Can forgiveness alter the course of nations? Spain is about to find out after nine leaders of Catalonia’s separatist movement walked out of prison on Wednesday, cutting short their 13-year sentences for sedition.
The nine politicians and independence activists were pardoned for what Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez believes will allow “a new era of dialogue” between Catalonia, a region that includes Barcelona and feels it is culturally distinct, and the rest of Spain.
“There is a time for punishment and a time for concord,” said Mr. Sánchez, who faces strong opposition to the move from Spanish conservatives.
The nine were convicted for their role in a 2017 referendum on Catalan independence that a court ruled to be unconstitutional. As Mr. Sánchez pointed out, they were jailed for their unconstitutional actions, not their ideas. The pardon is only a partial one, conditional on them not holding public office or trying to form a breakaway state.
Still, says Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya, their freedom is an “expression of a society’s desire to forgive.” And it has led to the possibility of fresh talks on Catalonia’s future in coming days.
The pro-independence movement has been Spain’s biggest political problem for decades. It has also influenced Europe’s debate over how to balance demands for independence by certain peoples with the sanctity of national borders, such as with Kosovo and Serbia, Scotland and the United Kingdom, and eastern and western Ukraine.
The pardon, stated Catalan daily El Periódico, “is not an easy decision, but an essential one. It is not the solution, but a necessary condition to start finding it. It is not yet a reconciliation, but it is a sign that there is a willingness not to remain stuck in a sterile and indefinite confrontation.”
The pandemic played a part in the government granting a pardon. “We have all learned the importance of living together and working together,” the prime minister said. And in a speech directly to Catalans in their language, he said, “Catalans, us estimem” ( “Catalans, we love you” ).
Spain’s act of forgiveness toward the nine individuals – a form of love in action – has yet to play out in a political solution. But it may unblock a deadlock, as El Periódico put it. Their freedom is a sign of freedom from a cycle of bitterness and revenge.