In Catalan family’s debate, an intimate view of independence saga

Discussing the pros and cons of Catalonian independence, a friendly argument reveals the complexity of their region's political conundrum.

Manu Fernandez/AP
Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont signs an independence declaration document after a parliamentary session in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Oct. 10. Mr. Puigdemont says he has a mandate to declare independence for the northeastern region, but proposes waiting 'a few weeks' in order to facilitate a dialogue with the government in Madrid.

Alex Ros is a burly, born-and-bred Catalan, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of Catalonian independence from Spain.

Which sets him at odds with his wife, Cristina Garcia, a delicate woman in a black silk blouse, who was brought up in the Spanish heartland of Castile and says she “cannot imagine” backing secession.

“He never thinks I’m right on the topic,” she says with a sigh.

And that makes them a pretty typical couple in today’s sharply divided Catalonia. Discussing their differences over a pre-dinner drink, though, it turns out that they agree on quite a lot as well.

Their good-natured banter, as they sit in the comfortable, high-ceilinged living room of their apartment in central Barcelona, illustrates the complexity and nuances of the political situation that the separatist Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont faces as he wrestles with Spain’s central government in Madrid.

Mr. Ros is a middle-aged manager of tourist rental apartments in Barcelona, a Mediterranean mecca for visitors. His wife, Cristina, is a translator. They have opposite goals, but they both take pride in being modern and moderate.

Felipe Dana/AP
Pro-independence supporters take part in a rally in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said during his speech in the parliament that the region remained committed to independence but said it should follow dialogue with the government in Madrid.

And both of them are relieved that President Puigdemont stepped back on Tuesday evening from the unequivocal unilateral declaration of independence that he had pledged to make.

'I can do the math'

Addressing the Catalan parliament, Puigdemont said he was “suspending the effects” of independence to allow time for negotiations with Madrid. Spanish Premier Mariano Rajoy, however, is still threatening to suspend Catalonia’s semi-autonomous status and impose direct rule from Madrid.

That would be an unprecedented step with unpredictable consequences. But even for Ros, a passionate independentista, the prospects of pursuing his breakaway dreams in the current circumstances are still riskier.

“I’ve been an independentista my entire life, but I can do the math. There was no majority on the side of declaring independence. I can’t decide for Cristina that she will be Catalan when there are more Cristinas living here than Alexes,” Ros says.

The Catalan government says that 90 percent of those who voted in a referendum Oct. 1 backed independence. But the vote was illegal, and only 43 percent of those eligible turned out to cast their ballot.

One of them was Ms. Garcia. Almost everyone in Catalonia who wants the region to remain part of Spain, as she does, boycotted the referendum; the central government and the courts had deemed it unconstitutional, and most unionists felt that a low turnout would help undermine its credibility.

“I decided to vote because I didn’t like that Madrid forbade people to do so,” she explains. “My grandmothers couldn’t vote because they lived in a dictatorship. I know the referendum violated the Constitution but I wanted to be able to vote.”

So did Alex, but he didn’t want his vote for independence to actually lead to a split. Only a legal referendum – agreed with Madrid the way the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 was agreed with London – would offer a realistic path to Catalan sovereignty, he says.

And the Oct. 1 referendum is backfiring, he points out, with leading banks and large businesses moving their headquarters out of Catalonia in recent days, for fear of what the future might hold.

“Catalans only realized what would happen after the referendum, when banks and companies started moving,” Ros says. “That awareness will hurt the separatist movement more than any disappointment over a suspended independence.”

Voters have also come to realize that, contrary to what Puigdemont had told them, a Catalonia that split from Spain unilaterally would be cold-shouldered by the rest of Europe and denied membership in the European Union. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have both publicly opposed Catalonian independence.

Unable to use the European common currency, the euro, Catalonia would risk serious devaluation and inflation, Ros says. “A pair of trousers that costs me 29.99 euros today would cost 59.99,” he speculates.

A 'revolution of hungry people'?

In Cristina’s view, Catalan nationalism is largely fueled by economic issues and grievances about the way tax revenues from the region – the richest in Spain – subsidize other parts of the country. Alex scoffs at that, emerging from the kitchen where he is preparing botifarra, a Catalan sausage, and a salad.

“This was never a revolution of hungry people, it’s about culture,” he insists, in a region with its own language, traditions, and a 600-year history of independence until the early 18th century.

That is a history that the couple’s seven-year-old son, Max, learns at school, in Catalan. (The next day, though, there is no school because un-independent Catalonia is still celebrating Spain’s national day, and Max is celebrating by staying up late and doing cartwheels around the living room.)

With his father Max speaks Catalan, with his mother he speaks only Castilian Spanish. He spends three weeks every summer with his conservative grandparents in the center of Spain, and two weeks with his Catalan grandmother near Girona, a separatist stronghold.

That Catalan granny had never supported independence until 2010, when the constitutional court in Madrid – presided over by a political ally of Prime Minister Rajoy – struck down an expanded autonomy statute that had passed both the regional and the national parliaments.

Independentistas like my mother are reacting to Rajoy more than they’re actually considering the consequences of an independent Catalonia,” says Ros. “What does my mother know?” he asks dismissively.

“Nothing,” Max screams in the background.  

Good thing that the grandmother in question, Alicia Uballs Alvarez, didn’t hear that. Joining the family conversation on the phone, she recalls her personal history.

“My father fought in the Spanish Civil War and was in jail because of [fascist dictator Francisco] Franco,” she recounts. “When I was 12, he took me to see a protest in Barcelona, but the police beat me and he never took me again. I grew up, got married, and life was good. I felt comfortable so I never thought about independence again.

“But recently I realized Catalonia has been oppressed for years,” Ms. Alvarez says, because she feels that the region has been unfairly milked for taxes that are spent elsewhere.

Asked if she thinks an independent Catalonia could be an economically viable state, she is uncertain.

“Sometimes I think it will be possible,” she starts. “But then I’m not so sure and I’m afraid my children and grandchildren will be worse off. I’m especially afraid about Catalonia leaving the European Union. I’ve been told we could remain in the bloc and if that’s not possible that will make things much more difficult,” she admits.

His mother is not the only Catalan voter to have backed independence on the almost certainly false assumption that the breakaway region could stay in the EU, says Ros.

“I’m an independentista and they didn’t fool me,” he adds. “I know what I’m getting if independence happens. But if our leaders start explaining what independence entails, they will never convince the majority of Catalans. And that’s why – it saddens me to say it – independence will never happen.”

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