By William J. Furney, in Barcelona
It’s past midnight on Monday in the Catalonian capital Barcelona, where nine independence leaders were jailed by the Spanish Supreme Court earlier in the day, triggering mass and violent protests that shocked an otherwise peaceful country and wider Europe. The airport’s many revolving exit doors are locked, some of their glass shattered, and thousands of people are trying to find a way out; many just lie on the floor, alone or in groups, having seemingly given up on just about everything.
Eventually I locate an exit and enter a frenetic scene in which hundreds are lining up for buses and taxis to the city centre and other destinations. I have meetings early in the morning, and a desire to get to bed rapido. It looks like I’d be in the taxi queue for at least an hour, transport apps (none as good as Uber, which suspended operations in the city in January, after prohibitive new regulations were introduced) are not finding cabs and my own airport transfer had been a dud.
I spot a lone black-and-yellow taxi lingering a distance behind the taxi rank, and I approach the driver and ask if he will take me to my central hotel. For nearly double the usual fare, he will, and given the hour and the chaos, I am not about to argue. Several minutes into the journey, the driver, a young man who’s perhaps in his early 20s, demands cash: “You pay me now!” he shouts in sudden agitation.
Alarmed, I say I will pay him when we reach my hotel, but that won’t do; he wants about a third of the fare, right now, as though he feared I wasn’t good for it. I hand it over and he stuffs the notes in his pocket. Not five minutes later he’s at it again, like a petulant child screaming at his parents for pocket money when they’ve just given him some. I decline.
“You are making a problem!” the man-child ridiculously roars, before swerving into a dark side street and pulling over and shouting at me with wild hostility to get out. I ask for my money back, because he hasn’t taken me to my destination, but the request is met with more delirious aggression. And so, increasingly fearful that this is not going to end well and at the very least I might be robbed and possibly roughed up, I flee from the taxi and am all alone in the small hours in a desperate city and no idea how to get to my accommodation.
A short time later I manage to flag down another cab and reach my hotel; the driver is startled by my tale of taxi theft and violence, as is the receptionist, who swiftly gives me an upgrade.
Welcome to Barcelona, city of dizzyingly creative art by the sea where dangers lurk around every corner, and on the roads. It is a mad metropolis on edge, a European tourism mecca that is devouring itself in its heady desire to break free from Spain and become a nation of its own.
From Independence Dream to Rebel Nightmare
The Catalonian breakaway movement has come to a screeching halt as the Supreme Court jailed the rebel politicians for up to 13 years on October 14th, capping a tumultuous period in the country’s recent history that pitted independence-minded folk in the northeastern region against an often heavy-handed government in Madrid. The former Catalonia leader, Carles Puigdemont, remains in exile in Belgium, where this week he has been tweeting support for the independence struggle in Papua, as well as the many in Hong Kong demanding a greater degree of independence from China.
The breakaway region, and its Barcelona focal point, will have to tear down the ubiquitous independence flags that bedeck apartments and other buildings and forget about ever becoming a separate country. At least one poll earlier this year found that since the shock and banned independence referendum in 2017 that saw Catalonian leaders declare independence from Spain, and subsequently end up in the dock, the majority of Catalans are against severing ties with Madrid.
The contentious ballot saw around 90% of voters opt for independence. But less than half the electorate — 43% — bothered to turn out and vote.
Why are some in Catalonia so intent on breaking up with one of Europe’s most successful, dynamic and economically powerful countries anyway? With a Spain that has largely bounced back from the recent financial crisis that also crippled many other European nations (Greece, Ireland and Portugal especially), although pockets of high youth unemployment still afflict the southern European country of almost 47 million people with islands and territories off its east coast as well as the west and north of Africa.
Because the would-be secessionists think that because have their own language, flag and more money than any other region in Spain that it makes them not only unique, in terms of culture, but would provide them with dependable revenues to run their own country. Most of it comes from tourism, and anyone who has been to Barcelona and its surrounding coastal resort towns can attest that it’s been thriving for quite some time — certainly since the seaside city underwent a dramatic transformation before hosting the Olympic Games in 1992.
Catalonia has, to be fair, already had more than a taste of freedom than other parts of the country. It had relative autonomy before the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, and again after the dictator Franco (newly exhumed and placed in a less-ostentatious burial plot) died — and in 2006 was given even more say over its own affairs. Until, that is, the Constitutional Court rolled it all back, in 2010, as the entire country remained mired in the financial meltdown that struck in 2008.
More Catalans than ever began to feel they were sending too much cash to Madrid, in taxes, and not getting enough back, in terms of infrastructure and other expenditures. Secessionist sentiment simmered, bubbled and boiled over, resulting in the chaffing frictions that last to today.
Pedro Sanchez can’t do much about it. He can’t even form a government. Spain’s acting prime minister, known as El Guapo and derided for being too handsome (as if that was a crime: do you want ugly leaders?) and not able to do much of anything, may not be around for all that long anyway, with yet another general election in a fortnight (after one in April), leaving many exasperated Spaniards wondering why their political system is eternally gridlocked.
Wai-Lee Ho, a Conservative Party councillor at Lichfield District Council in Staffordshire, England, told me he was outraged that independence leaders had been jailed for daring to break free from Spain. Imagine, he mused, if the same thing happened to Nicola Sturgeon and other independence-minded folk in Scotland, where secessionist sentiment simmers amid the maelstrom of Britain’s own attempted split, from Europe.
“I think the decision to sentence the Cataolonian separatists is undemocratic,” the 33-year-old with an interest in the issue told me. “Imagine the UK putting Scottish independence leaders and activists in prison. It’s absurd and a threat to the very idea of liberal democracy.”
He also said that releasing the imprisoned rebels would go a long way towards diffusing the fast-escalating tensions in Catalonia.
“I don’t believe that they should have been imprisoned in the first place. Their release would rectify this infringement against democracy,” he said.
Catalonia independence activist Matilde Carme and others sent me several emails and documents expressing their outrage at the politicians’ imprisonment, with Matilde saying that “the most reasonable solution is dialogue, negotiation and, if appropriate, the polls… Just the opposite to what Spain is doing.”
Leaving a Desolate Catalonia
The Friday after the rebel jailings, public-sector strikes and the fear of more violent protests meant many did not venture out, even to go to work. As I sped through the deserted city with strangely scarce traffic, my driver, Jose, said he was fed up with the rolling demonstrations convulsing the city and putting it on edge. “I am Catalan, and I don’t support these protests; they are very bad for the city,” he lamented, adding that he also didn’t want to see Catalonia break away. “We are better off together, instead of being a small country with little,” he said.
“It’s not going to happen anyway, so all this rebellious activity is all in vain,” I said, and he agreed. Madrid will never allow Catalonia to leave the country.
The solution, as with other rebel regions around the world — such as Aceh, in Indonesia (and resource-rich Papua, home to the world’s largest gold mine, operated by American firm Freeport-McMoRan) — is to give it more autonomy, a greater say on the national stage and allocate more funding so that those irked by all the Catalonian cash flowing to Madrid will at least be somewhat satiated. It’s noteworthy that East Timor, or Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony, managed to break free from Indonesia, in 2002, but despite its oil and gas wealth remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
If Spain does manage to get a new, functioning government, it would do well to pardon the nine Catalonian rebels in jail for their roles in leading the insurgency — because, otherwise, this festering wound will only get worse. Urgent treatment is required.