La gran ilusión is an original and penetrating take on the last decade of mounting tensions between Catalonia and Spain, tensions that have now culminated in Spain’s deepest political crisis since the late 1970s. Guillem Martínez’s reporting leads him to a straightforward conclusion: Catalonia is real; the independence process, not so much.
For those of us who watch Spain from afar, few things are more baffling than the enormous distance separating Madrid from Barcelona. Even the laws of physics don’t seem to apply in quite the same way in both places. A burden that in Barcelona weighs a ton might in Madrid feel light as a feather.
This helps explain the ease with which Catalan deputies Joan Tardà and Gabriel Rufián move around in Spain’s Parliament. In their frequent interventions on behalf of their party, the anti-monarchist, pro-independence Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), they leap and pirouette over difficult topics like slaphappy astronauts on the moon. As outsiders with no investment in Spain’s national institutions, they are free from the taboos that weigh down the other deputies, limiting what is mentionable aloud. Tardà and Rufián can afford to tell the truth—something seen so rarely in the Spanish Congress that it strikes everyone else as scandalous.
Their relative freedom has come in handy in recent weeks. “I ask—I demand—that you keep your dirty hands off Catalonia’s institutions,” Rufián said on September 20, after Spanish police arrested 14 high-ranking officials of Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona. Wearing a black printed T-shirt and a black bomber jacket, Rufián addressed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy directly from his bench at the Congress of Deputies. Rajoy, who is the leader of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), looked down at his desk, pretending not to take notice.
The arrested Catalan officials were charged with misuse of funds, disobedience, and sedition. Their crime? Working to prepare a Catalan referendum on independence that Spain’s Constitutional Court had suspended less than two weeks before. The wave of arrests was one in a series of measures meant to block the referendum, scheduled for Sunday, October 1. More than two million Catalans—a bit over 40 percent of those eligible—ended up casting votes, with 90 percent voting for independence; in the process, some nine hundred civilians were injured in violent clashes with Spanish riot police. The confrontation served to confirm what many Catalans and Spaniards have felt for a long time: that Catalonia, for good or for bad, is a different country.
Castile and Catalonia have been at loggerheads for centuries, but the conflict has not been this heated since Spain transitioned to democracy following the death, in 1975, of dictator Francisco Franco. Franco had helped lead a military coup in 1936 and, after three years of civil war, ruled the country for almost four decades. Obsessed with Spain’s cultural and political unity, Franco ruthlessly suppressed the nationalist aspirations of Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country.
Catalonia is now one of the 17 “autonomous communities” that make up post-Franco Spain. In Catalonia’s case, autonomy includes the right to its own language (Catalan, in Catalonia, is co-official with Spanish), its own police force, and its own educational policies. At the same time, Spain’s 1978 Constitution invokes “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation” and does not provide for secession or self-determination. But what once seemed the best possible way to accommodate Spain’s multinational make-up is now coming apart at the seams.
Madrid and Barcelona are separated by multiple barriers. Some are cultural and linguistic; others are more recent and man-made. The distance would be less significant, for example, if it were possible for Madrileños or Sevillanos to tune in to Polònia, a weekly political satire on Catalan public television whose wit and production values rise far above those of, say, SNL or The Daily Show. But the program is barely known outside of Catalonia, because regional public television stations are not easily accessible elsewhere in the Spanish state.
The distance would be smaller, too, if schoolchildren in Madrid would not just study Castilian but Catalan as well—or, for that matter, Galician or Basque, to name two other official languages of the country. In theory, nothing would be more normal in a state like Spain, two of whose most economically advanced regions are bilingual. In practice, nothing is farther removed from Spanish common sense. “Why should my child learn Catalan?” my friends in Madrid and Andalusia say; “English is much more useful!” The attitude is symptomatic of the scarce acceptance among many Spaniards, including the political elites, of Spain’s multinational nature.
What once seemed the best possible way to accommodate Spain’s multinational make-up is now coming apart at the seams.
Relations between Catalans and Spaniards suffer from a chronic lack of understanding and empathy, nourished by a dearth of reliable information. This is, in essence, the problem that Martínez addresses in La gran ilusión: Mito y realidad del proceso indepe (The Great Illusion: The Myth and Reality of the Independence Process). Driving Martínez is a double vocation. He writes as a journalist, committed to the truth. And he writes as a democrat, committed to the principle of popular sovereignty.
