What the Show Trials Show

The sedition charges against Catalan independence activists mark a shameful moment for Spanish democracy. Franco’s regime is long gone, but the state machine he created has not been fully broken.

Catalan independence leaders at the beginning of their trial at the Supreme Court on February 12, 2019 in Madrid, Spain Emilio Naranjo– Pool / Getty

In January, Ignasi Sabater, the left-wing mayor of the small Catalan town of Verges, was arrested in a dawn raid. In the same police operation, another mayor, a journalist from the magazine La Directa, and thirteen other activists were rounded up and arrested because they had organized peaceful protests to demand the release of political prisoners. Sabater was pulled before a court and accused of “hate crimes” and “discrimination” against “the Spanish nation and the corps of the Guardia Civil.” Similar charges were leveled against politicians, teachers, and firefighters. Many ordinary people who have dared to condemn police violence — or even talk about it in public — have been hauled in front of the judiciary, facing prison for “hate crimes” against the Spanish state. A shocking development, this, in twenty-first-century Europe.

When Spanish police tried to put a halt to the Catalan independence referendum eighteen months ago, Roger Espanyol lost an eye to a rubber bullet. He vividly recalled the atmosphere of repression: “I remember the Spanish National Police taking the ballot boxes, putting the in the vans. And then, without any warning, they started to charge, with sticks, and then everything started. At the moment of the impact we were waiting for the Police to leave. Thats all I remember. I don’t know how or when I heard a shot.” More than a year on, the mass mobilization of militarized police to stop people voting feels somehow unbelievable.

Yet we can see similarly incredible scenes today. Last week the Spanish courts continued their show trial of Catalan leaders charged with “sedition” for their role in organizing the October 2017 referendum. Some Spaniards have shown their solidarity with the prisoners: on March 18, one hundred thousand people marched in Madrid to demand an end to state repression and support Catalans’ right to determine their future. Yet if on that march leftists from the capital, trade unionists from Asturias, and rural laborers from Andalusia all took a clear stance, the Spanish state’s disdain for basic democratic standards has taken many observers by surprise.

It seems most media do not know how to analyze what is going on, and so most do not bother at all. But if we do want to grasp the situation in Spain and Catalonia, we have to look beyond the last eighteen months. And first of all, we have to know something about the configuration of Spain’s ruling elites, and the peculiarities of the state and its institutions. Only by investigating the social, economic, and political legacy of the democratic transition of the late 1970s can we truly grasp the shocking state repression we see in 2019.

The Bad Old Days

Just before the October 2017 referendum in Catalonia, we observed “if this feels distinctly like a scene from Spain’s dark past, that’s because political repression of this scale has probably not been witnessed in Catalonia since Franco.” Despite the widely broadcast footage of extreme police violence, this probably seemed like an exaggeration. But the ten thousand Guardia Civil and Spanish National Police that arrived to physically prevent the vote did indeed look like something from another era: an invasion and occupation.

At the same time, these scenes were strangely comical. Spain commissioned three ships to transport and accommodate its highly militarized national police force. The most visible ship, moored in the port of Barcelona, was emblazoned with gargantuan images of the Looney Tunes characters Wile E Coyote, Tweety-Pie, and Daffy Duck. But it was the subsequent violent scenes of the Guardia Civil and the Spanish Police beating voters and dragging them along the ground, or even shooting them with rubber bullets, that provoked many draw comparisons with the darkest days of Franco’s Spain.

This was not fascism. Nonetheless, we saw, very clearly, a deliberate and violent show of police muscle by a state determined to prevent the people expressing itself in the streets. Websites were closed down, ballot papers were seized by the millions, and post was intercepted and confiscated. The Spanish Cabinet unilaterally took control of the payment of Catalonia’s creditors to prevent any expenditure relating to the organization of the October 1 referendum. An astonishing 712 town mayors were charged with “assisting the referendum,” and many were detained for questioning by the police. At the time, the words of Pablo Casado (today president of the right-wing Partido Popular, but already at that time an MP) contained a chilling threat: “if Puigdemont declares independence from Spain, he may end up like Companys.” Casado backtracked quickly, saying he was “only” threatening to jail the President. But every Catalan knows exactly what he meant: Lluís Companys was the Catalan President who was executed by Franco in 1940.

