Inside Catalonia's Struggle for Independence
Updated: Jul 20
Barcelona has long been the vibrant centrepiece of Spain’s tourism industry. Attracting a record 32 million tourists in 2016, the Catalan capital has laid down the gauntlet for other Spanish cities to beat – yet none come anywhere near close. In the last 12 months, an inferior 7.6 million visited the nation’s intriguing capital of Madrid – with the sun, sea and sophistication of the Mediterranean metropolis drawing the vast majority of the crowds. Barcelona has acted as a cauldron in which many a global icon have been born from, with the city's most prized export being around every corner. From his birth in 1852 to his untimely death 73 years later, Antoni Gaudí was the epitome of a proud Catalan – with almost all of his exquisite works being found within the most easterly region of Spain. Such works as the uncompleted Sagrada Familia and Park Güell stand as prominent reminders of his incomprehensible genius, as well as his pure patriotism for the Catalan region. Patriotism that eventually led to a series of bruises and prison sentences…
Despite Gaudí refusing to be a leading figure in the fight for autonomy, he would often bear the brunt of the authorities. In 1920, he was heavily beaten by police in a series of political uprisings with the next brutal beating coming in the hazy September of 1924 – an event which would eventually lead to a short prison stay. Gaudí was a celebrated advocate of Catalan culture. Today, he is the celebrated centrepiece of Catalan culture. These cantankerous tensions signalled the birth of yet another offspring of Catalonia.
23 years after the birth of another of the city’s most famous residents, FC Barcelona, the fiery Catalan independence movement was born in 1922. The city of culture and character had become embroiled in controversy and conflict. Throughout the controlling years of dictator Franco’s regime, Catalonia suffered tremendously. The Catalan turmoil dates as far back as 1939, with the region’s unique heritage being almost erased whilst the rest of the continent was ravaged by war. Franco worked to remove the Catalan language, along with other important staples of its traditional persona.
As time grew on, and Catalonia became more and more oppressed, tensions grew within the city. The ripples of Franco’s influence are still felt massively in Spain today. Whereas fellow fascist regimes - such as the ones of the Nazi party and the Revolutionary Fascist Party of Italy - died out rather rapidly, reverberations of Franco’s right-wing rule still coarse through Spain’s body. Spain doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to harmony between regions. To the north, Basque Country also find themselves in a political limbo – however there are a smattering of differences between the two angered regions. By looking at either cases, the reasons behind the rallies do rear their head.
Franco’s totalitarian approach to unite Spain under one catholic umbrella has done more fragmentation than good. There is a serious conflict unfolding throughout the Iberian country, but it is being fought between two ideologies rather than people. The far left (people who strive for independence) have been at loggerheads with Franco’s far right supporters ever since the bloody years of his dictatorship. Whatever direction you look down the political spectrum, strong feelings can be observed in Barcelona.
Despite the region receiving its much sought-after autonomy, many Catalans want more. For the last century, Catalonia has attempted to gain its nation status – with many independence campaigners showcasing how Catalonia would be economically strong despite its small size. It was recently estimated that the region alone contributes to 20% of Spain’s economy. With Catalonia only making up a minuscule 6.3% of the country’s land mass, it is clear to see Barcelona’s financial importance. After walking through the winding streets of the city back in 2017, it was clear to see how the vast majority of Barcelona’s residents felt about the independence. From every balcony on every street draped a finely ironed Catalan flag. I was dumbfounded to see such vivid patriotism, especially in a place often viewed as a secure and safe holiday destination for sun-loving families. I have seen multiple news outlets compare this to the IndyRef campaign in Scotland, but I can tell you how wrong those reports are. In Scotland we saw, and still are seeing to some extent, a war of words – on the shores of the Mediterranean, things are starting to get violent…
To many, violence was Francisco Franco’s middle name. His methods of gaining power, through the means of a vicious civil war, were incredibly violent with latest estimates reporting a death toll of 700,000 people. Between 1936 and Franco’s victory in 1939, the nationalists received barrages of aid from both Hitler’s Nazi party and Mussolini’s fascists – two organisations that would famously go into planet’s deadliest war just months after the conflict ceased in Spain. However, the conflict never did stop. Up until his death in 1975, Spain was swimming in a pool of its own outrage towards the fascist leader. Once Franco was dead, a prince named Juan Carlos became the reigning king of Spain – thus prompting the county’s transition into democracy.
