Letter to the Editor: An abroad student’s perspective on Catalonia

Max Haase

¡Hola Bucknellians! It’s your very own junior, Max Haase, reporting live from southern Spain, in Granada. Though you may have read about the current political unrest in Catalonia to the north, I thought I would share my personal experience in the midst of this chaos. Arriving in Spain for my junior semester abroad, I hoped to improve my Spanish, embrace the culture and daily life, and, of course, indulge in the “tapas experience.” Yes, it’s true that in Granada all the tapas bars serve free tapas with every drink purchased! But, never did I expect to gain such a first-hand education in Spanish political history.

As brief context, from 1939 to 1975, Spain was under the control of nationalist dictator Francisco Franco, who sought to rule and unify the disparate regional factions within Spain. In 1978, three years after Franco’s death and the slow dissolution of his regime, a constitution was enacted in an attempt to initiate Spain’s transition toward a democracy. This constitution supported a constitutional monarchy, recognizing Spain’s 17 Autonomous Communities, each of which sets its own terms with the Spanish Parliament. These powers granted the functioning of regional autonomy under an independent parliamentary body in the central capital of Spain: Madrid. Though each individual community is self-governing, the constitution permits the Spanish government in Madrid to intervene if any community violates its terms.

On Oct. 1, the Catalonia community voted to secede from Spain. While this secession movement has waxed and waned since 1922, it gained steam with the onset of the 2008 financial crisis in Spain; the economically robust region of Catalonia was being dragged down by a cratering Spanish economy through gross over-taxation. Though the Catalans exercised their right to autonomous function, enabling this referendum to hold true, secession on the part of any one community is deemed unconstitutional. Clearly, the limits of Spanish regional autonomy and the Spanish Constitution of 1978 are being tested.

Though I have not witnessed first-hand the Catalan independence rallies and riots resulting in police intervention, I have been reading and watching the local news with my host mother, Pilar (en Español, of course). Hearing her perspective on the debate over Catalonia’s secession has been eye-opening. While many Americans relegate Franco’s dictatorship to the dustbin of evil tyrants like Mussolini and Hitler — as indeed his participation in WWII and the bombing of Guernica will support — the painful progress toward and importance of a unified Spain has produced a broader palate of historical perspectives.

Growing up during the mellowing and less violent part of Franco’s rule well after WWII, and experiencing the great strides towards democracy with the Constitution of 1978, Pilar has tried to explain to me that Spain’s fragile and hard-won unity is equally important to its geographic regions’ governing autonomy.

What comes next is unclear. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, claims that there will be regional elections in Catalonia to “restore democracy” on Dec. 21. Catalans have clearly reached a tipping point, and with countless demonstrations of civil unrest, retaliation is a realistic fear. It is both disturbing and intriguing to see this situation unravel from a foreign perspective, and hard not to see some parallels with Brexit and the nationalistic blowback of “America First.” My upcoming class presentation on the political situation in Catalonia for my Spanish civilization and culture class gives me a unique opportunity to read and write about history as it’s being made.

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