One of the many stereotyped images of the Catalans propagated over the years by the Castile-centered Spanish state is that of the freebooting corsair interested, above all, in money, and disposed to doing just about anything to get more of it, a mindset, it is said, that makes them fundamentally different and less trustworthy than the supposedly spiritual and non-materialistic people in the rest of Spain.
Like all stereotypes this one has a grain of truth to it. Though it is not widely known today, Catalonia was a major Mediterranean trading power competing, often quite successfully, with the erstwhile giants of commerce in that region, Genoa and Venice, for access to the most lucrative markets around the Mare Nostrum in the years between 1292 and 1516. And as anyone who has studied Mediterranean history of the era knows, the line between commerce and piracy (along with its twin vice, smuggling) at the time was often quite thin.
While the Catalans were making deals – albeit not always devoid of a certain degree of coercion – in the cradle of European deal-making, Castile was still deeply immersed in a holy war against the Muslim residents of the Peninsula, the clear goal being that of forcing every follower of Muhammad (as well as the Jews that often lived peaceably and comfortably among them) there to either leave for other parts of the world, or convert to Christianity.
Whereas concepts of personal and group identity in the Mediterranean at the time were quite fluid and often subject to sudden and opportunistic transformations, those in the heartland of the Peninsula were comparatively static –and unlike those deployed in the prime trading nations of the Mediterranean basin – undergirded by a high degree rigidity-inducing sacrality.
With the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon (the kingdom under whose nominal aegis the Catalan merchants worked and sailed) to Queen Isabel of Castile at the end of the 15th century, the fate of the two kingdoms became increasingly conjoined. It is safe to say that the architects of this union saw it as a marriage of equals. The idea was for both monarchs to continue exercising control over their respective realms while seeking possible areas of mutual cooperation.
This balance changed abruptly when Columbus, whose journey had been financed by Isabel but not by Ferdinand, initiated the wide-scale European despoliation of the Americas. The influx of American gold to Castilian coffers put them, and their more martial and religiously orthodox outlook on life, in ever-greater control of royal affairs on the Peninsula.
Further weakening the specific gravity of the Catalans within the royal mix was the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel’s daughter, Joanna “La Loca” to Philip of Hapsburg. When Joanna’s son Charles of Hapsburg ascended to the throne in 1516 upon the death of his grandfather Fernando (Joanna had been deemed unfit to serve as queen), all the Aragonese territories, the Castilian ones – Including all those in America – , and the vast Hapsburg holdings in northern and central Europe all came under his effective control.
Spain was now an enormous terrestrial empire, and as is the case with all such entities, the leaders within its ranks possessing the most martial outlook increasingly came to dominate its policies. Over the course of the 16th century the Catalans were steadily sidelined within the conjoined lands of the Spanish Hapsburgs, even in their old Mediterranean stomping grounds where the now wholly militarized troops of Charles, and then his son Phillip II, were moving against the “Turkish Threat" while at the same time taking on the “Protestant Threat” in the German-speaking lands to the north.
The role of the Catalans within Peninsular affairs was still more drastically curtailed with the victory of the French Bourbons, and their rigidly centralist model of state administration, in the war of Spanish Succession in 1714. The French concept of state meshed nicely with preexisting idea of centralized control espoused by the highly militarized Castilian leadership. With this Bourbon accession to the throne, the Catalans lost their final vestiges of home rule. For the next 300 years they would endeavor, with an enormous persistence but only momentary bursts of success (1906-1923 and 1931-1936), to take back the rights that they lost at that moment.
However, the Castilian success at subduing the Catalans could not hide the reality of a cycle of ever-diminishing returns in other theaters of military conflict. Beginning with the defeat of the “Invincible Armada” in 1588, it was clear that the once unbeatable Spanish military was no longer what it was.
But this this increasingly self-evident decadence did not lead to any real revision of basic strategies. If the once mighty Castilian-led empire was on a prolonged losing streak, it was, its leaders reasoned, a result either of flagging will at home or treachery on the part of their self-evidently less noble enemies. With only very brief bouts of collective introspection (for a few years following the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines in 1898 and for some 15 years after the death of Franco in 1975) denial of this sort has remained a staple of the centralist leadership class for much of the last 300 years.
Last Sunday in Catalonia, the centralists once again recurred to the same authoritarian handbook and attempted to crush the desire of a majority of Catalans to vote on the matter of self-determination. But this time the descendants of the crafty pirates handed the scions of the Invincible Armada a clear setback.
The events of the day demonstrated many things to the world. The most self-evident of these is the underlying brutality and lack of imagination of the current Spanish Government led by Mariano Rajoy, as well as the many other parties (including the supposedly progressive Socialists) and media outlets that have backed his “there’s nothing to talk about” approach to the Catalan question.
Another was to ram the torero’s finalizing dagger into in to the myth of the supposedly successfully Spanish “transition to democracy” in the years following Franco’s death in 1975; Spain is currently led by a party filled with sons and grandsons of Francoist families who clearly have not repudiated the authoritarian mindset of their much beloved Caudillo.
