Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Barcelona notebook: the Catalan referendum

I spent four days in Barcelona during the Catalan referedum.  Not every thing I wrote was published in the paper, or even submitted for publication.  I've emptied some of my notebook here. 

Thursday 28, September 

A copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica carried at the head of a demonstration today in Barcelona brought home the vast gulf between the supporters of Catalan independence and the Spanish government.

The pro-independence students who assembled the banner, say it perfectly reflects the heavy-handed actions of Mariano Rajoy’s government, before Sunday’s referendum.

About ten million ballot papers have been seized, 14 Catalan officials arrested, and thousands of Spanish police are quartered in Barcelona, ready, apparently, to be deployed on polling day to halt the vote.

Miguel Sarquella, 20, who helped make the Guernica banner, was carrying the portion featuring a man screaming in his death throes, beneath a rampaging bull.

“We feel the current government is repeating the actions of repression, which we had before democracy was established here,” said Mr Sarquella, an architecture student. “We think this kind of democracy is fake.”

Picasso’s image depicts the bombing of a town in the Basque country and the slaughter of about 300 people by Franco’s Fascists, supported by Nazi aircraft.  Was that really a fair comparison with contemporary Catalonia?

It was, insisted Mr Sarquella.  “We don’t feel free to speak for ourselves,” he said. “We don’t feel free at all.   Why have they moved thousands of policemen here?”

Julia Ramon, 20, stressed the independence movement was pacifist.   Ms Ramon said. “This is a student march, but all ages support us.  Many of them had to live under Franco 40 years ago.”

Emma Clark was one of 25 drama students, who staged a show about freedom in front of the  Guernica banner, once the march reached Placa de la Univeristat

“It’s the best backdrop for our play, because they won’t even let us vote,” said Ms Clark, brought up in Catalonia by her Croydon-born father and Czech mother.

The 20-year-old was uncertain what would happen over the next few days, and it was difficult to figure out how the constitutional crisis would be resolved, she said.    The Spanish government insists the referendum is unconstitutional; not a single country in the EU has offered support to the Catalan independence movement.

“We have to do the best we can here, and let’s see what happens,” Ms Clark said.

The demonstration of perhaps 10,000 university and school students was cheerful and loud, the police presence muted, save for the local Mossos officers,  who helped to marshal the crowd.

Where it differed strongly from the mood ahead of the Scottish independence referendum was its unmistakeable sound of protest. The uncompromising attitude of the Spanish government has stoked resentment; the response of Westminster to the Yes movement in Scotland seems both sophisticated and benign by comparison.

“That’s because British democracy is much more mature,” Mr Saquella said. “It has solid government. Our democracy is much more recent. It just changed from one repressive government, when Franco was in power,  to one which is patched up, just to look good to the world.” 

Was his passion for independence making him exaggerate the failings of Mr Rajoy’s government?

“I’m not actually passionate for independence,” Mr Sarquella said. “I still have my doubts, but I am passionate for freedom of expression.  I still don’t know if I will vote yes or no, but I do want to vote. We need to be able to vote.”

Friday 29, September 

Tonight, rallying under a flag made by Rory Steel’s mother, 17 Scots joined tens of thousands of demonstrators in Barcelona, supporting the rights of Catalans to vote in the region's independence referendum.

Mr Steel, 23, the vice convenor of SNP Youth  first became aware of the Catalan independence movement three years ago when  he saw its flag alongside a candlelit display  in Glasgow’s George Square, in support of Scotland’s “Yes” movement.

Solidarity it seems is reciprocal, and SNP Youth, he said, has built strong links with  left-leaning campaigners in Catalonia  who are voting “Si”.  

The actions of the Spanish government over the last few weeks have appalled Mr Steel . He  condemned the “jack-boots “of the Spanish police in making arrests and seizing ballot papers, and noted lingering connections between the People’s Party of Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister,  and the  former  Fascist regime of General Franco.

Jordan Linton, 22, his friend, highlighted the stark contrast between the approach taken by the Spanish government and their Conservative counterparts at Westminster, who signed the Edinburgh Agreement with the SNP in 2012.

 “Two governments, in Scotland and the UK, with diametrically opposed views in terms of the outcome, were able to come together to agree a referendum which was  legally binding, which gave people the chance to have their say,” said Mr Linton, a North Lanarkshire councillor.

“A lot of the literature here, surprisingly since they are on the cusp of the referendum, has simply been about the right to vote, it’s not about taking sides. The word ‘Votar’ is everywhere.  It has underpinned my whole time here.”

