Catalunya: “Only the People Save the People”

Against the Current, No. 192, January/February 2018

Bayla Ostrach

“Like the time of the dictatorship, like Fascist times of Franco, we return to having political prisoners. Without a single shot being fired, without a single drop of blood, for no more than going out to the street to demand that they let us leave. Without doing any type of violence they receive this. This will only instill in us more hatred for the Spanish government, but it will not make us take one step backward.”

— Arnold (a pseudonym), a comrade from a historically working-class, immigrant Barcelona neighborhood, hearing that leaders of grassroots cultural and political organizations had been “preemptively” arrested in mid-October

WITH MANY OTHERS from his neighborhood, Arnold defended polling places during the October 1, 2017 self-determination referendum in Catalunya. That high-adrenaline weekend during which Arnold, his neighbors, and fellow voters were beaten and threatened by the Spanish military police — all to prevent or interfere with the referendum — also seemed to jolt loose Arnold’s memories of his family’s role in defending Catalunya from an earlier era of Spanish fascism.

Arnold and other comrades posted and WhatsApped hundreds of photos, videos and messages about the days of build-up, and their strategic organizing of district-based crews to camp overnight in schools and community centers. They occupied these public polling places to prevent voters from being locked out. Then they posted the violence of the voting day itself.

The Spanish government ordered shock troops to beat nearly 900 Catalan citizens attempting to peacefully vote. They prevented an estimated 770,000 people from voting, or stole their ballots. Amid all of that, one of Arnold’s most poignant posts revealed that his grandfather fought with the revolutionary left POUM (Party of Marxist Unity) in the 1930s, rising to become a highly ranked party official. He disclosed his family’s role in that historic defense against Spanish fascist violence, with the simple explanation that he “needed to show his children he would not risk their future.”

Arnold is not otherwise one of the most radical of the more than a hundred castellers (human tower builders, a traditional Catalan community activity increasingly open to immigrants and refugees) among whom I’ve conducted ongoing ethnography. This included marching in anti-gentrification rallies, attending feminist protocol trainings, and observing day-to-day life during stretches of fieldwork over the past two years.

Nor is he as politically outspoken as the many Catalans and immigrants to Catalunya among whom I spent time in 2012-2013, and periodically since, doing ethnographic research about the publicly funded health system. But something about the preparation for and day of the referendum, Spain’s violence in reaction to it, and the escalating coup since elected leaders of Catalunya declared a fully separate Republic of Catalunya in October, provokes more overt expressions of independentist feeling than I’d seen among my friends, comrades and research participants.

But neither am I surprised that these comrades turned out by the dozens to engage in “neighborhood defense,” guarding polling places and coordinating ballot tables (the national committee of casteller groups was one of the official entities to do so). These same communitarian activists participated in creative and colorful neighborhood-based and citywide actions in previous regional referenda, in November 2014 and September 2015.

October 1st was not by any measure the first time millions of workers, students, feminists, community activists, elders, registered immigrants who’ve traded in their home passports for local residency, and other self-identified Catalans, have massed and marched to make their voices heard in a demand to fully separate from Spain, and to have Catalan self-determination recognized. But it did meet with the bloodiest, most undemocratic response from Spain since the dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.

I began traveling to Catalunya in 2009 as a critical medical anthropologist studying political-economic structures and social forces that shaped access to healthcare — in particular, immigrant and low-income women’s access in a health system that, unusually, has been fully accessible even to unregistered (undocumented) immigrants. This feature of the health system is one aspect that makes Catalunya distinct from Spain. It is one of the characteristics of Catalan social services that many sectors of the Catalan government — both leftist and centrist — have struggled mightily to preserve even in the face of Spanish austerity cuts levied disproportionately on Catalunya in the wake of punitive bailouts imposed by Germany and the European Union (EU).

A recurring narrative, heard from both Catalans and immigrants who have been there longest, is about precisely this Catalan commitment to maintaining public services for immigrants — “even when Spain tells us we shouldn’t.”

National Public Radio and the New York Times seem determined to convince American audiences that Catalans are rich, greedy, and xenophobic towards presumably poorer and/or Southern Spaniards. To fully understand Catalan independentism requires not only looking further back in history to the roots of Catalunya (which predate Spain). We must also consider political-economic dynamics in Europe, and between Spain and Catalunya, to see what Catalunya seeks to provide and defend — not to keep it from Spain, but to ensure its provision to marginalized people within Catalunya.

Though the desire of many to fully separate from Spain is only now reaching the world’s consciousness, Catalunya’s separateness has long been explained to me as a fait accompli. For many Catalans, and others who move there, their lived reality (aside from visits to Spanish bureaucratic offices for ID cards and the like) is of an autonomy and nationhood already separate from Spain, for both cultural and political purposes.