His book presents two arguments. He first contends that the lack of good information about Catalonia in Spain and vice versa is due in large part to the media. Journalists have not been doing their job properly for decades. Second, he points out that those who have been taking advantage of this journalistic failure are the politicians of the “Regime of 1978,” in Madrid as well as in Barcelona: the ones responsible for the crippling austerity measures during the Great Recession; the same politicians who eroded the social contract by massively privatizing public services and who have long been financing their political parties and lavish lifestyles through systematic corporate kickbacks.
The apparently intractable conflict between Madrid and Barcelona over self-determination, Martínez writes, has been a shadow play between two conservative parties desperate to maintain their grip on power: the Catalan Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, now known as PDeCat) and the Spanish Partido Popular (PP). For the past nine years they have staged a nasty public fight over Catalonia’s status. In reality, though, they share the same economic and political interests. Their alliances with each other and with the country’s corporate elite are solidified in backroom meetings and covert agreements—and rooted in the mutual awareness of each other’s deep-seated corruption.
Martínez is a skeptic, but he believes in journalism. “Some of my readers reproach me politely for the fact that my articles fail to propose solutions for the conflicts I describe,” he wrote two years ago. “[But] I don’t think this is the journalist’s role. If fact, it would be a sign of dysfunction. It isn’t the journalist’s job to suggest solutions. … When a journalist proposes solutions to a problem … he is [generally] defending the positions of those in power. That is to say, he has stopped controlling power and instead is justifying it.” For Martínez, the journalist’s role is a simpler one. “For the journalist it suffices to propose a) a point of view—which the reader should be able recognize … —and b) to try to describe reality.” The journalist’s job, in other words, is to distinguish what is real from what isn’t.
That’s precisely what Martínez’s rigorous reporting manages to do. His conclusions are clear-cut. The country called Catalonia is real. Catalonia’s culture, people, and language are, too. And so are the political aspirations of those citizens who feel that culture, history, and language as their own—and who have adopted them as vehicles for democratic demands. What is not real, however, is the “process” managed for the past five years by the artist formerly known as Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, in a cynical attempt to exploit and neutralize those democratic aspirations.
The story of the recent troubles begins in 2006, when the Catalan and Spanish parliaments both approved an updated Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia. In 2010, responding to an appeal filed by the PP, Spain’s Constitutional Court rejected some of the Statute’s key provisions. The verdict hit Catalonia like a bombshell, sparking a massive grassroots movement in which broad sectors of civil society demanded independence.
Catalonia’s political class took note. Convergència—a conservative-Catholic and catalanista party that had never been in favor of full independence—saw a chance to reverse the steady erosion of its support. Long hegemonic in regional politics and identified with its leader Jordi Pujol (president of Catalonia from 1980 until 2003), Convergència’s image was suffering from corruption scandals and the ruthless cuts made to health care, education, and social services in the wake of the Great Recession.
In September 2012, Convergència leader Artur Mas, Catalan president since 2010, jumped on the independence bandwagon. “It is time that Catalonia exercise its right to self-determination,” he said in a speech to parliament, announcing a political process (procés in Catalan) toward that goal. In the run-up to regional elections in 2015, Mas managed to convince several other parties, including the Republican Left (ERC), to join in an electoral coalition for independence, called Junts pel Sí (JxS, Together for Yes). The assembly-based, far-left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Candidacy for Popular Unity) pledged parliamentary support. The combined pro-independence parties won a narrow majority of seats in the Catalan parliament. And while they fell short of a majority of the popular vote, they nevertheless claimed a popular mandate to go ahead with the preparations for secession—leading up to the October 1 referendum.
In reality, Martínez shows, the so-called procés has been the opposite of what it has claimed to be. Where it promised progress, it heightened stagnation. Where it invoked democracy, it promoted its erosion. The way Martínez sees it, the procés is an empty promise whose fulfillment is infinitely postponed. Its real purpose is the survival of an entire political class in the face of a crisis of legitimacy.
The reinvention of the Catalan right, which after joining the pro-independence movement changed its name to Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (Catalan European Democratic Party, PDeCat), is purely rhetorical. The politicians spearheading the procés have substituted concepts endowed with some legal or historical reality—“referendum,” for example—with others that resemble it but don’t exist legally, such as “consultation.” The Catalan political class, in other words, has been operating like salesmen peddling branded sneakers whose logos, upon closer inspection, say “Niki” or “Now Balance.”
For Martínez, the journalist’s job is to distinguish what is real from what isn’t.
