By: Jack Friedman
The United Nations gives all people the fundamental right to self-determination. It’s undeniable that this right is violated in various places across the world. However, many have the assumption that “First-World” countries like the ones in the European Union are free countries that respect people’s rights. Not the case. In the prominent country of Spain there’s a fight for self-determination you’ve probably heard very little about; Catalan independence.
Catalunya (which is the proper spelling as opposed to the english version, Catalonia) is the north-easternmost region of Spain, wedged between the Mediterranean sea and the Pyrenees mountains that separate it from France. 7,522,596 people live in this autonomous community, of which 1.6 million live in the capital city, Barcelona.
For years in the middle ages, Catalunya, Spain, and the surrounding region were in constant states of flux and control by various Kings, Queens and Lords. The region was often surrounded by violence. Out of this violence came the first of the items I mentioned. In 1082, or so the legend says the Count of Barcelona was on his deathbed after an especially bloody battle and while being overseen by a priest he dipped four fingers into his own blood, running them down his yellow shield. This image was so powerful it became what is known now as “La Senyera” the flag of Catalunya.
Years of fighting and land exchanging hands continued. Tensions between feudal states continued and a war broke out from 1701 to 1714. On September 11, 1714 Catalunya officially surrendered to Spain and became a part of the country.
Coming from New York City to Barcelona in 2010 you can imagine my surprise and confusion when there were parties on the street on the 11th of September. Back home that’s usually a very somber day. What was even crazier to me is that I found out that the Catalan people celebrate a day in which they lost a war. But here they were, dancing in the streets under the Arc de Triomf having a grand ole time.
There’s a reason Catalunyans celebrate so loudly. From 1939 to 1975 everything about their existence was illegal. After the Spanish Civil War, in which a majority of Catalunyans fought to preserve the republic, Francisco Franco cracked down on any independence or non-spaniard movements. Catalan became an illegal language, teachers could be killed if they were ever speaking in it to their children. The rampant pro-democracy groups in Catalunya were stamped out, violently, one by one. It wasn’t until 1975, a time many in the region still remember, when finally they could speak in their language again.
That brings us to the post-Franco era. The fight for Catalan identity and independence is nowhere near over.
The issue has risen in the last decade or so. In 2010, though the independence voices were loud only 20% of Catalan people supported the independence movement. However, as economic issues, corruption, and tensions in Spain have progressed that number rose to a peak of 48% in 2017.
The economy is a large factor in Catalan independence. Catalunya being just one of seventeen regions of the country contributes to 20% of the country’s economy. Additionally the jobless rate in Catalunya is 5 percentage points better than the national average in Spain. While the region, especially Barcelona, pumps funds into the Spanish economy, when it comes time to send money back to it’s regions the government in Madrid gives Catalunya the second least amount of money of all of the regions of Spain.
The second factor for Catalan independence, the most important one, is cultural. Catalan people don’t feel Spaniard, they don’t identify as Spaniard, as far as they’re concerned, they aren’t Spaniard. The Spanish government forces itself on Catalan people, it oversees it’s government and imprisons it’s leaders. Over the last five years nearly twenty Catalan leaders have been thrown into Spanish prisons for their roles in “insurrections.” Spanish courts have overruled nearly all of those cases. That hasn’t stopped the Spanish government from overreaching.
In 2017 Spain conducted one of the most fascist acts a country can commit. Catalunya decided to hold a symbolic referendum to see how the public felt about independence. 90% of people voted for independence. That sounds good and democratic right? Wrong. The reason that percentage was so high is because the turnout was so low, around 42% of eligible voters, a record low for the region. The reason for that low turnout was that the Spanish government refused to allow the vote to take place. Madrid sent riot police forces, and even the army to block entrances to polling locations and violent clashes ensued.
And yet this didn’t receive major news coverage. Of course there are other issues in the world, of course there’s so many systemic issues that need to be addressed, especially within the United States. That being said, the struggles of groups fighting oppressive governments is important no matter where it occurs in the world. In Catalunya that fight has been occurring since before the United States was founded. There’s a reason I hang the Catalan independence flag in my bedroom at home. It’s an issue that the world needs to know about and support.
Jack Friedman ‘23 is from New York City and desperately misses bagels. The cream cheese, the everything seasoning… He also is often distracted by food and gets lost in his own thoughts. He is a Writing and Rhetoric major and a hopeful Media Studies minor (if he can get into enough classes).