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Last Tuesday, over a million people took to the streets in a European city that has, in recent years, become one of the more popular tourist destinations in the world.
And as anyone who has was there to witness the run-up to the event in recent weeks and months knows, this was no routine exercise in blowing off steam.
No, this was a march in which nearly one fifth of the population of the Catalonian Autonomous Region —led by a who’s who of its long-cautious and decidedly non-radical political class—took to the streets to show support for the idea of seceding from the rest of Spain.
Most well-informed Europeans and Americans are aware that a sizable part of the population of the Basque Country–which straddles the Spanish-French border on the Atlantic end of the Pyrenees—do not consider themselves Spanish or French and would thus be quite content to have a state of their own.
What most of these same people don’t know, however, is that in Catalonia, which straddles the same Spanish-French mountain border on its Mediterranean extreme, the population’s sense of belonging to a society that is quite distinct from that of the rest of Spain–in language, in culture and, yes, basic modes of social comportment—is probably just as widely subscribed as it is in the Basque Country.
The big difference in this game of perception is the role that strident rhetoric, and with it, carefully planned acts of violence, have played within each nation’s drive for greater political power.
Since the late 1950s, a small but important faction of the Basque nationalist movement has spoken openly about independence and how one is justified in using violence to achieve that end. Though most of these same groups have now renounced the use of force, their half-century record of bombings and assassinations are hard to overlook, especially for a media establishment that craves blood-soaked story lines.
During the same period, neither the rhetoric of independence nor the mythology and practice of armed struggle were ever major parts of the of the Catalan nationalist movement.
True to their deeply ingrained tradition (forged during their thousand year experience as traders all across the Mediterranean basin) of resolving social conflicts through negotiation rather than violence, the Catalans have always sought pursue their national interests through pacts with the national government in Madrid.
This, despite the fact that Madrid has never shown much reticence about using violence to quash Catalan national aspirations whenever it felt the need to do so, as was the case in 1714, 1923, and most recently, during the nearly four decades of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).
To put it simply, if the Basques are the wild children of the Iberian mix of nationalities, then the Catalans are the prudent uncles, always careful to choose their words and avoid the possibility of unnecessarily inflaming tensions with the rest of Spain.
In this sense, we can speak of Jordi Pujol, the man who led the Catalan Autonomous government from its inception in 1980 until 2003, as being an emblematic figure within the country. A doctor by training and a banker by vocation before entering politics, this Catholic father of seven is admired for building the region’s (but in his view, his nation’s) modern political and cultural infrastructure.
His long tenure in office was marked, to the frequent chagrin of his critics in both Catalonia and Madrid, by endless triangulations and obfuscations regarding the once and future role of Catalonia within the Spanish state.
Needless to say, he never came close to speaking about independence during those more than two decades in power.
Well, guess who proudly and prominently marched in last Tuesday’s million-person demonstration in Barcelona?
You guessed it, Jordi Pujol.
And almost all of the significant figures from across today’s Catalan political spectrum were right there with him.
After watching Walter Cronkite editorialize on the futility of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson is said to have exclaimed to his assembled aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”.
Well, Spain is now having its Cronkite moment with Catalonia.
During the last few months, I have talked with hundreds of Catalans (a number of whom are quite prominent members of the academic, journalistic and policy-making sectors of the society) about their relationship with Spain. In these conversations, I have heard people who as recently as two years ago would never have dreamed of supporting independence, now saying in clear and matter-of-fact-tones, that it is the only truly sensible destiny for Catalonia.
A big story right?
I can see the headlines now.
“Millions in Spain’s Richest Region March for Independence”
Or if you prefer the personal interest approach,
“Many in Mild-mannered Country Can No Longer Take It. Set to Ask for Divorce after Years of Neglect and Abuse”
Well, that’s not exactly how it played out.
The evening news on the Spain’s publicly-funded national network (widely seen as being a plaything of the deeply centralist, conservative ruling party) put the story at 22-minute mark of a thirty-minute broadcast!
And Madrid’s El País, which likes to think of itself as the Spanish-speaking world’s New York Times (and has the smugness and cozy relationships with officialdom prove it), gave the march and its many important related stories the minimalist treatment.
Seeing the way its journalistic cousins in Spain dealt with the event, the New York Times dutifully followed suit, publishing short reports that studiously avoided explaining any of the historical backdrop to the present Catalan dissatisfaction. Rather, they sought to frame—as did the ruling PP Party and the state TV it controls–as an annoying, but largely insignificant sideshow within Spain’s larger financial crisis.
And as we all know, if the New York Times decides that something overseas is really not news, seldom will anyone in the US journalistic establishment ever dare try and prove the contrary.
That would take actual work and, perhaps more significantly, it would expose those pursing this contrary path to the possibility of being seen as an outlier, the ultimate stigma for “journalists” on the make in today’s America.
The million or so Catalans marched through Barcelona the other day know what they did, and why they did it. It seems, however, that the rest of the world, taking its cue from big media, is bent on pretending it didn’t really happen, or that if it happened, it really wasn’t that significant.
It will be interesting to see who has the last word in this struggle to control the world’s perceptions of Catalonia’s shouts for freedom.
Thomas S. Harrington teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College.