A conversation with Isabelle Bolla, an American woman who has lived in Catalonia for the past two years.
On October 1st, Catalonia held a disputed referendum vote in an attempt to declare independence from Spain. On voting day, Spanish police were documented using excessive force against Catalans attempting to place their vote.
In light of the recent unrest in Spain surrounding Catalonia’s vote for independence, we spoke by email with Isabelle Bolla, an American woman who has lived in various regions of Spain, including living in Catalonia for the past two years. As an outsider who has spent considerable time in Spain, Isabelle has a unique perspective on the situation from inside Barcelona.
Can you discuss the general atmosphere you have experienced recently in Catalonia
Over the past month, I have seen mass mobilizations of people who have peacefully gathered to affirm their desire to vote in a referendum. Many have felt discontent with the Spanish state and its treatment of Catalonia, and others want a say in their future. While not everyone may agree or want independence, 80% of Catalans wanted the right to vote on their future. Prior to October 1st, there was an energy in the air of excitement. People were ready to vote. I ended up being in a small town on the night before the election. Numerous people were camping out and sleeping inside of the designated locations for voting, to protect them from the possible threat of Guardia Civil (Spanish national police) which had been deployed to cities and towns all over the region. People were genuinely scared of what could happen if the police showed up, but there was a feeling of excitement – as some have waited their whole lives to vote.
What did you witness on the day the referendum was held? You mentioned a feeling of excitement, did that continue throughout the day?
People started lining up at 4am, and waited until the polling stations opened at 9am. Luckily, no police were deployed to the location I was in, so everything was peaceful and orderly. It was a normal and completely democratic process. At one point the voting systems completely crashed, as they did in ALL voting stations all over Catalonia, as the Spanish government had managed to shut them down with court orders. People resorted to voting manually, and the vote went ahead nonetheless. I saw a 93 year old man vote, and everyone clapped for him on his way out – it’s incredible to think of the things he has likely seen in his life, and that he made the morning walk to vote and have his voice heard.
I returned to Barcelona the same day, and was filled with emotion at the devastating brutality which occurred on behalf of the Spanish police, and resulted in nearly 900 injuries. The videos which followed only further demonstrated the volatility of the operation. I attended a few manifestations in Plaza Catalunya and tried to check out other local polling places, in which people were still officially voting until 8pm.
Over the past month, the Spanish state has censored the press, shut down .CAT domains, sent in police forces, arrested government officials, and gave the order for riot police to conduct themselves in a violent manner to voters. Their strategy thus far has been questionable.”
What happened during the pro-unity march held on October 7th?
Yesterday in Barcelona and Madrid people who oppose secession gathered to show support for a united spain. While a majority of these people were peaceful, it should be noted that there was a large amount of Falange and far-right attendees (such as Vox — another right wing, anti immigrant, racist group) These groups are notably fascist, and many were caught on camera doing Nazi salutes (which is banned in many parts of Europe) and carrying pre-constitutional Falange flags. Again, I am not alluding that the entire population was fascist as that certainly wasn’t the case, but rather that their presence was completely allowed and not explicitly banned, which in my opinion is an issue in and of itself.
There was a large turnout for pro-unity demonstration. I think many people from all over Spain are hurt about what probably feels like the dissolution of a marriage. It’s hard not to get personal, and feel a range of emotions. I think that’s why it’s so crucial for both sides to speak to each other, because ultimately a large standoff will end up hurting the populations and civilians the most.
It should also be stated that a majority of attendees were not from Catalonia, but were bussed in from other regions of Spain. Bus options were available to anyone all over Spain for a mere 34€. So a large population of those attending were from other Spanish regions. I personally witnessed an influx of busses throughout the day coming, and going.
I also witnessed a car driving past my apartment, covered in Spanish flags and blasting the “Marcha Real” on the speakers, which is Franco’s national anthem and notoriously fascist.
I would like to be clear again, that not all of the population there was fascist, but the fascists were not DENOUNCED or told to leave – which is problematic.
Just last week, thousands gathered in Plaza del Sol in Madrid to sing “Cara Del Sol,” another fascist tune indoctrinated into the youth during Franco’s regime.
I believe in peaceful assembly and peaceful protests, but the appearance of these far-right exclusive and divisive groups calling for “unity” only incites intimidation and fear, and produces the opposite effect to many Catalans, and outsiders like myself.
Can you give an example of the difference in attitudes between the Catalan people and the Spanish police?
Catalans attempted to vote in a democratic election for a referendum and succeeded. But the Spanish government has maintained that this referendum vote would not take place. Can you tell us what the referendum is for?
