Why Catalonia matters for Latin America

Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona. Photo: Carmen Peñaranda/unsplash.com

Spain is partial to inquisitions.

The Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición (Spanish Inquisition) spread fear and loathing throughout the empire from 1478 until 1834 in its effort to purge heretics.

Mission creep meant that ethnic intolerance and social repression eventually displaced its original intention as a form of Catholic doctrinal regulation within what was then a religiously plural society.

Prejudices against Judaism and conversos became indistinguishable over the years from efforts to control Protestantism, impose censorship, and suppress witchcraft, blasphemy, sodomy and freemasonry.

Branches of the Holy Office were established in Latin America, and as early as 1528 its zealots in Mexico were burning Jews at the stake. It is telling that it was only the collapse of Spain’s empire that finally led to the permanent abolition of the Inquisition.

The inquisition going on in Catalonia right now is a modern variation on an old theme. The purge that is being conducted by the Spanish central government shows signs of responding to wider, anti-Catalan sentiment in the rest of the divided country.

The latest heretics to face the pyre – on charges of rebellion and sedition, merely for staging a referendum on independence last month – include the speaker and members of the Catalan parliament. It appears that Madrid is bent on destroying a heresy, not merely jailing its detractors.

Latin America

Why should this matter for Latin America? After all, Spain was kicked out during the Independence wars from 1810 to 1821, even though it launched attempts to retake Venezuela in 1827 and Mexico in 1829, briefly recolonised Santo Domingo 1861, and retained Cuba and Puerto Rico until its defeat in the Spanish-American war of 1898.

It matters for several reasons, starting with the obvious parallels between the way Madrid is treating Catalonia and both its own imperial and, more recently, its authoritarian past.

The intransigent refusal by central government to discuss nationalist claims that would stand a good chance of achieving democratic legitimacy were it not for the fact that any attempt to ascertain this is being obstructed, bears striking parallels with the behaviour of the Spanish Crown during the late colonial period. Latin America learned all too quickly, and painfully, that independence from Spain would only be gained through force of arms.

Madrid’s recent behaviour evokes even more uncomfortable parallels with Spain’s darkest era, the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, especially within Catalonia itself. Madrid’s use of police violence against citizens trying to vote in the independence referendum on 1 October was a haunting reminder of Spain’s history of rightwing repression that for many unfortunate people who found themselves at the wrong end of police batons evoked the dictator’s unholy ghost.

Franco was a brute: annulling democratic liberties in Catalonia, persecuting parties, imposing strict censorship, and banning leftwing activity. The region lost its autonomy and all resistance was suppressed as the generalissimo filled his jails with political prisoners. An estimated 4,000 Catalans were executed between 1938 and 1953, and many more fled into exile.

Just as Franco imposed his version of political order with repression, Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has chosen to quell separatism not by persuasion but by force and threats.

Rajoy’s rigid stance of absolutely no negotiation in the vein of Franco directly contradicts the justification he cites of being a democratically elected leader operating within the bounds of Spain’s constitution. This is legalistic subterfuge: constitutions change all the time – Spain’s has taken at least 12 different forms since 1808, and ironically, it was the 1812 constitution that provoked the collapse of its empire.

Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP), it must be remembered, is heir to the Alianza Popular led by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a minister under Franco whose party was long perceived by the public during the transition to a fragile democracy after 1975–77 as loyal to Franco’s legacy and both reactionary and authoritarian.

Indeed, it is almost incredible to observe, in the modern European context, that the Spanish government spokesman Pablo Casado directly invoked the bloody repression of Catalonia under Franco when warning the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont that he risked a fate similar to that of the former president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, who was executed by the regime in 1940.

In Catalonia, Franco’s dark memory lingers like a bad smell, and it has never been purged from collective consciousness through official efforts at reconciliation since the Civil War, whose deep wounds still fester in the hearts of many Catalans beneath a thin skin.

Moreover, the dictator is still revered by Spanish fascists, neo-nazis and the far right – all of whom have assumed a greater profile in their opposition to the Catalan independence movement.

Worse still, Spain’s top military commander, General Fernando Alejandre – who bears an uncanny resemblance to Franco – has identified the situation in Catalonia as the main threat to the country’s democratic security, making thinly veiled threats that the military is “prepared to defend the nation” if required. In a truly democratic state, such threats by a military figure could be interpreted as sedition of another kind.

Franco’s story cannot, in fact, be divorced from Latin America’s own political development, which was discernibly influenced by the fate of the second Spanish republic of 1931–39.

Mexico, in particular, was a loyal supporter of the republican cause, and its government spurned Anglo-French support for the nationalists. The Mexican titan, President Lázaro Cárdenas, believed the Spanish civil war was similar to Mexico’s own revolution of 1910–17, and continued to recognise the republic as the legal government of Spain. Up to 90 Mexicans are thought to have fought in the republican International Brigades, and the Spanish republican government in exile maintained an embassy in Mexico City until 1976, something conjured up recently by Puigdemont’s midnight flit to Brussels.

Moreover, even though the governments of some Latin American countries such as Argentina were openly supportive of the Spanish nationalists, many of their citizens were not, and Argentine anti-fascist social and political movements mobilised in significant numbers to support the republican side and to aid exiles and refugees.

The Spanish civil war and the role played by Catalonia radicalised some of Latin America’s most important figures.

The poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, a key figure in Chilean political as well as cultural history, arguably embraced communism as a result of his experiences of the Spanish war. Nicolás Guillén, the poet laureate of revolutionary Cuba, travelled to Spain at the height of the conflict for a congress of writers and artists, and remained there as a magazine reporter. The young Che Guevara as a child was an avid reader of radical poets linked to the Spanish conflict. Che’s own uncle, Córdova Itúrburu, also travelled to Spain in 1937 as a journalist, and his dispatches were read hungrily by his nine-year-old nephew.

