Homage to Catalan Independence

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Having a Puerto Rican father, and being an advocate of the island’s independence myself, it’s tempting to fall into an unthinking solidarity with the people of Catalonia, who on November 9 will vote in a non-binding referendum – technically a “consultation” – concerning the Spanish province’s bond with Madrid. For one, both the Puerto Ricans and the Catalans possess immense nationalistic pride.

The Catalans date theirs as far back as the 10th century, when the Muslim conquest of Spain forced the County of Barcelona to breakaway from the Frankish Empire. Following the marriage of the Count of Barcelona and the Queen of Aragon in the 12th century, Barcelona became a major port within a growing empire that would eventually dominate the northern half of the Mediterranean Sea.

A second dynastic union – this time with the Crown of Castile – created what is today a united Spain. Ever independent however, the Catalans gradually learned to resent the increasingly centralized government, leading to a revolt in 1640 during which Catalonia was declared a free republic for a short time. The last Catalan republic was established during the Spanish Civil War, lasting nearly three years before Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces in January 1939.

In area and in population, Catalonia is only a bit smaller than Switzerland. Despite efforts by the Spanish government over the centuries to destroy Catalan culture – especially under the Franco regime, which made it illegal to use the Catalan language or even claim Catalan identity – more people speak Catalan today than do Swedish, Danish, Norwegian or Irish, and works by Catalan artists such as Dalí, Gaudí and Miró are renowned around the world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the people of Puerto Rico source their own independent streak to the bravery of the Taíno rebellion in 1511, a whole three years after the conquistadors landed. The Taíno, having no written language, nonetheless left us a history ringing with an independent ethos. As this is a Puerto Rican publication, I needn’t point to the countless other displays of Puerto Rican independence over the last 500 years, so I’ll simply list a few names: Valero, Betances, Hostos, Albizu Campos, and López Rivera.

Besides the nationalistic fervor, there’s a second common denominator linking the Puerto Rican independence movement to Catalonia’s: that is, the Spanish crown.

Catalan independentistas look to separate from the same monarchy which subdued the island of Borikén in the 16th century and exterminated nearly all of its inhabitants. (It was a Spanish musket, remember, that struck down the great Taíno chief.) It was from Spanish rule, in 1867, that Dr. Betances promised his fellow Puerto Ricans they would soon be free. And when some of the people of Puerto Rico hailed the invading U.S. forces as liberators in 1898, they did so under the belief that they were finally being released from the grip of imperialism under Spanish authority – not realizing that the island would remain, from that day forward, a colony of a new, American empire.

But anti-Spanish resentment and cross-nationalistic solidarity are not strong reasons for Puerto Rican support of Catalan independence. Political decisions based in resentment are wrong for the same reason normal decisions based in resentment are wrong: exacting revenge may feel good, but it doesn’t necessarily produce the best outcome. And while I have no doubt that a great portion of the Catalan public genuinely resents the government in Madrid, simple resentment rarely suffices for a proper justification for separation, just as it never lent an ounce of justification to the Southern states’ failed effort to leave the Union.

The nationalistic case for independence is much more controversial, namely because no one can be sure what does or doesn’t define a nation or people. One could suppose arbitrary contours – language, religion, race, history, or basic geography – and claim nationhood on the basis of such characteristics. No sooner is a nation defined than an independence movement, however minuscule, springs to life.

Clearly resentment and nationalism play some role in the independence movements of Catalonia and Puerto Rico. In both cases, a vast majority of the people declare themselves to be one nation, one people, and have voiced their resentment toward what they view to be, and what is in fact, a foreign government. It’s this last bit, however – the foreign government bit – that forms the basis for my advocacy of Puerto Rican independence, and why I stand in solidarity with the Catalan people.

The foreignness of these governments lie not merely in their externality, on their being outside the area under their jurisdictions. Washington and Madrid are foreign to the peoples of Puerto Rico and Catalonia, respectively, because firstly their rule has been imposed by force on said peoples. As mentioned above, the United States invaded Puerto Rico – rather unnecessarily and last-minute – and imposed a military rule that has only been civilized by subsequent reforms.

On the other hand, the current Bourbon Spanish crown was imposed on Catalonia following the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century, during which Catalonia had sided with the Habsburg heir. To make a very long story short, a French pretender was crowned the first Bourbon king of Spain, and the defeated Catalans were forced to relinquish their language and their centuries-old constitution. Today the 11th of September is celebrated (or mourned) as the National Day of Catalonia, marking the anniversary of the fall of Barcelona to the Bourbon king in 1714 after a 14-month siege.

The governments of Washington and Madrid in Puerto Rico and Catalonia, respectively, are also foreign in that their authority to govern is not derived from the sovereign will of the peoples.

Contrary to popular fiction, Puerto Rico does not currently have a civil government, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” What it has is a military government enforced by a U.S. occupation, glossed over with a democratic façade. For if Puerto Rico truly had a civil government, the supreme legislature (the U.S. Congress) would be answerable to the Puerto Rican people, and the members of the supreme judiciary (the U.S. Supreme Court) would be appointed by the chief executive (the U.S. president), who himself is not elected by the Puerto Rican people. I’m getting ahead of myself though, because as an unincorporated territory of the United States – meaning the United States owns Puerto Rico like a person owns their shoes – Congress alone governs the island of Puerto Rico under its plenary powers, allowing it to change the laws of Puerto Rico whenever and however it sees fit.

