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An Interview with Embattled Catalan President Quim Torra

Photograph Source: Generalitat de Catalunya – Quim Torra pren possessió com a 131è president de la Generalitat

The Catalan conflict is generating a constitutional crisis in Madrid with far-reaching implications for the future of the European Union. In a stunning and legally questionable move on January 3, Spain’s Central Electoral Commission voted to remove Catalan President Joaquim Torra from office immediately. In a speech the same evening, Torra rejected the legitimacy of the ruling, saying he responds only to the will of the Catalan people and the Catalan Parliament. The following day, the Catalan Parliament robustly backed him and his position on the matter. Meanwhile, during the investiture debate of Socialist Prime Minister candidate Pedro Sánchez taking place simultaneously in Madrid, the right wing parties Vox and PP called for Torra’s immediate imprisonment and the suspension of the Catalan statute of autonomy by way of Article 155 of the Constitution—as was done following Catalonia’s declaration of independence on October 27, 2017.

It his has been a turbulent ride for the 58-year-old Torra since he assumed the presidency in the spring of 2018. Until two years ago, Torra was a business executive and cultural activist who had never been involved in electoral politics. However, when the central government dissolved the Catalan Parliament after its vote to secede from Spain, and subsequently ordered new elections, Torra put his name forward as a parliamentary candidate from Together for Catalonia, the party led by exiled President Carles Puigdemont. To the surprise of many and the intense dismay of the Spanish government, the exiled president’s party won the most votes in the majority pro-independence bloc—and hence the right to form a new government.

Madrid was having none of this. In January 2018, when the Catalan Parliament was about to swear Puigdemont in by video connection from Belgium, the legislature’s president abruptly stopped the process in reaction to the threat of judicial sanctions he had received from the Spanish courts. After two other candidates were similarly scuttled, it then came down to the largely unknown Torra, who was eventually inaugurated as the head a pro-independence coalition government in May 2018. Since assuming office, he has repeatedly made clear that he believes that that his prime goal is to advance Catalonia toward independence in the most expeditious manner possible.

It has not been an easy ride. The Catalan independence movement, comprised of three main factions, Junts per Catalunya, Esquerra Republicana Catalana, and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular—which roughly correspond to the positions of center-right, center-left and far-left on the political spectrum—is wracked with internal divisions. In a seemingly strange inversion of roles, Torra has constantly seen his efforts to speed up the march toward self-determination checked by his center-left coalition partner, ERC, and embraced, though not without reservations, by the far-left CUP. He has also been repeatedly criticized by members of his own group’s traditional base for trying to move things forward too fast.

Torra does not seem to care. The only thing that appears to concern him is acting on what he sees as the Catalan people’s desire, as expressed in the October 1, 2017, referendum, to exercise what he sees as their legitimate right to self-determination.

My interview with Torra, conducted in Catalan late last year, took place in the Palace of the Generalitat (the Catalan Government) in Barcelona. The city was then 16 days into widespread and still ongoing acts of civil disobedience unleashed in reaction to the Spanish Supreme Court’s harsh sentencing of the politicians and civil society leaders responsible for promoting the 2017 independence referendum, 11 days before Spain’s fourth general election in as many years, and 19 days before Torra’s own trial, at which he would unapologetically plead guilty to disobeying Spanish government order to remove a banner hanging on the front of the Generalitat that made reference to Catalan “exiles” and “political prisoners.”

TH: How would you explain what is going on in Catalonia today to an Anglo-American reader who has little or no detailed understanding of the country’s history?

QT: A quick response would be to compare it with a case with which most English- language readers are familiar, which is Scotland. But beyond this loose comparison, I would speak of an ancient nation in Southern Europe that has always demonstrated a firm dedication to the pursuit of liberty, and that, after suffering a number of setbacks the last three hundred years—years during which it worked to fit into the Spanish state and gain its trust—has, over the last decade or so, chosen to initiate a democratic process aimed at gaining independence.

