Inside Catalonia’s ‘urban Zapatistas’: an interview with People’s Unity List (CUP) spokesperson Quim Arrufat

Quim Arrufat is a joint national spokesperson for the People’s Unity List (CUP).

Quim Arrufat is a joint national spokesperson for the People’s Unity List (CUP), an organisation that he has likened to “urban Zapatistas” – in reference to the insurgent indigenous movement based in Chiapas, Mexico – that is committed to Catalan independence and socialism.  

Arrufat became a well-known and respected figure in Catalan politics during his time as one of the CUP’s first three MPs in the Catalan parliament (2012-2015). Under CUP rules Arrufat could not repeat as a candidate in the September 27, 2015 Catalan election.

This contest saw a majority of seats go to the two pro-independence tickets Together For The Yes (JxSi) — an alliance between the conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and various non-aligned pro-independence figures — and the CUP. The CDC refounded in July last year as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT)

Since then the JxSi government of Premier Carles Puigdemont (PdeCAT) and deputy premier Oriol Junqueras (ERC) has called a unilateral referendum on Catalan independence, set for October 1.

In the first part of this interview conducted by Green Left Weekly’s Dick Nichols and Denis Rogatyuk, Arrufat speaks about the origins and nature of the CUP and its relationship with the JxSi Catalan government.

The second part, covering the CUP’s views on the upcoming independence referendum and the link between the struggles for Catalan and Basque self-determination will be published in the next issue of GLW.


What features of Catalan society gave rise to the CUP?

It has a lot to do with the political history of Catalonia, with its strong movements of anarchist and cooperativist tendencies, and grassroots social movements that have always defended a program of emancipation for Catalan society.

Over many years this tradition was not represented in official politics, but it has always existed in Catalan society. It always considered that being outside the parliament was much more effective than being inside elected institutions.

That stance allowed the traditional political parties to operate within the institutions while keeping the street and various networks as the space for the social movements to organise their demands — and in a very effective way.

These movements have included the anti-war movement, the movement against evictions and the movement for Catalan language and culture, which has been very active inside the country.

However, with the beginning of the crisis in 2008 the whole political system started to break down. The legitimacy of the political parties came into question, such that many people and movements saw that there was a need to bring their message and their way of doing politics from the street into parliament.

The CUP was one of the political instruments that had been operating on a local basis, making it possible to combine the struggle on the street with the struggle in the institutions.

We in the CUP also worked to build up institutions of counter-power. These included cultural centres, social centres, cooperatives, local alternative media etc.

Within the CUP, the practical experience of combining these struggles and the circumstances of the crisis convinced a majority of the people in the social movements of the need to break into the institutional scene. That is why the CUP is now in the Catalan parliament.

The CUP doesn’t consider itself part of the state. You have parties — political actors — that represent a part of society within the state, and you have the CUP, which is clearly coming from within society, with the goal of abolishing the capitalist state and creating another kind of democratic power.

Nor does the CUP consider itself to be permanently tied to parliament. We are there to drive further change at this particular political moment, but if we are not successful we will rethink what we are doing in the parliamentary arena.

The Catalan pro-independence left has historically been divided among many different currents. How did unity among them in the framework of the CUP come about? How important were the need to have single tickets in municipal elections and decision-making by mass meeting in creating that unity?

The mass-meeting (or assembly) system was not crucial to overcoming these differences simply because it reproduces differences in a more democratic way. Overcoming differences depends not on the assembly system but on the political method with which you approach issues.

The key was our local orientation. The current period of the CUP can be traced back to about 15 years ago, with the emergence of a new generation of militants who undertook to revive the municipalist project of the CUP, which had existed previously but was very weak. We consistently rejected the notion of building a national organisation until we’d accumulated some political power in the municipalities.

We sought to work together on practical matters to see how to manage power, how to manage social movements, how to organise people on a local basis, and only then build a national organisation.

Our method has allowed us to confront testing issues without creating serious splits and with less risk of division than in other organisations.

Meanwhile, at the local level, everyone is united, the project is working and growing, and this doesn't depend on the leadership of the national organisation, even if there is some connection. If the national project of the CUP were one day destroyed because we became divided or lost elections, the local projects would be 100% secure and could survive without the national project.  

The CUP struggled to achieve a clear majority within its own ranks over the terms on which to support the pro-independence Together For The Yes (JxSi) government. Has this tension been resolved by the CUP’s decision to allow the 2017 Catalan budget to pass?

The good side of the CUP has been its ability to grow from local foundations. The disadvantage is that nobody has had the time to think from scratch about the best parliamentary instrument and the best form of national organisation to deal with the tensions of the political situation in Catalonia.

When we started to grow nationally we continued to use the same methods as in the localities, but that didn't work. When we got 10 MPs in the 2015 regional election and became a key party for this new parliamentary period, nobody inside the CUP stopped to think that maybe our tools for solving this conflict were not the best.

So, we put everything to the local assemblies, who looked at the issue as if the world might end after their decision — it was a life-or-death question. Some thought that if we voted “Yes” to Artur Mas as premier, it would be the death of the organisation and others thought that voting “No” would result in the death of the independence process.

So, how did we solve it? Simply by having internal debates, which were participatory at the local level and addressed the longer term. We asked ourselves where we wanted to be and where we wanted the country to be in a year’s time. There were many decisions to take and we set them all within this perspective, not taking each single decision as a question of life or death.

In itself, it is hard to understand why the CUP is giving support to a coalition for independence that includes right-wing parties. In itself, it has no justification. In itself, the budget is nothing — it is simply maintaining privileges and social cuts.

But then you put all the decisions together and say, “OK, we are in 2016, we will soon be in 2017, we want a referendum and it is the only opportunity we will have for one, with a parliamentary and social majority giving it support.”

A lot of people were willing to give this position a chance because, if not, every independence supporter in the country would say it was the CUP’s fault that we had not achieved the referendum. Such an outcome had to be the fault of Spain or of the right-wing parties, not of the CUP. And so it was agreed to give the referendum — and the Catalan government — a chance until September 2017.

Does this mean that we have lost our anti-capitalist perspective? No, but if you cannot adjust your position, you will never be able to build any kind of majority. The question of the referendum and independence will now be put to the test: we will either achieve independence or have a disaster such that no one will want to talk about independence for the next ten years.

In either case the debate will then shift towards social questions and the way that the various left parties have responded to them. At the moment social issues are not on the front page, but when they return we will again recall who privatised many basic services. It was the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV).

Who created state-financed private education in religious schools? It was the left coalition when it was in the government.

So, that will be a starting point. The point I’m making is that there is no left majority in the parliament with which we agree but which we are undermining to give support to independence.

[The full interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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