In the United States, we like to think that we have power over our government. After all, we vote for our representatives, we have protocol for ousting those who don’t perform their roles and, if all that fails, the Declaration of Independence reminds American citizens that if a government fails, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Of course, caveats such as this are prone to lead to conflict, one example of which was Texas’s short-lived threat of secession after President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. Many Texans believed that the government would no longer serve their will, thinking a localized government for a population Texans only preferable. While the causes for citizen dissatisfaction in present-day Catalonia differ vastly from those in Texas in 2012–which were fueled primarily by a racist rejection of Obama’s legitimacy–Spain is currently experiencing a national rift of similar nature, as the province of Catalonia recently attempted to obtain independence.
On Oct. 1, Catalans voted on whether their province should declare independence from the Kingdom of Spain, and the answer was an overwhelming “yes.” This wasn’t a huge shock, as Catalonia has never seen itself entirely as Spanish. The area known as Cataluña to the Spanish is made up of a collection of provinces (Girona, Barcelona, Lleida and Tarragona) that have been a hotbed of revolutionary ideology since the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the 17th century. A series of unsuccessful separatist movements have occurred since then: a revolt in 1640, resistance against the Spanish Bourbon Dynasty during the War of Spanish Succession, the “renaixença” movement to revive the Catalan language in the 1850’s, and more contemporary legislative appeals to attain full autonomy, among many others. Despite repeated failures and rebukes, the insurrectionary spirit clearly lives on in the people who call Catalonia home.
However, the wishes of Catalan citizens seem to be little more than a pipe dream with regard to independence. Even while the vote was still occurring, Spanish authorities attempted to close off many voting stations, which suppressed the voices of those who likely would have cast a vote for independent nationhood. In fact, CNN reported in October that 893 people were injured in clashes with the state police at voting stations. However, even violence could not prevent people from expressing their desire for independent nationhood. Despite all this, though, has the vote for independence prompted any concrete changes in lives of Catalan citizens?
The short answer: no. In the month and a half since the referendum, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been relentless in ousting Catalan Separatists from power. He dismissed the entire Catalan government in one blow, then called for an early election to replace it this December. Rajoy, a member of the conservative Popular Party, is stressing a message of strength via unity for the benefit of Spain as a whole.
It seems as though Spanish leaders are invalidating the grievances and struggles of a distinct national minority within the Spanish state by asking Catalan people to relinquish their national association in favor of a unitary Spanish nationality. As recently as 2006, Catalonia gained “nation” status, only to lose it in a battle with the Spanish Supreme Court in 2010. The Spanish government is stubbornly holding onto the region, not for the good of the people who live there (since 90% of them recently expressed their displeasure with that arrangement), but for reasons of national pride and national betterment. The people of Catalonia carry a heavy economic burden compared to other Spanish citizens, as they make up 16% of the nation’s population but are held responsible for paying 20% of the nation’s taxes. This obviously serves as good a motivation as any to obtain independence, as it certainly seems as though the Spanish government is holding Catalonian people unfairly accountable for the debt of a nation to which they never wished to belong.
Catalonia’s status speaks to a longstanding problem with governments of all sorts. Even when a government is designed to be representative of the people, as is the case of Spain’s Constitutional Monarchy, it will, inevitably, serve the interests of the state. Even the language that government leaders use can demonstrate this issue. Notice how the UK Foreign Ministry responded to the independence referendum, stating that “Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to us.” No mention of individuals–just the nation-state itself.
The people of Catalonia deserve better than to simply be lumped into the politically-determined composition of “Spain.” They have their own culture, history, and t language that differs from the rest of the state. This ideal of independent nationhood isn’t new to the European continent, either. After World War II, several borders were redrawn to grant sovereignty to populations that felt as though they constituted their own nations, creating political designations for such countries as Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
In the end, the events in Catalonia reflect a problem with the definition of the nation-state. Since the conclusion of the officially-recognized “colonial era,” many people are under the impression that borders between existing countries are set in stone, but this idea discounts ongoing struggles over land rights and sovereignty, which include the situation in Catalonia. These provinces were annexed into Spain centuries ago, and under the Spanish monarchy, they have never had the power to regain independence. In these kinds of scenarios, the leadership of a nation should consider what exactly it means to be a nation united and indivisible; and if this means keeping certain regions contained via state sanctioned violence, perhaps it’s time to rethink those terms.