Catalunya is a country, identity and nation whose existence and resistance predates the Bourbons’ victory in the 1714 War of Succession — the historical moment that resulted in its conquest and takeover by kingdoms that would become Spain.(1) In case anyone forgets, graffiti on Catalan streets and alleys proclaims (in English, to ensure the tourists understand): CATALUNYA IS NOT SPAIN.

As my first key informant told me early on, “Spain is pain” (meaning austerity, repression, invisibilization of identity) — a sentiment echoed verbatim on large signs carried in the 2012 Diada Nacional march of 1.5 million people. But even before that large demonstration, described as the escalation point for the independentist movement, local headlines blared the news that Spain’s central government insisted that Catalunya suspend all public healthcare programs for immigrants.(2)

Such a move was both unprecedented and contrary to a Catalan commitment to public health and to social justice values and traditions in a region where, I’m often informed, most “Catalans” have at least one grandparent who is actually Andalusian. Many Spaniards migrated to Catalunya as war or economic refugees during the Spanish Civil War, or in the hungry years following it.

I was able to observe first-hand the immediate uproar in late 2012, as marches and demonstrations in support of movements to protect healthcare for immigrants, and to refuse any cuts to healthcare and social services in general, spilled into the streets. Even in 2016, when austerity budget cuts passed down from Madrid would have closed the main hospital and a public primary care clinic in a largely working-class, immigrant area adjacent to Barcelona (often described as a suburb, but functionally more of a bedroom community for low-paid workers who commute in for precarious jobs), local residents rallied, retirees blocked streets, and a large banner in the public square read “Cutting health care is assassination,” with a spray-painted message above, “NO TO THE CLOSURE OF THE [WALK-IN] CLINIC.”

During my fieldwork about the public health system, I heard Catalans insist, “we will not give up healthcare for immigrants, that is not what Catalunya does…” — and so the Catalan independentist movement and its project to create a new Catalan nation, materialized as embodying what Nina Kammerer and I have termed an inclusive nationalism.

This movement, and those who support it, are defined by what Catalunya is and has been for centuries, rather than as an effort to create a Catalunya only for Catalans. From my first visits to Barcelona and other Catalan cities in 2009, I saw and heard about the grassroots nature of the independentist movement, as led by the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya.

A democratic organization rather than a political party, the ANC neighborhood-level units are represented by diverse community leaders with various constituencies. These include a party for “New Catalans” — immigrants who support independentism and want to be part of building the new Catalunya, as well as a specific organization for Muslims within the independentist movement.(3)

The independentist movement is responsive to concerns and perspectives within Catalan unions, neighborhood assemblies, social sectors, and the various Catalan Left parties. In the earlier phases of the process, building toward the most recent referendum, the ANC also moved the previous Catalan President Artur Mas’ center-right party, Convergencia i Unió, to adopt a more explicit independentist position. As Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte wrote in The Guardian on October 17th:

“Participatory democracy is not a result of the [Catalan] referendum, but is the result of a long-term project for social transformation that seeks, in the words of one woman… in a polling station in Poble Sec [the Barcelona neighborhood where I do most of my research with community-based groups], “to sweep away capitalism and patriarchy”…. It is not mere rhetoric when the parliamentary leader of the CUP [the farthest-left Catalan political party] Anna Gabriels, says: “We know that to avoid continual economic and social crises, we need to build new economic and social relationships. We are anti-capitalist, socialist and feminist and we want to build a new republic on that basis: one that is sustainable and nurtures solidarity and equality.”

Since La Crisis (as the global economic crisis is called) was used as an excuse to make Spain beholden to Germany for a massive bailout, the government in turn sought to impose draconian austerity measures on all autonomous regions. Austerity measures were unilaterally imposed to a greater extent on Catalunya. Though mainstream news stories emphasize the proportion of “Spanish” Gross Domestic Product produced in Catal­unya, the arguably more important number is the far larger amount of tax extracted from Catalunya in recent years, both relative to GDP and compared to other regions. And although Spain extracts a disproportionate amount of Catalunya’s wealth and returns less in funding for public services to Catalunya than to other regions by population, Catalunya preserves services for immigrants.

Independentism, and popular support for it, has grown in direct proportion to the toll exacted by austerity. Cata­lan embrace of an inclusive national­ism is likely far more widespread than suggested by Spanish-sponsored polls quoting a slim majority, or less, of voters in favor of full separation. It is at once an assertion of the autonomy and distinct history of the Catalan nation, and, more importantly to most independentists whom I met, a rejection of suffering wrought by the crisis and austerity rippling across Europe.