And yet, linking Franco to this “Looney Tunes” invasion seems overblown; it is a connection that — outside Catalonia — people find difficult to take seriously. After all, Franco was a fascist, and Spain is a modern democracy. We are only too well-aware of the tendency in the left to overuse the term “fascism” to condemn the authoritarian practices of Western governments. And we can’t call Spain “fascist.” It has a liberal-democratic political system, and a liberal market economy. But there are key features of the Spanish system of government and administration, and indeed, the structure of Spanish industry, that never fully completed the transition to democracy.

In this sense, we can call Spain a post-fascist state. The Franco regime’s enduring mark on state institutions means that we cannot understand Spain’s politics, its economic configuration, or indeed the form that cultural hegemony takes without understanding this inheritance. Indeed, of the European countries that were ruled by fascist forces in the period of World War II, Spain is the one in which fascist institutions and practices have left the most trace. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, but in short, they owe to these countries’ different histories. Whereas Italy and Germany were able to remove fascism from their institutional life as a direct result of military defeat in 1945, the brand of fascism that endured in Greece and Portugal in postwar decades was more comparable to Spain’s. Yet in the end, those two dictatorships were exposed to processes of reparation, memory, and indeed criminal trials that helped expel fascism from the system of government. This did not quite happen in Spain.

Rather, the country’s formally benign transition from dictatorship to democracy, lacking any sharp moment of rupture, allowed its post-fascist legacy to persist even long after Franco’s death in 1975. The state’s personnel and institutional structure of power remained intact; the remnants of Franco’s fascism were never completely eradicated from its power structures. If Francoism officially left the government buildings almost half a century ago, the form of historical memory preserved by the state, its constitutional structure, its political administration, and the law, the police, and the military have inhibited a full transition from the previous regime.

Spanish Nationalism

This is starkly apparent at a symbolic level. The coat of arms has been changed, but the red and yellow flag reinstated by Franco remains Spain’s national banner. Indeed, the democratic transition of the late 1970s consigned the republican tricolor to the status of a mere historical artifact. At the same time, Spain still celebrates its national day on October 12, the anniversary of Christopher Colombus’s arrival in the Americas. This was a “day of the race” consecrated by decree by Franco in 1958, with the explicit aim of venerating “a system of principles and norms created to better defend the Christian civilisation across the Hispanic community of nations.” Under Franco, this national holiday explicitly celebrated the country’s conquistador traditions and even today it remains closely bound to a colonial, anti-republican nationalism. The ongoing state funding of the Franco Foundation, the preservation of the Duchy of Franco (a hereditary title gifted to the Franco family by King Juan Carlos), the statues of the dictator in public places, and the streets named after him all highlight the cultural longevity of the regime. And much of this legacy is funded by public money.

This cultural context is acutely relevant to the situation in Catalonia. Indeed, the roots of the current constitutional crisis can be found in the Right’s recent bit to revive a Spanish identity that exploits the paraphernalia of Spanish cultural nationalism. In 2004 the conservative People’s Party (PP), developed a more explicitly nationalist-authoritarian position on Catalonia — and Spanish nationhood generally — as it sought to destabilize the Socialist Party (PSOE) in government and build voter loyalty through explicit appeals to Spanish patriotism. The PP’s renewed nationalism was part of a calculated effort to recover political ground after a series of disastrously unpopular policies including Spain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker, and the terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004.

This renewed patriotism represented a cynical and calculated bid to shift the role of the state from being a welfare and social provider to being a guarantor of the Spanish unity. The idea was to shift the role of the state (and voter allegiance) from social issues to matters of national identity. Challenging Catalan claims for more political autonomy have become part of this strategy. Bizarre as it may sound outside Spain, a boycott of Catalan products, including Cava, was encouraged by the extreme right both inside and outside the PP. This boycott campaign — a clear example of what has become known in Catalonia as Catalonophobia — sought to exploit an idealized and homogenized Spanish identity, and in doing so it either knowingly or unwittingly bolstered support for far-right groups who claim the mantle of Franco. The boycott is perhaps the most extreme example of Catalanophobia that has in the past few years seen a growth in the use of racialized jokes about the Catalans by comedians and in popular songs and a growing number of petty cases in which people have been penalized for using the Catalan language in courtrooms, and in other forms of official communication. Indeed, when Mayor Sabater’s lawyer arrived at Girona Police station to represent his client, the Spanish police guard refused him entry because he was speaking Catalan. Given that Catalan is the co-official administrative language there, such gestures by the Spanish state are of huge significance. In late September 2017 we saw stark evidence of the popular anti-Catalan feeling behind this police attitude: Spanish news agencies broadcast images of crowds chanting “Go get ‘em” to the Spanish National Police in front of their barracks as they headed to Catalonia.