Show me a civil society, one supposedly democratic and free, whose people are governed by a supreme body the members of which are unelected, neither directly nor indirectly, by the people themselves. Not even the faux-democracy of Cuba has yet stooped so low.

The Spanish monarchy’s authority over Catalonia, no matter how limited by a constitution, is still antithetical to everything sensible people have come to understand about true democracy in the 21st century. However ceremonial the powers of the newly-crowned Felipe VI may be, he still has some influence, as I understand it, over who becomes president of the country. He also has the legal right to veto laws passed by the Cortes, though the crown has rarely (if ever) exercised that right. If the Catalans want to separate from the Spanish monarchy in order to establish a Catalan republic, what free-thinking American would oppose them?

Lastly, but equally important, there’s the issue of whether a newly separated and independent nation could thrive (or even survive) on its own. Of course I’m no economist, nor will I claim to be in the foreseeable future; but there seems to be a few immediate conditions which make independence for both Puerto Rico and Catalonia not only viable, but necessary.

First, the political status of Puerto Rico, which denies Puerto Ricans the right to elect their real lawmakers in the U.S. Congress, makes the current status quo unacceptable. Either the people of Puerto Rico are granted the right to elect officials to represent them in Washington – through nothing less than statehood – or Puerto Rico must be made free and independent of the colonial government. Seeing as it’s already been 116 years since the United States freed the island from colonialism of one kind and imposed its camouflaged colonialism, it seems clear Washington has no intention of making Puerto Rico a state, preferring only to preserve its Caribbean dependency as a testing ground for neoliberal theories. And if the promise by the United States continues to be “Democracy later,” the demand of the Puerto Rican people should be “Independence now!”

In the case of Catalonia, which is one of the most autonomous of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, we find a much more democratic bond between the Generalitat of Catalonia and the central government in Madrid. However, as in Puerto Rico, the central government refuses to respect the culture of Catalonia’s native inhabitants. Faced with the suppression of their culture by Madrid – perhaps increasingly so under the current right-wing government of Prime Minister Rajoy – independence would provide an end to the centuries-long campaign to kill Catalan culture.

Having Spain’s largest population and largest GDP, Catalonia also receives the short end of the stick in terms of regional investment. For the past few decades Catalonia’s fiscal imbalance with the central government has been around 8 percent of its GDP, meaning the money Catalans pay in taxes is spent on other communities across Spain. The central government in Madrid tends to downplay this number, arguing that even investments made in Castile and León or Extremadura, whose GDPs are a mere tenth of Catalonia’s, ultimately benefit Catalonia as well. (Extremadura pays relatively little in taxes but receives a lot of regional funding in return.)

This rationale has been harder to swallow for Catalans in recent years, as the global economic crisis has ballooned Catalonia’s public debt, already the heaviest among Spain’s autonomous communities. And though Catalonia has the largest GDP in Spain (about $243 billion, or 19 percent of the country’s GDP), it only enjoys the fourth highest GDP per capita. Naturally Madrid is among the three communities whose GDPs are above Catalonia’s.

Independence would ensure that Catalan contributions in production and taxes are to the full benefit of the Catalan people themselves. Of course, as a colony whose economy is completely manipulated by foreign technocrats, the same goes for Puerto Rico. Reactionaries on both sides of the Atlantic claim political independence would mean economic suicide, but recent history shows that Washington and Madrid – by turning an island into a modern-day plantation in one case, and embezzling the public coffers in the other – have only stifled the economic potential of Puerto Rico and Catalonia.

Plus there’s good reason to believe that globalization have erased many of the economic concerns associated with independence. “In a world of increasingly free trade and global markets,” writes economics professor Josep Desquens, “relatively small cultural, linguistic or ethnic groups have the possibility to benefit from creating new political entities that trade in economically integrated wider areas. With its own state, Catalonia could benefit from improved administrative efficiency and still have access to foreign markets in which to sell its products. In other words, free trade is a good substitute for a political union as a way to access bigger markets in the context of globalization” (emphasis mine).

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Catalonia’s referendum was downgraded to a “consultation” after the central government in Madrid denied Catalans the right to decide their political and economic future on their own, arguing that the Spanish Constitution doesn’t allow for the dissolution of the Spanish state. (You may recall, conversely, that the Scottish referendum in September was sanctioned by London.) Catalan President Artur Mas’ insistence on pushing ahead with the consultation demonstrates the growth of the independence movement in recent years, as Mas is head of the Convergència i Unió, Catalonia’s ruling center-right coalition.

It matters little what I or any outsider believes should be the future of Catalonia. This is about the right of the Catalan people to mold their destiny with their own hands. There’s little doubt they could thrive outside of Spanish control. They, like Puerto Rico and Scotland, have the tools and resources to stand on their own two.

I only hope Catalonia isn’t too similar to Puerto Rico and Scotland in one regard: that is, that when the time comes, they won’t be too afraid to claim their independence.

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