Christina Cannon, 19, another member of SNP Youth is already a Glasgow City councillor. She agreed with Mr Linton. “The principle of democracy has become the theme of our visit,” she said.

Over the last few days, there has been condemnation of the Spanish government heavy-handed approach  from across Scotland  and that was a matter of pride for these activists. 

 "Christina McKelvie (the SNP MSP) wrote to Donald Tusk,  of  the EU Council, a cross-party group of MSPs wrote to Rajoy,”  Mr Linton said. “That is leadership  - it would have been good to see that more around the world.”

Mr Steel agreed: “The Scottish government has already stood up more for the rights of Catalonia than the other major players in Europe.  Not a lot has been said by other nation states.”

Were they frightened  by the possibility of violence in the next 48 hours?  Worried would be a better word, said Mr Steel, “worried that the police should be sent out to stop a democratic process.”

Saturday 30, September 

Opponents of the Catalan referendum believe they are silent majority, but when 3,000 gathered in Placa D’Urquinaona  yesterday evening, they quickly found their voice.

These demonstrators were older and angrier  than those who had been on the streets proclaiming “Si” just 24 hours earlier.  They felt they had been ill-served by Catalonia’s political leadership  for years.  “SOS Intimidats pel Nacionalisme”,  read the poster taped to a shop window – "intimidated by nationalism".

This demonstrators had been too afraid to speak out in the past, believed  Roberto Pardo and Laura, his wife, both lawyers from Barcelona. 

 “Today is the day,” Mr Pardo said, a Spanish flag draped over his back. “We have been silent for too long – it is time to do something."

No-one here would  vote, he added.  His wife agreed. “Why would we?” Mrs Pardo wondered.  “This is an illegal situation.”

An office worker, who said his name was Jose, was not going to vote.  “We support the constitution, we support the law,” Jose said.  “Catalonia has been part of Spain for 2,000 years and we want to continue.  This is not some kind of colonial situation – we have been united since the foundation of the Spanish state.”

Over the last 30 years, the government in Madrid had given away too much to Catalan politicians.  “They needed support for this or that policy, so they made too many concessions,” Jose said.

“They have allowed Catalan separatists to indoctrinate people.  In TV, in the media, in schools, all we hear is Madrid is wrong.”

Around Jose, the cries went Up.  “Catalunya es Espagna”, and then as more people arrived, the procession moved off down Via Laietan, and the marchers burst into song: Y Viva Espagna.

Rafael Lopez, 58, an office manager, had come all the way from Madrid with some friends to join the procession.  The referendum he said was “illegal, immoral and unjust.”  It oppressed the people who had gathered here. 

Nothing would happen next week said Mr Lopez, whatever the result, because the vote had no validity.  

But there would be a reckoning, predicted Mr Pardo, the lawyer.

“Afterwards,” he said,  “some of the government in Catalonia will go to prison.  It must be so, because this is sedition.  They have declared war on the Spanish government and the people.  The law in Spain says you have a trial, you pay the penalty, and you go to prison.”

Notebook: Inside Pau Casals School, Gracia Saturday night

The school was occupied on Friday and Saturday night.  Scores of kids were playing games, when we turned up in the early evening.  The school gym had been requisitioned for people to sleep in; others slept in pop-up tents in the playground. 

Only the adults stayed in the school overnight, but when we were there, because the kids were still around, we were asked not to take photographs. 

Jordi Mir, 53, an administrator. 

The police, the Mossos, came round earlier in the day and told us we had to be out by six in the morning.  The only people we will open the door to at that time will be the people  who bring  the (voting) urns and the ballot papers.  We won't let the police in.  

If the cops beat their way in there is no particular plan.  The idea is that people will sit in front of the door.  They are going to have to play a game with us: it will be like picking onions.  We will be sitting  there in rows.  The police will have to pluck us out one by one.  We will invite them to play.  The idea is the cops will eventually give up.

Ramon Massana, 52, marine biologist

It’s been organised because of social media.  The fathers from the school came here about two days ago, and the proposal was made to occupy the school.  I have two kids here. 

Most people will vote ‘Si’.  The people who would vote ‘No’ will not vote.  They will say, ‘This is not fair.’ If they really want  to stay in Spain, they should come and vote, but instead they prefer to say, ‘This is not legal.’

I saw a banner on the anti-referendum march.  It said: ‘We are oppressed by nationalists’.  What do you think of that?

It is a joke, a joke.  They are very emotional.  We are not oppressing them.