The four decades between Franco’s death and 2017 saw relative peace compared to the atrocities witnessed over the past 50 years, with the occasional uprising creating yet another short-term news story for the foreign press. However, 2017 saw the left-wing anger return to the streets of Barcelona. Since the incarnation of the Catalan independence party in 1922, many proud inhabitants have wished for their nation status to be reinstated.
On Sunday 1st October 2017, their time finally arrived…
After experiencing a horrifying terror attack just 6 weeks beforehand, the streets of Barcelona were a sombre place. Unknown to many of the city’s residents, that sombreness was soon to turn into almost anarchy. A city partially unhinged ran the risk of snapping all together, all due to this tension that had been bubbling away for decades. All across Catalonia, streets were filled with standoffs between nationalists and pro-independence advocates, often with the most extreme nationalists taking part in fascist salutes – ones reminiscent of the salutes made so infamous by Adolf Hitler. The crisis in Catalonia was at boiling point once more. Tear gas filled the streets alongside hatred-fueled clusters of protesters and several leading independence advocates faced incarceration by Madrid. Polling stations across the region opened their doors bright and early, whilst the Spanish military were beginning to line the streets of Barcelona. Many residents described the chaos and bloodshed that ensued, as well as the fear and dismay that scythed through the city.
As the sun set on a bruised Barcelona, the ballots were accumulated leaving a simply resounding result.
Over 90% of voters backed independence, thus prompting excited celebrations from the independence party. However, the day’s voting would soon come to no avail. Spanish media reported only 43% of Catalans managed to put their slip in the box, mainly due to the frantic fracases between voters and the Spanish authorities outside voting stations. In the eyes of the Spanish government, the referendum was illegal due to it defying the nation’s constitution – a leading factor to the controversial arrests of 14 leading Catalan figures in the same year. One man escaped just in time.
Carles Puigdemont was born in the small Catalan town of Amer in 1962, during the dizzying heights of Franco’s rule. Growing up in the small town, located just 100km from the city he would become such a prominent figure in, his childhood was traditional and relaxed. His mother was of Andalusian origin and his father was a baker – a trait that has been carried through many generations to the present day.
His big break came at age 16, where he stepped through the door of the journalism industry. Sports at first was his forte, commonly writing about many a football fixture in the Girona area. This is where the fire in Puigdemont’s belly was born – with his inquisitive appetite leading to a close relationship with the region’s tumultuous politics. At the timid age of 18, Puigdemont was well and truly into the maze that is Spanish politics. 1980 saw the soon-to-be controversial politician join the Catalan European Democratic Party, consequently signalling the start of his long journey through Catalan popularity. As his career in politics went from strength to strength, Carles still pursued his love for reporting – with the future Catalan president ditching journalism in 2006 to focus fully on his bid for president.
In January 2016, Puigdemont became the president of Catalonia, doing something which none of his 129 predecessors ever dared to do. The president refused to swear an oath to the Spanish constitution and the country’s monarchy. If Carles Puigdemont was to achieve independence, he was not going to mess about. In 2017, Puigdemont announced the independence referendum would occur on the 1st October – a move which resulted in vast civil unrest between the two ideologies across the region. With Madrid deeming the referendum illegal, the president and his ministers were in a deep pit of trouble. Warrants for the arrests of Puigdemont and his aides were issued, and Catalonia was now under the directly imposed rule of Spain. Along with 5 of his closest ministers, the outspoken politician fled to Belgium were he still lives in exile. If he ever returns to his homeland, he will be arrested and imprisoned.
Ever since that troubling year, tempers seemed to have subsided but the struggle for independence has not. As someone who has experienced the stunning vibrancy of Barcelona and Catalonia, I hope we can see peace restored as soon as possible. I sit on the fence with my perspective. I can see both advantages and disadvantages of nationalism and likewise for independence. I don’t believe that the Catalan urge for a nation status will solve the complicated issues which continue in the region today – independence would help but I can’t realistically see the problems vanishing. Everyone seems to be relatively clueless about Catalonia’s future yet one thing seems to be certain.
As the 100th anniversary of the first Catalan movements beckons ever closer, Catalonia’s struggle for independence will sadly continue…