The Future of Catalonia

Albert Botran

Tomorrow's elections in Spain could propel the Catalan left.

Interview by
Boaz Vilallonga

On September 27, 2015, Catalan separatists transformed simple regional elections into a covert plebiscite for secession from Spain. And they were successful — coalitions supporting an independent Catalonia won a majority of the vote.

Overall, parties in favor of secession received 48 percent. The center-right coalition Together for Yes (JxSí) won sixty-two seats, while the separatist left platform Candidacy of Popular Unity (CUP) sat ten representatives. JxSí needed CUP’s support to form a stable government.

In the months that followed, JxSí and CUP embarked on a tense and agitated negotiation, attempting to form a stable government that could prepare Catalonia’s transition to an independent state.

Acting Catalan president Artur Mas became an object of conflict between the two separatist coalitions — as president, Mas had been responsible for austerity measures and other fierce neoliberal policies.

CUP opposed his candidacy and demanded a new consensus candidate. But JxSí refused to present an alternative candidate, and the negotiations failed.

Then, on December 27, CUP held a massive general assembly to determine its final political stance on the issue. Even after three consecutive votes, CUP was stuck in a deadlock: half of its members voted to tolerate Artur Mas’s candidacy, while the other half rejected Mas and demanded an alternative.

With the legal deadline to form a government fast approaching, new elections appeared inevitable.

In a tactical move, Artur Mas stepped down on January 9 — the day before the deadline — appointing JxSí representative and mayor of Girona Carles Puigdemont as an alternative candidate. CUP accepted Puigdemont’s candidacy and, on January 10, a new government was formed.

This new government has the mandate to set up all legal and political mechanisms to secede from Spain within the hypothetical time frame of eighteen months. But the coalition is already plagued with problems.

Despite Puigdemont’s promise of new social policies, many ministers from the Mas administration continue to serve in the new government.

Mas himself plays an important role behind the scenes, and has embarked on a major renewal of his own party, the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) – the founding party of the JxSí coalition, and a major neoliberal party in Catalonia.

On the other side, CUP remains fractured, having never recovered from the divisive general meeting of December 27. Two major factions compete for control of the party — Endavant and Poble Lliure.

Following the election, Boaz Vilallonga spoke with Albert Botran, a member of the CUP national executive committee and of Poble Lliure, to get his thoughts on the role of the Catalan separatist left and the agenda for secession.

Boaz Vilallonga

How do you explain the sudden rise of CUP?

Albert Botran

There are many structural and circumstantial reasons why an anticapitalist party has received the 8 percent of votes in a Western European country like Catalonia.

One of the structural reasons is the legacy of political opposition to the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted for almost forty years. During that time, Catalonia witnessed a mass movement against the dictatorship.

Even though the movement did not succeed in overthrowing the Francoist regime, it built a strong leftist political culture. The Catalan Communist Party (PSUC) was instrumental in building trade unions and other social movement organizations, such as neighborhood associations.

Social movements persisted and coalesced into particular issues, like campaigning for the “no” in the referendum on Spain’s admission to NATO in 1986, or the massive demonstrations against the Iraq War of 2003.

But the so called transición — the political transition from Franco’s dictatorship to liberal democracy — left many questions unresolved and did not satisfy many groups that fought against Franco.

Catalan separatists — a minority in Catalan politics during the 1980s — were one of the few voices that denounced the spirit of the Spanish political transition to liberal democracy.

Catalan separatists stressed the many continuities between the dictatorship and the newly born Spanish democracy —  like the Franco-appointed king Juan Carlos, police brutality, and political oppression.

The young democracy offered legal “pardon” and “forgiveness” to everybody on the Right and on the Left, notably even to the former political cadres of the Francoist regime.

In doing so, it forgot the victims of the dictatorship, especially those who suffered persecution, prison, or exile right after the end of the Spanish Civil War.

They received no recognition or reparation from the new established democratic regime. The most powerful families during the dictatorship maintained their power over political and economical life.

Another structural reason — a deeper one — is the fact that Catalonia and the rest of the so-called Catalan Countries — Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the Catalan-speaking counties of Aragon, the French département of Pyrénées-Orientales, the Italian city of Alghero — suffer national oppression.

The political institutions of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands were dismantled during long repressive periods. Catalonia was deprived of its government, parliament, and legal system from 1714 to 1931, when the Spanish Second Republic granted political autonomy and reestablished these institutions. But this did not last, and Catalan political power was again destroyed from 1939 to 1977.

In 1939 the destruction of Catalan institutions was followed by a ferocious cultural repression that aimed to extinguish the Catalan language, which was forbidden. Despite the timid opening in the 1960s, the Francoist period presented Catalan culture with its biggest challenge for survival.