After thinking it over a great deal, people have decided that this, rather than a continuation of the current regime of autonomy, is probably the most viable way achieve an improved quality of life. This not about flags and borders. It is about better education, better health care, an improved infrastructure and, of course, greater protections for the country’s language and culture. But above all, it is about being able to face the challenges of the 21st century with all of the tools that any modern country can expect to have at its disposal.

You just spoke about the pursuit of liberty or freedom. Do you think Catalans have a special obsession with freedom when compared, say, with other cultures of the Mediterranean basin? Or other European cultures in general?

There are historians, such as Rovira i Virgili, who define the history of Catalonia precisely in terms of this special relationship to freedom. Others, such as Vicens Vives, link it more to a “will to exist.” Josep Benet, in turn, has summed it up in a marvelous phrase as centering on a “combat in the service of hope.” Others, of perhaps a more fatalistic cast, like Ferrater Mora, say that a people cannot live life always on the defensive, that it must arrive, or seek to arrive, to a state of vital fullness.

You are someone who has spent most of his working life outside of politics, getting involved in it only a very short time ago. How is it that someone with this profile came to be president of the Generalitat in the Spring of 2018? Did you have doubts about accepting the
challenge of becoming president in such turbulent times? Why, in the end, did you decide to do so? What did you see as being your key goals for your time in office?

As you say, I spent most of my life as a lawyer in private business, the last two years of that in Switzerland, an experience that allowed me get to know a country, the Helvetian Confederation, that I admire a lot. Returning to Catalonia, I founded a publishing house and got involved—and I say this with all due modesty—in historical research and writing. I’d always had strong cultural, civic, and political interests thanks to my work with voluntary organizations of the type that are, in my view, fundamental to gaining an understanding of the country. These entities are the basis of its strongly “associative” social fabric, and what provides it with very strong social cohesion from below.

I had the good fortune of working side by side with the late Muriel Casals at Omnium Cultural [Along with the Catalan National Congress, the country’s most important pro-independence civic organization], an experience that allowed me to participate, as it were, from the “second row,” in the last 10 years of the country’s fast-moving history. During the latter part of this time, the country’s government was forcibly dismissed by the Spanish state [in October 2017] while our elected leaders were either imprisoned or forced into exile. In the lead up to the December 2017 elections imposed by Spain, I received a call from President Puigdemont, during which he asked me to run as a candidate on his parliamentary list [Together for Catalonia]. When the President of the country asks that you get involved and serve in a key moment of its history, it is very hard to refuse. And as it turned out, our list was the winning list….

President Puigdemont entrusted me with the task of leading the government of the country. I accepted the challenge because I believed that in historical moments such as the ones we are living you cannot run away from the responsibilities that fate brings you. As a good liberal, I believe that any person, no matter what political position they might initially occupy, should be able to respond with responsibility and honesty to the challenges posed to his country in decisive moments of its history. And so, at the time, I honestly felt I could not say “no.” And I said “yes” in the conviction that we must continue the project designed to bring us to independence, that we must see ourselves as the heirs of what I view as the legitimate independence vote taken on October 1, 2017.

In practical terms, this means seeking the restitution of all the powers taken from us under Spain’s imposition of Article 155 of the Constitution, the effects of which are still very present, and putting the Catalan Constitution into effect. I say this fully cognizant of the fact that, owing to the recent handing down of the sentences against our imprisoned leaders, we are now entering into an entirely new set of realities.

In the year and a half since my swearing in, we have been immersed in a situation of political complexity that is probably as great any seen in the country’s history. We have people in prison and people in exile. And the repression has not stopped. Rather than engage in political discussions, the Spanish government has recurred again and again to the punitive use of criminal code, which of course only heightens the gravity of the situation and the sense of crisis surrounding it.

Have there been any positive surprises during your time in office?