You want independence?

Yes, yes.  I have always wanted that.  Many years ago it didn’t seem possible.  Now it does, and I feel very happy.

To the outsider, life in Barcelona seems to be going on as a normal – it seems such a prosperous, comfortable city – but this argument is so heated and angry …?

Look back in history, go back 300 years ago – we had our country.  And the civil war – many things have happened – it was a very heated moment.   

But in the present (crisis) things started 10 years ago. The starting point was our parliament proposing  a route for Catalonia, a new future.  The proposal went to Madrid: it was changed quite a bit, but then accepted in the parliament.  It came back to the Catalan Parliament and passed.  But the Madrid started rolling back on this again, they started changing our law.  People realised that we had been positive, but (Madrid) always made the law.

Things have happened very quickly recently, but this is not something that came from nothing.

Do you feel Spanish at all?

No. In this movement though there are so many people for whom identity is not important.  It is about dignity, about respect.  

Some people shouted today that they are Catalan and Spanish …

You think they feel Spanish and Catalan?

That’s what they said.

It is what they say now, because they are forced to say so.  But it is not true.  Ten years ago, these people would not have said they were Catalan at all. They would say they were Spanish.  Now they say they are Catalan and Spanish, we have to live together.  It is a strategy.  Again, it is like a joke.

Ton Barniles, 46, General Manager of the Catalan Alpine Club

If they produce violence in us, they win.  It’s what happened in the Basque country.   We will use non-violence and humour.  Like the placards of Tweety Pie  (Piolin)

I won’t find trouble here, from what you are saying?

Oh I don’t know.  I wouldn’t be naïve.  But on the citizen’s part there will be no violence.  I think now the Spanish government is quite afraid of this, because they saw the reaction after the recent arrests.   They thought they could smash this.

There has been an increase in support, simply because of their violence.  And more people want to vote now.   For example, the Mayor of Barcelona, she is not for a free Catalonia, but after the police intervened, she said ‘Enough.’   She will do a “white vote”  (she will go to vote – but abstain).

Monica, 47, a journalist/publisher, who didn’t want to give her surname

I need the right to vote.  I am not going to say whether I will note yes or no, I am not some kind of independence nut, but I am here to defend the right to vote.   I’ve always thought there should be a referendum, to settle this issue.

I need Catalans to express what they think, whether it is yes or no.  The Spanish government crossed a red line with its behaviour in the last week.

But I don’t like the Catalan government.  They cheated to create this referendum.  They changed the law to make the referendum happen, it wasn't good. They haven’t been clean, but equally the attempts by the Spanish government to outlaw the referendum are ridiculous.

Many Scots who voted “No” in the Scottish independence  referendum because they said they felt Scottish and British. Do you  feel Catalan and Spanish?  

I like to live in this grey area. I feel  Catalan, it is the motherland. I used to feel Spanish but not anymore.   For me it is a very sad situation.  I wish I could have both.  But I am more Catalan for sure, because you always feel attached to the motherland.

Laura, a reporter for a Spanish-owned TV station, did not want to give her name

It is hard to work for the Spanish media when my heart is here.   From the Madrid point-of-view, what the press has been saying has not been fair at all, it doesn’t reflect what people feel and what is happening here.

Some of the journalists from our station made an anonymous protest, and I was part of that.  For example of on the day of the terrorist attack, there was a big protest, but my channel simply didn’t show that, it didn’t show all the people who turned up.  Forget about what you do or don’t believe in, it just wasn’t a true portrayal of what happened.

The Spanish media is poor – you can’t believe what you see and read.   People get their new from international media.

Imagine.  My work is my money, but my heart is Catalonia.
We should just be open about what is happening in Catalonia, a referendum with campaigns for Yes and No  - this is what should have happened.  That’s why I am here, now.  So that people can vote.

Sunday morning write-up

When polling finally opened in Pau Casals school, Monserrat Llajuirri, 83, was one of the first to vote. 

"For so long, I lived under Franco,” she said, recalling the Fascist leader, who died in 1975.  “Now I can die with the satisfaction of helping my children and grandchildren to freedom.  I voted Yes for the liberty of my country and to stop repression.”

Outside the school, Carrer de la Providencia, a narrow street in a crowded residential area, had been filling up with people over the four hours before the referendum was due to begin.  They had come to vote and to defend this polling station.

At 7am, two officers from the Mossos, the local police, advised the crowd of about 1,000 they were breaking the law, but said they would do take no more action.  There were cheers and applause, as the officers pushed through the crowd and walked away towards a café at the end of the street.  

