Imagine a rich nation with a lot of potential, inside a large kingdom, ruled by a faraway government. The foreign government neglects the nation’s sovereignty, rules against its economic interests by disregarding the nation’s needs and introduces laws that interfere with its already-limited political autonomy. After several failed attempts of changing the government’s attitude, the people of this nation realize that the best solution to their problems is to become an independent country: A country where there would be no kings overruling the people’s will. They then organize local assemblies, which end up forcing the local leaders to start a process of claiming independence. Does this story sound familiar? Well, I’m not talking about something that happened around 1776, but about what has been happening in Catalonia since 2010.
Catalonia, a little region in the northeast of Spain, organized a binding independence referendum that took place on Sunday, October 1, and is determined to declare independence in 48 hours if the “Yes” vote wins. What’s so strange about that? In contrast to the UK’s position in the case of Scotland, Spain doesn’t believe that this matter can be solved with a referendum. Their excuse is that the Spanish Constitution considers the Spanish nation as indissoluble in Article 2 (an article introduced under military pressures in 1978 according to constitution father Jordi Sole Tura). Surprisingly, the same constitution in Article 10 also accepts the Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to self-determination of people and which is currently being violated by Spain.
Whether or not they support the independence of Catalonia, nobody in favor of democracy can understand how, even though according to official data more than 70 percent of the population in that region wants to hold a referendum, the Spanish government will not allow it. Despite the efforts of the Catalan government over the past years, the Spanish government has denied any negotiation that included a referendum on independence. This has brought the Catalan government to organize the referendum against the will of the Spanish government, and over the last few weeks, the latter has shown its most oppressive face since Franco’s dictatorship.
As the UN has warned, the Spanish government has attempted to suppress the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association and public participation. It did so by blocking 140 websites, arresting 14 high government officials, forbidding political meetings, threatening more than 700 mayors with civil prosecution (75 percent of Catalonia’s mayors) and sending 4,000 Spanish military police to search print houses and raid referendum material. If this wasn’t enough, the Spanish government has also intervened in Catalonia’s finances, leaving research centers, universities and other institutions without the ability to use their funds. In addition, the government has taken over the Catalan police (by putting in charge of it, ironically, a supporter of the failed coup d’etat of 1981). They are even considering arresting the current President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont.
The Catalan people have proved for several years in a row on every 11th day of September (the National Day of Catalonia), that they know how to protest peacefully. That is the way they expect to be able to hold the referendum, and that’s the way they have been protesting against these repressive actions. In response, the Spanish government is accusing the organizers and thousands of protest attendees of sedition, a crime that could result in a maximum of 15 years in prison.
At this point, with the international press talking about a coup d’etat in Catalonia, it is clear that democracy is at stake, and for this reason, the Catalans’ right and desire to vote has received the support of many personalities. This includes six Nobel Prize winners, personalities like Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky and Yoko Ono, over 150 intellectuals from around the world (including UCR anthropology professor Susan Ossman) and freedom of expression supporters Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, the latter of whom is currently helping the Catalan government to protect their websites. Politicians from several countries, such as the UK, Norway and Denmark, have also shown their support, as did the former president of Slovenia (a country that used its right of self-determination in the past) and 48 EU parliamentarians.
This is not about whether the referendum is legal or not anymore, it’s about democracy. From here, as students and academics from the USA, I ask you to show your support to all the people in Catalonia who are peacefully fighting today for their rights. If we adopt a neutral position in front of these attacks on democracy, we become accomplices of the aggressor: The Spanish government. We cannot remain silent.