The referendum was for the right of Catalans to vote if they wanted to become an independent republic outside of Spain. As polls are constantly fluctuating, the numbers on who supports independence are unclear. What can be said is that 80% of the population supported a referendum to solve the matter. Over the past few years, unofficial non-binding referendums on the same matters did win overall support — but again, it’s hard to fully understand these numbers as whole. To get a full scope, it would be wise to analyze voter turnouts as a whole in regional and national elections, and cross-reference them to referendum elections. The pressures that Catalans had to deal with to vote on October 1st should also be taken account. According to Catalan officials, around 770,000 were unable to vote due to police interference.
In Catalonia, 5.3 million or so are eligible to vote in a population of 7.5 million, and around 4.9 are Catalans. The average turnout has been between 2-2.5 million people in many referendums, which should already be a signal of alarm to the Spanish state that nearly half of the population is voting in favor of independence — and that there is a deep divide present.”
The Spanish prime minister insists that no referendum was held in Catalonia but officials say, according to preliminary results, 90% voted for independence. Why does Catalonia want independence from Spain?
Catalonia wants independence because of many issues and a variety of reasons. Many have to do with unfair treatment from the Spanish government, and the fact that in 2006 PP and namely Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy reneged on a previous promise made to Catalonia, and subsequently canceled out nearly 14 statutes of autonomy the region was granted by his predecessor. Stripping the autonomy of the region and turning its back on Catalonia left many people very angry. The following 2008 financial crisis further exasperated these sentiments.
It also has to do with money, as many Catalans pay more in taxes than what they receive back, leading them to borrow money from the Spanish government to provide basic services for its citizens. While this is always the precedent, that richer regions pay more in taxes; Catalonia has altogether paid more than it’s wealthy European counterparts in Paris, London, etc.
I believe it also boils down to identity, which is a VERY big factor. Many Catalans do not necessarily feel Spanish, they identify as Catalan.
Prior to this referendum, had there been previous effort on the part of the Catalan government to reach out to the Spanish government to attempt an agreement?
Over the past 6 or 7 years, the Catalan government has made numerous attempts to speak with the Spanish government to discuss more autonomy, or even to try to agree on a question for a referendum. All of these attempts have been shut down, leading the Catalan government to respond with one binding question and referendum.
Studies have shown that if more than one question was posited, or if Spain had agreed on the question with Catalans many perhaps would have voted to stay. I don’t see that necessarily being the case after the events of the past month and after October 1st.
Here in the U.S., almost everything that goes ‘wrong’ is blamed on Russia. It looks like the media is using Russia as a scapegoat in this instance as well, claiming that Russian meddlers are to blame for the Catalan crisis. Have you seen this in the media where you are?
I have briefly some some content alluding to collusion with Russia, which seems to be the case worldwide now. As far as I know, these parallels were drawn by the newspaper El Pais, whom also mentioned that Julian Assange (who has been vocal about the Catalonia/Spain situation) is also in works with Russia.
While I have no doubt that seeing a fractured Europe would serve Russia’s best interests, I am highly speculative of Russia playing any kind of integral role in matter. The call for a referendum and the desire for independence has no correlation to Russia, and it should be noted that mentioning Russia or attempting to use Russia as a scapegoat is an easy way to diminish or invalidate the opinions of millions of people.
With your knowledge of events over the past week and your experience in Spain, what do you think will happen over the next few days?
Well, there have been many assumptions and analysis over the possible endgame steps and strategies that will be implemented. I think the Spanish government is going to measure which steps it can incrementally implement to stop or put a halt to a declaration of independence. Sedition charges, and arrests will likely be made over the next week and could perhaps be it’s first way of cracking down. Last week, Spain’s government passed a law which makes it easier for companies to move their official headquarter base out of Catalonia and into Spain, as a way of adding economical pressure to the region.
Following this, a few companies and banks moved their HQ address to Spanish cities, out of prudence and as a contingency plan – although it should be noted that most companies actual headquarters will remain here, and only the fiscal address has been moved. Adding economical pressure, and following with a series of arrests looks like the current course for now.
Up to this point, the Spanish government has refused any outside mediation and has also refused to engage in active civil discourse and dialogue with the Catalan government while “independence is still on the table.” Of course, this entire problem revolves around independence, so it seems both governments have been unable to even sit and meet properly for a discussion.”
Article 8 of the Spanish Constitution allows it to explicitly use its armed forces to ensure the sovereignty and unity of the country. “The mission of the Armed Forces, comprising the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain and the constitutional order.”, Spanish Consitution, Article 8)
Alongside article 8, it is likely that article 116 and 155 will be implemented as well following a UDI. Article 116 quite literally invokes MARTIAL LAW in three stages: Stage of Alarm, State of Emergency, and State of Siege. (“An organic law shall regulate the states of alarm, emergency and siege (martial law) and the corresponding competences and limitations.” – Article 116, Spanish Constitution).
Article 155 would revoke the autonomy of a region, and remove the government in power. The central government in Madrid would therefore presume control over Catalonia economically and politically. Invoking article 155 has been dubbed the “nuclear option.” The Vice President of Spain did confirm that this article would be implemented the same day as a hypothetical UDI.
