On the Catalan National Day, September 11, Spanish politics suffered a huge shock: up to 2 million people ― more than a quarter of the population of Catalonia ― marched through the streets of Barcelona shouting one word, “independencia”.
It was a moment when countless Catalans (those from the four provinces that make up Catalonia in Spain's north-east) discovered that others felt the way they did ― it is time to drop Spain for a state of our own.
This was a different Catalan National Day, which remembers the 1714 fall of a besieged Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession. Besides the usual morning ceremonies, a march behind the banner “Catalonia, A New European State” had been organised by two new nationalist networks, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI).
Huge show of force
Signs it would be huge were clear early on. About 1200 coaches were booked to bring people in from the regions; special trains had to be limited on one line because the system had run out of carriages.
Catalan politicians opposed to independence ― such as Josep Duran Lleida, leader of the conservative Catalan nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) in the Spanish parliament ― decided at the last moment that they had to be seen at a protest they disagreed with.
Nine cabinet members of the Catalan CiU government would be attending “in a personal capacity”.
Key Catalan state institutions were directed to boost the event. Here was a protest that notorious police minister Felip Puig, responsible for violent repression against protesters, would help to build. It also got live coverage on Catalan state TV’s Channel 3.
The CiU government’s motive was to use the march as a show of support for its proposed “fiscal pact” with the central Spanish government of the Popular Party’s (PP) Mariano Rajoy. Supported by all Catalan parliamentary parties with the exception of the Socialist Party of Catalonia and the Popular Party of Catalonia, the fiscal pact would create powers to levy taxes and decide what proportion should be forwarded to the central Spanish government.
This would enable Catalonia to reverse a situation where, according to official calculations, Catalonia loses €16 billion a year to “Madrid” and the 16 other autonomous communities (states) that make up the Spanish state.
Attendance on the day exceeded all expectations and planning capacity. This was the largest march in Catalan history. It was bigger than the 1977 march for autonomy, the vast 2003 protests against the Iraq War and the million-plus 2010 protest against the ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court that sections of the 2006 Catalan Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional.
Central Barcelona froze solid as a march supposed to take two-and-a-half hours to reach its destination outside parliament house lasted more than five hours. Mobile phone networks collapsed completely.
All Catalonia came to town ― from remote Pyrenean villages to the towns along the river Ebro. Families with accents odd to Barcelona ears marched behind their placards: “Sant Pere de Riudebitlles says independence now!”; “Llambilles says: Premier Mas, lead or leave!”
Delegations arrived from other parts of the historic Catalan Lands ― Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the eastern strip of Aragon and the Roussillon area of southernmost France. Delegations from the Basque Country waved their red, white and green national flags in solidarity.
Social sectors and institutions rushed to identify with the cause. Barcelona Football Club announced that the strip of its B team would now be the yellow and red stripes of the official Catalan flag. There were “Police for Independence”, “Pensioners for Independence”, and “Teachers for Independence”.
The Barcelona Stock Exchange building, prime candidate for attack at any protest, was draped in a huge protective estelada (the Catalan independentist flag).
The main union confederations, the Workers Commissions and the General Union of Labour, demanded “fewer cuts and more self-government”. The banner of an anarchist collective read “Catalans, your main enemy is at home” ― referring to Catalonia’s political and economic establishment.
However, hardly any other slogan had a chance against the incessant chant of “in-de-pen-den-cia”. The only competitor was “Whoever doesn’t jump is a Spaniard!” ― especially popular among the hundreds of thousands of young people present.
The feeling against the Spanish state was reflected in placards in other languages, including Spanish: “Spain, your robbery is genocide”, “Your hatred is our goodbye”, “Farewell, Spain”, “Catalonia is not Spain” and “Yes we Cat!”.
The outright predominance of the independence flag floating above the march reinforced the message. But what sort of independence? While the blue-triangled estelada won the battle of the flags, the yellow-and-red estelada ― designed in the 1960s by the Socialist Party of National Liberation (PSAN) and variously interpreted as the flag of the entire Catalan Lands or as the symbol of an independent socialist Catalonia ― came in a clear second.