This anti-Catalan sentiment gives coherence to a renewed Spanish identity, and not only among sections of Catalan society opposed to independence. Indeed, when we talk about the Catalan situation we rarely discuss how it is Spanish nationalism that is the driving force behind the conflict. This, despite the extreme militarism of Madrid’s stance which portrays any challenge to Spain’s absolute sovereignty in the language of “insubordination” or “disobedience.” Indeed, today both the PP and the center-right populists of Ciudadanos argue that Catalan claims are invalid because Catalonia has already been granted more autonomy than it deserves. The Catalans’ “insubordination” thus demanded a short, sharp restoration of the primacy of the Spanish nation.

Culture War

This dangerous Spanish-nationalist turn flows from the center but continues to shift the whole political spectrum to the right. The Catalan independence movement is used even by the Spanish center-left, not least the ruling PSOE, as a scapegoat for all manner of problems. One expression of the “moving right show” that is today paralyzing Spanish politics has been the rise of the far-right Vox, most starkly illustrated in the country’s largest region, Andalusia. The recent elections there left Vox — winning seats for the first time — in a strong enough position to lift the PP-Ciudadanos coalition into office. Its own manifesto promises included the abolition of Catalan autonomy (the party has regularly held demonstrations “against Catalonia”); the repeal of laws tackling gender violence as well as those that recognize the status of Franco’s victims; and the mass deportation of all non-regularized migrants. Vox’s rise has doubtless been encouraged by the persistence of a post-fascist culture. But it also feeds on more recent developments: the revival of a Spanish identity that vaunts the paraphernalia of cultural nationalism and thrives on a Catalanophobia that sits close to racist anti-immigration politics.

The referendum on October 1, 2017 can be seen as a moment that revealed how far so-called “Spanish solidarity” is in fact predicated on the need to dominate and subjugate Catalonia. Of course, Catalan insubordination is also captured in culture. And since the vote, the clampdown has extended to the most unusual of cultural spaces.

Typical of this was the treatment of the rapper Valtonyc. He was forced to flee into exile to avoid a possible three years’ imprisonment for anti-royalist lyrics which supposedly made a “death threat” against the King. As he told us from exile in Brussels, no one has been more surprised by this cultural suppression than Valtonyc himself. As the rapper puts it “I cannot apologize for terrorism and even less apologize for a death threat in a song. If you want to threaten someone you don’t record a song. You go right to him and you say: if you play music at 7 AM I will punch you in the face. That’s a threat; but you can’t threaten someone with a song.” Another hip-hop artist, Pablo Hasel, is currently facing trial for “hate speech” against the monarchy.

And it’s not just about “subversive” lyrics. In Madrid, a major exhibition on “Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners,” by the artist Santiago Sierra was withdrawn because of organizers’ fears of a political backlash. The repression has also extended to the yellow ribbons symbolizing solidarity with the Catalan political prisoners. The spectacle of police confiscating yellow banners, ribbons, and balloons from Barcelona soccer fans, and indeed the banning of the public use of the color yellow by human-rights activists, are only the most extreme and preposterous manifestations of the state’s bid to crush discussion of the political prisoners’ fate.

This attempt to impose silence by “banning” the use of yellow in public spaces mirrors the post-transition institutions’ refusal to acknowledge the atrocities that had taken place under Franco’s dictatorship. The settlement underpinning the “1978 regime” ensured that the new Spanish state would not officially recognize the dictator’s treatment of political prisoners, or even his mass graves. Even now, the Spanish state actively works to oppose any efforts to record and recognize the bodies. The Report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances regarding Spain claimed that 114,226 bodies were still missing as of 2013. Four years later in 2017, the same working group expressed its strong concerns over Spain’s failure to take the most basic steps to allow access to justice for the relatives of the dead.

Fit for a King

In the wake of the general strike on October 3, 2017 — a protest against police violence, which took place two days after the referendum — King Felipe made a televised state address to appeal for national unity and discipline. This was highly unusual, even for Spain. But the fact that it was the King who addressed Spaniards had an importance that was hard to grasp outside the country. After all, Felipe’s family had been personally restored to the throne by Franco himself. Indeed, in 1969, the dictator officially appointed Prince Juan Carlos — the grandson of the former king, Alfonso XIII — as his future successor. In exchange for this appointment, Juan Carlos swore allegiance to Franco’s “Principles of the National Movement.”

