About 1.6 million Catalans linked arms to form the Via Catalana, a 400 kilometre human chain demanding a referendum on independence for their country, to mark Catalonia’s national day (the Diada) on September 11.
The country has been a region of the Spanish state since September 11, 1714, when a besieged Barcelona finally fell to the Borbon coalition of France and Spain.
Via Catalana was organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and inspired by the human chain that in 1989 demanded the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the former Soviet Union.
Its amazing success has already driven the right-nationalist Catalan minority Convergence and Union (CiU) government to speed up plans to fix a date and question for a 2014 referendum on independence.
On September 12, the CiU administration of Premier Artur Mas announced that it was confirming its agreement with centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), on whose support CiU relies to stay in government, for these two issues to be settled before the end of the year.
Mas’s Plan B ― to hold no consultation if it could not be agreed with the national People’s Party (PP) government and to replace it with a “plebiscitary” Catalan election in 2016 ― has been shelved for now.
Via Catalana has also disconcerted the Spanish-centralist forces ruling the Spanish state.
Within the PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo acknowledged the “success of the organisation, logistics and communication” of Via Catalana. But deputy PM Soraya Saenz de Santamaria invoked the old hand-me-down of conservative politicians faced with mass protest ― what about the “silent majority” who had stayed at home on the day?
Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the main opposition party in the Spanish national parliament, reacted with a call for the Rajoy government to face up to the reality of enormous Catalan discontent with the Spanish state. He urged action to save the marriage by reworking the Spanish constitution along federal lines.
On the day
Why is Via Catalana having an impact on Catalan and all-Spanish politics greater even than that of last year's Diada, when up to 2 million people demonstrated in Barcelona?
It is partly due to the extraordinarily dramatic visual impact of a 400-kilometre chain of human beings of all ages and conditions, dressed in Catalonia’s colours of yellow and red and also decked out in the red, yellow and white-starred blue triangle of the estelada (the flag of Catalan independence).
This scene ran without a break along the course of the ancient Roman Via Augusta ― from inside the French side of the border in the north to inside the Valencian side of the border in the south.
Along the route the road was painted with independence slogans and quotes from Catalan writers, big enough to be visible from the air.
Esteladas were also traced out in adjacent beaches and fields, and more than one farmer draped cows and donkeys in independence paraphernalia.
The ANC calculated it would take at least one person per metre to cover the 400 kilometres: a total of 400,000 people who would have to commit to turn up at one of the 778 stretches into which the chain was divided.
By mid-August, the ANC could count on only 300,000 participants. Its planning map showed problems in the more scarcely populated regions, particularly in the south around the Ebro River delta.
Yet when, at 17:14 on September 11, the cathedral bells of Lleida rang out to announce the launch of the chain, the question was not too few participants, but too many.
To fill in the holes in the south, 30,000 participants came down from Lleida (the one regional capital not on the route). For many stretches, the chain was doubled, tripled or quadrupled, even in rural areas.
In big cities the chain turned into a mass demonstration, with half a million filling central Barcelona alone.
Within the Catalan capital, Via Catalana divided into a coastal and city-centre branch to pass by famous spots like Sagrada Familia cathedral and Camp Nou, the Barcelona football club stadium.
A separate loop, demanding a combined struggle for national and social rights, including against the public sector cuts imposed by the Mas government, surrounded the headquarters of La Caixa, Catalonia’s biggest bank.
Three thousand volunteers from Catalonia North (the part of southern France ceded in 1659) turned up at the border and extended the chain three kilometres into French territory.
In the south, once the Valencian Supreme Court overturned a national Civil Guard bid to stop the chain at the Catalonia-Valencia border, Catalan singer-songwriter Lluis Llach joined hands across the frontier with Valencian composer Carles Santos.
All along the chain, the classics of Catalan popular culture ― human castles, giant puppets and sardanas (the national dance) ― were in full swing. Thousands of families also turned it into an excuse for a good-humoured picnic.
Many migrant communities took part, not only from Latin America, but also from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan and India.
Support also came from other nationalities in the Spanish state. In Barcelona, the Basque national flag, the ikurrina, was everywhere.
How did the chain do where it had to pass through supposedly “foreign territory” ― the working-class Barcelona suburbs formed by families migrated from other regions of Spain like Andalucia and the heart of the anti-dictatorship struggles of the 1970s?
Apart from the fact that most participants spoke in Castilian (Spanish), the chain was as strong as anywhere else (eight-deep in some parts).
