The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Spanish government is pushing Catalans to support independence

A bumbling effort to keep the country unified only radicalized the region.

Catalonia is expected to declare independence from Spain in a matter of days, according to the region's secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont. (Video: Reuters)

Barcelona is one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, tucked between the mountains and the sea. From Antoni Gaudí’s mind-bending architectural masterpieces to the charming plazas of Gracia, millions of people go there every year to eat, drink, sightsee and enjoy a city so full of life and culture.

On Sunday, though, the world was appalled by the images from the same beautiful place of armored police senselessly beating people whose only desire was to stage a peaceful vote for independence. It was a sad culmination to a years-long political crisis that has been like a collective descent into madness.

For a Spanish citizen who is half Catalan and half Castilian, it felt like the end.

For years, the conservative ruling party in Madrid, led by the hapless Mariano Rajoy, has made authoritarian moves that have steadily pushed more and more Catalans toward independence, culminating with what we saw Sunday: a return to brutal, dare I say fascistic, state violence in Spain. And an independence movement that might have seemed pointless suddenly looks, in light of the Spanish government’s actions, quite justifiable.

The most mystifying thing is that when you talk to people on both sides, it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly what principle everyone is so mad about. You hear something about how Catalans pay a bit more in taxes but don’t get as much in return. When you ask people in Madrid, they say something along the lines of, “Well, the courts said that all this independence stuff is unconstitutional and I merely believe in upholding the constitution!” Up to now, the arguments sounded paltry and thoroughly unconvincing. But they were usually delivered with rabid urgency. They are the arguments of fervent nationalism.

What you need to know about the Catalan independence vote

When Catalans would say they were oppressed over the past few decades, it has always been hard to take the complaint seriously. Gone are the days of Francisco Franco’s vicious repression. Catalan is spoken everywhere; it is the language taught in all public schools in the region. Indeed, Catalan identity has seen a resurgence of late, with a push to celebrate traditional Catalan dance, music and literature. Materially, Catalonia is the richest region in Spain.

But Sunday, the Spanish state played into the most garish Franco-era caricature of itself. It was impossible to see the police officers on the streets beating women as anything other than a shocking oppression.

It did not need to be this way. It did not have to end like this. While the cause of Catalan separatism has been romanticized all over the English-speaking world (especially in connection with FC Barcelona, the city’s most popular soccer team) for as long as I can remember, it was never the fait accompli that its proponents made it out to be. Growing up, I encountered plenty of Catalan nationalism when I visited family in Spain, but separatism? The people calling for independence were on the fringe.

As late as 2009, opinion polls showed that only about 16 percent of Catalans supported full independence from Spain. Before the vote on Oct. 1, that number had risen to somewhere near half. After seeing the state’s violent crackdown, that number is surely much, much higher. An acquaintance of mine texted this week, “I was not an indepe (pro-independence), but I voted en caliente because of how the police and the government acted. Also because it became very difficult to imagine that in Spain things will ever change unless an entire generation just dies off.”

How did things change so quickly? It’s impossible not to see the growth in nationalist sentiment on both sides as an outgrowth of the frustration and misery wrought by the 2008 financial crisis, which decimated the Spanish economy. For years, “la crisis,” as it was known in Spain, became “monotema” (the only topic of conversation). By 2011, the crisis had reached the point where millions of people, known as the “indignados,” took to the streets to demand an end to austerity. This spontaneous outburst would inspire the Occupy movement around the world.

This explosion of popular outrage upended the established political order in Spain. Podemos, a new leftist party, emerged and made quick electoral gains by taking the mayorship of both Madrid and Barcelona. Ciudadanos, led by the anti-separatist Catalan Albert Rivera, was born as the new party on the right. The traditional parties of the right and the left, the People’s Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE), respectively, were mired in massive corruption scandals, their credibility evaporating.

As this was going on, the PP was waging a campaign against the new Catalan Statute, an arrangement between Catalonia and the national government providing for limited autonomy in government and budget for the region that had been agreed upon in 2006. After a years-long campaign around Spain, the courts ruled in 2010 that the arrangement violated the Spanish constitution. Then, in 2012, the central government rejected a new fiscal arrangement with Catalonia. The playground question of “Who Started It?” leads to endless and tedious chicken-and-egg arguments, but suffice it to say that it was very convenient for Rajoy that Spain’s deep economic crisis ceased to be the monotema, replaced instead in Spanish politics by the Catalan question.

Rajoy’s position on Catalonia has been one of zero dialogue. Each time that he has refused to even entertain the question of increased autonomy for Catalonia or an independence referendum, support for the separatists ticked up. Catalan journalist Anna Pazos told me, “Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate a new fiscal arrangement with (then-Catalan President) Artur Mas in 2012 was a huge inflection point. From then on the Catalan government declared itself ‘sovereigntist,’ it wasn’t long before they were officially ‘separatist.’ The talk went from ‘how do we fit in with Spain?’ to ‘there is no way to fit in.’”

Catalonia’s time has come, and Spain needs to get out of the way

But as support for the separatists grew over the past several years, Rajoy would get more and more Spaniards to rally behind his hard-line stance. This is how he was able to win reelection in 2015, as the Catalan monotema grew bigger and bigger. Stirring up nationalist sentiment and playing up a common enemy is, after all, a time-honored way for a government in power to distract from voters’ economic misery.

Meanwhile, the conservative Carles Puigdemont won tumultuous 2015 regional elections in Catalonia that were billed as a plebiscite on independence. He sat atop a coalition of strange bedfellows that included anti-capitalist radicals side by side with austerity-loving right-wingers. Puigdemont’s commitment to Catalan independence is such that he would not travel to Madrid directly from Barcelona by air, instead buying a ticket through, say, Brussels, so that he could enter Madrid through the international terminal.

About a month ago, Puigdemont scheduled the vote on independence for this past weekend and announced that should it prevail, Catalonia would declare a republic within 48 hours. The Madrid government vowed to block it by any means necessary. No one knew what would happen at the ballot boxes, but no one expected that level of state violence. No one expected 800 injured Catalans.

Given that the vote was carried out amid state repression, it’s impossible to call the results legitimate. Only about 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Still, on Tuesday evening, Puigdemont told the BBC that his government will announce unilateral secession in a matter of days. Spanish officials, meanwhile, are contemplating charging him with sedition.

Earlier in the day, the king of Spain, Felipe VI, had addressed the nation. “The Catalan authorities displayed a lack of loyalty that is inadmissible,” he declared. As soon as Felipe finished speaking, my Catalan cousin texted me, using the Catalan spelling, “They have lost Catalunya.”

It never should have come to this. But they really lost it years ago.