When Felipe addressed his people on the October 3, he spoke of the indissoluble unity of Spain, in his capacity as both head of state and head of the armed forces. His explicit accusation of disloyalty against Catalonia and its government opened the political space for the application of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, suspending Catalan autonomy. It is difficult to imagine any other monarch in Europe playing such an overtly political role in a civil dispute, not least one with a widely acknowledged fascist inheritance. As Kings College professor of constitutional law Keith Ewing observed: “the whole tone of the speech made clear that worship of this monarchal State trumps democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But worse, that these principles have been captured to serve the ends of a deeply authoritarian state.”

The 1978 constitutional settlement also preserved continuity with Francoism in other, more hidden, but equally significant ways. The 1977 “Amnesty Law” gave an official amnesty to Franco’s political prisoners. But it also granted Franco’s assassins and extensive torture network impunity for crimes related to the regime. In 2012, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human rights made a formal request to Spain to repeal this law, because it prevents the prosecution and recognition of crimes against humanity. Civil servants who played a key role in the Franco dictatorship, judges, and police officers — including those who had tortured countless civilians — quietly remained in place under the terms of the post-Franco amnesty. This continuity of personnel, coupled to the institutional amnesia relating to Franco’s mass graves, ensured that the institutional culture of fascism went unchallenged inside the state.

At the same time, the referendum and its aftermath has brought to the surface some shocking examples of the residual Francoism and fascism in the police and the military. There have been numerous cases of police officers displaying Francoist symbols, and even giving the fascist salute in public. Pictures were published of a Spanish National Police officer brutally beating a well-known pro-independence photojournalist while shouting “Viva España y Viva Franco.” At the end of July 2018, a group of 180 retired Spanish army personnel signed a manifesto demanding an end to attacks on “Franco and its legacy” in the midst of the debate about whether it was appropriate that he was still lying in state at the monument of Valle de los Caídos. These cases “prove” nothing about the general character of the Spanish army, the national police, or the Guardia Civil. Yet the frequency and intensity of such incidents tells us that these dark forces were never properly eradicated, and that they now feel sufficiently empowered to venture into the daylight.

Constitutional Impasse

Of particular significance to the constitutional continuity of Franco has been the replication of the way that political control is exerted over the national courts. Key in this regard is the Audiencia Nacional, the court responsible for initiating the prosecution of the nine Catalan political prisoners before their cases were passed to the Supreme Court for trial. This court was created in the image of Franco’s notorious Public Order Tribunal; its judges are political appointees and they explicitly deal with issues of conflict deemed to be “political.”

Similarly important is the role of the Spanish Constitutional Court, which is routinely deployed against the autonomous parliaments. Indeed, since 2006 more than forty laws passed by the Catalan parliament have been blocked by the Constitutional Court. Most of the blocked laws were concerned with securing social rights and protecting people from austerity. Most important was a July 2015 law which banned the eviction of people before they were offered social housing, also including a measure to protect the vulnerable against having their water and electricity cut off. This law had cross-party support in the Catalan Parliament, but the Spanish Constitutional Court overturned it, effectively making thousands homeless in its own crude bid to narrow the Catalans’ freedom of action.

It may be tempting to think that now Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government has been kicked out and PSOE is in power, a resolution to the Catalonian conflict is more likely: that the PP’s Catalanophobia, economic autocracy, and political authoritarianism might be diminished. Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that a change of government cannot alone change things, when authoritarian hangovers from the Franco regime remain so deeply embedded in the state, and the barriers to self-determination so severe. At best, PSOE prime minister Pedro Sánchez has made some symbolic gestures to de-escalate the conflict. But he is yet to either demand the release of political prisoners or guarantee a peaceful “second” referendum.

For now, the impasse endures. Its wider importance was perhaps best summed-up by one of the prisoners today on trial, Jordi Cuixart. For the defendant, who is also president of the Catalan arts organization Òmnium Cultural, “the cause against Catalonia is today more than ever a cause against democracy.” This is a view shared by millions of his supporters. It seems a referendum, with guarantees that this time there will be no repeat of police violence, would be the quickest and easiest exit strategy for all concerned. Given its historical inheritance and the climate of nationalism, the Spanish state seems unlikely to take this route. Yet unless the crisis meets with a truly democratic resolution, that state will certainly have many more political prisoners on its hands in the future.