Many. Above all, the contact I have had with the people of this extraordinary country, which I have visited from end to end. People always receive me with enormous warmth and with a sincere to desire to help and to keep things moving forward. There have been many difficult times, moments when you think that when you step out of the car you’ll be stoned. And it turns out that, on the contrary, that is the day they cheer you the most and encourage you in your work. The second thing has been getting to know truly extraordinary people—that is, people with exceptional cultural, artistic, professional, and human gifts. The country’s finest doctors and scientists, its best writers. The other day I was with Jaume Plensa, the famous Catalan sculptor, and Jordi Savall, the world-renowned Catalan musician. These are simply unforgettable experiences. I would probably have never met them otherwise.

Perhaps a third thing are the journeys I have taken outside the country, being able to talk, for example, with the Scottish prime minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and several U.S. congresspeople at the Martin Luther King Institute at Stanford University, and with Borut Pahor, the president of Slovenia. These and other high-level contacts are things that I’ll remember forever.

You’ve made reference to Catalonia’s distinctive “associative” cultural fabric. People who know and understand Catalan culture tend to speak a great deal about this particular social characteristic. How might you explain this strong tendency to what, in Catalan, is called “associationism” to someone who is unfamiliar with the culture?

I believe this is the most essential trait of Catalan culture and a key reason we have been able to remain a distinct people over the years. The country has always had a very strong sense of collective belonging and collective action honed over the years on objectives that go from being very strongly involved in saving immigrant lives in the Mediterranean to involvement in one’s neighborhood council or the enormous and highly organized collective effort that goes into castellers, where people come together festively to build human towers of several stories that extend 15 meters or more into the sky. We could also talk about the enormous importance of esplais (neighborhood civic groups) and hiking clubs among our youth. And all this, of course, in addition to our very strong trade union tradition and the pro-sovereignty groups like Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Congress, referenced earlier.

From a very early age, Catalans are exposed to, and engage in, voluntary collective activities that are not rooted in either the family or the school. And this generates a widespread sense of fraternity and solidarity in the culture—bonds that make possible things like the citizen-led and organized referendum on independence that took place here in October 2017.

I think this tightly-woven social fabric, where people are very much in touch with others and where they debate and argue and at times get angry— but nearly as often end the disagreement with an embrace—generates a remarkable sense of collaboration. It is, I believe, what has allowed us, with all our turbulent history, to continue to be a country of peace with a long and proud history of receiving immigrants. It is what allows us to exist as a united people with very widely and deeply shared values regarding the importance of democracy and human rights. And in recent years we have seen a new consensus forged in this atmosphere. For example, somewhere around 80 percent to 90 percent of Catalans now look upon the Spanish monarchy as an institution with little or no relevance in their lives. There is a similarly high rejection of Spain’s judicialization of basic political questions and processes.

One last but very important by-product of this highly associative social fabric is our predilection toward criticism. Ours is a culture that expects and demands that one accept the criticisms of others. We are very given to protesting and criticizing. Maybe this is a more generally Mediterranean tendency. I don’t know. But I can assure you it is very prominent among our people.

Spain’s acting president Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has said that the conflict in Catalonia is actually a conflict among Catalans, in which a minority, those in favor of independence, are seeking to impose their will upon a majority that wishes to have Catalonia remain part of Spain. Is this the reality of things?

No, it is a problem of democracy stemming from the fact that the people are not allowed to express their political desires democratically. If one thing has become clear over the last few years, it is our society’s capacity to engage in debate—often times under very difficult circumstances—while continuing to perform economically and culturally at perhaps its highest level ever. In other words, we have taken the debate to where it needs to be while preserving the traits, which I spoke about a few moments ago, that define us as a people. The question, I repeat, is whether the Catalans will be allowed to express their will democratically and decide on their future. And until Spain faces this question and recognizes Catalonia as a political subject worthy of face-to-face negotiations—and let’s not forget about the existence our exiles and political prisoners—it is impossible to speak about political normality in Catalonia.

Another often-heard interpretation of the Catalan crisis is that it is part and parcel of a more generalized crisis the Spanish constitutional order established in 1978. Other critics describe it as a symptom of a broader European, and perhaps even world-wide crisis of long-established ways of governing. How do you see it?

