The footage of Spanish police beating and injuring fellow citizens who participated in a non-binding referendum was unsettling. The Catalan government claimed that 844 people were injured by the end. It looked like a western democratic country was melting down before our eyes. The crisis is more than just a regional cry for independence, but an ideological crisis that will continue to be driven by a deepening financial crisis and austerity. Will authoritarianism destroy yet another democracy?
For years, there has been more going on below Spain’s surface than the average newsreader might understand. Unlike the image it markets around the world, it is not a monolithic civilisation. In fact, Spain is a collection of various cultures that have their own languages and customs. There’s a long history of friction between these regions, with occasional flare-ups that at times have lead to conflict. The friction often originates from the imposition of the Castilian language and culture on the rest of the country.
The civil war of 1936 would further complicate things by adding a layer of ideological and political differences. People fought and died for their beliefs, but in the end, the Republic died and the Nationalists won. Francisco Franco ruled Spain as a dictator from 1939 until his peaceful death in November 1975. Despite becoming a democracy in 1978, Spain never dealt with its past. Instead, painful memories were tucked away, in the hope that they would be forgotten and miraculously resolved.
In more recent years, the housing crash of 2007 brought civil unrest and desperation due to high unemployment, rising inequality, mortgage defaults, evictions, and harsh austerity measures that have starved social programs, and which in turn have had a negative impact on society.
Now it seems that austerity has awakened a more sinister side to its government, a side the country has long struggled with. Authoritarianism may be on the rise. The police crack down in response to the Catalan referendum was disproportionate compared to the actions of the nonviolent and peaceful voters. Old memories came bubbling back to the surface. The world witnessed this autocratic reflex in action. But the violent police actions in Catalonia didn’t happen out of nowhere. Rather, there have been events leading up to that moment and there will be many more to come.
Three days after the terror attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004 (locally known as 11M) the people of Spain would elect José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español). Soon after their election, they passed the unofficially titled, “Law of Historical Memory.” In 2006 they declared an “año de la memoria histórica” (Year of Historical Memory). Spain was finally beginning to dig up the past and examine its recent history, albeit under heavy criticism. The PSOE would also bring social and technological reforms, increased rights to autonomous regions (including local language rights), divorce reforms (making it easier to obtain one), and the legalisation of both abortion and gay marriage. On the technological front, they would push Spain ahead in renewable energy by subsidising solar power and encouraging people to install solar panels in their homes. Things were buzzing in Spain, but it was to last.
In 2007, Zapatero’s government would loosen the banking regulations. That same year their housing bubble popped. Overnight, what seemed like a Spain racing forward came to a dead stop. Confronting a massive economic crisis that had left many Spaniards unemployed and the banks in deep trouble. As an EU member. Zapatero’s government had to abide by the Maastricht Treaty, which mandated that debt had to be kept under a unrealistic level. Zapatero would also change the constitution to meet its financial commitments to its debtors. If that wasn’t enough, the Spanish government in a US style banking bail out would take private banking debt and add it to the public debt. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio would inflate instantly.
Many on Spain’s streets would see Zapatero’s changes as a betrayal. In 2011, the country took a sharp right turn by electing Mariano Rajoy and the PP (Partido Popular). With traditional political posturing, he promised many things including the easing of the small business fees (autonomo) and the return of jobs. Both young and old fell for it. He would go back on all of his campaign promises in record time — just three months. The PP government then expanded upon the austerity measures that Zapatero had implemented.
The banking crisis began rippling through Spain’s society and pushing it into uncharted territory. Employment rates plummeted, forcing people to rely on unemployment insurance, which added even more strain to the economy. As jobs became more scarce, frustration grew and families were adversely effected. Divorce rates skyrocketed and many people left the country in search of work. More and more people began to rely on their savings, and sometimes, their retired parents. For the first time in its history, foreclosures and evictions occurred on a massive scale. As more and more people continue to have their homes repossessed, the ex-homeowners are still legally responsible for paying off their mortgage. The bank may own the asset, but the ex-homeowner still owns the debt.
Even people with jobs aren’t necessarily safe. Many can go weeks or months at a time without seeing a pay cheque. Due to the banking crisis, credit has dried up. Private companies with government contracts were hit particularly hard. The government was slow to pay their bills and in turn, these companies couldn’t pay their workers on time. The “working poor” phenomenon had reached the shores of Spain.
