On a sunny, crisp October morning in 1941, Jordi Pujol, 11, set out on a trek with his uncle, Narcis Pujol, and a friend. The two men, who had braved the front lines of the Spanish Civil War and made it out of prison, were eager to stretch their limbs and climb up to Tagamanent, a tiny hamlet in Catalonia that they had once visited.
When they hiked to the mountaintop, they found the old stone church destroyed, the farms around it abandoned and wrecked. "It is going to take years to rebuild all of that," Pujol remembers one of the men lamenting as they sat amid the rubble in disbelief. "I never forgot that sentence among the ruins," Pujol, now 72, reminisced as he sat in the Willard Hotel's presidential suite. "My motto and slogan became, 'Let's rebuild Catalonia,' " he said.
When one of Europe's longest-serving elected officials speaks, you can almost hear history resonate. After 23 years in office, Pujol, the indomitable president of Catalonia, Spain's most prosperous region, will not only be remembered as the modern savior of Catalan nationalist pride. He also is renowned as the man who catapulted Catalonia, with 6 percent of Spain's territory, to the point where it accounts for 20 percent of Spanish production, including one-fourth of its industrial production.
At a time of European unity, Pujol is a prime example of thriving regionalism. A crafty deal-maker who has positioned his province to extract more autonomy from Madrid in taxation, public administration and government institutions, he is also a visionary, asserting Catalonia's importance while promoting the euro and cultivating ties with parts of Germany, Italy and France.
With his slightly balding head bowed in contemplation, Pujol reached deep into his memories to frame the moment that welded his consciousness as a Catalan patriot, bent on seeing his community rebuild its shattered identity and vitality.
Catalonia, once a nation in the natural corridor between Europe and the Iberian peninsula, fought for the Hapsburg claimant to the Spanish throne against the French during Spain's last bloody war of succession, losing that struggle and its independence as well in 1714. Despite a life of submission in the 18th and 19th centuries and a history of confrontation with Spain, Catalans sought to preserve their language and culture.
The Catalan nationalist movement was born at the end of the 19th century, and in 1932 Catalonia was granted home rule within the Spanish Republic. But when the civil war starting in 1936 put the Fascists and Francisco Franco in power, Catalonia was stripped of its rights and privileges. Hundreds of Catalan nationalists went into exile, and their language was barred from schools, the media and public places. To sing their treasured but forbidden Catalan songs, those who remained would congregate secretly in underground bars.
Pujol was only 6 years old when the civil war broke out and 9 when it ended. His early years were happy, with visits to his grandparents' farm in the countryside, where food was fresh and plentiful. But the turmoil of war brought years of austerity.
His parents' bitterness and sadness affected him. One of his uncles, Josep Comas, an architect and a volunteer in the Republican army, was thrown in jail. Another uncle, a sailor, was confined in a prison cell in a remote village.
Pujol said he could read and study only Catalan books at home, but he went to a German school and learned French, picking up Italian along the way, as well as an appreciation of Goethe and Racine, and other German and French poets. He sees himself not only as a Catalan and a Spaniard, but a citizen of Europe.
For organizing riots protesting Franco's visit to Barcelona, Pujol was imprisoned in 1960 and not released until November 1962. In the mid-1970s, he helped form his party, and in 1979 -- four years after Franco's death -- Catalans secured a measure of home rule.
With the strenuous task of turning Catalonia into an economic powerhouse largely behind him, Pujol is leaving office in September, ahead of elections. "I am not young, but healthy, energetic and I still have ideas," Pujol emphasized, with more than a glint in his penetrating green eyes.
Pujol came to Washington this week for a last go-round, delivering talks at Georgetown University and the Inter-Development Bank and meeting with World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn.
European-American disagreements over a war in Iraq have brought the rift to a "very dangerous point," he warned. "Imagine the U.S.A. goes to war alone, unilaterally. The effect this would have on relations with Europe would be devastating," he told his Georgetown audience yesterday. But if the United States had to forgo the attack because of European pressure? "This would leave a tremendous wound, a most serious one," he cautioned.
Francis Valls, the political correspondent of the Spanish daily El Pais in Catalonia, regards Pujol as "the last prophet of Catalan nationalism."
In a telephone interview from Barcelona, Valls said no other Catalan figure after Pujol will be able to claim the same place in history.
"In a way, he is a one-man show, and although the idea of Catalan nationalism cuts across party lines -- with the exception of the ruling right-wing party -- no other politician after him will have the same vision or authority or do what he has done," Valls observed. "Catalans owe him the restoration of their nationalism. He has reconstructed it and defended it. Our idea of nationalism will survive after him, but it will not be as strong, it will continue softly."