I think it is a mixture of all of these things. I believe the Catalan independence movement has laid bare the reality of the Spanish transaction—not the transition— that resulted in the adoption of the Spanish Constitution of 1978. This was made quite clear to me when I visited Portugal and held conversations with members of the National Assembly from across the political spectrum. From left to right, all have accepted a total break with [António] Salazar’s dictatorial regime [1932–1968]. The Spanish state’s problem is that this break did not take place. It carried out a reform that kept intact several important bastions of Francoism and an authoritarian way of approaching public life and politics, something we can see quite clearly in the comportment of the state judicial and police sectors. We can also see it in the very figure of the king, who is the inheritor of prerogatives derived directly from the Franco regime and whose presence has deprives all Spaniards of the right to decide whether they wish to live in a monarchy or a republic. All of this has become more evident as a result of the rise of the Catalan independence movement, which has brought this not always visible Francoism, which is profoundly rooted within the organs of the state, to the surface.

That said, there is an aspect of the independence protest that is related to the current global wave of political dissatisfaction. Here we are in the 21st century in a globalized world where we no longer live in isolated outposts of the planet, but rather where we have global flows of information, and the people want to live in places where there is freedom and where they can be part of a social project defined by adhesion rather than repression. We must be very attentive to the will of the people. As I said, people want to participate in public life. But right now, there is widespread distrust of the political class in general, and the Spanish and Catalan political classes in particular. And this helps explain the large protests we are seeing in the streets of Catalonia today.

How would you describe the performance of the Spanish judicial system in the recently concluded trial of the Catalan politicians and civil society leaders in Madrid?

I would begin by reminding that person of the words of the president of the General Council of the Spanish Judiciary, Carlos Lesmes, when he said that the Spanish Constitution is based in the sacred and indivisible unity of the fatherland and that the judicial powers have the obligation of preserving this unity above all other things. Nothing about preserving the people’s will. We have, rather, the idea that Spain is based on an a priori notion—the unified fatherland—and not the desires of its citizenry. I think it sums things up perfectly. I think the Spanish Judiciary has appointed itself as the royal guardian of the indivisible unity of Spain, and for this reason gives itself the right to use any and all means achieve this end, including twisting decisions and opinions as they see fit.

Under these parameters, anything can be portrayed as suspicious and therefore all things are seen as potentially prosecutable. And when the police can’t achieve the desired end, the prosecutors are sent in. And when the prosecutors fall short, they revert to the full force of the courts. And when we talk about the objectives of their prosecution we are talking not only about expressions of democratic will like the vote on October 1, 2017, but also about ideas and even banners bearing messages they do not like. For example, they have prohibited, under threat of prosecution, any discussion about the right of self- determination from taking place in the halls of my government or in the Catalan Parliament.

Since the Supreme Court handed down the sentence in the case of the seven former Catalan government ministers and two civil society leaders on October 14th the streets of Catalonia have been consistently filled with protestors. How would you describe what is going on?

It speaks of a sense of enormous anger about the fact that honorable politicians who were following a democratic mandate—the entire process that led toward October 1 was approved by an absolute majority of the Catalan Parliament—will each be spending 9 to 13 years in prison. It has unleashed an enormous wave of indignation in Catalan society. And this is what we are seeing in the streets. I will say it again, there is a very widespread consensus in Catalan society regarding the need to place democratic values, and with them civil and human rights, above all other concerns. Therefore, these sentences from the Spanish courts clash frontally with most Catalans’ way of being and thinking. This is why we are seeing these massive demonstrations and these marches for freedom all around the country.

Pedro Sánchez, the head of the interim Spanish government, suggested a few days ago that these protests are of an fundamentally violent character, and his interior minister, Fernando Grande–Marlaska, recently said, and I quote, “The violence in Catalonia has been of greater impact than that which took place in the Basque Country.” How do you respond to these comments? Are you, as Spanish government sources and certain members of the press have recently suggested, an apologist for this supposed violence?

