Debating politics in Barcelona
Studying abroad with the CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts program means a lot of things: improving your Spanish language and writing skills dramatically, understanding that there are other teaching and learning styles while attending a local university with local students, accepting that there are other ways to live and think that might be different from your own way, discovering a city beyond the texts, maps and pictures of a touristic guide, or being involved in the socio-political context of your new home.
The ALA participants of this fall’14 have had the unique opportunity of being in Barcelona during a vibrant political and social moment where the debate on the relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, and the possibility of a independent Catalonia, have been day in and day out on the front pages of the Spanish newspapers during the last months. Our students have not been out of touch in this realty, and their interest on this debate started the first day they arrived to Barcelona. That is why we have organized a series of talks on this issue to try to give our students a deeper knowledge about what is happening these days in the city and in the country.
Photo: Dr. Enrique Campomanes, professor of the CIEE “Contemporary Spain” course, giving the lecture ¿Cataluña fuera de España?: Origen y presente del sentimiento nacionalista catalán on the historical roots of the Catalan nationalism.
In this blog entry, Daniel, a Biochemistry and Spanish major of the University of Colorado Boulder, expounds his impressions of the debate. ¡Muchas gracias, Daniel, por compartir tu reflexión con nosotros!
Independence. As Americans we have a deep and resounding nostalgia for this emotionally charged word and this word has found new fever in the daily lives of those living in Catalunya. Before I delve into my experiences as a foreigner living in these tumultuous times in Barcelona I feel the need to post a disclaimer. These experiences are just that, an individual reflection of personal perspective. I am a college senior who identifies himself as libertarian; as such there is nothing more valuable to me than personal liberty and the right of self-determination.
Before arriving in Barcelona, thanks to Javier Krauel, Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Colorado and Barcelona native, I had a basic understanding of the current political situation and the historical tendencies behind it. I think this information was incredibly useful in my process of understanding the political environment yet nothing prepared me for the experiences I have had here. I remember my first encounter with the topic of independence was during a walking tour on one of the first days here. I remember walking and seeing mis-colored Cuban flags. These flags with their blue triangles with one white star superimposed on a background of red and yellow stripes hung from every possible window and balcony. Out of curiosity I asked one of our local student leaders what the flag represented and the response he gave me, I would later find out, was the typical Independista response, “oh you don’t know? It’s the independence flag of Catalunya!” After this bold statement he proceeded to list off his grievances. These arguments for independence and the emotions behind them would hit me full force on September 11th: The Nacional Day of Catalunya. We had been warned by CIEE to stay away from the demonstrations that day but, being the libertarian I am, I decided to attend. I was invited by one of the student leaders to attend the demonstration with her family and friends and it was nonetheless an interesting experience.
Waiting for the train, there were masses of people in red and yellow shirts carrying their independence flags all of which were chanting. This was only an intro to my day; I waited as nine trains passed me by. All of which were pact full of these red and yellow ants and each time a train would come into the station the doors were bursting at the seams with people. It took me an hour to finally catch a train. Upon leaving the metro, I emerged into a sea of yellow and red that engulfed all of Gran Via: one of the major streets through Barcelona. Somehow, through all the madness, I found my student leader and joined her family in the crowd. It was a very festive environment: everyone was speaking in Catalan and there were gigants: typical large wooden status of peasants dancing to music sung in Catalan. I encountered other study abroad students and tourists alike from varying countries and all had the same overwhelmed expressions on their faces. I was enamored by all the culture I was experiencing, yet bit by bit these aspects started disappearing and everyone prepared themselves for a prearranged time. It was then that the festivities turned political and everyone played their part in this orchestrated show. 1.8 million people were on the streets that day all chanting for independence. I found myself in the crowd unaware of any political views joining in with my new friends in their chants.
Photo: Daniel participating in the National Day of Catalunya.
As the day passed and the crowds dispersed I returned to my homestay. When I returned home I talked with my host parents and told them about my experiences of the day. They simple nodded and gave me a semi-disappointed look. My host dad Miguel then talked down on my student leader for inviting me to the event. Later that night after dinner we had an in depth conversation about his perspective on the issue of Catalunya.
The great Spanish poet Antonio Machado in one of his poems from the Spanish Civil War speaks about a Spain divided in two. One part of the body of Spain is the rational part of the head and the other is the emotional part of the heart. This dichotomy represents perfectly the current political situation in Catalunya. In terms of political affiliation there are two extremes in Catalunya: those that support independence, Independistas, and those that do not. There exists a stark division in the Catalonian society in which the majority of Independistas are so convinced of their own ideologies that they assume everyone is Independista and anyone who disagrees is labeled a traitor to Catalunya. My host dad Miguel is not an Independista and upon encountering anyone who is Independista they feverishly argue with him to try and convince him otherwise. It is concerning that this polarized society has such hostilities towards each other which often times pit family members against each other. There exists now an unspoken ranking of who is more or less Catalan than the rest; anyone who is not Independista is labeled as less Catalan. I think it is incredible saddening to see this animosity between fellow Catalans. It is easy to see how emotionally charged people are in their beliefs yet what brought about the creation of this heavily polarized society?
