Operation Catalonia: Spain’s assault on democracy

So much has been happening in this country for so long that it is impossible for mere mortals to keep track of everything, let alone chronicle or process it. You need degrees in law, modern languages, history, economics, political science, philosophy, a prodigious memory and a vast database to even scratch the surface. Information overload is a problem too: such a litany of horrors, crimes, lies, offence, repression; such a bewildering confluence of past and present. And how do you talk about these things without offending Spanish sensibilities; a practically impossible task when Spanish sensitivity regarding Catalonia is a one-way street. Although quick to take offence, most are unable to empathise.


Friday’s peaceful demonstrations marked four months since Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart were jailed in Soto del Real prison and 106 days for Joaquim Forn and Oriol Junqueras in Estremera, both around 650 km from home. This is a cruel policy known as ‘dispersal’, normally reserved by the Spanish state and judiciary for the families and friends of ETA prisoners. El Nacional editor, José Antich, pointed out that they had spent more nights behind bars than PSOE interior minister in the 1980s, José Barrionuevo, organiser of state-sponsored terrorist organisation, GAL, the clandestine death squads responsible for more than two dozen murders between 1983 and 1987. Rat-a-tat-tat, as Felipe González might say.

Perhaps the appeals of the Catalan prisoners to be released on bail would have prospered if they had declared “I’m Spanish, European, Muslim and Catalan, but not an independentist” as did a defendant appearing in court recently, accused of belonging to a jihadist cell in Terrassa in 2014. Obviously, the word ‘Muslim’ would have to be replaced by ‘Catholic’ for this to work.

Yesterday, modest memorials marked the six months that have passed since the trauma of August’s terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. The Ripoll imam that put together the cell was an informant for Spain’s National Intelligence Centre, CNI. There will be no inquiry and the details of the relationship remain state secrets, but the possibilty that the state might have been complicit in the attacks by failing to share information with the Catalan security services – which is in fact the norm – has caused shock and pain. Many feel that the Spanish government allowed the attacks to go ahead in the hope of derailing the independence process.

The attempt to discredit the Mossos and Catalan security forces following the attacks should not be forgotten either. Adding insult to injury, the Spanish government and its media immediately played politics with the attacks, criticising an exemplary police reaction to and resolution of the various situations that had ensued. The operation was successfully directed by Joaquim Forn, Catalan interior minister at the time, now in jail on rebellion and sedition charges, and led by police chief, major Josep Lluís Trapero, who has since been demoted for not allowing his Mossos to help Spanish police beat voters on 1 October. He faces the same charges. By the end of referendum day, the Mossos had actually managed to confiscate more ballot papers without hurting many people at all. During the terrible days of the attacks, Trapero and Forn cut the unlikely figures of competent politician and hero police chief, much to the embarrassment and chagrin of the Spanish government and its security forces. The smear campaign was nauseatingly unfair and politically motivated. El Periódico editor, Enric Hernàndez, deserves particular mention in this respect. Their subsequent persecution should surprise no one. Spain is a proud beast.

The treatment of the four independentist prisoners, the pre-trial humiliation and punishment, is redolent of that meted out to suspected terrorists, because that is precisely how the Spanish government and media portray them and wish them to be seen: as terrorists, as criminals, as delinquents. It’s the ‘independentist equals terrorist’ narrative, in which the prerequisite of violence is ignored or invented. Perhaps they should count themselves lucky not to have been tortured or executed, the ‘it could be worse’ narrative.

Coincidentally, this week also brought us the decision by the European Court of Human Rights that the two ETA members convicted for murdering two people in the 2006 attack in a car park at Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport were subjected to mistreatment, but that the abuse suffered did not constitute torture. This brought a wave of testimonies from people previously imprisoned for terrorist offences denouncing torture as being systemic in the Spanish penal system for those detained on terrorist charges. The impunity proffered to Spain’s torturers both pre- and post-amnesty is horrifying. How have they got away with the literally thousands of cases of torture denounced between 1960 and the present day. The truth is that the torture of terrorists is generally accepted on the grounds that they deserve it.

Reconquest: the strategy

Imagine a government involved in an elaborate smokescreen to distract from its own failings, its own moral, political and economic bankruptcy, a strategy to keep the restive natives in Catalonia too busy defending themselves and trying to regain their hard-won freedoms to continue building their republic, while Spain attempts to recover a remnant of its once great empire, a lost colony. And while everyone is again focused on the Case of the Catalans, nobody is talking about Gürtel or the umpteen other corruption cases that have tainted this Partido Popular government at every level.