Rajoy’s government even rolled back the strides made in the solar panel industry. In October 2015, they approved a controversial “sun tax”. People producing electricity with their own solar installations now had to pay the same grid fees as those without solar panels, even if they weren’t reselling their extra energy back to into the grid. The penalty for non-compliance was a stiff €64 million. Luckily, there was opposition to the PP’s anti-solar decree. Spain’s solar association Union Espanola Fotovoltaica (UNEF) reports a majority of members in the Spanish parliament have signed an agreement to remove the controversial tax, however, this is an ongoing process.
Austerity also had disastrous effects on the health care system. Hospitals were closed, pharmacies increasingly had problems getting medicines and equipment because suppliers weren’t being paid by the government. Doctors had their salaries slashed, while being forced to work longer hours. All of this put lives at risk and added more stress to people already vulnerable. A 2013 study from the British Medical journal (BMJ) showed that budget cuts were leading to increased cases of depression and suicides.
If all of this wasn’t bad enough, a slow but steady tide of corruption scandals began to emerge, which added to the anger and shame Spaniards felt. What was revealed to them was that the crash had been more than a slowing economy but was also due to greed and corruption.
Many construction projects had been padded in order to skim off the top and used for graft. One of the most absurd cases of fraud and corruption is showcased in Valencia, Castellon’s the “ghost” airport or the airport to nowhere that cost €1 billion to construct. It had been a pet project of Carlos Fabra a PP member from the Valencian region.
Mariano Rajoy himself would face accusations of corruption and graft, he’s the only spanish pm testify in court. The man at the centre of the PP scandals was a senator and PP party treasurer Luis Barcenas. He was accused having managed, for 18 years, a secret PP slush fund to receive illegal payments from big business in return for lucrative contracts.
No one in power neither left nor right was scandal free, not even their beloved royal family. King Juan Carlos’ daughter, Princess Cristina and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, were charged with inappropriate use of public funds. In the end, the Princess was tried for tax evasion but found not guilty, while her husband was found guilty of embezzling €6 million of public funds, fraud and tax evasion. The royal outcasts are now living comfortably in Switzerland after paying hefty fines. Other scandals came to light about the King’s multiple alleged affairs with hundreds of women and possible paternity suits. As a result, the King abdicated the throne in 2014 and made way for his son Felipe to ascend the throne. King Felipe soon relieved his sister Cristina from her royal duties and stripped her of her title, Duchess of Palma.
This is the environment 15M, commonly known outside of Spain as the “Indignados”, was born. A movement that would directly influence Occupy Wall Street. Young and old took to the streets to protest, they would have meetings to strategise on how to resist austerity, and how to change their society. They held sit ins in banks that were foreclosing on homes, and they’d try to stop evictions, and they even provided free legal advice.
Aided by new powerful weapon, but peaceful one, the smartphone they disseminated the videos they recorded of violent police actions or evictions. These videos went viral on the internet for the country and for the world to see. In the summer of 2011 the world witnessed protestors, in Madrid, clash with police and what played out for the next four days was not a pretty sight.
Unlike Occupy Wall Street, 15M sprouted a new political parties, including Podemos and Barcelona en Comú. The country would see rising a new political stars like Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos and Ada Colau Ballano, elected Mayor of Barcelona in 2015. Former protestors and volunteers were winning political power. As a counterpoint, another new party called Ciudadanos with its young leader Albert Rivera, appealed to young conservatives and right-wingers. Traditionally, all politicians entered politics straight from university. Now, people from the average population were rising in the ranks and they demanded change. They paradigm was shifting.
In 2015, a new draconian security law would come into effect that would limit civil liberties called, La Ley Mordaza (the gag law). The timing was perfect. This law was used to stop everything from people filming heartbreaking evictions to police violence. It seemed the PP was falling back on its roots, after all, the party was founded a by former Franco cabinet minister, Manuel Fraga Iribarne. This new legislation quietly delivered a massive blow to civil liberties, laying the legal framework needed to stop those pesky citizens from exercising their rights.
Here’s some highlights from the La Ley Mordaza:
1. Article 43, black listing for offences. Just as much as those who have committed a prosecutable offence will be put on a offenders list, those who commit a minor infraction can be put on the list by a police officer, and not judge. The result is this could limit one’s fundamental rights by discriminating against them for their ideological and political beliefs
2. Article 52, the word of a police officer is gospel. Whatever the police say in any situation is the final word. There is no need for a judge or jury.