Photo. Spanish poet Antonio Machado
The financial crisis of 2008 caused great strains on the economy of Spain and with it unemployment has sky rocketed in the last few years. Couple this with some very clever politicians and a broken taxation system and one has a recipe for a strong nationalist movement. Catalunya along with the Basque regions of Spain are two of the most industrialized and wealthy regions of Spain in comparison to the mostly agrarian southern regions. Catalunya and the Basque Country provide the majority of industrial goods and services to the rest of Spain yet between the two there exist two distinctive systems of taxation. For historical reasons that carried over through the ages the Basque region is responsible for collecting and distributing its own taxes after which the region decides a fair sum of taxes to be given to the central government in Madrid. Catalunya has a more traditional tax system where the central government in Madrid collects the taxes and redistributes them to Catalunya as they see fit. There is less of an independent sentiment leaving Catalans feeling as if they pay for the services for the rest of Spain. In this sense I am very sentimental to Catalans because of my personal values in more regional power over taxation. There have been attempts by the regional government of Catalunya to gain similar taxation privileges as the Basque region but there has only been a luge warm response from the central Spanish government in Madrid. Thus Catalans feel that this is an injustice and because of this luge warm response nationalism has exploded in popularity in the last six years. I think the conclusion that most people would derive is that Catalunya has right to be angry and that perhaps independence would solve these fiscal problems. As such, in my opinion should Catalunya become its own country?
Simply put: no. I consider myself a libertarian and I, like most Independistas, have a very romantic view on independence and the potential for change in a new country. However, when I took a step back from the emotional masses on the street and listened to the grievances of my host dad, a man who is facing a tidal wave of opposition, I realized the complexities of the situation. Every day on television, in the newspapers, and on the streets there is a constant wave of propaganda from the political parties in power. It makes me curious how much of the Catalan nationalism is truly from the masses personal beliefs or the product of engineered propaganda shoved down the throats of the population. This was one of the grievances Miguel explained to me is that there exists a strong control of politicians over the public education system. For this reason most young people who are completing high school or starting college consider themselves Independistas because it has been engrained in them in their formative years. From personal experience I am quite sick of hearing about the Independista movement and their arguments because they are presented in literally all facets of society. Artur Mas the current president of the Catalan regional government is using the current economic shortcomings as a tool for his own political gain. He puts on a good show but you can see his true intentions in his body language. He walks with an air of pride in the power he is gaining from the Independista movement.
In terms of the financial crisis politicians have coined the phrase “España nos roba”: Spain is robbing us yet this slogan abruptly disappeared as allegations of corruptions hit. Jordi Pujol longtime Catalan regional president and a father figure in the modern Catalan nationalist reemergence recently faced allegations of corruption involving his entire family. Add to this the almost daily news on new allegations of corruption in both Catalunya and Madrid and my confidence for Spanish public institutions is zero to none. There is also a possibility for large scale instability if the country moves forward with independence. The Caixa and Sabadell two of the largest banks in Catalunya announced in September that if Catalunya gained its independence they would close all their offices and move out of the country. This would effectively destroy any credibility and financial stability for the potential introduction of a Catalan based Euro. The final barrier that I foresee for an independent Catalunya is the entrance of the country into the Euro zone. There would be obvious objections from Spain for the entrance of this new country as well as objections from similar countries that have separatist regions such as in the case of Belgium and Flanders. I do not see the possibility of the creation of a new country when there are these strong issues that deserve more attention. What is the possibility of a new country striving if its financial institution is fragile, its currency is unknown, and at the helm are the most corrupt politicians in Spain?
Overall the issues of independence in Catalunya are extremely complex and the emotions behind these issues are powerful. My goal was to write a piece that gives a different perspective from the largely manufactured image that is presented to the world of every Catalan wanted independence. This is a gentle reminder that there are Catalans who oppose independence and are ostracized for their views. My observations are far from unbiased. In all honesty, as a foreigner it is not my place, not my right to decide or convince anyone in regards to the independence of Catalunya. These points are mere observations of a twenty-one year college senior living as a foreigner in Barcelona. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Catalunya and its people. My only hope is that all Catalans can find common ground in this polarized society and that their culture, their language, and most importantly their families can find a future of peace, prosperity, and unity.
CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts, Barcelona
University of Colorado Boulder
B.A. Biochemistry and Spanish