The referendum vote on Sunday, Oct. 1, in Catalonia was expected by some international observers to be the first phase in the process of establishing full independence for Spain’s wealthy autonomous northeastern region.
Instead, it turned out to be a brutal and bloody confrontation between the central government and the 7.5 million citizens of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona (the four Spanish provinces that make up the region).
Depending on the sources you consult, somewhere between 500 and 850 people (including 12 police officers) were seriously injured as national government forces in riot gear tried to disrupt the polling process.
The optics for the Spanish government were terrible, and the use of police force to try to squelch the Catalans’ deep-rooted secessionist movement only made the international community more sympathetic to their cause.
This was not the first time the Catalans took to the ballot boxes to try to gain independence from Spain.
Three years ago, the region held a nonbinding vote, with a resounding 80 percent of participants favoring an independent Catalan state.
But, just like this time around, Madrid rejected the proposal of the November 2014 plebiscite as unconstitutional, insisting that any referendum that involved separation from the state was “illegal and illegitimate.”
And it is precisely Spain’s intransience on the topic of Catalan independence that is at the core of what has become Europe’s most crucial territorial crisis of this decade.
Despite repeated prodding from the European Union and other international brokers, Madrid stubbornly refuses to even enter into dialogue with the Catalans.
Rather than trying to find a viable solution to the growing discontent of the Catalans, the Mariano Rajoy administration continues to impose restrictive limitations on the right of the people of the region to determine their own political fate.
Tensions only increased late last month when the Spanish government threatened to arrest 700 regional mayors and close Catalan websites that were endorsing the referendum.
In order to understand the entrenched sentiment of the Catalan people, you have to go back in history.
The Catalan people have never felt a part of Spain, and have a distinct culture and language.
As far back as the 12th century, Catalonia was perceived as a separate kingdom, with its own traditions and history.
But in the 16th century, its leaders made a pact to Spain to join in a political union.
The majority of Catalans felt that that contract was a betrayal and did not identify themselves as Spaniards.
During the repressive 36-year regime of Francisco Franco, the Catalans were treated as second-class citizens and forced to assimilate against their will into Spanish society.
Symbols of Catalan identity and the use of the Catalan language were forbidden, and parents were forced to give their children Spanish names.
All of this contributed to a renaissance of Catalan culture after the fall of Franco in 1975.
In order to appease the growing resentment against Madrid, the central government finally began to offer the region some degree of conditional autonomy.
In 1979, a new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia was issued, restoring the Catalan parliament, a step many Catalans saw as a first step toward full independence.
As one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, Catalonia maintains its own police force and powers over affairs such as education and public health.
But in 2010, the Spanish courts ruled that the Catalan appeal for full independence had no legal basis and social and political divisions came to a loggerhead.
Not all Catalans want to separate from Spain, but the majority clearly do.
Sunday’s bloodstained referendum is now a battle cry for an even more intense confrontation, and Madrid has painted itself as the villain in the scenario.
Unless Madrid budges, the Catalan struggle will become an even bigger international cause célèbre that will fester and deteriorate Spain’s global image and multilateral relations.
Catalonia accounts for 15 percent of Spain’s total population, and 20 percent of its GDP.
Madrid understandably feels it needs to prevent the cession of Catalonia in order to keep its territorial integrity and financial solvency.
But the cost of maintaining a people repressed may end up being too high a price to pay for Spain as the international community takes sides with the Catalans.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]