Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Saying nothing

Two or three people have expressed surprise that I haven't written anything about Catalonia. There are a couple of reasons. One is that, in general, this blog is about what happens to us, the things we experience, and, apart from a couple of conversations and listening to the radio or watching the telly, I have no direct experience of what's happening in Catalonia. I also have to admit to having had a couple of disagreeable experiences in Catalonia, because I was a foreigner, and I am probably a touch anti Catalan. That's not a good starting point for a post.

To some tiny degree there is a bit of a reflection of Catalonia in the region in which I live, in Valencia. Valenciano, the local language, and Catalan are similar enough that if I use the Catalan version of Google translate on any items written in Valenciano the translation is at least as good as it is from Spanish to English. Lots of the sources of information I use are turning more and more to Valenciano. I've tried, and I continue to try, to learn Spanish to fit in to my adopted home and I sometimes feel that someone is trying to take that possibility away from me. Going into a restaurant in Barcelona the only menu they were willing offer was in Catalan. The restaurant was saying quite clearly that non Catalans were unwelcome. We took the hint and left. My local town hall producing a magazine or an event programme in Valenciano transmits the same message.

Catalonia was a stronghold for the Republic in the Spanish Civil war and Franco made sure that the Catalans paid for that for the rest of his life. Grandparents who were involved, parents who remembered and today's younger generations of Catalans were shaped by that repression. The feeling in Barcelona that Madrid has it in for them was, and is, a constant in daily life.

Politics in Catalonia for the last several years has been a shifting ground of political parties with the same faces but changing party names. There was an earlier referendum in 2014. That process ran into legal problems, a stand off between the central and local government. As a result of that failed referendum regional elections were held with the clear intention of showing that there was popular support for independence. The politicians who had fomented the referendum lost ground. The only way they were able to form a regional government was to form a coalition. One of the demands of a political group, usually described as anti system, to enter into that coalition was that the old president, Artur Mas should go. His successor was Carles Puigedemont. The main election pledge of the coalition was to hold a referendum and that's what they just did.

There was plenty of opposition to holding the referendum within the various political parties in Catalonia. Several normal procedures were set aside or ignored completely to get to the point where the regional parliament approved the legislation to hold the referendum. Basically the coalition bludgeoned the legislation through. Democracy gave way to expediency. However it was going to be done there was going to be a referendum and that was obvious to anybody.

Spain is basically a federal country. Local regions have lots of devolved powers in things like education, health, transport and lots, lots more. The central government has a hand in everything but it's only in areas like defence and foreign policy where the regions don't have a say. Some regions have more devolved powers than others and Catalonia is one of the regions where nearly everything is under local control. That's why, for instance, there is a separate police force in Catalonia - the Mossos d'Esquadra. The boss of the Mossos has been accused of sedition by the National Court.

So, the Catalan government has said that it's going to hold a referendum. The response of the central government is to say "You can't do that." There were some very half hearted attempts at doing what politicians do, which is to talk, but the Catalan elite said they were only willing to talk about the when and how of the referendum. Instead of finding a way to talk all that President Rajoy and his pals did was to sulk in the corner and repeat over and over again that it was illegal, unconstitutional etc., etc. For years as the process dragged along the central government stuck to that line. Basically they did what we in the trade call bugger all. The other major political parties weren't much help either - one day this, the next day that. As the referendum started to take shape the Government response was to ask the courts to decide. The courts said the referendum was illegal because it was unconstitutional. The courts used their powers, to thwart the illegal referendum. Judges don't go out to sort out the problems on the street. They send the police. Anyone with half a brain could see what was going to happen as boat loads of police from all over Spain were shipped in to stop the referendum. Exactly the same as when police are deployed to protect a G8 conference or a World Trade Organisation summit. The protestors push and shove and shout and throw stones or burn cars or whatever and eventually some police officer or some police commander loses it and answers stones with rubber bullets. Policemen are given big sticks and body armour for a reason and wire meshes aren't put onto police vans to make them easier to drive.

Up to a point then we have a conflict between two groups of politicians. But, as the referendum got closer it all became much more personal. Lots of Catalan towns have local administrations that do not support the ruling coalition. The mayors said they would not open up their buildings for the vote. Supporters of the vote harassed the mayors and their families. There was a telephone campaign to persuade people to vote and people who said they were not in favour of the vote were verbally harangued on the phone. It became the usual round of graffiti, slashed tyres, children told about their traitorous parents. All you have to do is to think about the things that people who identify themselves with one tribe or another, from football fans to terrorist organisations, do to other tribes to know what happened, and is happening, in Catalonia. Well except for deaths, I'm not aware of any deaths yet.

The vote itself of course was a complete democratic fiasco. Almost none of the usual controls to ensure that a vote is fair were in place. Votes were not secret and it was unsafe to attempt to vote no. Anyway the "no" voters simply stayed away. For anyone to suggest that over 90% of Catalans support independence is sheer nonsense. Surveys and polls suggest about 45% of Catalans are in favour of independence but something over 70% want a binding referendum. Eventually, of course, the police waded in and afterwards the Catalan government said that hundreds had been injured. We all saw the violence on telly but how many people were injured is moot. If some Guardia Civil whacks you over the head with a big stick that's one thing but if you become exhausted or hurt in the pushing and shoving, the advances and retreats of an angry crowd that's something different. I have read that just four people were hospitalised after the violence. Either way facts and emotions are different things. Police hitting people with sticks is bad. It's bad press too. It suggests a repressed group kept down by bully boys.