This is the type of question that as president I—and I use the expression quite advisedly—have had to “put up with” constantly. Violence has never been representative of the independence movement. We have always condemned any and all acts of violence that have occurred. Always. I think it is important to call attention to the serious level of banalization at play here. And it is not only I who sees it. Spanish associations of terrorist victims have spoken out against these unfortunate statements and others like them. For me, to compare occurrences that have taken place in a given moment in Catalonia with deaths and assassinations in the Basque Country over years, is absolutely appalling. And this is why the Spanish associations of victims have called on the government to stop its banalization of their tragedy.

Throughout the 40 years of the present Constitutional system in Spain, there have been not infrequent tensions between the heads of the country’s 17 autonomous governments, especially those of the Basque country and Catalonia, and the executive of the central government in Madrid. Despite these tensions, communications have always been maintained at a certain level of fluidity. This, however, does not appear to be the case presently between you and the Spanish interim Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. Why?

What you say is true. We (Together for Catalonia) voted without conditions with Sánchez in the no-confidence vote—against the Rajoy government that suspended our autonomy through application of Article 155 in late October 2017 and was probably the most corrupt government in the history of Spain—that delivered him to his present position. We thought this might provide us with an opportunity to begin a serious dialogue with the Spanish state. We had staged the referendum and issued our declaration of independence and had people in prison and in exile. We said, “Lets sit down and talk… seriously.”

Sánchez and I had our first meeting at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, and we seemed to agree on the fact that a political problem requires a political solution. And then we had another meeting at the Pedralbes Palace here in Barcelona, and we continued to make progress on the dialogue. But our side insisted that that if the dialogue was indeed to be serious it would have to be formalized in one form or another, that is, that the proposals of both the government of Catalonia and the government of Spain make their proposals known.

Toward that end, we proposed having an international rapporteur there to summarize the positions of both sides. We clearly stated our position, which is to have a referendum staged through an agreement with the state, which we see as a viable solution. However, since I have been in office, the government of Spain has not put forth any proposal whatsoever, and the mere mention of an international rapporteur generated a crisis within Sánchez’s government, when the old guard of his party, the Spanish Socialist Party, rebelled forcefully against the idea and forced the end to all negotiations. We continue to await his arrival at the negotiating table. We Catalans are there and will always be there.

Earlier, we were talking about some of the defining characteristics of the Catalans. One of them is “pactism” a vocation for the making and signing of pacts, something that is deeply rooted in our history, going all the way back to the power-limiting agreements between the people and the kings in medieval times. What we need is “a sit down and talk” [here Torra spoke in English]. But a serious and rigorous one, marked by a real desire to reach an agreement. And the dramatic reality here is that the Spanish Government has not put forth any proposal at all. Nothing at all. I’d accept anything as a starting point. It’s even worse. Yesterday, or the day before, we read that the Socialist Party had stricken any trace of federalist proposals from their official election platform for the upcoming [November 10] elections. So, it seems that, if anything, we are going backwards from the already very minimal concessions to the plural nature of Spain made in the past by that party. This drift toward centralism and authoritarianism in the Socialist Party is extremely worrying for us. As I have said, we believe the solution lies in sitting down and talking. But it has to be a dialogue between governments in which Catalonia is recognized as a political subject with the right to decide its future.

To what extent must the ongoing protests and disturbances in the streets of Catalonia be seen as a demonstration of the failure of the Catalan political class and/or the political class of the Spanish state? Can we speak of any large errors committed by one or both parts of this equation?

These critiques no doubt have some basis in truth. But the roots of the conflict can been found in in our not having had the opportunity, as should have been the case from the very beginning, to decide things in a frank and honest fashion, allowing those in favor of remaining in the kingdom of Spain and those in favor of independence to place their arguments on the table and to let the citizens of Catalonia would decide which solution is best. In this scenario, each would have their say and both options would be considered respectable. The citizens must decide.

I can assure you that if we were to have such a referendum and it were to show that a majority of Catalans would prefer to continue as part of Spain, I would resign immediately as the President of the Generalitat. This is the basis of the conflict. And there really is no other. The two million Catalans in favor of independence are not going to disappear. In the last four elections, counting local, Catalan, Spanish, and European elections, pro-independence forces have won. In short, Spain must realize that the institutional instability from which it is currently suffering will continue as long as it refuses to listen to the voices emanating from Catalonia.

