by Shelina Assomull
I could not begin to place myself in the shoes of the Catalan people in these darkest times of fighting for their right to vote. However, having spent the last year as a student in the city of gorgeousness that is Barcelona, I can’t help but feel attached to the people and their situation.
Perhaps we in Gibraltar, as a community, identify with the struggle for the right to self-determination. We recognise the fight to voice our sovereignty, now more than ever as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our referendum – something that made clear to the world we did not want to be Spanish.
All these parallels, as well as some delicious food and wonderful weather, are what attracted me to Catalonia last year. There was something welcoming, as a Gibraltarian student, about a region that wanted Spain to recognise their autonomous rights and unique identity. Despite mixed opinions on Gibraltar, the thoughtless ‘Gibraltar Español’ was never uttered by my Catalan classmates. They were respectful of the Gibraltar – Spain situation. I began to feel far more at home in the north than I had ever felt in the south of Spain. As we approach Sunday and the tensions in Catalonia grow ever stronger, the sense of empathy I’m sure many of us here in Gibraltar feel, including myself, grows ever stronger.
We’ve heard a lot about the Spanish government’s heavy-handed response, as well as the Catalans’ increasing desire for independence because of this. To understand this society’s wishes, we need to understand the views of those at the heart of it. I caught up with a few classmates from Catalonia to gain a richer insight into their views and the atmosphere surrounding the region in the run up to Sunday.
The Spanish Government’s attempts to forcibly stop this referendum, especially under the claim that it is illegal, has resulted in many of my fellow students becoming more eager than ever before to exercise their vote, even if they do not support the separatist cause. One of my classmates, who asked not to be named, summed it up: “Yes in favour of a referendum, not in favour of becoming independent.”
Despite the vote for independence being quite evenly split, the desire to express a voice is what is engulfing Catalonia and sparking much anger. This Sunday is not about independence, but rather about choice. One of the largest responses to this has been the Spanish government’s deployment of thousands of police to the area in anticipation of the vote. This has further encouraged the population’s determination to vote and added to the tension in the region. This is why another friend, Anna Burgués, thinks that whatever happens on Sunday “rests on how the national police and the Catalonia police forces interact.”
While much focus is placed on the right to choose, some of my friends in Barcelona are clear about their hopes for the future. Júlia Garcia Puig argues that given the situation, independence is now the best solution for Catalonia. “We need to stop the disrespectful treatment we have been receiving for years,” she said.
By disrespectful, Julia is referring to the national government’s perceived refusal to accept a broader interpretation of Catalonia’s autonomy and diversity. This challenge to Catalonia’s aspirations of greater self-governance has become most apparent in recent events. Miquel Arasa elaborated on this and said: “They are trying to stop this movement but the way they do it, using pressure, putting our politicians in jail, removing many pro-referendum webpages and taking away the Generalitat de Catalunya’s economic resources, has made the situation worse.”
The situation has shaken not just Catalans but citizens across the country, and for many – rightly or wrongly – has brought memories of a darker period in Spanish history. Miquel describes it as “the main democratic crisis since the end of the Franco dictatorship.”
Arman Basurto Barrio summarises the consequences of this: “The increasing tensions in Catalonia may cause an unforeseen effect: the comeback of Spanish nationalism, which had been very diminished as a political doctrine since the death of General Franco. The images of people shouting ‘¡a por ellos!’ in the south of Spain have raised concern, as they show evidence of how the process of estrangement has transcended Catalan society.”
Arman goes on to voice that the actions of the Spanish government are “constitutional, proportionate and accurate, even though political action in the previous years would have been desirable.” He chimes in with a unique perspective as both a recent resident of Barcelona and a native of the Basque country, a region that enjoys highly autonomous status too. His opinion demonstrates the divides within Spain being brought to the surface, due to the tensions caused by the national government’s response to the referendum.
Julia points out that “the problem is with the Spanish government and institutions, [because] we are not against Spanish people or the country itself, we think it is a great country.” This is an important point to remember as tensions heighten in anticipation of the vote. She clarifies that the Catalans are not anti-Spain, but pro-Catalonia.
During my time in Barcelona I came across many pro-independence marches and speeches. Each time I did, they were always filled with Catalan flags and spirits were held high, but never at the expense of speaking against Spain, only proudly of Catalonia’s potential. They were always peaceful. “I haven’t had any arguments with my Spanish friends because of this,” says Julia.
The Catalan celebration of their culture is exemplified in their celebrations of La Mercè, this past week. A festival so closely engrained in Catalan tradition, that no politics will stop them enjoying it, symbolic of their determination to express this culture, no matter what.
This Sunday is not simply about one referendum, but representative of a much larger crisis facing Spain – the outbreak of Catalan voices so strong they will no longer go unheard. If not this Sunday then the next and then the one after that, and no mask of legal technicality will be able to stop it.
“From now on Spain is broken and if not now, maybe in a few years, Catalonia will separate,” says Miquel. The Spanish government’s tough response has resulted in the diplomacy card being swept off the table long before it was ever put down.
Now Catalans will not accept any silencing of their right to vote.
Gibraltarian Shelina Assomull has recently completed a master’s in International Relations at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI) in Spain.