Then there was the singing ―of “The Reapers”, the national anthem, and of classics of the protest movement against the Franco dictatorship.
With half the demonstration still to reach its destination in Ciutadella Park, the final act of the day began. In 20 different languages, non-Catalan residents expressed their support for the nation’s right to self-determination.
The most moving moment came when one speaker read (in Spanish translation) the “Ode to Spain” of Catalan poet Joan Maragall. This powerful denunciation of the slaughter of Catalan sailors in the 1898 Spanish-Cuban war ends with the cry: “Spain, farewell!”
The act concluded with a mass showing of green cards for independence. When one Catalan hero, former Barcelona footballer Pep Guardiola, showed his green card by video link from New York, the park went berserk.
At the same time, other marches under the slogan “Neither Fiscal Pact Nor Social Pact” were organised in five major centres by various anti-capitalist pro-independence groups. They drew between 25,000 and 30,000 people.
Independence sentiment rises
The huge protest happened because the past three years of social aggression and violation of Catalan national rights have convinced doubters there is no alternative to independence.
Key moments were:
· The Spanish Constitutional Court supporting important aspects of the PP appeal against the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, even though it was passed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and ratified by referendum in Catalonia.
· Both PP and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) refusing to agree to any serious reworking of the financing system for the autonomous communities. When the post-2008 economic crisis arrived, Catalonia, a centre of the real estate bubble, was among the hardest-hit.
· The return of the PP to government nationally increasing the war on Catalan culture and language. Also the PP government of the Balearic Islands reintroducing Castilian (Spanish) as a language of school instruction on an equal footing with Catalan, the PP government in Aragon redefining the Catalan spoken in that community’s eastern strip as “Eastern Aragonese”, and a court case to have Castilian made an equal language of instruction with Catalan in Catalonia itself.
· Rising social struggle in Catalonia since 2009 feeding the rise of left nationalist forces, which have secured a greater vote.
· Rising organisation of pro-independence sentiment from September 2009, when the council of Arenys de Munt asked citizens to vote yes or no on independence, and 96% said yes. By December, 169 of Catalonia’s 947 municipalities had organised similar consultations with the same result.
The march has forced all political forces in Spain and Catalonia to a rapid reboot.
After meeting ANC leaders, Catalan Premier Artur Mas told Spanish commercial radio that, even with a fiscal pact, Catalonia would still walk the pathway to independence if its people so desired.
At the next session of the Catalan parliament, Mas will be under pressure to organise a referendum on independence for Catalonia (illegal under the Spanish constitution).
President of the PP in Catalonia, Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, a loyal ally of Mas on austerity and social policy, wrote in the September 12 La Razon: “Without doubt a large number of people took part in yesterday’s demonstration, but it is equally certain that a much larger number of Catalans did not and do not share the separatist goal …
“We do not want the radicalisation of these last days to lead us to social, economic and institutional breakdown.”
For the PSOE and its Catalonian affiliate (the Socialist Party of Catalonia ― PSC), it is time to reassert federalism against the centralising tendencies of the national PP government. The problem is that after 30 years, the federalist alternative has lost nearly all attraction in Catalunya, especially among young people.
At the same time, large parts of the PSC base, especially older migrants from other parts of Spain, remain hostile to Catalan nationalism. They make up much of the 25% of Catalan citizens who say they would definitely vote against independence.
After September 11, the Catalan affiliate of the United Left, the United and Alternative Left (EuiA), said: “The days of betting on an obsolete institutional framework into which Catalonia doesn’t fit are long past.
“EuiA puts its money on the development of a plurinational federalism where the right to decide is recognised ... one in which the Spanish state meets the challenge of understanding and listening to the national sentiment of the peoples that make it up.”
But maybe the outraged national sentiment of Catalonia today makes even this progressive position obsolete.
[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. Read more of Dick Nichols' articles here. A longer version of this article will be published soon at Green Left's sister site, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]