It is the same story every week and it is a story the international press does not care or dare to tell. It is an aggressive, generally illegal and certainly immoral multi-pronged strategy, this reconquest.


It was misuse of the law – article 155 of the Spanish Constitution – that justified the National Police and Civil Guard assaults on voters on 1st October in an attempt to stop or wreck the referendum. The Spanish police behaved like the hooligan members of Spain’s myriad violent far-right groupings. Many of them are actually members of these groups. It was more like an unleashing of attack dogs than the proportionate and professional operation Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos claimed it to have been. ‘Go get ’em!’ had been the cry as they were seen off by their communities in Spain. ‘Let us at ’em!’ had been their cry from their hotel foyers in Catalonia. The fact that Pérez de los Cobos summarily ignored the duty of the police to protect the peaceful coexistence of the citizenry is seemingly of no importance. Reasons of state took precedence and they wreaked havoc. There will be no official inquiry. First it was lied about, and now it is just one more folder marked ‘state secret’.

It has been the misapplication of articles 472 (rebellion) and 544 (sedition) of the Spanish penal code that has allowed the detention, imprisonment or indictment of pro-independence politicians, civil leaders and civil servants. Article 155 has helped with the demotions, sackings and suspensions from office. In a pre-Christmas post-prandial press conference, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria appealed for the people of Catalonia’s votes in the run-up to the government-imposed regional elections, boasting that it was Mariano Rajoy and the Partido Popular that had been responsible for ‘decapitating’ the pro-independence government and the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. At the same time, she failed to give any credit to Spain’s judiciary for the ‘decapitation’, a curious admission of the complete absence of a separation of powers in modern Spain.

The second wave of hearings for Catalan politicians accused of rebellion and sedition started last Tuesday with Mireia Boya of the CUP being released. Many more will appear before the judge in the coming weeks and months. They are all indicted for their beliefs; for their ideology. However, their right to hold these beliefs is enshrined in the Spanish Constitution and, legally speaking, all the charges are shaky at the very least. At worst, they are legal aberrations.

It is not only the government that uses the courts to attack the pro-independence movement. Far-right political party, Vox, has taken over from extortionate ‘union’ association, Manos Limpias (‘Clean Hands’) – the organisation that did for judge Baltasar Garzón’s career – in bringing civil suits against those they consider to be enemies of Spain. Once Anna Gabriel, also of the CUP, has appeared in court next week, if they are not satisfied with the judgements, they will file another suit to drag her, and Boya, back to court. Vox claim the politicians formed an integral part of a network conspiring to undertake a ‘coup d’état’.

The declaration of independence of the Catalan Republic and the simultaneous application of article 155 has to go down as one of the most extreme bittersweet moments for any European movement in modern history. Article 155 was coming whether the independentists took a step backwards or not, so they took a step forwards. The Spanish government had neither liked nor wanted the last Catalan government and had done everything in its power to ‘legally’ block it. Now they took the opportunity to force elections, and if possible a result favourable to Spanish unionism. But they lost, and badly. The Partido Popular, the party of government, achieved a derisory 4.5% of the vote.

Rather than respect the result, they have decided to continue down the judicial route, use the law to disqualify as many of the representatives democratically elected on 21 December that they think they might be able to pin something on, no matter how much of a stretch it might be. The fact that the formation of the Catalan government is pending judicial approval is an anti-democratic obscenity camouflaged, not very well it has to be said, by the Spanish government, the EU and their media’s ‘the rule of law must be followed’ line. The ‘violent, dangerous, criminal, delinquent, fugitive from justice’ narrative used to describe the independentists is far more applicable to the current Spanish government, its partners and its prevaricating judiciary, but any sanctions for the Spanish government’s excesses remain a long way off and one must never forget that Spain normally gets away with it, whatever ‘it’ may be.

Do not forget either that, for years, the Constitutional Court has struck down every progressive social bill approved by the Catalan parliament to come before it. Despite the Spanish government and media’s ‘inactive Catalan parliament’ narrative, the truth is everything that the last Catalan government tried to do was legally blocked.

Far-right support is always welcome

Saturday also saw a small demonstration in Balsareny by far-right grouping ‘Por España me atrevo’ (For Spain, I Dare) in association with far-right political party, Democracia Nacional (National Democracy) in support of Raúl Macià, currently serving a prison sentence for drug trafficking, having been rearrested while on bail for vandalism. Macià is a friend of Balsareny’s most feared family, fascist hooligans who have been terrorising their neighbours for years. The idea is that the unlikely hooligan hero, Macià, has been kidnapped by the pro-independence judiciary and is in fact a political prisoner. He is to Junqueras, what Tabarnia is to Catalonia.