But here's the personal bit. In one of the earlier blogs about corruption I suggested that one of the reasons for so much political corruption in Spain is because of the everyday small scale corruption of Spanish society. The bills without VAT, the wages paid cash in hand etc. There is a parallel in the way that you can appeal or complain to the authorities. For instance, we have been overcharged by several hundred euros in our rates bill. I sent in my appeal about seven months ago and nothing has happened. I can't get an answer. I made a suggestion to the local town hall about the junction near our house using the official process. The response? - none whatsoever. Some pals were charged a tax on the profit on the sale of their house despite actually losing money. The tax is illegal but they were told by a solicitor that it was a waste of time taking it to court. Other friends were mis-sold dodgy shares by a bank and had a hell of a job getting anything back. A couple of years after we first arrived here there was a scandal about a pyramid selling scheme based on stamps and that case is, only now, going through the courts. There is a freedom of information act here but when I tried to ask a public radio station for its policy they simply didn't reply and the ombudsman said it was nothing to do with her. When I tried to ask the interior ministry why Guardia Civil don't wear seat belts in their cars I was told that the will of the people was delegated to central government and that it was not my place to ask such a question.

Britons living in Spain often complain about the bureaucracy. One reason is that when you move from one country to another there is an avalanche of things to be done from identity documents to bank accounts. My personal view is that Spanish bureaucracy isn't that different from bureaucracy anywhere. The problem in Spain comes when something doesn't go to plan because there seems to be naff all you can do about it. Not answering is a remarkably effective technique for making a problem go away.

The Catalans want some changes and they didn't get any answers either. In my opinion it's not surprising that they chose a radical approach. When the King spoke on telly the other night he said that there were democratic means open to the Catalans to express their views. I think he's wrong. He seems like a nice enough bloke, for a king, but my guess is that he normally gets answers if he asks a question. Getting redress, getting answers in Spain for ordinary people is often a tortuous process.

As I said at the start of this I'm a little anti Catalan but if I'd been there on Sunday, and the streets had been flooded with booted and suited police, I may well have been angry enough to go out and vote too.


ARMS said...

Good article chris, enjoyed reading it and learning a bit of the history also. I think one has to be a bit chilled out to live in spain happily and go with the flow.

Chris Thompson said...

Thanks. I think one of the advantages we have is that we sometimes don't have the background to really know what's going on so it's easier to be a bit chill about things.

Anonymous said...

Hi. You wrote a quite complete collection of events here. I liked it. But I'll add a few more things if you let me. People in Catalonia have been brainwashed for the last 35/40 years. They started with the linguistic police (they fine restaurants for having the menu in Spanish and not in Catalan, etc) and the biassed education (the last 3 generations of students are pro-independence, Spain-haters). TV3, Canal 33, etc are 100% Catalanist propaganda (last week, the former PSOE vice-president of Spain Alfonso Guerra described it as “disgusting”, although his party didn’t do anything when they could either). Also, most Catalan newspapers are getting money from the Generalitat. So you have to read the (neutral?) international press to know what is happening over there.
Franco happens to have given some special benefits to Catalonia. The rest of Spain suffered a lot more during his dictatorship. That’s why Catalonia prospered as an industrial region and that is why hundreds of thousands of people from the South emigrated to BCN in the 50s and 60s.
These emigrants have been despised by people in Catalonia because during the last 35-40 years every child in the school and every person in Catalonia has learnt to see Spain as a tacky place full of illiterate rednecks. Usually, the cleaning woman was Spanish, never Catalan. At the University, for example, they have been cleaning up the staff with Spanish surnames, or making their visitors give their lectures in English (instead of Spanish, if they didn't speak in Catalan). All has been very subtle, slowly, drop by drop. Also the different governments since the dictatorship ended have treated Catalonia as a favourite. And Catalonia has been functioning as an independent country in some way, doing what they wanted, because the Spanish State never showed up. Until now!
As you say, if many of us were over there during the manifestations, we would be part of the craziness as well, because it is sort of contagious! And then we will be even more unable to see the wood for the trees. They call themselves "peaceful people", but everybody knows the effect of a mob holding flags and chanting... Everything but peaceful.
Most people stays at home. While many people is fighting for invented reasons (, many friends and families EVERYWHERE in Catalonia are now confronted. Because everything is so mixed up. And people against independence are treated as jews during the nazi era.

About the no-answering from the Spanish administrations…. What can I say?

One, two, three, four, make them sweat outside the door.

Five, six, seven, eight, it always pays to make them wait.
–Reginald Perrin

This is not Sweden. Ask for a revision. If you sent your appeal 30 days or more after you received the notification, they won't answer. Maybe it is something like that... But you still have other options.