But soon, by the packed entrance to the school, people were sharing mobile phone footage of attacks by Spanish police, wearing hard hats and riot gear.  “This is a school on the other side of the city,” said one woman fearfully. “My cousin is there.” 
 She showed a picture of two police in riot gear hauling a woman away.

“We have been warned about secret police,” said Lena Oliverez, 22.  “They come in pairs and in plain clothes.  They will come and seize the ballot boxes.”  These officers might be armed with tasers, she warned.

It took longer than expected to open the poll.  The destruction of ballot papers and the confiscation of ballot boxes forced the organisers  to improvise.  Huge cheers went up when plastic boxes  were held aloft for the crowd to see through the plate glass entrance.  Ballot papers were freshly published on office printers. 

Yet another problem arrived when an app went down linking the polling station to the electoral roll.  Miguel Collomae, an economist, came to the doorway to explain the difficulty had been anticipated – the Spanish government had closed down other internet channels.  “We have contingency plans,” he assured those eager to vote. “Be patient. You will vote.”

They were patient and they were rewarded.  Maria Dolores, 81, was second to cast her vote, when polling opened. 

“I am ridiculously happy, she said, her eyes filling with tears. “We don’t have anything, they are squashing us all.  We are peaceful people, not animals.  They cannot deny us our freedom.”

Notebook: Lena Oliverez, 22

Lena returned from Argentina a month ago, after completing an interior design degree.  She stayed in the school overnight and was one of about 20 people who came out to mingle with the huge crowd outside.  She was weeping as she embraced her friends and family, and sometimes was overcome by tears during the interview.

It was coincidence that I finished my studies and was able to come back, just in time for the vote.

It was a very special for me last night.  It is just a year since my grandmother died. She was 91.  She was very emotionally involved with this: it is important to me to vote for the people who are no longer with us.

Why is it important that Catalonia is independent?

Two things. It is important for my family to come to Barcelona because they had so many problems when Franco was alive.   My grandparents, and parents came from Granada: Barcelona gave them everything.  It is so hard to explain.

Catalonia and Barcelona has a deep meaning for them?

Yes.  All those things that happened in those days: we don’t want to be part of it.

Did you think like that, even before the brutality of the last couple of weeks?


But isn’t it time to move on from the Franco era?

What we see in Spain, is Franco is very present. Posters, organisations, defending Franco.  This hasn’t disappeared.  A lot of things that are happening now, happened when Franco was in power.

Sunday afternoon write-up

At 5pm, Marcel Graell, 21, a politics student, addressed a crowd of an least 1,000 in the quadrangle outside Barcelona’s Industrial School.

By then, 500 people had been seriously injured in police attacks on crowds across Catalonia, and footage of the brutality widely shared on the internet.

In a passionate speech, delivered through a megaphone, he urged the crowd to “calm, peaceful, determined”.   The crucial thing was not to provoke the police.  “We have videos of them being violent and us being peaceful,” he said.

 “These are the images, the attitudes we want the world to see.  Then our president can carry on his strategy of taking our message to the world.”

Mr Graell   emergence as a charismatic local leader was the direct result of the heavy-handedness of the Spanish government.  Two weeks ago, he told me, he was undecided about how to vote in the referendum.

“I don’t hate Spain,” he said. “I don’t hate Spanish people.  I have been all over Spain.  A nanny who helped bring me up is from Aragon – I love her as a second mother. 

“Over the past two weeks, our institutions, our Catalan government has been taken by the Spanish institutions.  It meant I voted yes without hesitation.”

Mr Graell was among a group of 50 people who occupied the Industrial School on Friday night, when fears grew that Spanish police would attempt to shut it, ahead of referendum day.

"I seriously doubt the police have the  means to dissuade us.  We will sit on the floor, hands wrapped together. 

"If they do use violence to enter the college, they will have won the battle to defend the college but we would have won the moral battle, because we would have been peaceful."

The pic at the top was taken at about 8pm, when Mr Graell declared the ballot closed, thanked the people who had turned out to protect the polling station, and thanked the international press.  The barricade was at the back of  the industrial, opposite a hamburger joint. 

There was no violence at either the Pau Cassel School, or the Industrial School.  The brutal actions by Spanish police appeared to die off about lunchtime.  About that time, we tailed a convoy of police vans through the city, expecting them to stop at a polling station, and deploy their truncheons.  Instead they parked up in a layby, as if they had been stood down.