This particular narrative is really far-fetched and you might ask what this has to do with the superficially more moderate right-wing government of Spain. The answer would be nothing, if it were not for the fact that Mariano Rajoy, Albert Rivera, Inés Arrimadas and Xavier García Albiol have all publicly expressed support for this poor put-upon family and their friends, these victims of Catalan persecution, these innocents, despite the violence and tumult that the family from hell have brought to their community.

Of course, the demonstration ended with the traditional assaults by fascist hooligans, this time on the clients of a bar. Far-right demonstrations always end in violence in Spain. Spanish unionist demonstrations often end the same way. There is no point in pretending they don’t. Tanked up on booze, energised by whatever else, and roused by fascist fervour, far-right demonstrators always find some hairy, lefty, hippy, indepe, separatist, Catalan, LGBTQ person or migrant to give a few slaps or a kicking to. There were 139 violent incidents, including 86 physical assaults in the final quarter of 2017. The Spanish unionist right uses the far-right. Publicly, its leaders distance themselves from the fascist hooligans, but there is a notable overlap in their core beliefs. It is also thanks to a similar ideological empathy from police and the judiciary that the far-right in Spain enjoys a surprising level of impunity.

Spanish nationalist and unionist organisation, SCC – Societat Civil Catalana (Catalan Civil Society), was formed in 2014. They came up with the concept of a supposed ‘silent majority’ in Catalonia opposed to independence, but are themselves opposed to a referendum, the only mechanism capable of deciding the argument, because they know it is a referendum they might lose. Theirs is the narrative of the societal ‘division and fracture’ caused by independentism, so beloved of the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos. They have also succeeded in bringing together the unionist right and far-right after three years of trying. They are still not as numerous as they need to be, and are unlikely to garner increased support taking into account the events of the past six months and the increasing discomfort of unionism’s more moderate elements. For the Spanish president to meet them last week but at the same time refuse a meeting with democratically chosen president of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, was a scandalous snub, and yet another insult to the democratic process.


The Catalan school system

A hispanicisation of the Catalan culture has been a forlorn goal of the unionist right for a long time and one it would have failed to achieve even if it had won the election on 21 December. They have since decided to put the plan into effect anyway, and what a nasty racist plan it is. It is an attack on Catalan culture: the Catalan school system and the Catalan media, the ‘machinery of indoctrination’ according to the Spanish government’s narrative. It is not a new plan. Catalan anti-Catalanist and Spanish nationalist party, Ciudadanos, was founded in 2006 with this very purpose. No Spanish government in democracy has ever been comfortable with Catalan differentiation or autonomy.

Since Wert declared that his 2015 education law was partly designed to ‘hispanicise the Catalans’, but was actually designed to hispanicise all Spanish children, the Spanish government has been itching to have another crack at central Catalan and the Catalan school system, having tested the ground with Valencian, North-western Catalan, Balearic and Aranese, a variety of Occitan. However, the Catalan education system is safeguarded by the Statute of Catalonia and any changes to the system must be approved by the Catalan parliament. With article 155 in hand and direct rule in place, the Spanish government think they might be able to force through some changes. Again, although the way their objectives can be legally achieved is unclear, this has not stopped them so far. This was evident from the garbled message delivered on the issue by the Spanish government’s culture minister and spokesperson, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, last Friday. ‘Of course we’ll do it,’ he said, without elaborating. Mariano Rajoy also promised SCC action on the issue and Soraya lamented the lack of activity on any issue. What were they doing in Catalonia? ‘Are they on holiday?’ she mused with that combination of contempt and disingenuousness that characterises her.

As usual, president-in-waiting, Albert Rivera, was on hand to demand more immediate and more extreme measures to limit the use and necessity of the Catalan language in schools and the administration. Criticising the conservative Spanish government for not going far enough in its ‘defence of the nation’ is also the default position of the far-right in Spain. Incidentally, the defence of the Spain, its flag and anthem, are all to be incorporated into the school curriculum to boost the image of the monarchy and the armed forces in an agreement recently reached between the Spanish government’s Defence and Education departments.

The renewed Partido Popular and Ciudadanos offensive on Catalan culture has met with general censure from most other political forces in both Catalonia and Spain. Though the Catalan education system is designed to be inclusive and to promote social cohesion in Catalonia, its detractors push the ‘Catalan indoctrination’ and ‘zombie nation’ narratives, none more so than the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos. ‘Educational vandalism’ someone called it.