In front of these essential attacks, Catalans developed different strategies to resist.

This has many implications for a society inclined to rebel and disobey a political power it sees as foreign and illegitimate. Critical thinking against authoritarian states — democratic or not — found its raison d’être in Catalonia.

From a Marxist perspective, national liberation movements have historically played a major role in socialist strategy — especially since Lenin. National liberation movements fight against state nationalism — the ideology used to counteract class struggle — and so they have emancipatory potential.

A people fighting for independence is a people challenging established political and economic power. It has been this way in America, Africa, Asia, as well as in the heart of Europe.

Contemporary circumstances have only heightened the contradictions created by these structural factors, contributing to CUP’s recent rise.

For example, in 2011 the political system created during the transición entered into a severe crisis. For the first time, the indignados phenomenon provided a national platform from which to criticize the agreements of the Spanish political transition.

Another circumstantial reason for CUP’s success is the Great Recession of 2008 and the growth of inequality in Western countries.

The economic crisis has hit harder vulnerable sectors of Spanish society. At the same time, youth unemployment has consolidated precarious jobs and contributed to scarcity.

Today’s mass separatist movement began around 2006, when Spanish nationalism and right-wing political parties derailed the Catalan proposal for a new agreement with the central government in Madrid — the so-called Statute of Autonomy, Catalonia’s constitutional charter for autonomous political institutions.

Separatist consciousness appeared at that moment, when the anti-Catalan attacks redoubled both politically and culturally.

In ten years, Catalan independence has experienced startling growth. It has become a plausible political revolution, in which CUP has a crucial role to play.

Boaz Vilallonga

What is this crucial role? In the past, CUP had been very willing to break political agreements with other separatist political parties, including with the Mas administration. What makes this agreement different?

Albert Botran

Catalan separatism has ideological pluralism — this is the main reason for its success and social majority. Historically, this has pressured different and antithetical political parties and organizations to find agreements.

When the Catalan government organized a simulated referendum of self-determination — it was simulated because the central government in Madrid forbade any kind of legally binding referendum — it attracted support from a wide array of political actors, from Christian Democrats to anarchists, neoliberals to socialists.

In the current situation, Catalan secession requires that the two main separatist political parties reach as many agreements as possible in order to cement a democratic rupture with the Spanish government and political institutions.

In this newly established cooperation, CUP is, for the first time, an instrumental partner in issues such as budget approval.

Boaz Vilallonga

But CUP remains divided. Does the current fracture reveal any tension between the two pillars of CUP, socialism and national liberation?

Albert Botran

More than tension between the two pillars of CUP, I think, the divide reveals the tension between tactics and strategy. This is a common phenomenon within all revolutionary movements in the world.

I have in mind the tensions between different factions within Irish republicanism in 1919–1923, when they had to choose between the Free State or continuing the struggle for the republic.

It was also the case with Ho Chi Minh. He delayed land reform and redistribution in order to keep the support of rural landowners for his national liberation movement.

In Catalan history, we can also find another example of this, a pitiful example. In May 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the two main factions of Catalan antifascism — anarchists-Trotskyists and communists-republicans — fought ferocious battles in Barcelona (well described by George Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia).

The debate between strategic horizons and the potential of tactical alliances is a permanent issue among revolutionary movements.

In the Catalan case, this means that separatist socialists have to either join mainstream separatism and accept the contradictions of such a decision, or maintain their profile as the Catalan left while waiting for a better confluence of circumstances within the wider separatist movement.

Boaz Vilallonga

CUP has been able to change the president of the Catalan government, but, at the same time, the party has accepted harsh conditions in the stability agreement with Together for Yes — de facto cession of two representatives and an obligation to support the center-right in all parliamentary activity. What might be the consequences of such agreement?

Albert Botran

The agreement signed between CUP and Together for Yes has a certain liquid nature — it is open to interpretation.

We have pledged to support the government and vote together with Together for Yes “in cases where the government’s stability is at risk.” But this is a pledge we have to interpret.

In some votes we do side with the government, especially when the opposition parties ask us to pass bills with budget implications impossible to assume in the short term.

We have to remember that the Spanish government tightly controls the Catalan budget through austerity mechanisms. The Catalan government has limited financial autonomy at this moment.

But we reject the notion supported by Together for Yes that we have to wait until the secession in order to implement ambitious social policies. The Spanish legal framework is very narrow, but we do have political will and the ability to challenge these legal constrictions.

In the end, we are entering into a period in which we will experience intense political moments. We need to understand the agreement from a positive perspective.