But don’t we also have to talk about the instability present in your own governing coalition? Isn’t that also an important factor in all this?

Without a doubt. Governing in a coalition is obviously make things more complicated. But I think it is important to remember that we Catalans have been up to the challenges posed by these complications. We have been able to forge governing pacts between groups of widely differing ideological stripes. In contrast, [there has never been a coalition government in Spain. Yes? Never a successful or effective coalition?]] Surprising, no? Of course, to govern by coalition, you first have to sit down and come up with agreements and put them into action. Obviously, in a legislature like present one in Catalonia, shadowed by the reality of political prisoners and exiles, disagreements and controversies arise. But despite this my government engaged in, and survived, a no confidence vote about a month ago. And here we stand.

You have spoken about the presence of agents provocateurs from the Spanish police among the pro-independence groups engaged in and ongoing protest against the harsh sentences against the Catalan politicians and civil society leaders handed down from the Spanish Supreme Court on October 14. And recently videos emerged that appeared to confirm this general thesis. Have you seen these videos? Do you have any comment on them, or what they appear to demonstrate?

I hope there is a thorough investigation of the matter. I hope the Spanish police and the interior minister do what we have pledged to do here in Catalonia, which is an examination of all those practices, as well as all the visual images that point toward a failure to adhere to the protocols that must regulate a democratic police force.

You have been indicted by the Spanish state for actions you have taken during your presidential mandate. What is the crime that you are alleged to have committed?

My crime is that of defending the freedom of expression by refusing a Spanish government order to remove a banner placed on the balcony of the Palace of the Generalitat that spoke of “political prisoners” and that expressed a desire for the return of the “exiles.” And since I believe that there is no such thing as a small battle, I felt a need to press this struggle for the freedom of expression to its logical conclusion. So I disobeyed the stipulations that they had sent me. And I am now involved in a trial that, if I lose it, will result in my being barred from occupying public office for a specified amount of time.

I have read all sort of characterizations of you in the press, a number of them in publications opposed to independence, being quite negative. How would you define yourself as a political actor?

Ideologically, I define myself as a republican in the modern sense of the term, employed, for example, by Princeton scholar Philip Pettit. I see myself as a person with a humanistic bent interested in working for others, a person with a radical belief in democracy who is only capable of conceptualizing democracy as the practice of listening to the voice of the citizenry and respecting their decisions. I have always said that the only political obligation I have is to respect the decisions of the Catalan Parliament, the sole basis of the sovereignty for the people of my country.

Are you satisfied with the independence movement’s efforts to explain itself to the outside world? Are there filters that impede your ability to get the message out?

We need to work constantly to get better at this. We need to continue insist and persist in explaining the profoundly democratic values that are deeply rooted Catalonia’s long history and to underscore, again and again, that the Catalans are engaged in struggle for their civil rights. In other countries and other times, this struggle revolved around somewhat different issues. For example, there was the fight of the English suffragettes at the beginning of the last century, or the struggles of Afro-Americans to achieve their full civil rights a bit later on.

The Catalans are fighting for perhaps the most important civil right that a collective of people can seek, the right to self-determination. And they wish to do it in a democratic and peaceful fashion, a method, that a part of the population has now decided must also include civil disobedience, which, of course, is also a right that must be respected. This is where we are. And this is the message we seek to send to the world.

We are moving forward under the banner of dialogue and the banner of democracy in our effort to achieve the basic right to determine our future as a people. We realize that, since we are not a state in a world that functions as a “club of states,” it is quite difficult for us to get a hearing for our position in supra-national organizations. But what we can do, and do well, is explain our outlook on the citizen-to-citizen level, showing off our large and peaceful demonstrations, and now our large protests against the recently handed-down sentences of our leaders. We think this fraternal and solidarity-based message resonates quite strongly across the world.

Ours is a country on the move that is very conscious of the historic moment it is living. We must be on the side of the people and attentive to their desire for freedom.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).

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