As most of the Spanish exiles that journeyed to Latin America were from higher, educated classes, the region’s leftwing movements benefited significantly from the intellectual and ideological resources that they brought with them.

In Mexico, the impact was profound: Spanish exiles, many of them Catalan, integrated quickly within intellectual, professional and cultural fields, and with their skills became an important catalyst to development.

Spain, the EU and Latin America

A second set of reasons why the Catalan crisis matters for Latin America are associated with its potential impact both upon Spain’s own relations in the region, but also those of the European Union.

Spain sees its former colonies as a top foreign policy priority, maintains strong political, business, and cultural links with them, and devotes proportionally greater levels of resources to diplomacy, aid, investment and cultural activity in Latin America than any other developed country.

There is little doubt that the Spanish political crisis will weaken this influence, mainly by exposing the government in Madrid to charges of hypocrisy.

In 1991, for example, Spain founded the annual round of Ibero-American Summits as a forum to promote political dialogue among government leaders at a time when Latin America was emerging from its own, long period of authoritarian rule. Needless to say, political dialogue has not been high on the agenda of Rajoy’s government in its dealings with Catalan leaders.

Moreover, this summit process has had limited influence mainly because of the divisions between left and right in its ranks – divisions that can easily feed off perceptions fuelled by the rightwing Spanish government’s intemperance in Catalonia that, when all is said and done, it takes sides. The rightwing Spanish Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (FAES) thinktank, whose current president is a former PP prime minister, José María Aznar, has been particularly active in Latin America.

Those divisions were laid bare in the starkly different responses within Latin America to the Catalan referendum. While rightwing, pro-business governments refused to rock the boat – Mexico, for example, going against its own traditions, was quick to state that it will not recognise Catalonia as a sovereign state – leftwing leaders were supportive. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, for example, blasted what he described as Spanish repression and called on Catalans to resist.

Rajoy’s regime has also damaged perceptions of Spain as a progressive actor in Latin America’s own, troubled attempts to come to terms with its authoritarian legacy. In 1998, for example, it was a Spanish indictment of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for human rights violations that led to his arrest in London, the first time that European judges had applied the principle of universal jurisdiction.

This image will inevitably be affected by the inquisition against democratically elected politicians now underway within Catalonia. It will be hard for Latin America judiciaries to take seriously Spanish attempts to pursue justice against the enemies of democracy in the region, when it appears that at home Spain now categorises democratic politicians themselves in similar terms.

Simultaneously, the Catalan crisis will further weaken European Union influence in Latin America after several decades in which the EU has played a largely positive role supporting democratisation and supporting institution-building.

European interest in Latin America was largely awoken with the accession to the community of Spain and Portugal in 1986, and has been mediated ever since by the special relationship that these countries enjoy there.

The European community’s overtures towards Latin America were initially premised during the 1980s upon the San José Process, by which it assumed the role of political mediation in Central America’s civil wars. Since then, Europe has been influential in promoting peace and reconciliation.

How ironic, then, that the EU has steadfastly refused to play anything like such a positive role mediating the crisis in Catalonia, and in the process has generated genuine dismay among the Catalans who are Spain’s most avid supporters of the European project. Such was the faith that the Catalan leadership had in the EU as an honest broker in this affair, that Puigdemont headed directly for Brussels following Madrid’s crackdown.

A series of EU–Latin America and Caribbean summits over the years have agreed a roster of “shared values” committing both regions to the preservation of democracy and the protection of human rights, both of which appear to wear somewhat thin when looked at alongside Madrid’s heavy-handed behaviour in Catalonia.

The EU has also provided a potent model of integration for Latin American initiatives such as Mercosur and the Andean Community, not least on the basis of subsidiarity – a principle that advocates the greatest possible levels of autonomy downwards.

Subsidiarity was enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht treaty and the Treaty on European Union (TEU), and forms a cornerstone of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). In the European case, it has influenced both relations between sovereign states and the emerging European bureaucracy, but also how sub-regions have asserted their claim to greater local autonomy. As a result, subsidiarity forms the philosophical basis of EU regional policy (known by its misnomer, “Cohesion Policy”) that aims to deal with the many disparities among the 28 countries and 273 regions that comprise it. In short, subsidiarity is the foundation of the popular notion of “a Europe of the regions”.

But this principle has also been influential in debates about political reform in the young democracies of Latin America, where decentralisation and local autonomy, from the state to the municipal levels, have been seen potentially as important tools for improving citizenship rights and governance.

It seems clear that the EU – riven by centrifugal strains and populism – has been turning its back upon subsidiarity as it circles the wagons against its own existential threats. This will alter perceptions in Latin America about Europe as a model of integration, with potentially huge long-term implications.

Europe is important in Latin America not just as a trading partner and cultural madre patria, but also as a counterweight to US hegemony in the western hemisphere. Indeed, the very term “Latin America” is a European concept, to distinguish this part of the world from its Anglo-Saxon northern neighbour.

That role as counterweight is more than just symbolic: it has been an important pillar of multilateralism, challenging Washington’s often clumsy unilateralism in its back yard. The Ibero-American summits, for example, were notable for including Cuba while excluding the US.

Anything that weakens that role, by implication strengthens opposite tendencies.

As Europe loses the legitimacy it once enjoyed as a beacon of democratic multilateralism in an increasingly divided world – a loss epitomised by the crisis in Catalonia – Latin American states will simply begin to look elsewhere for their alliances.