Imagine a place where citizens don’t have the right to vote. Their right to self-determination, their right to freedom of speech, and their right to dictate their own futures cease to exist in a chaotic few days. No, this isn’t authoritarian North Korea or an invasive Russian government. The most recent violations occurred in the Western world, in the autonomous region of Catalonia, a political division of Spain.
Spain’s system of government exists in a highly decentralized state, with 17 distinct autonomous communities holding significant say over their regions’ activities. Such is the case for Catalonia. Catalans hold a high degree of autonomy compared to those in the other regions of Spain, despite attempts by the central government in Madrid to force them into assimilation. During fascist Francisco Franco’s regime, anything resembling Catalan nationalism was banned, including government institutions, public gatherings discussing democracy or liberalism, and even use of the Catalan language. After his attempts to destroy the culture of the region, Catalans worked to build back their identity but signed on to the Spanish Constitution in 1978. Since this time, support for an independent nation has grown rapidly, beginning with an independence referendum in 2014, and another this past week, both receiving declarations of illegality by the Spanish central government.
So why do Catalans want to leave? The first reason brings to mind a vital reason for U.S. independence: taxes. Madrid’s policy of taxation towards Catalans creates anger for those in support of a separate nation. As Spain’s economic center, thanks to Barcelona, 21 percent of Spanish tax revenue is pulled from Catalonia. This revenue is then distributed across Spain, meaning Catalans don’t see the entire portion of their taxes used in their own area. This tax percentage roughly corresponds to the overall percentage of Spain’s economy contributed by Catalonia, which sits at 20 percent.
Aside from economic disparities, a stronger force is driving the passion for independence: cultural identity. I had the chance last week to contact a friend of mine living in Barcelona, and I asked him how he saw himself within the movement. Beyond identifying as Catalan (not Spanish), he views college kids’ role in the secession as historical and a part of something greater. He’s not alone in seeing Catalan culture as separate from Spanish culture. Catalans speak their own language, not a dialect of Spanish. This is misunderstood by many outside observers, who perceive it as comparable to the difference between British English and American English. In reality, Catalan is a mix of Italian, Spanish, Occitan, and Sardinian. Catalonia’s people also proudly fly their own flag alongside the Spanish flag. The apparent concern among Catalans is the repression of their distinct culture while members of the Spanish state, an understandable fear given the repressive policies of Franco, and the current Spanish government.
This background information brings us to the current political turmoil in Catalonia. On Oct. 1, a referendum was held regarding the question of independence. When the date was announced earlier this year, Madrid decried the vote as illegal and arrested government officials in favor of the vote. When voters went to the polls, videos emerged of national police assaulting voters and protesters, resulting in over 800 injuries. If you haven’t seen the videos, look them up, as many are graphic and troubling for a developed nation. The visual evidence is incriminating and shows blatant human rights violations. The police in these videos weren’t Catalan. Due to the refusal of the local force to turn on its own people, the national Spanish government was forced to call in the National Police. Neutral observers, including Amnesty International, condemned these actions, but the European Union remained largely partial to Spain due to its economic interest in a united country. The results of the referendum showed overwhelming Catalan support for independence, with almost 92 percent of Catalans voting in favor. However, the turnout only hit 42 percent, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the vote when compared to high voter turnouts for independence, like the one in Scotland (almost 85 percent). One reason for the decreased turnout was the aggressive shutdown of over 500 polling stations by the Spanish government, and the fear many voters apparently felt showing up to vote. Their concern was valid after news broke of the National Police assaulting early voters.
Not only does Spain refuse to accept the result of the vote, but it won’t allow any attempt at a fair referendum. Opponents in the international community argue that the movement is technically illegal due to the Spanish constitution, a sentiment echoed by the European Union. While the vote is technically illegal due to Spanish law, independence movements throughout history have ignored legality when they felt their rights to self-determination were being oppressed. The United States illegally declared independence from Britain, and yet today we see such a separation as necessitated by the colonists’ recognition of inequality. Throughout history, this fundamental issue of self-determination is one that frequently reemerges. Regardless of whether one supports or doesn’t support the actual secession of Catalonia, one should support their right to choose. It’s time for Spain to give Catalonia legal means to choose their path, and if they don’t, Catalans have the basic human right to forcefully secede.
Jack Leger is a member of the class of 2021. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.