In this historical, cultural, political and economic context, the Catalan struggle for self-determination clearly did not come from nowhere, nor just emerge. The October 1st referendum, and the neighborhood defense committees that prepared and protected it, were but the latest phase in a social movement. As an ANC member who has been one of my key informants since 2013 put it, “The people know the power they have, and [on October 1st] they exercised it.” 

To those who ask whether Catalan president Carlos Puigdemont was “naïve” or unrealistic to think that the October 1st referendum could be held without ensuing repression and backlash — or who question what he expected European Union leaders would do to support a new Catalan Republic — the key is to understand the groundswell of popular support. The people led Puigdemont and other leaders subsequently imprisoned by the Spanish government in what is effectively a coup, not the other way around.

The coalition of Catalan left parties committed to the independentist project respond to the ANC and popular movements, Catalan politics being far more democratic and representative than anything most of us have lived under. Yes, Puigdemont comes from a particular party, while the other political prisoners come from a range of parties, some more traditionally left and labor-affiliated, like the vice-president Oriol Junqueras.

Of course they answer to their re­spective parties. But they’ve also brought their (left and center-left) parties to­gether to respond to what people want, which has on the question of independence evolved over time. But Puigdemont and the movements from which he takes direction are not naïve. They do not wait to see what Spain will allow, or approve — they do what the Catalan people want, like any good revolutionary movement for self-determination.

This latest referendum built on a previous regional parliamentary election in 2015, was seen as a proxy for an independence referendum. A coalition of pro-independence parties won the majority of seats. The previous year saw a non-binding referendum in which more than 80% of participants, rep­resenting just over half of eligible voters, approved full separation from Spain. Aside from electoral efforts, ever-larger popular movement actions in support of full separation and seeking Catalunya’s status as a separate EU nation, rose dramatically since 2012. (See text box on page 20 for full timeline.)

People on the ground who’ve been talking to activists with behind-the-scenes knowledge of the two-year strategic plan leading up to the referendum, and the efforts to build infrastructure, say that Puigdemont’s careful, if opaque, steps after the referendum were part of a larger strategy. Considering his decision to wait to declare full separation until ten days after the referendum; to suspend that declaration in nearly the same breath; to call on the EU and the world for help with negotiations, and to go to Brussels to publicly appeal for EU help — perhaps each step was planned, just as have been each of the steps in the independentist campaign since 2009. As Puigdemont said in Brussels, in a speech clarifying that he did not come to request asylum, “we did not come to the heart of the EU fleeing justice, we came seeking justice, and help….”

Indeed, elected leaders and other government representatives in Denmark, Ireland, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, England and Belgium had all made some gesture of official support for the Republic of Catalunya within ten days of the referendum — though no representatives of the EU, as a formal body, have yet done so.

An interesting twist sheds even more light on Puigdemont’s verbal gymnastics in the declaration of the Catalan Republic on October 10th. There were tense negotiations between his Cabinet and the leftwing CUP (which insisted he declare independence or lose their support). At the time of this writing, news stories in Catalunya and Spain maintain that Puigdemont’s government received warnings from Spain. If they declared the new Republic, Spanish troops then massing at a base near Barcelona would be ordered in immediately with full military force to suppress it.

Puigdemont is certainly not perfect — the CUP has done its work to get him to commit to cross-sector issues other than just separation, and to make his independentist leadership coalition more left than it was in the beginning. But in recent actions he has answered to the people.

A federalist solution might have satisfied many as recently as 2012 or so, even some in the ANC talked about Catalunya wanting what the Basques had gained — more control over what is produced in their own country, and to decide how to care for those within it. But based on what activists with whom I’m in contact say, that ship has sailed.

After the many times that Catalunya went through proper channels, only to be met with no room for discussion, followed by the extreme violence of the October referendum and the subsequent coup, it is hard to imagine that most Catalans who voted in the referendum would be satisfied with anything less than full separation.

Meanwhile the Socialist party, the PSOE, is increasingly irrelevant to actual progressive and left organizing. This is particularly so in Catalunya as radical activists lost faith in Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero and his government even before learning of his corrupt activities while in office (2004-2011).

Spanish Socialists, whether the PSOE or smaller regional parties, have aligned themselves with rightwing, far-right and anti-immigrant parties actively opposing the referendum — both within Catalunya, and in Spain. (In the context of Catalunya, and the Catalan left in particular, to identify oneself as a Socialist is not a claim with any radical credibility.)

Soon after President Puigdemont initially declared the Catalan Republic on October 10th, the Spanish government took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — revoking Catalunya’s autonomy and setting aside the powers of the democratically elected Catalan leadership.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy then used an inter-EU warrant, originally developed to facilitate the extradition of “terrorists,” to further the Spanish state’s coup in Catalunya. He sent the warrent to Brussels and sought the EU’s help, demanding President Puigdemont return to Barcelona to stand trial for “sedition” and “rebellion” — for following the will of his people.