The media

Last week the Civil Guard interviewed Mediapro CEO, Jaume Roures, believing him to have formed part of a pro-independence executive committee based on intercepted phone conversations of which he was not a part. Roures, described the theory underlying the investigation as being of a ‘low intellectual level’ for making connections that ‘even a small child would not make’. It is no coincidence that Roures’ company, Mediapro, were responsible for two particular documentaries that angered the Spanish state. The first was ‘Las Cloacas del Estado’ (The sewers of the state) about the clandestine ‘operation Catalonia’ directed by vice-president Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and the then interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz. The operation was designed to destabilise and damage the independence movement secretly employing members of the Spanish police force to carry out the covert operations. It was also Mediapro that produced the documentary ‘1-O’ about the referendum on 1 October.

In recent months the CCMA – Catalonia’s public broadcaster, comprising TV3, 324 and Catalunya Radio among others – has been suffering a funding crisis due to a new VAT rule that will cost them €147 million. Ironically, 2017 had been the broadcaster’s most successful year in terms of viewer and listener numbers, and advertising revenue. To rub salt into the wound, defence minister, Mª Dolores de Cospedal, last week called for a review of the CCMA, also under the auspices of magical article 155, despite independent studies making TV3 the most impartial broadcaster in Spain. There are those ‘indoctrination’ and ‘zombie nation’ narratives again. For Director General, Vicent Sanchis, it has been a hard first year in charge.

Meanwhile, at RTVE, Spain’s public broadcaster, there are no reasons for Spanish government alarm, although everyone who watches it can testify that the organisation is little more than a mouthpiece for central government, with a workforce so unhappy at recent levels of censorship and editorial control, they have actually dared to express it openly in low-key protests. Is RTVE’s president, José Antonio Sánchez, having as beleaguered a time as his Catalan counterpart? Of course he isn’t. He has been giving more of his now notorious speeches in which he exalts the joint glories of Spain’s language and history. ‘Spanish is a wonderful language,’ he said. ‘Charles V used it to speak with God.’ To general bafflement, he went on to declare that there was ‘nobody in New York who needs English for anything. The force of Spanish is brutal.’ He has previous for the extreme nature of his Spanish nationalism. Last year at a similar conference, he asserted that, in the Americas, Spain had been ‘not a colonising, but an evangelising and civilising influence. Colonists promoted much of the infrastructure, including churches or hospitals’ and that ‘the discovery of America is the most important event in the history of humanity, after the birth of Christ. And the work of Spain has been of such magnitude that for centuries the enemies of the empire have done their best to discredit us.’

In addition to television and radio, the Spanish authorities are paying ever more attention to social media accounts expressing openly pro-independence or anti-government opinions. As well as using the Gag Law and hate crime laws to pursue people expressing such opinions, accounts with large followings have completely disappeared from the map and influential Twitter accounts have been suffering mass unfollowings that run to thousands, with some of the unfollowers being replaced by bots to mask fluctuations in numbers. It comes as no surprise that, since 2 October, Twitter Spain has been directed by a cousin of the king.

And what have the monarch and his spouse been up to this month? Well, a few weeks ago King Philip presented the much-coveted Medal of the Fine Arts, the highest cultural honour one can receive in Spain, to its youngest ever recipient, Julián López ‘El Juli’, a bullfighter, and Queen Letizia generated hundreds of articles about her clothes. That’s all I know.

* * *

Although José Antonio Sánchez might think Spain can recolonise the Catalans, Spain’s other nations, and then, who knows, maybe the Americas again, perhaps with some help from La Raza (The Race), ‘Spain’ is not what it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems too old, poor and unable to adapt to move forward, plagued by ideologies from the mud of the 20th century, still tarnished by the state crimes of the Franco era, unable to admit to the crimes of the democratic era, and now committing a whole new range of offences in the name of the state. And the hatred. For the far-right in Spain many Iberian peoples are still considered subhuman, no better than animals, especially those that consider their region to be a nation and fight to preserve its identity.

Despite the assurances of the Spanish right, Spanishness does not seem modern, liberal, inclusive and open to diversity. Quite the opposite. At times over the past six months it has seemed completely deranged. But it still has an army, paramiltary police, compliant judges, a compliant media, a compliant EU and control of the Catalan government and, with the bollock-brained cruelty of a matador, it seems intent on torturing its victim into submission.

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