.

The only surprise is that there has not been more violence. This does not mean justifying the criminal activities of a small sector of Catalan protesters, but it does mean having a basic knowledge of how the human animal behaves. The judges and politicians in Madrid have for a decade been provoking this, and – oh, surprise, surprise – the independence vote has tripled. If the former President, Mariano Rajoy, and the honourable members of his government did not exist, the Catalan secessionists would have had to invent them.

Today the only thing that is known is that the Catalan mess is going to get worse. Far from having planned everything and resolved everything, the only thing that has been achieved by having abandoned politics in favour of the law, for having abandoned dialogue for the out of touch Spanish judiciary is to foster conflict and to stir up a fury of independence sentiment.

Oceans of ink have flowed over the reason for all this, but the answer can be reduced to one word: a referendum. In Catalonia, a majority of those in favour of independence and those against have been demanding a referendum that resolves the question of sovereignty once and for all (or at least for a generation).

If it had been held seven, six, five years ago, maybe even a couple of weeks ago, anyone with a minimal knowledge of Catalan politics knows that the vote in favour of staying within Spain would have won. Today there would be no disturbances, there would be no political prisoners, and the international image of the young Spanish democracy would not have hit rock bottom.

Condemning the treatment of those jailed does not mean wishing Catalonia to separate from Spain. Most people outside of Spain, horrified by the convictions, do not give a damn if Catalonia is independent or not. The mistake is to imagine that anyone who thinks putting these people in jail is barbaric must be in favour of their political ideas.

I would prefer that Catalonia stay within Spain, both for practical and sentimental reasons. But putting these people in prison is not an ideological issue. It is a matter of human rights. And if Spanish law requires that individuals who did not kill, did not preach violence, or did no material damage to anyone, should be imprisoned for 12 or more years for being politicians whose greatest sin is ineptitude, irresponsibility and living in a fantasy world, then, as a Dickens character says in Oliver Twist, the law is an ass.

Why was there so much effort to complicate a problem that not long ago would have been easy to solve? Because the priority of those who have ruled in Spanish politics, as in many places, has not been to end the biggest problem that plagues their country. Their priority was to win votes in the rest of Spain. And more votes are won in Spain by taking the big stick to the Catalan independence supporters and to Catalans generally, than by negotiating with them.

The Catalans are for the rest of Spain like the Argentinians are for the rest of Latin America. Mario Vargas Llosa portrayed it with delightful humour in his novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The Bolivian main character, Pedro Camacho, feels what the narrator calls a “hatred of Argentinians … more vehement than that of normal people.” For the crazy Camacho there is “a proliferating abundance” on the far south bank of the Río de la Plata “of retards, acromegalics, and other subvarieties of cretins.”

In the case of certain Catalan politicians the description is not so far from the truth, but it would be a slight exaggeration to say that the fictional Bolivian offers a reflection of how other Spaniards see the Catalans, with the possible exception of the faithful of the ultra-right-wing Vox party. However, there is a hint here of how many “normal people” think, which has opened up an electoral vein that too many Spanish politicians have not wanted to waste.

When will the Catalan mess be resolved? When a government comes to power in Spain, probably from the Left, with a comfortable enough majority to afford to put national problems before electoral swings. In the meantime, we hope that the fools who swarm so much in the Spanish political and judicial worlds will resist creating more martyrs.

John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 20 October 2019, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell,

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