Both of these articles will require a congressional majority to pass.
I think the Catalan government will move to declare independence as it promised the population it would do. The Catalan Parliament is the legitimate representative body of Catalans, and they have the internal power and legitimacy to declare independence. They are seeking to declare it for a number of reasons, and because a UDI (unilateral declaration of independence) would allow them to accept mediation from foreign governments, and recognize Catalan statehood. There attempts and calls for mediation have been ignored, and Spain has refused any dialogue up to this point – so this undoubtedly seems to be the way forward. It’s unclear yet if it will occur incrementally or all at once.
Following the UDI, it is highly likely that article 155/116 will come into play, which is cause for concern. I fear further aggressive tactics from the Spanish state will cause backlash in the region, and lead to more strikes and mobilizations. People will absolutely take to the streets.
I believe the Spanish government will hold off on instituting 155 for now UNTIL Catalonia declares independence, which is also likely to occur in the next few days. It is not only plausible, but highly likely that this move will trigger a deep disaccord with the population, and lead to more demonstrations of passive resistance.
In your opinion what is the ideal outcome for Catalonia?
I think the ideal situation for Catalans and Catalonia would be dialogue with the Spanish government with outside mediation, where they can clearly have their voices heard, with a neutral mediator in place. This is idealistic, and given how things have played out over the past month it seems unlikely to happen. Ideally, the Spanish and Catalan governments would work together towards understanding each other and reaching an agreement that is suitable for both. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. The main thing missing, is what would help the situation the most. Countless MEPS, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and countries have urged Catalonia and Spain to simply talk; but Spain has refused to this point, choosing force and aggression, against what it sees as a rebellion.
The other ideal situation would be a compromise within the Spanish government to either grant more autonomy, make it a state within a Federal Spain, or give permission to hold a legally binding referendum (as the U.K did with Scotland.) None of these are plausible with the current political trajectories in place, but they would certainly be ideal.
Since the former situations seem quite lofty and out of reach, then the other best alternative would likely be the UDI. According to international law, self-determination is in numerous international treaties and does denote the legal right of a people to decide their destiny in international order. With that said, the EU is largely against secessionist movements, and cannot legally recognize an independent state unless the parent state itself (Spain) has come to an agreement or arrangement with the government seeking secession, and has agreed to recognize their statehood – which is highly unlikely to happen.
If Catalonia does break free and leave the EU ( at least temporarily), it will lose the protection of the EU, however this would leave it open to mediation that it can legally accept. Just because it leaves the EU, does not mean it would not be accepted back in.
What is the most important thing about this situation that you think the rest of the world needs to know?
Catalonia is a very prosperous region of Spain, and makes up nearly 22% of its GDP and 17% of its populace. In 2016 it generated nearly 226 billion, in comparison with Portugal which produced 180 billion (these numbers may not be exact – but are close to the figures and estimates.) While no exact economical analysis has been conducted on viability as an independent region, it would be foolish to dismiss the overall power of the Catalan population and region. Barcelona is and has always been one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, and the overall 14th most important in Europe. It accounts for 25% of all exports from Spain, while Madrid accounts for 11%. Catalonia also represents around 2% of Europe’s overall GDP, so it is an economic and regional powerhouse.
I think this is the biggest crisis both Spain and Europe have faced in a long time, and it’s happening in a digital age which really changes the way information is spread and received.
What I can tell you personally is that the movement for secession is not an extremist agenda; these are normal people, of all ages who just want a democratic process to decide on a democratic future. A majority of supporters hail from rural areas, and in metropolitan cities, like Barcelona there is possibly less desire for it because the population is mixed – but it is very real and it should not be dismissed, ignored, or suffocated. I think that Spain has reached a point of no return, and the current government has used aggressive tactics which have backfired and left people in Catalonia feeling more resentment to the central government, and feeling like their government is not trying to listen to them. All people want here, is to be heard — and for a chance to speak. And they should have that.
What Lies Ahead
The most critical moment for Catalonia arrives in just a few hours when President Carles Puigdemont is expected to issue a declaration of independence, insisting on Catalonia’s wish to negotiate with the Spanish government and the need for mediation.
“History should not be repeated,” said Pablo Casado, a spokesman for Spain’s governing People’s party, the day before the declaration.
“We hope that tomorrow nothing will be declared, because perhaps the one who declares it will end up like the one who declared it 83 years ago.”
Puigdemont is scheduled to speak today at 6pm local time “to report on the current political situation” as pressure grows amid warnings by the Spanish government against secession.
Top photo | A woman watches as demonstrators gather for a rally to protest the Catalan government’s push for secession from the rest of Spain at a coffeeshop in downtown Barcelona, Spain, Sunday Oct. 8, 2017. (AP/Francisco Seco)
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