At the time of my birth in Spain, Catalan culture was suppressed. Francisco Franco, the country’s fascist leader, imposed his vision of a highly centralized, unitary state, with Catholicism the supposed glue bonding together Spain’s many distinct peoples, some of whom like Catalans spoke their own tongue and often harbored dreams of independence. Manifestations of regional pride and expression weren’t tolerated.
Fear of the Caudillo ran deep, with good reason—he was brutally repressive. My sister once returned home from her Catalan elementary school proud about having learned an important word never to be uttered in public. Only after much coaxing did she agree to reveal it in a hushed whisper: “Franco.”
Authoritarianism cannot break the will of the truly determined, however. Catalans wanted to be Catalans, free to speak their own language and celebrate their own customs. “Franquismo” could only temporarily squelch that. Yet Catalonia didn’t become independent following Franco’s death and the restoration of democracy in Spain, but rather a highly autonomous region that, along with the Basque Country, enjoyed many powers of self-rule. The arrangement of devolved government that recognized the country’s “historical nationalities” didn’t extinguish Catalan nationalism, of course, but it did largely coopt it—until now.
Spain’s economic depression—unemployment is at 25 percent—has revived dormant dreams of Catalan independence. As Spain’s richest region and economic locomotive, Catalonia, home to 16 percent of Spain’s inhabitants, contributes about a fifth of the country’s GDP, one-third of its total industrial production and exports, and a quarter of all taxes collected. Ten percent of its GDP goes to other regions in transfer payments. If polls are to be believed, Catalonia, though massively indebted because of its own economic mismanagement, is tired of giving more than it believes it gets from being part of Spain. A referendum on independence looks increasingly likely.
Madrid isn’t happy. Spain’s government has disavowed the legality of a plebiscite on Catalan independence, as has the country’s Supreme Court and national assembly. “What the independence of Catalonia really means is the disappearance of Spain as a nation,” Spain’s justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón darkly observed last month. In the febrile atmosphere, the specter of the Spanish civil war is regularly bandied about.
Regardless of the merits of Catalan independence, it is something of a paradox. The region is seeking to acquire the sovereign rights of nationhood while also affirming its commitment to ceding important parts of its newfound sovereignty to the supranational European Union, of which it hopes to become a full member after gaining independence. Catalonia’s not alone. Flanders and Scotland are also making noises about going it alone as independent nation-states—nestled within the warm embrace of Brussels.
This odd dynamic is a hallmark of the present economic crisis, with the fissiparous trend of regionalism existing alongside an increasing concentration of budget-making and other authority by European Union bodies. The Great Recession is redolent with such contradictions, including here in the US where secession fever has gripped parts of the country following President Obama’s reelection.
More than 750,000 Americans from around the country have petitioned the White House website since the election to allow their respective states to secede, with many signatories hailing from “red” states comprising the former Confederacy. These latter-day rebels want freedom from Washington just like many Catalans want to sever ties with Madrid, yet they come from what conservative argot might label “moocher” states that get far more monetary benies from the federal government than they pay for.
According to a 2006 study by the Tax Foundation, for example, Mississippi takes in $1.77 in federal largesse in the form of retirement and disability expenditures, grants to state and local governments, etc., for every $1 it antes up to Uncle Sam via income taxes on individuals and businesses and other levies and duties. Meanwhile, Alabama gets $1.71 and South Carolina $1.38. (The figures haven’t change much in the past six years). Yet, these places are home to some of the most retrograde Tea Party-friendly politicians that drone on about “states’ rights” and federal tyranny.
At least Catalans can plausibly argue that they get a bum deal from their federal arrangement. By contrast, whining red staters from the south sound like ungrateful brats who want their cake and to eat it, too—while bitterly complaining the whole while. Listening to the most bombastic among them, you’d think that America is an authoritarian state along the lines of Spain under Franco, where only in the safety of one’s home can one whisper that ever-so-dangerous word, “Obama.”