We think that these complex, intense political moments will serve to raise the level of our political debate and force better deals. We do not negotiate for political power; we negotiate for what is socially just.

Boaz Vilallonga

President Puigdemont seems to enjoy greater popularity among Catalan separatist leftists than Mas ever did. How has CUP responded to these new political conditions — both in the government and in the separatist movement?

Albert Botran

Changing Mas for Puigdemont was an important condition of our political agreement. Until his election, Puigdemont was mayor of Girona and a Catalan MP — he is a new figure in the Catalan national government.

So he is detached from the former Mas administration, especially from the austerity measures and cuts to social spending.

Our relationship with President Puigdemont is going to grow more intense if he is truly determined to push for a democratic rupture with Madrid; to open a constitutional process to draft the constitution for an independent Catalonia; and to confront the social needs of Catalans while expending the social safety net.

But in CUP we have also insisted that if Together for Yes breaks the agreement, we will interpret that as a betrayal of us as a party and of the entire separatist movement.

Boaz Vilallonga

CUP was created by aggregating several Catalan separatist socialist organizations, including Poble Lliure. What is the relationship of these different organizations within CUP?

Albert Botran

CUP was built as an aggregation of local political organizations. But in recent years, CUP has become a national political organization.

This long process has been an obstacle to building a strong CUP central committee, because the central committee needs to reflect this political plurality.

At the same time, however, this has preserved our “open general assembly” format. But this “open general assembly” format has created disruptions in crucial decision-making processes.

For instance, when the national secretariat (CUP central committee) did not reach consensus on the election of a new Catalan president, we organized the mass December 27 national meeting of more than three thousand participants.

We transferred political decision-making to our members without understanding that our members would have the same problems making that decision as the national secretariat — as was indeed the case.

Open general assemblies cannot always solve organizational problems; sometimes we do need a strong executive committee able to make political decisions and assume responsibility.

The aggregate organizations within CUP are factions channeling different opinions. For this reason, the organizations have often been perceived as a source of conflicts.

But even if the organizations did not exist, factions and caucuses would still be created informally, so I value the explicit presence of aggregate organizations with strong political statements and ideas.

Boaz Vilallonga

One of the points of Podemos’s program is the call for a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. Although Pablo Iglesias has explicitly opposed Catalan secession, might this call make Podemos a useful ally for a left coalition in Catalonia?

Albert Botran

Podemos has a project for Spain, because it aspires to govern a country with a population of forty-six million. This is its main rejection of Catalan secession, or any other secession.

From a Spanish perspective, theoretically, Podemos’s strategy is very intelligent — if we obtain the referendum for self-determination, this reformist position could deactivate the Catalan desire for secession.

The problem of this strategy is that the reality of the oligarchic and authoritarian political class in Madrid cannot envision such a political reform — that is, the recognition of a nation and its right to self-determination through a referendum.

So Podemos’s reformist position is opposed by both Spanish nationalists and Catalan separatists.

The strategy should be rather different. Instead of pushing for political transformations in Madrid — the core — we should regard the periphery — Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia — as the vanguard of social transformation in Spain. This would force a new configuration of Spanish political power.

Boaz Vilallonga

Can CUP and its grassroots movement contribute to a revolutionary socialist agenda in Catalonia?

Albert Botran

Neil Davidson’s book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? establishes a new distinction between political and social revolutions.

Political revolutions are a mere replacement of the social forces controlling political power, without touching the mode of production. Social revolutions are effectively transforming the mode of production.

But Davidson suggests that some revolutions that start out purely political could become social revolutions in the end.

In that sense, I think that Catalan separatism has incredible potential for transformation as a political revolution. And I also think it might lead at some point to a social revolution.

For this purpose, the movement that today reasserts our political sovereignty — and should embrace a full reassertion of all the sovereignty that we have been dispossessed of under capitalism, from control over reproduction to the provision of basic rights like housing.

CUP understands that this socialist agenda has no models to imitate, but there are some useful orientations — non-private means of production; non-exploitative productive processes; the full democratization of decision-making in society and all the aspects of social, political, and economical life.

We cannot expect that this would occur in isolation in this corner of Europe. Our movement for socialism has to connect with struggles against austerity within the European Union.

But Catalan separatism and its promise of a new independent country in Europe represent a fissure in the system.

The independence of Catalonia and the relevance of the Catalan left could be a great contribution to shaking the European political system.

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Albert Botran is a historian and Candidacy of Popular Unity representative, as well as a member of Poble Lliure.

Boaz Vilallonga teaches Spanish at the Ramaz School and is a visiting scholar at New York University. He is a regular op-ed contributor to the Catalan newspaper Diari Ara.

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