In a month where hurricanes, earthquakes and tropical storms have struck the American continent from north to south and east to west, it is hard to highlight from within the United States the importance of the right to self-determination demanded by Catalonia, a prosperous region of southern Europe.
In comparison with the catastrophes, deaths and tragedies caused by the recent natural disasters, the discussion around the right for a referendum can feel like a superfluous luxury.
Nevertheless, the current Catalan political conflict transcends Spain and Catalonia and exemplifies the growing challenge faced by any diverse democracy made up of differing ideologies, nationalities and ethnicities: How can the needs of the minority be accommodated when the weight of the majority has become dogma?
It is difficult to establish exactly when the conflict was born. The most purist Catalans go back to the fifteenth century (1469) with the union of Castilla to Catalonia and Aragon through the marriage of the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand II and Isabel I. Others point to the Catalan defeat on September 11 1714 under the government of Philip V of Spain during the Spanish Succession War as the beginning of a long history of persecution of the Catalan language and institutions; a systematic persecution that would become commonplace over the next three centuries.
But most agree that the last turning point in the tortuous relationship between Spain and Catalonia happened much more recently, in 2010, with the ruling of the Spanish constitutional court on the reform of the Catalan Statute - the institutional norm that governs the region and regulates its autonomy vis-à-vis the central government - which declared the reform unconstitutional; a reform that according to the Catalan leaders had followed the protocol designed and agreed with the central government, and that included the approval by the Catalan parliament and by a referendum where 74% of the participants (49% of the population) voted in its favor.
The court declared 14 articles of the Statute that granted Catalonia greater autonomy in the financial, judicial and political fields unconstitutional. It also stated that the Catalan language could not be described as the "own and preferred language" in Catalonia, and ruled that references to "Catalonia as a nation" and "the national reality of Catalonia" lacked "interpretive legal effectiveness."
Catalans were quick to react. On July 10, 2010 the demonstration "We are a nation. We decide" was organized with the support of most of the political parties represented in the Parliament of Catalonia, and brought together between 1.1 and 1.5 million people.
Since then, the separatist movement has gained momentum amongst Catalan voters, while regional political parties have organized around an agenda increasingly focused on making independence a reality.
The referendum the Law
The declaration of unconstitutionality and the demonstration of July 10 have personified the two-sided monologue between the Spanish central government and Catalonia ever since: the invocation of the Law - with a Capital L - by the Spanish government on the one hand, and the appeal to the universal right (according to the Hague tribunal) to self-management and self-determination by an increasingly united and organized region around the cause for independence.
The more moderate opponents to the referendum call it illegal, and recall that the right to self-determination was crafted in the context of a colonial history. They claim that, if the goal is to change the Constitution, the Constitution itself establishes an exact process on how to do so, and that trying to skip steps is not only illegal but delusional. For the most extremist referendum opponents, the Constitution clearly stipulates that "Spain is indivisible" and that "every piece of Spain belongs to each and every one of the Spaniards"; so a referendum that does not consult all of the Spaniards and is not conducted by the central government has no validity whatsoever.
Those in favor of the referendum argue that they have exhausted all attempts to frame the region's values within the Spanish legal system, and that they now have no other choice but to define and follow their own Catalan parliament laws. The most extremist see any central government initiative as an attempt to boycott the Catalan "nation-state", claiming that the referendum is only the tip of an iceberg that has been forming over centuries.
The disconnect is clear, and it is rooted in the disagreement about the system of values to be shared. The Spanish government prioritizes the law as an end in itself, so it makes sense that it sees its violation as an unacceptable offense: the use of regional funds to finance an illegal initiative is, after all, a crime. Crime that does not justify, however, the rebukes that have followed: imprisonment of high-ranking Catalan government officials, and searches in homes and printing presses, are all disproportionate measures against the potential non-compliance crimes.
For the younger generations, these reactions are dangerous similar to anti-terrorist measures in the framework of a pacifist movement. For the older generations, they are also reminiscent of the Francoist repression against the Catalan language and culture that they suffered first hand.
Pushback has been felt beyond Catalonia. Cities around Spain, including Madrid, have joined the Catalan demonstrations for the region’s right to decide; an unprecedented fact in the history of Catalanism that only adds complexity and sadness to a possible rupture between the two regions.
Meanwhile, the Catalan population demands the right to choose the legality that best responds and protects their value system, given that it has become clear that the current Law (the Spanish Constitution) can not accommodate the needs of a region with a history, language and shared political institutions that go back more than 500 years. But it's not all nationalistic romanticism. An important part of the independentist agenda focuses on ending the tax discrimination that, according to the separatists, Catalonia suffers with respect to the rest of the state.
Data from 2012 for example shows that Catalonia collected 118.6% of the national average in taxes per capita, while it only received 99.5%. At the opposite extreme, Extremadura collected 76.6% of the national average in taxes, but received 111.8%. Despite being true, the economic argument, is, at the very least, controversial. According to several economists, for instance, the imbalance is commensurate with the fact that Catalonia is, after all, a richer region.
The economic argument has brought independentists together in the past few years, but according to many Catalans it is just a symptom of a much larger problem. The conflict is "political so it requires a political solution, not a legal solution," argues Laia Balcells, an associate professor at Georgetown University's Department of Government in Washington DC. "History reminds us again and again that legality changes over time - and that is the way it should be; for example, interracial marriages in the United States were illegal until 1967, and today no one would question their legality. Unfortunately, legality in Spain is very immune to change."
The Spanish Constitution was written in 1978 after almost 40 years of Franco dictatorship, with very young political institutions "in a hurry and under military tutelage" explains the political scientist. That was 40 years ago and it is normal that certain regions and sectors of the Spanish society are requesting a review. In a plurinational state, Balcells reminds us, the Catalan minority needs the help of the majority to achieve change.
And so we return to the question of how and to what extent can minorities be protected against majorities in a diverse democratic system. An issue that, without going further, is raised daily in our country with the administration of Trump and its position against racial, cultural, sexual or gender minorities.
The solution is certainly complex, but as any history student knows well, repression, if it works, it is only a short-term weapon. In whatsapp circles of Catalan activists the phrase "They wanted to bury us, but they did not know we were seeds" circulated today.
Meanwhile, the central government advances with some caution but firmly with a position that, according to its own dialectic, is unshakable: illegality is unacceptable. Many, inside and outside Catalonia, would like the central government to apply the same rectitude to its own cases of corruption. But that's another story.