I’m not sure what country I woke up in this morning. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Not only is Catalunya’s future as a region of Spain seriously in doubt after Sunday’s referendum on independence, so is the very notion of what country Spain is trying to be.
The battle seen on the city streets and village cobblestones across northern Spain this weekend has been brewing for years now, a protracted game of chicken played by the central government and the country’s wealthiest region. Both sides paid lip service to the idea of dialogue, but made it clear that neither would budge an ideological inch in whatever discussion might ensue. For the Catalans, that meant anything short of a binding referendum would be rejected; for Spain, any path forward that entertained the possibility of an independent Catalunya was a non-starter.
But of the few paths Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the central government had going into Sunday’s vote, they clearly chose the worst. By taking a rigid stance against the referendum, they allowed the Catalans to frame the vote not simply as one for independence, but for the sanctity of democracy in general. Every other action taken by the Spanish government in the past two weeks fanned the flames of an already-explosive situation: parking a cruise ship filled with 7,000 federal police in the Barcelona port; shutting down websites related to the referendum; arresting government officials and seizing ballot boxes by force.
It was no longer an issue of Catalunya versus Spain, but of democracy versus fascism
All of this played perfectly into the Catalan government’s preferred narrative: a brave, self-determined region with a fever dream for freedom going up against the obstinate Goliath still addicted to Franco-era repression. By the time the polls opened on Sunday morning, it was no longer an issue of Catalunya versus Spain, but of democracy versus fascism.
As Catalans came out in masse to vote, I spent the day walking the streets of Barcelona. What I saw was a body of people desperate to have their voices heard. Young kids draped in Catalan flags, singing the songs taught to them by grandparents who fought for the right to sing them. Families huddled in tents pitched inside of schools to ensure they couldn’t be forced out by police. At Escola Cervantes, a voting station in the heart of the Born, more than a thousand people filled the streets surrounding the school, waiting for hours to cast their votes. As the first voters, a 90-year-old couple locked arm in arm, emerged from the ballot box and onto the street, a chorus of cheers erupted across the barrio.
Hours later, I returned just as the polls were closing. A police helicopter hovered forebodingly over the crowd, but the Catalans—families, couples, little kids on tricycles—cocked their heads to the sky and chanted. As the last minutes for voting ticked off, a man came out on a balcony with a megaphone. “We need young people to come to the front to help.” Dozens of Catalans, young and old, came bounding forward, linking arms to form a human barrier around the entrance to the polls in case federal forces came to snatch away the ballot boxes. The police never showed up, and the Cervantes votes were counted without incident, but other parts of Catalunya weren’t so fortunate. Videos, photos, and testimonials teemed through social media showing a country at war with itself: women and children being ripped out of lines to vote; brigades of Catalan fireman, trying to protect their people, beaten by Spanish police; an entire village peacefully driving a force of armed police off their streets. In the face of a brutal attempt to stomp out the referendum, the Catalans behaved with extraordinary dignity and restraint.
Rajoy and his Partido Popular apparently aren’t intelligent enough to understand the modern world we live in, one where spontaneous images carry more weight than calculated speeches, where a single battered grandma can sway more minds than a dozen court decisions. And so it was that Spain woke up on Sunday with much of the political world behind it, and went to bed the shame of the international community.
The issue of Catalan independence has become as much a PR question as a political one. Knowing that Spain would never allow a clean break, the Catalans’ primary hope has been to garner enough international support to pressure the Spanish government into allowing a binding referendum. In twelve hours of boot-stomps and nightsticks, Madrid did more to legitimize a call for independence than anything the Catalan politicians have done in recent years. By the end of the day, everyone from Belgium’s Charles Michel to Angela Merkel, politicians who had maintained a studied neutrality in the run up to Sunday, released statements in support of the Catalans (if not yet their separatist ambitions).
As the polls finally closed and the votes were tallied, Rajoy stood smugly before the cameras and compounded the disasters of the day, thanking his security forces for their strong-armed enforcement of Spanish law and proclaiming his government’s reaction had been “an example for the world.” The newspaper headlines—Shame of Europe, Spain Torn Apart, Spain’s Day of Shame—and universal condemnations that soon followed turned Rajoy’s delusional proclamation into an uncomfortable truth: Spain had become an example for the world of how not to handle an independence movement.