Catalonia and Spain: it’s complicated


When I think of Catalonia I think of Joan Miró, Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudi. I have long dreamed of going on a pilgrimage to see the landscapes that inspired such genius. Yesterday morning I saw something coming out of Catalonia that disturbed me. I saw Catalan blood. That alone would be disarming, but the first image I saw was of a bloodied old woman in a blue quilted jacket. It was the day of the referendum for Catalan independence.

I reached out to my Spanish friends to get their opinions.

The answer came back, “It’s complicated.” I looked to online news sources. “It’s complicated.” I dug deeper and found it is, indeed, very complicated. I know a lot more now than I did 24 hours ago and am now able to say I agree with Guy Verhofstadt, as did my Spanish friends.

Admittedly, coming from the States makes it hard for me to understand some of the friction in territories that feel occupied. I guess the closest comparison would be if Texas left the Union. They are always threatening to, but I doubt that will ever happen and am not even sure it would be possible.

On the other hand, I was living in Wales when Scotland got its own parliament. The Welsh weren’t sure why they didn’t get their own. I could feel the pressure on a daily basis. I even did a project where I took diary entries from three 16-year-olds, one with Welsh parents, one with English and one with one of each. The only one who had problems was the mixed one, and that came from the family disowning his Welsh mother for marrying an Englishman.

This caused me to ask what it actually meant to be Welsh, since I could see no difference. The answer that kept coming back was the language. I was interested to see that when people who were usually quite militantly Welsh couldn’t come up with anything to add to the list, they softened their stance.

When asked why they want independence, many Catalans say they have their own language and culture. Catalan is the official language taught in schools and of the government. Spanish is taught as a foreign language.

Despite this, there is still resentment from when speaking Catalan was outlawed under Franco. Forty years later, he is gone and people say the creation of the current Spanish democratic government in 1978 wasn’t handled correctly. I found this 1979 documentary very enlightening. It seems at the time, some wanted Catalonia to be an independent country in alliance with Spain and Portugal and eventually Europe.

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 states that Spain is indivisible and that forces should be called to protect the Union.

My friends said that Catalonia has been expressing discontent for a long time, but instead of discussing it, the Spanish government just ignored the problem, hoping it would go away.

They asked for a referendum on Catalonia independence and were denied.

More than 700 of the more than 900 mayors decided to hold one anyway. Naturally this did not go down well. In the eyes of the law, this referendum is illegal. Spain says they can have a vote when all of Spain votes on it, since it affects the entire country.

According to the Spanish Ambassador to the UK, Carlos Bastarreche, “This is not a dispute between Madrid and Catalonia. On the one side is a democratic Spain and its independent judicial system, and on the other side not Catalonia, but a group of radical nationalists and leftwing extremists in the regional power that are not complying with the law.”

In fact, barely half the population of Catalonia had access to the vote and those who were in favour of remaining part of Spain had been urged by Madrid to stay away from the polls since they don’t consider it legal. Is that Democracy or a vote amongst the like-minded? What meaning can come of a referendum under those circumstances?

Once again, Madrid is using the ignore it and it will go away strategy. In his televised address last evening, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said, “Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. The rule of law remains in force with all its strength.” The referendum was a “real attack on the rule of law… to which the state reacted with firmness and serenity”.

I’m sure the rest of the world saw the actions by security forces storming the polls as heavy-handed. Like me, I’m sure they woke up to Catalan blood. 844 people were injured. From what we see, it was total chaos.

It seems like Spain is treating Catalonia like a spoiled brat. I must admit my first instinct was that Spain needs to keep the country intact financially.

On France 24, Catalan independence supporters said they make up 16% of population, pay 19% of the taxes and only get back 11% in government spending, and then are the only place in Spain that has toll roads. Meanwhile, the government says 1€ in 5€ goes to infrastructure and Catalonia has all four of its major cities connected by high speed trains.

Like the rest of Spain, Catalonia was affected by the 2007/08 financial crisis. It has taken 67 billion euros from the Autonomous Liquidity Fund that was set up in 2012 to provide regional government with additional funds. Madrid has threatened to cut access if any of the money has been shown to have gone to organise the referendum.

Spain. One, great and free.

Some are saying it’s the left against the right with the both sides being called nationalist. I think it goes much deeper. There is a long history of independence for Catalonia. They were the first to have a representative monarchy. They added their own flavour to European art and culture.

Once under the thumb of Spain, they were treated as second class. When the Castille found the Americas, they were not allowed to go or have any rights to trade. Their Mediterranean trading business was taken over by the Turks and they had to become insular and self-sufficient. Later they were the only ones in Spain to industrialise. This led to their modern-day wealth. It also led to a class divide between Spanish workers coming from rural areas and the Catalan owners of companies.

If Catalonia and Spain had personal Facebook profiles, under relationship, it would definitely say “It’s complicated.” Or at least it would have. After yesterday’s events, maybe now it’d be “single.” Who will ask Spain for a divorce next?


Artist, curator and writer: maeshelle west-davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums.

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