As a foreigner living in Spain, I am naturally reluctant to throw out an opinion on complex political issues that pervade my host country. Furthermore, I do not want to be the kind of political tourist that searches for human rights issues around the world that don´t fit into my mold of ethics.
But it is the responsibility of any respectable citizen of the world to try to tell what one sees and try to understand one´s environment and strive for honest, objective reasoning. I cannot pretend to know what it is to be Catalan, just as I can´t claim deep roots as a Spaniard. I cannot really speak to the philosophical contentions of Catalans in Spain, nor the Basques, the Roma nor the Kurds. But with my eyes I can recognize abuses of power, intimidation, obfuscation and propaganda.
So much has been said about the independence movement in Catalonia. I can´t help but notice a few problems with this movement and the people pushing it through. It should be enough to say that today´s referendum is plainly illegal according to the Constitution of Spain, but for many, it is not enough.
It seems to be acceptable to believe that the simple act of direct voting is always the essence of democracy. And this appeal is a dulled and overused tool for both the right and the left; any group that wants to shout an idea in the world´s face. In the minds of some, this philosophy has overridden common sense and respect for the law. Simplified questions are easy to translate to the masses. For higher chances of sympathy, reduce the issue, in this case, to “how could you restrict our desire simply to vote?”
Referendums sometimes come with a whole load of problems that bring out the worst in us. Hitler and Mussolini used them very effectively. Putin propped up a referendum to garner support for the annexation of Crimea. In Turkey, voters have voted to effectively gut the parliament, extend the potential tenure of its leader to 2034, allow him to make laws by decree, severely curtail the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. And of course, Brexit. There are cases in which referendums are popular and for the most part beneficial to their respective societies, California and Switzerland being prime examples. But sometimes they are used to push through highly charged politics with baseless justifications, rampant populism, intimidation, charismatic personalities, and outright lies. This is why constitutions and laws usually curtail them.
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and his separatist political allies seem desperate to portray themselves as more European than Spaniards, to make Catalonia a bellwether for the political future of independence movements in general, and to depict a repressed people in a struggle against an authoritarian state. All flatly untrue. They use rehearsed, specific language to portray a violent and fascistic regime in the Spanish government. And they use a well-oiled propaganda machine to reinforce falsehoods, hyperbolic accusations of the imperial evil of the Spanish government. In Catalonia, there have been repeated incidents where opposition is at best hushed and quelled (Catalans who do not follow their separatist ideals are told by the speaker of the Catalan Parliament that they are the enemies of the people of Catalonia, other times silenced with intimidation and local law (also here). Reporters without Borders has some issues with the institutionalized harassment of opposing views in local media to the separatist movement (click here for its 2017 report). Puigdemont pressures mayors to participate in referendum, separatists pressure local business people who don´t support the referendum.
They make comparisons to the wholly irrelevant independence movement in Scotland (which by the way, historical differences between “nationhood” aside, held a referendum within their own government´s legal perimeters, as Canada has done). The Catalan government consistently tells its public that the EU will accept an independent Catalonia with open arms. It won’t. The Spanish constitution does not allow such a break away of one of its territories, and neither do the constitutions of other European countries, without nationwide, congressional processes. Referendums that violate their own government´s rules are met with disapproval and condemnation by the EU. And even a quick summary of the rules of the EU will show that if territories were to somehow split from the EU countries in which they existed, they would no longer be a part of the EU, and would have to undergo a process of application, after which they would have broken the EU´s own rules for membership in the first place.
One does not need to be even a passing supporter of Rajoy or the Popular Party to understand the actions of holding a referendum, and soon after declaring independence (both clearly illegal according to the constitution of the country), require the government to act and enforce the law. Rajoy can no more blow off these clear infractions than he can (should) the corruption in his own party.
Regarding the most pertinent issue at hand, today´s referendum, perhaps it would be a clarification if we imagine what an international group of election monitors would find in a cursory evaluation.