3. Article 36.2, civil disturbance. Being charged with a civil disturbance can carry a hefty fine of €600,000. This law is dangerous because it doesn’t define what is a civil disturbance, and it’s open ended. Also under this article insulting a police officer can be a prosecutable act, but it’s also opened ended, because it doesn’t define what constitutes an insult. It’s open to interpretation by the police officer. Again no courts involved.
4. Article 16, detention. You can be detained for up to 6 hours with no warrant by police for small infractions such as refusing show a photo ID (for example, your DNI).
5. Article 36.23, you cannot film the police. The police can film you with no justification, but you can’t film them. You can be fined for taking a video and for sharing images, especially if it “threatens the well being of the officer.”
Immediately after the law came into effect, there were reports of people getting fined or jailed. A Spanish woman who had taken a picture of a police officer who illegally parked in a disabled parking spot was fined €800. A Young woman was fined €600 using Article 37, for wearing a shirt that cops didn’t like because on the shirt it read “ACAB” and small print Asociation contra La Anorexia & Bulimia. A journalists was fined €600 for posting photographs of a police raid on Twitter “without permission’. It wouldn’t stop there. The government’s ego was apparently so fragile, they openly pondered outlawing memes.
In late September the world would see the physical crack down in Catalonia. Those holding the batons were La Guardia civil a national police force that had been created by Franco for the sole purpose of busting heads and keeping order. Many those Catalans who might have been on the fence or who were in the “No” camp could’ve easily been convinced by La Guardia Civil’s batons to want to vote “Yes”. It has to be noted that La Guardia Civil’s headquarters in Barcelona is the same place as it was during the dictatorship. A place in which they sadistically tortured people. To underscore their actions a video surfaced on the internet, recently, in which La Guardia civil officers in a van gleefully singing “A por ellos”, it means “Let’s get ’em” after getting the ok to crack down on Catalonia.
Along with physical violence, Madrid has seized the Catalan government’s funds and is working on changing the law so that business’s can move more easily from Catalonia to other parts of Spain. The response from the Catalan government was that they’d declare independence in the coming days. During all of this the Prime Minister, a bland and uninspiring leader, gave a stern speech in which he warned the Catalan government about their plans for independence. Not even the whiff of such talk would be tolerated.
If this wasn’t enough, Rajoy’s unyielding speech was parroted by King Felipe, who accused the Catalan government of an “unacceptable disloyalty”. Curiously, the painting directly behind the King was a portrait of Charles III, who imposed the Castilian language on Catalans in 1768. This was not lost on Spaniards, although it’s unlikely to have been noticed by most international viewers. With these subtle and more obvious threats flying through the air, it is clear to any Catalan that the relationship with Madrid, going forward, will be far from positive.
As I write, city plazas in every region are being filled with people asking for moderation and talks between Madrid and Barcelona. While there are many calling for dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona, there is also a regressive and shadowy side of Spain that is surfacing more often. I’m speaking of the Nazi saluting Falangists, who are staunch supporters of the Franco dictatorship and seem to enjoy resorting violence. What has to be noted that they come from all walks of life. They fervently believe that Franco’s reign was the “golden age’ of Spain. The reality is Franco ruled over and left behind a 3rd world country.
Unlike Germany, which had its Nazi past rubbed its face for decades, Spain escaped having to deal with its past.
After all, the 1953 Pact of Madrid between Franco and President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided legitimacy and ended Spain’s virtual isolation from a world still recovering from World War II, who still regarded the Nationalists as a fascist regime, a former partner to the Nazi regime and sympathetic to the Axis powers.
From 1954 to 1961, U.S. military aid amounted to US$500 million. Between 1962 and 1982, a further US$1.238 billion. It seems the “golden age” of Franco was funded by American aid.
And while the international press has been covering the Catalonia crisis, it has missed another parallel violent police crack down in the city of Murcia which left many injured. A month long protest of 300 people protesting the building of a wall that 50,000 people don’t want it because it will split their city in half. The purpose of the wall was to make way for a new AVE rail track. And who ordered the crack down? The regional political party in control, the PP. In the city of Valencia, on October 9th, a rally to show support for Catalonia’s independence was interrupted by Falangists with verbal insults it quickly turned into beating spree which left a couple and a photographer for El Pais injured. They ran through the city and the police did little to restrain them. As of today there are still no arrests.
The Catalan crisis will be more than just a regional cry for independence but rather it will bring forth an ideological crisis that will become more apparent once the flag waving and calls to unite die down.
It will continue to be driven by a deepening financial crisis and austerity. Will authoritarianism yet again take away their democracy?
Guardia Civil ( Go get’em)