A report in the Catalonia edition of El Pais said a common response was: “I’m not an independence supporter, but we in Catalonia have a right to decide our future and we’re sick and tired of being ignored by Madrid.”
The Spanish-unionist opposition within Catalonia had a day to forget. The local PP, having decided for the first time ever to boycott the official wreath-laying ceremony at the statue of Rafael Casanova (leader of the 1714 resistance), held its own rally of 500 people.
The other unionist force, Citizens, attracted a handful of the faithful to four sad balloon-releasing ceremonies.
The only other appearance of Spanish centralism on the day took the form of an aircraft-towed sign hired by the rabid-right media group Intereconomia. The sign, “Better Together”, flew the route of the Via Catalana to catcalls, boos and incredulous laughter.
The movement for Catalan independence is the biggest social movement in Europe. Via Catalana mobilised 30,000 volunteers, including 800 photographers, to record every metre of the chain. And, just as after the 2012 Diada, it left many political forces flat-footed.
The action’s convening slogan, “Towards Independence”, was criticised for making it impossible for supporters of a federation or confederation within Spain to take part.
That reading was reinforced by a comment by ANC vice-president Jaume Marfany that “whoever comes will be counted as an independence supporter. If they don’t want to be counted that way, best they stay at home.”
Marfany’s comment was nuanced, but not disowned by other ANC spokespeople. This left many left and progressive supporters of a Catalan right to decide wondering whether they should take part.
CiU, the Socialist Party of Catalunya (the PSOE’s Catalan sister party), and the left coalition Initiative for Catalunya-Greens and United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) all had trouble working out their orientation.
It was less trouble, seemingly, for much of their support base, who generally saw Via Catalana as a way of asserting Catalonia’s democratic rights against “Madrid”.
In the Socialist Party of Catalunya, matters reached a comic stage after it was decided that members could take part in a personal capacity. Leader Pere Navarro decided not to take part, but his father did, along with a number of Socialist Party councillors and mayors.
Within EUiA, the Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Communist Party voted not to take part, even as the EUiA branch in the town of Rubi took responsibility for helping organise its stretch of the chain.
ICV-EUiA allowed its members to make their own call, while urging participation in “Surround the Caixa” and similar actions in other cities. ICV co-conveners Dolors Camats and Joan Herrera took part in “Surround La Caixa”. Other ICV-EUiA MPs participated in Via Catalana.
These differences within the broad camp supportive of the right to decide (about 80% of the population according to polls) will sharpen with the next debate facing the movement ― what question to put in a referendum.
A report in the magazine Tiempo said behind-the scenes negotiations between Barcelona's and Madrid's governments has been focused on whether a form of question is possible that would allow the Rajoy government to support a consultation.
The Madrid bottom line is said to be that the question must be threefold ― for independence, for the status quo, or for a new relation between Spain and Catalonia.
Such a choice would give Spanish centralism its best chance of putting the independence vote in a minority, because the latest polls show support for Catalan independence at between 49% and 56%.
For its part, the ERC is insisting on an “independence, yes or no” question, which would split federalists and confederalists into those who see independence as the lesser evil and those who see remaining in Spain that way.
Such a formula would probably see the independence vote win, and so would be totally unacceptable to the Rajoy government. It might also create a sizeable bitter minority.
As matters stand, this year's Diada has narrowed Mas’s options ― to the chagrin of a Catalan business establishment petrified by the thought of illegality and a showdown with the Spanish state.
(Once again in Catalan history, the “national” bourgeoisie is going weak at the knees as the fight gets serious.)
However, if Mas were to entertain a referendum wording acceptable to the Spanish government, he would most likely be dropped by Convergence, his own party and the majority force in CiU.
Even if Convergence could be persuaded to swallow a format acceptable to Madrid, ERC almost certainly would not acquiesce: its nationalist base would then desert to the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) and other forces.
If Mas were forced to early elections by a break with ERC, a CiU wipe-out would, according to all polls, be inevitable.
On the other hand, if Mas persists with an option that is unacceptable to Madrid, the prospect is one of any Catalan referendum being declared “illegal” by the Spanish Constitutional Court (with its pro-PP majority), opening the way to the “suspension” of the Catalan government.
All Catalonia is presently on tenterhooks, waiting for Rajoy’s answer to a July letter from Mas asking for the central government to approve an independence consultation in Catalonia. The reply is expected early next week. It will determine the course of Catalan and Spanish politics for the rest of this year and beyond.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed analysis will be published at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]