Unrest in Catalonia: Why it Clashes over Independence from Spain
Serious disturbances have erupted in the cities of Catalonia, a Spanish region that has long fought for independence.
On Monday, October 14, a Spanish court imposed jail sentences on a number of politicians advocating Catalan independence. The 'independentistas' face between 9 and 13 years in prison. Immediately after the announcement, protests broke out in Barcelona and other cities.
Catalonia is in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula, separated from France by the Pyrenees. It is an autonomous region integrated into Spain.
Catalonia, like the other territories that make up Spain today, has historically possessed an important margin of self-government. It was part of the Kingdom of Aragon. In Catalonia, people speak the Catalan language (in addition to Spanish).
In the 18th century, Catalonia took sides in the war of succession for the throne of Spain. Contenders were the Bourbon and the Habsburg families. Catalonia opposed the Bourbons and their efforts to make Spain a centralist state, but the Bourbons won the war and installed their king, Philip V, in 1714. Ever since those days of war, the relation between Catalonia and Spain has been contentious.
Readers may know Catalonia from George Orwell's classic memoir, /Homage to Catalonia/ (1938). The writer described his participation in the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. During the war, Catalan independence parties fought on the side of the Left against Francisco Franco's right-wing rebel army.
The Spanish Civil War ended with the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). He suppressed self-government in Catalonia and even prohibited the use of the Catalan language. There were numerous Catalan political prisoners during this period.
The memories of old historical grievances weigh on a part of the Catalan population. The idea of separating from Spain and rejecting the monarchy (which some still associate with Franco) has gained popularity in recent years.
Opposite the Spanish red-yellow flag, the independentistas fly the "estalada" flag, with the slim red and yellow bars that have traditionally represented Catalonia and a white star on a blue background.
A large number of Catalans want to remain part of Spain. Polls reveal a division hovering around 50-50 between them and the independentistas. In March 2019, 48% favoured independence and 41% opposed it. A few months later, in July 2019, the division had shifted: 44% favoured independence and 48% was against it. None of the two camps has had a clear hegemony.
On October 1, 2017, the autonomous government of Catalonia held a referendum on the question of independence from Spain. The central government had forbidden the local government to do so.
According to the organizers, more than two million people participated in the referendum. This is 43.03% of the population. Of the participants, 90% voted to separate Catalonia from Spain. The Spanish government rejected the validity of this referendum.
The Spanish government sent police to Catalonia and halted any attempt to promote Catalonia's independence. What followed was a symbolic statement by Catalan political representatives.
On the night of October 4, three days after the referendum, King Philip VI sent a television message to the Spanish population. He advocated the unity of Spain. Meanwhile, judicial mechanisms were put in place to prosecute those who had instigated the referendum of independence in Catalonia.
The president of the Catalan autonomous government, Carles Puigdemont, fled Spain to avoid his arrest. So did other Catalan politicians. Those who stayed in Spain were brought before a court.
A dozen leaders of the Catalan independence movement were sent to pretrial detention. The Supreme Court judged them on charges of attacking the Spanish constitutional order.
Finally, the Catalan 'independentistas' were sentenced: they will have to serve 9 to 13 years in prison for sedition. Protests against the sentencing led to riots. One of the first protest moves was to paralyse Barcelona airport, in imitation of what happened in Hong Kong.
Highway and railroad blocks have been methods of massive protest by those who consider the condemnation of pro-independence leaders unfair.
The results of the unrest in Catalonia have been dozens of injuries and arrests.
The protests have prompted the Spanish government to warn those who are mobilizing violently that action will be taken. It has also asked the Catalan independence parties to stop the further escalation of protests. The struggle about Catalan independence is far from over.