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From repressed to protest: Catalonia rebels against Spain

The University of Houston has some students in Spain, but none have been affected by the tensions between Madrid and Catalan separatists. | Courtesy of Albert Carnally

Almost 900 people were injured in Barcelona — where many UH students study abroad each year — during conflicts between Spanish police and Catalan nationalists. Tension in Spain’s northeastern region intensified after the national government in Madrid retaliated for the Catalan Parliament’s vote for independence Oct. 27.

A long-ruling Spanish dictatorship banned Catalan language, names, traditional dances and all popular nationalism symbols including statues, flags and portraits, which were removed from public view until Catalans slowly gained autonomous rights, such as police and local administration, after the Constitution of 1978 was established.

More recently, the movement surged due to the economic downturn that struck Spain in 2008.

“For me, having roots in Spain — I’m second-generation Basque — I believe that all of them should belong under one flag, one country,” said Jaime Ortiz, vice provost for Global Strategies and Studies at UH. “As an outsider, I think they should not detach themselves from Spain.”

Tensions rising

The Estat-Català party began the Catalan separatist movement with the group’s inception in 1922, but it didn’t get far before Francisco Franco’s 39-year dictatorship began in 1936.

“It’s true that during Franco’s dictatorship, there was a brutal repression in Catalonia, but it was just as it was in the rest of Spain,” said Alberto Carnally, a Spanish unionist UH alum who now lives in Barcelona — Catalonia’s capital. “The only difference is that there was a linguistic component in Catalonia that did not exist in the rest of the country. Independents use this to their advantage a lot as the base of the conflict.”

Franco did not repress only Catalonia, Carnally said. It seemed that way because it was the only region with a different language, which the people were not allowed to speak because it was not in line with Franco’s views.

Although Franco’s regime ended with his death in 1975, some regional natives are still suspicious of the central government.

“Look at how the rest of Spain has treated us,” said Maria Costa, a Barcelona resident and friend of Carnally. “Ever since Franco’s dictatorship suppressing our identity, to now incriminating us simply because we want our right to vote, our right to be independent.”

UH students abroad

UH offers faculty-led study abroad opportunities in Spain each summer, but a student can study during fall and spring semesters through third-party affiliations.

“We have a few students in Spain, and they have all been contacted,” said Kelly Kleinkort, the director of UH Learning Abroad. “None to date have had negative or concerning feedback, and we  — along with our program partners — are closely monitoring the situation.”

Universities around the nation, including UH, are not closing down any Spain programs but continue to monitor the situation. The State Department has not issued any travel warning specific to the Catalan-Spain situation, Kleinkort said.

All the partner universities overseas remain open, and students abroad are kept up to date on strikes and protests. They have also been advised to avoid demonstrations, follow instruction given by local authorities and monitor local news sources for updates.

Seeking independence

Catalonia is composed of 7.52 million people. They represent about 16 percent of the country’s population, contribute 20 percent of national taxes and get a 14 percent return for public expenses, according to a Marketplace article.

Nationalists think independence is the solution to what they see as an unfair exchange between the money they give to Madrid compared to the funds they receive, Costa said. The rules are outdated; from a socioeconomic perspective, things are different now, she said.

Cultural differences are also attributed to the independence movement.

“There are a lot of cultural, value and language inequalities between Catalonia and Spain,” said Andrea Vivancos, a Barcelona native who works in Houston. “I’m not really one to take part in this sort of thing, but considering what people have gone through there, I think I should defend the place where I was born.”

Catalans take pride in being pacifists, Costa said, and now eight former officials of the recently dissolved Catalan government — dismissed by Madrid on Oct. 27 — have been incarcerated, and separatist group leaders Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart are in jail facing charges of sedition.

“We have peacefully protested over and over, because we believe in basic human rights,” Costa said. “We just want a democracy, and we are not given this freedom. Instead, we are being treated like criminals and being violently attacked by the Spanish government.”

When the Catalan Parliament declared independence from Spain on Oct. 27, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which states that a self-governing community risks getting its power revoked if it acts against the general interest of Spain.

The national government took control over Catalonia and fired Carles Puigdemont, the regional president, along with the rest of the Catalan Parliament. Rajoy ordered elections to be held Dec. 21. 

Spain says ‘no’

Despite Catalonia’s identity as an autonomous community, unionists still believe they are all Spanish.

Characteristics that distinguish Spain from Catalonia are smaller than what bring them together, Carnally said. There are still many cultural, social and humanitarian bridges between the two.

“You can’t understand Catalonia’s history without Spain, and you can’t understand Spain’s history without Catalonia,” Carnally said. “There are other regions in Spain, such as Andalucia, that would have more of a right to say they are different.”

Ortiz, the vice provost, believes in equilibrium and said Catalonia has valid concerns, but he disagrees with the extreme position the region is taking to seek independence.

Oritz said he worries about the trend of regions declaring independence from central governments, including Scotland in 2014 and Quebec’s ongoing debate of secession from Canada.

“If this became a successful trend, the whole world would be partitioned in not only the 196 countries that we have so far,” Ortiz said. “Perhaps it could be 1,000 little, tiny territories, and that would not make any good for humankind. I believe in synergy: The more you get together and encompass a common goal as a country, you will be better off.”

What’s next?

All 135 seats in the Catalan Parliament will be up for election Dec. 21. Carnally anticipates the new left-wing Spanish party Podemos, now the third-largest in Spain, will be integral in making a peaceful agreement.

A big portion of independents simply want to vote and decide what happens in Catalonia, Carnally said. There are people who have never spoken of a referendum and just want independence, but many just want the right to vote and have even admitted they would not vote for independence, said Carnally.

“Many Catalans believe they have been unjustly incriminated for simply wanting to vote,” Carnally said. “They are partly right because they did nothing wrong. If someone did wrong, it was the Spanish government for trying to stop the referendum but also the Catalan government for approving unconstitutional laws.”

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