When Puigdemont declared the Republic, and when the Catalan Parliament reiterated and confirmed the full declaration of independence on October 27th, the people of Catalunya had already heard and anticipated the gravity of the threats that would follow:

“A representative of Partido Popular warn[ed] the current Catalan president that he might end up like President Companys… executed by the Spanish fascists after Franco’s coup.(4) This is not only about self-determination, many of us are in it to fight fascism….” — Ester Serra Luque, a Catalan journalist and activist based in Boston

Within days, Rajoy also ordered other Catalan elected officials jailed on the same charges of sedition and rebellion. Rather than having a chilling effect on the independentist movement, these arrests and would-be arrests of their elected leaders instead resulted in massive protests across Catalunya:

“Nothing like a general strike to say ‘Free our political prisoners!’ In the pictures, people [were seen] hosting a [people’s] breakfast on the train tracks of the main [Barcelona-Madrid] train line and more people blocking the highway to France. [Fifty-four] main traffic arteries blocked across the territory… Self-defense committees launch ‘Operation Borders’; people are setting up indefinite blockades [on] all main highways that connect Catalonia to Spain and France. Refugees Welcome, everybody else… join the blockades or turn around.” — Ester Serra Luque

Protest signs from the highway strikes read, “If sitting in traffic for an hour makes you feel trapped, imagine a month imprisoned.” (Facebook posts)

Although my comrades in Barcelona admit it is  nerve-wracking and exhausting to constantly brace for the next development, and to not know what form Spain’s coup will take, they also say they find “energy/spirit” (the Catalan word anim does not translate perfectly) in being together at rallies and neighborhood-level events, helping each other through the uncertainty.

They also know that despite the lack of formal response from EU leaders, they are not alone. On November 11th — declared by the ANC as a National Day of Protest for the Release of Political Prisoners — a Greek solidarity rally for the release of the Catalan leaders jailed for carrying out the referendum was held in Athens, and Latvians demonstrated in front of the Spanish Consulate in their country. This was in addition to an estimated 750,000 who marched in Barcelona.  On December 7th 60,000 rallied in Brussels. Two days later a solidarity action took place in New York City, in the snow.

While the EU and leaders of European countries (not to mention the United States) appear set on ignoring violations of European human rights treaties in Catalunya and determined to look the other way during Spain’s coup, people will continue to struggle, care for each other, and creatively resist.

Many in Catalunya are concerned about the validity and accessibility of the Catalan regional elections called by Spain for December 21st, officially scheduled to replace the democratically elected leaders whom Spain forcibly removed. Reports circulated from Catalans abroad who were to receive absentee ballots that the ballots distributed were old ballots from the last regional elections in 2015 — not valid ballots for the new election. Or when they registered online, the ballot had not arrived by the time they were to mail it back. Voters within Catalunya expressed concerns about whether elected officials still sitting in jails, without bail, would be allowed to serve if reelected.

Since October 1st some Catalan leftists came forward saying that while they were not previously invested in independentism, seeing Spain’s violence against elderly people, their neighbors, towards parents carrying children and so on,  turned them independentist. I heard this even from people on the far left, who were not previously independentist largely due to being anti-state (any state) but who are now leaning independentist because this now the anti-fascist position.

Of those Catalans who are openly and overtly pro-Spain, in the sense of being anti-independentist, the most visible are neo-Nazis, traditional fascists, and the very wealthy, or business-class Catalans, who claim to fear rumored economic instability that could come with full separation if the EU does not recognize the Republic of Catalunya.

It’s not only that the referendum, and independentism, were protected at village and neighborhood levels. Catalan independentism, and the inclusive nationalism and communitarian mutual support it represents, were all born and nurtured there. Spain’s violent removal of leaders chosen by the Catalan people, and violence against them for attempting to protect and expand a way of life that welcomes everyone, should convince all radicals to oppose the Spanish coup, regardless of personal feelings about independence.


  1. This marked the taking of Catalunya by the uniting kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, in the creation of Spain — a new nation, in comparison to Catalunya, whose beginning is sometimes traced to as early as the 1100s, based on literature and language.
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  2. For more on the outcome of that proposed cut, read Health Policy in a Time of Crisis: Abortion, Austerity, and Access (Ostrach 2017), which will be reviewed in an upcoming issue.
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  3. Some literature suggests there is less Islamophobia in Catalunya than in Spain, though of course it is not absent.
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  4. President of the last Catalan Republic, Lluis Companys i Jover.
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January-February 2018, ATC 192