Today is a day without precedent in Spanish and Catalan history. To mark the occasion, I’m posting this very personal take on the unfolding crisis by Tamara Djermanovic, writer, professor of Humanities at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and a very good friend of mine:
Anubis versus Demos
Out of all the extraordinary measures undertaken by the Spanish state to prevent the Catalan independence referendum, one particular detail stands out for me: the government’s decision to name the operation Operation Anubis. To give the name of the Egyptian god of death to an operation that has consisted of arrests, the confiscation and seizure of ballot papers and referendum materials and other repressive actions intended by the Spanish police to ‘defend the integrity of the state’, is, at the very least, an unfortunate choice of words. But sometimes symbolic details can be more revealing than the bald facts.
Consider, for example, how and why the Catalan independence movement came to adopt an explicitly nationalist and separatist orientation over the last two decades. This was primarily due to the centralist policy of the ruling People’s Party (Partido Popular), coupled with the economic crisis. This combination broke the consensus that emerged in the last years of the Franco dictatorship and continued in the democratic era, according to which Catalonia would accept regional autonomy in exchange for remaining part of Spain.
The collapse of these accords was first confirmed in 2010, when the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy decided to abolish the Catalan Statute (Estatut) voted in 2006 by the National Assembly of Catalonia, thereby depriving the Catalans of some of the same freedoms enjoyed by other regions of Spain, such as the autonomous region of Andalusia, which has a very similar statute.
History tells us that in 1714 Catalonia lost the independence which it had previously enjoyed under the Crown of Aragon, when the Bourbons came to power and forcibly imposed Castilian rule on the rebellious Catalans. The Bourbon monarchy’s Nueva Planta decrees not only abolished Catalonia’s ancient privileges, freedoms and charters: they also ended a democratic political culture that had prevailed in Catalonia for centuries, in which all social sectors participated in important decision-making, and acted as a restraint on the absolute power of the king.
For a brief period Catalonia managed to recover its independence in 1931 under the Spanish Republic. With the defeat of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the national and cultural rights of the Catalans were suppressed until Franco’s death in 1975.
To many Catalans, the past has now become part of the present, and ushered in a new political era that is being hotly debated across Catalonia. At my own university, one of my colleagues describe the actions of the Rajoy government as a return to the ‘ Dark Spain’ of the Franco years, with its ‘right-wing politics, which always had a very strong anti-Catalan orientation.’ Another Humanities professor insists that the repressive actions carried out by the Spanish government ‘ not only violate the spirit of democracy, they also highlight the neo-Francoist lineage of the government itself. Two other colleagues, who are not supporters of an independent Catalonia would rather ‘talk about something else’. At the campus entrance, students trying to bring all academic activity to a halt hand out leaflets declaring We can’t allow this.
Beyond the campus, a tragicomical situation is unfolding, as thousands of policemen sent by the Spanish government to prevent today’s referendum are billeted in hired cruise ships moored ‘secretly’ in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona, painted with cartoon characters bearing images of Daffy Duck and Tweety Pie. Port workers, who include people of many different nations and nationalities, have unanimously refused to provide services to these docked vessels.
The general feeling amongst all citizens living in Catalonia, regardless of their position on the issue of independence, is that the actions of the Spanish government represent something unprecedented in Spain’s democratic history, and that it is irresponsible at the very least to recreate a climate that recalls the Civil War simply in order to head off the possibility of secession.
Had the government allowed the referendum to take place, it would have provided an opportunity for the many Catalan citizens who are not in favour of independence to make their voices heard. Judging by the request of an anti-Catalanist neighbor who requested that the ‘ talking elevator’ in my building be changed from Spanish to Catalan, there are a lot of people here who oppose secession.
For my part, I have a Spanish passport and Catalan citizenship. But I was born in Belgrade, which I left 26 years ago to escape the situation in the former Yugoslavia. I would very much like to live in a country which does not appear on magazine covers and newspaper front pages, and which does not send police to my city in the name of the god of the dead.