Much less commented upon, however, has been the ways in which the pro-referendum Catalans managed to carry off the vote in the face of a state with numerous intelligence operatives on the ground and access to virtually all their forms of electronic communication.
So, how they do it?
As soon as the pro-vote and pro-independence Together for Yes coalition, which had won the September 2014 plebiscitary elections by a slim margin, resolved the thorny matter of who would serve as the president of the coalition (and hence Catalonia) in the spring of 2015, a small team of operatives (they called themselves the Sanhedrin), led by former Spanish state jurists Carles Viver Pi-Sunyer and Santiago Vidal began setting up what was, in many ways, a parallel set of state structures, including the ability to channel revenues at points of sale and other places of collection away from Spanish coffers and into their own.
Another enormous challenge was that of setting up computer systems capable of resisting the attempts – which in fact occurred on numerous occasions on the days leading to the Sunday vote – by the Spanish state to attack and/or shut down the informational webs operated but the Catalan government, or Generalitat. This was done, I am told, through close but highly guarded cooperation with a country in the east of Europe which had itself gone through the process of declaring its independence from the former Soviet Union not all that long ago.
The efficacy of the Generalitat’s planning in this regard was made clear when, on Wednesday the 13th of September the Spanish government shut down the website designed to instruct Catalan citizens how and where they could vote in on October 1st. Within minutes, President Puigdemont tweeted out the address of a proxy site where the very same information was available.
This ability to overcome the heavy hand of the state, at a time when it was going for the jugular by arresting Catalan government employees and subjecting Barcelona to intimidating helicopter flyovers and a massive influx of Civil Guards imported from other Spanish regions, raised the morale of pro-vote partisans enormously at a crucial moment in the process.
But the most daunting task was how to acquire ballots and ballot boxes and insure that they got to the polling places safely at a time when the central government was using all the means at its disposal, including massive telephone surveillance, to insure that this would not happen.
It was here that the pro-vote forces availed themselves of what is arguably their greatest asset: the country’s extremely rich trust-based social fabric that is rooted in an interlocking web of civic organizations. Indeed, many Catalans would argue that this extraordinary vocation toward what they call “associationism” is as important as language in separating them from the rest of Spain.
In the days leading up to the vote, thousands of volunteers from the Catalan National Assembly and other volunteer organizations drove to secret meeting places established either by word of mouth or coded electronic communications to receive the plastic ballot boxes that had been made in China and delivered in containers to Barcelona and other nearby ports right under the noses of the Spanish authorities.
Placing these “dangerous weapons of democracy” in the trunks of their cars, thousands of volunteers then drove to the polling stations (mostly schools) and parked their cars in very close proximity to the building’s prime point of entry. A very similar system was used to distribute the entry keys and the shutoff codes for the buildings’ alarm systems.
During the very early morning hours of the 1st, volunteer “vote guardians” began showing up at the schools to insure that the bearers of the ballot boxes and keys could enter the buildings in advance of the soon-to-arrive bands of Spanish Civil Guards. It was many of these very same nonviolent people that would end up receiving broken hands, bloody faces and welts from rubber bullets and riot batons from the militarized police.
On October 1st, the Catalan government knew it was very important that the citizenry see the leading figures of the movement, especially President Puigdemont, successfully voting mere minutes after the official opening of the polls. The Spanish Government also understood the symbolic importance of his event and thus made preventing its occurrence their highest priority.
To achieve this end, they put a spy helicopter into place above Puigdemont’s home in Girona and followed him closely from a low altitude as he made his way toward his appointed polling place in Sant Julià de Ramis where, as some of the first violent images released to the world that day confirmed, police were already breaking windows and roughing up poll workers. Realizing that his appearance there might make an already volatile situation more explosive, the president and his team put plan B into motion.
In a maneuver that had obviously been carefully planned out, his driver stopped the presidential car under a highway bridge where 4-5 other vehicles were already parked. Protected at this point from the Spanish government’s eye in the sky, Puigdemont quickly got out of his car and into another. Emerging from the under tunnel, his official vehicle headed back toward his home.
The other cars then branched of in different directions. The one in which he was now riding took him to another nearby town, Cornellà del Terri, where he successfully voted. (n.b. In light of the violence being exercised by the Spanish State and the fact that they themselves possessed a “universal census” of eligible voters available across the country the Catalan government announced early on Sunday that citizens could now vote at any open polling station.)
It was only after things had calmed down in Sant Julià de Ramis, which to say, only after the possibility of a bloodbath sparked by his appearance there abated, that he showed up greet his neighbors to heartfelt chants of “President! President!
By Sunday night, the rest of the world finally woke up to a reality that Catalans have understood for a very long time now: their way of living and looking at the essential matter of governance is fundamentally different from that of those who continue to pose as their overlords, and even more farcically, as staunch defenders of a robust democracy.
The final game-day results?
Pirates 1, Invincible Armada 0
Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).