Firstly, they would find that the vote itself flies in the face of the values of the European Union and the United Nations (according to UN´s own charters on the subject). Puidgdemont says that Catalonia has the inalienable right of self-determination , and it is the duty of the European Commission to intervene and defend it. This can´t even be justified theoretically. Catalans contributed greatly to the 1978 Spanish Constitution which states the rules of referendums clearly (read article 149, Section 32). They have voted 38 times in local, regional, national and European level, as well as four previous referendums, on issues such as the Constitution and the EU´s constitutional treaty. They are not under a military regime, they are not under colonial rule, they do not live under anything resembling a dictatorship. Spain is a developed democracy and signatory of all UN human rights conventions, and a member of the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights, and it ensures high levels of civil rights and liberties, certified by all reputable institutions and centers that evaluate global civil rights. Check the Human Rights Watch website for humanitarian crises or abuses of civil rights or restrictions of freedoms in Catalonia. You won´t find any. A search of Amnesty International´s 2017 Spain report reveals no human rights issues in this context. Spain has one of the highest ratings of press freedom in the world. Labeling the Madrid government as acting on “authoritarian repression” is irresponsible, unacceptable and it waters down a term meant to describe human rights abuses elsewhere under actual authoritarian states. But this is the language used to justify the movement.
Then, they would find that public places usually used for voting, like public schools, were not able be used for ballot casting, some of them staying open, most of them not available because of a government order or police presence. Speaking of ballots, they would find that thousands of paper ballots have been confiscated by the Civil Guard, forcing the local government to play a laughable game in which the actual path to voting is a mystery (printed ballots from a website? Millions of ballots hidden somewhere which will be revealed on voting day? Handshakes? Secret codes?). Puigdemont even mentioned an Android app through which voters could cast a ballot. The monitors would find a concerted effort to undermine opposition through intimidation and propaganda, common in referendums in general. They would find that Catalonia’s own chief prosecutor has ordered Catalonia’s police force (the Mossos d’esquadra) to block efforts to set up the referendum. Even after all of this, Puigdemont still encourages the public to try to vote, (and throw in some children and parents to camp out in voting centers for extra drama) spurring likely confrontations with police (Catalan police, national police and the Civil Guard) which will undoubtedly be broadcast on international media and play right into his hands. These confrontations have already started, some of them bloody, and they will be used effectively.
No matter one’s stance on the argument—right or left, separatist or pro-unified Spain, pro-EU or not, Catalan or Madrileño, coffee drinker or tea drinker—in what universe would this vote ever be considered legitimate? Now, Puigdemont can have his cake and eat it too: if the result is no, it will be labeled illegitimate under the repression of imperialist powers, if it is yes, then the public has spoken. There will be no minimum voter turnout requirements. There will be no reliable, transparent counting process, or guarantees or checks that voters will vote repeatedly.
The European Union, United Nations, European Commission and Spain would be a laughing-stock if it recognized this referendum as legitimate. Neither the European Union nor Spain itself would ever have come to exist if it settled for such poor standards.
For me, today is not a day to defend or discount the validity of any Catalan´s identity; I cannot ever pretend to do that. Nor can I pretend that the issue is a simple one. It is an absolute mess. But today is a day to defend the processes of law in this country, the legitimacy of its institutions, and the inherent value of a constitution that was hard-won and a near miracle in the turbulent, post-dictatorial times in which it was written. And it is a day to call out abuses of power by politicians hiding behind emotional pandering and pure populism, and to call out exaggerations and accusations of an authoritarian regime which does not exist. It is a moment to state, once again, the importance of a constitution in a free society and the means by which to amend it, and to defend the spirit of unity of a free country, albeit with its own faults, and finally to decry those who want so badly to break that unity, even through rejection of the law and baseless claims of victimhood.
“Americans are free to disagree with the law but not to disobey it. For in a government of laws and not of men, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law. If this country should ever reach the point where any man or group of men, by force or threat of force, could long defy the commands of our court and our Constitution, then no law would stand free from doubt, no judge would be sure of his writ, and no citizen would be safe from his neighbors.” –John F. Kennedy