To be sure, Martínez delivers as a muckraker. He reveals the shenanigans of the political class in Catalonia and Spain and of their accomplices: the corporate elite and the mainstream media, co-opted through direct and indirect injections of taxpayer money. We witness the stunning metamorphosis of Artur Mas, who turns from somniferous politician into electrifying nationalist leader. We glimpse the furtive tears of Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Catalan Republican Left, as he is blackmailed and betrayed by that same Artur Mas (a betrayal whose revenge, incidentally, remains pending). We learn that there were at least two occasions when a real referendum could have been held, but was not because in the end the Catalan leadership backed down.
With so much juicy drama on show, it is easy to lose sight of the book’s broader ambition. The five years of the procés are only part of Martínez’s story. The first half of La gran ilusión is dedicated to the 40,000 years that precede it, in an entertaining overview of Catalan history that starts in the age of “volcanoes, marshes, … and dinosaurs.”
This sweeping historical narrative serves two functions. It helps to contextualize the events of recent years, ranging from the historical alliance of the Catalan business elites with a central protectionist state (an alliance forged in the wake of 1714, when Catalonia was subjugated by the Castilian Crown), to the saga of the Pujol clan. But the hundred pages of Catalan history also serve to confirm that the recent, unstoppable force we have seen unfolding in Catalonia—not the rhetoric of opportunist politicians, but the drive of the millions of Catalans who take to the street to demand sovereignty—is not an invention.
Not only is the Catalan nation real, it may well be more real than Spain, which has been based less on a shared past and future aspirations than on a forcibly imposed hierarchy and, above all, systematic exclusion of the cultural other. At the end of the 15th century, Martínez writes, the newly created Spanish State “seems to have understood that its political project was to penalize difference.” The response from Madrid in the past month or two has only served to confirm this impression. On September 20, after Rufián had told the Prime Minister to keep his “dirty hands” off Catalonia, the nine members of the ERC fraction filed out of the Parliament in protest. As conservative MPs coyly waved them out, someone shouted: “Don’t come back!”
The Catalan nation boasts a different political DNA. It has a long history of proto-democratic experiences and experiments, ranging from the Consell de Cent (Council of 100) that governed Barcelona from the 13th to the 18th centuries to the Anarchist collectivizations in the first months of the Spanish Civil War—which, as Sam Dolgoff writes, “came closer to realizing the ideal of the free stateless society on a vast scale than any other revolution in history.”1
If the first hundred pages of the book serve to record Catalan difference as a historical reality, the book also has a utopian strand, which is perhaps most clearly embodied in its implied readership. Martínez, who grew up in Catalonia as the child of Spanish-speaking immigrant factory workers, writes in Spanish, as a foreign correspondent, to explain Catalonia to the rest of Spain. But he doesn’t write for the ordinary Spaniard.
Unlike a large portion of the Spanish public, Martínez’s implied reader does not harbor a visceral hatred of the Catalans. She might agree with the author that Spain’s Constitution of 1978 has outlived its usefulness. She is willing to admit, perhaps, that she knows less about Catalonia than she should. And she might even concede that there are strands in Catalan political and intellectual history that may serve the Spanish state in its current crisis: its democratic and cooperative tradition, for example. Or its commitment to federalism, which goes well beyond defining the relationship between territorial bodies.
The great Catalan thinker Francesc Pi i Margall (1824–1901), Martínez tells us, proposed an idea of the state “understood as a federation of [sovereign] individuals who mutually agree on their union.” His brand of republicanism, “federal and libertarian” in character, featured “advanced social and economic ideas, such as an early concept of the welfare state; a commitment to the cooperative as a means to establish collective ownership of the means of production; abolition of slavery; and a reasoned and peaceful solution to Spanish imperialism in America and Asia.”
Martínez resists the temptation to interpret the collective will, although he has his intuitions. “The Valencian politician Alfons López Tena,” he writes, “told me once that, during a trip to the United States, he spoke with an American senator who asked him a direct, very American question that may well be the question to ask: ‘Do the Catalan people actually want independence, or do they just like to take to the street to demand it?’” “Perhaps,” Martínez muses, “at least so far, Catalan society has really decided that it likes to do the latter.”
An earlier, Spanish version of this review appeared in CTXT: Contexto y Acción on December 14, 2016.
- Sam Dolgoff, ed., The Anarchist Collectives Workers’ Self-management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936–1939 (Free Life, 1974), p. 5. ↩