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The silent Catalans start to speak out

Those who disagree with secession from Spain are beginning to make their voices heard

A demonstration in Barcelona in support of the unity of Spain.
A demonstration in Barcelona in support of the unity of Spain.JOSEP LAGO / AFP

Catalonia is experiencing a wave of pro-independence sentiment that has picked up speed over the last year-and-a-half. Survey after survey shows growing support for secession from Spain. Yet there is still a very significant portion of Catalan society that opposes it.

How come these other Catalans’ voices are never heard?

Supporters of independence – 45 percent of Catalans according to the government’s own surveys – fill public squares and form human chains to draw attention to their demands. Those who do not remain silent.

Until now, that is. Timidly, this silence is beginning to crack.

In the last year – and particularly after Catalan premier Artur Mas, of the nationalist bloc CiU, announced November 9 as the date for the popular referendum on the “right to decide” – several associations and blogs have started to emerge. Its members are people with differing political views, who nevertheless share one key opinion: they oppose secession from Spain.

Nobody wants a bad relationship with their children’s teachers or with their doctors” Marita Rodríguez, former teacher

EL PAÍS talked to around 20 non-nationalist Catalans for this story: teachers, civil servants, jurists, company executives, artists and lawyers. These Catalans reject independence, and most of them also reject the November referendum because they view it as a semantic trap to draw more people to the independence project by selling it as “the right to decide.”

Several sources, especially those in academia, requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals at their workplaces.

All of them blame this sudden outburst of secessionist passion on “the constant work” by nationalist forces to insinuate themselves, over the course of 30-plus years, into all aspects of the public sphere, especially education and public media outlets. They also blame the mainstream Popular Party and Socialist Party for failing to properly defend the idea of Spain in Catalonia.

But non-nationalists also blame themselves for having been quiet all these years. And this, they agree, was partly out of naiveté and force of habit. But most of all, they say, it was because of “fear.”

They talk about “fear of what others will say about you,” “fear of ending your career” and “fear of being called a fascist, especially if you are left-wing.” They also talk about “fear of being called a bad Catalan, a traitor, especially if you actually speak Catalan.”

In short, they talk about a fear of becoming “social outcasts.”

The paradox is that on one hand, Catalans who are happy to remain part of Spain say they are feeling more pressure than ever against them, but on the other hand this pressure has forced them into action of their own.

We’re still improvising, while the nationalists have been preparing for this moment for decades” José Domingo, lawyer

“Nationalism has reached its final proposal: breaking away. Many Catalans who were quiet until now are afraid of the consequences,” says a blogger who declined to give his name.

So this other part of Catalan society is beginning its own activism. But it is starting from scratch.

Susana Beltrán is a deputy vice-president at Societat Civil Catalana, an association created in April as an umbrella group for people and other groups “who believe in a Catalonia that is part of a pluralistic Spain.”

“This is the perfect moment for nationalists to make their move: there is an economic and government crisis in Spain and in Europe,” says Beltrán, a university professor who teaches international law. “It’s good fishing in troubled waters.”

Speaking inside the tiny office that serves as the association’s headquarters in Barcelona, Beltrán remembers what happened when they organized the presentation event for Societat Civil Catalana.

“We got in touch with actors who do not support independence to ask them to host the event. But the day before, they all chickened out. They said: ‘Sorry, this would spell trouble for my career.’ So in the end we had to make the presentation ourselves.”

Blogs like Dolce Catalunya and Puerta de Brandemburgo have emerged in recent months to express non-nationalist views or to condemn what they see as the “lies” of the pro-independence camp.

“We were worried about the outrageous things that are being said, because nobody is explaining the consequences of independence, nor is rigorous debate being encouraged,” says Sonia Sierra, who holds a PhD in philology and is the founder of Puerta de Brandemburgo.

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Sierra laments “the political left’s tacit positioning on the side of pro-sovereignty,” which she says is a result of the fact that “if you were against it, they called you a fascist, and that is a very painful insult for a left-wing person.”

Sierra also offers a specific date for the surge in pro-sovereignty sentiment on the part of the ruling CiU: June 15, 2011, the day when the Catalan parliament was surrounded by demonstrators protesting budget cuts to health, education and other public services in the region. In an unprecedented event in democratic history, regional premier Artur Mas and other politicians were flown into the assembly by helicopter to avoid the angry crowds. It was the climax to weeks of protests over cuts aimed at reducing the public deficit.

“That day, Artur Mas got scared. And he decided to wave the banner of independence in the streets as the solution,” says Sierra.

Josep Alsina, a high-school teacher, unionist and founder of Somatemps, agrees.

“There are Spaniards who have been living in Catalonia for 30 years, who never spoke Catalan to one another, and who suddenly say they are pro-independence. If you ask them why, they just say: ‘Because things will be better,’” he says.

Alsina underscores that people like himself believe in a variety of identities. “We just happen to believe that the Catalan and Spanish identities are joined. In fact, this is a problem of identities: Catalonia’s Spanish identity is under threat, and even its Catalan identity, because nationalists are reinventing history! Nationalists don’t care about identity, they care about sovereignty, which means power.”

This is the perfect moment for nationalists to make their move: there is an economic and government crisis in Spain and in Europe” Susana Beltrán, university professor

On October 12 of last year, for the first time, thousands of Catalans demonstrated in Plaza de Catalunya in favor of Spanish unity. In December, thousands more came out to celebrate the Spanish Constitution. But the numbers are still small compared with the turnout of the pro-independence crowd.

“We’re still improvising, while the nationalists have been preparing for this moment for decades,” notes lawyer José Domingo, a former deputy for Catalan party Ciutadans and president of the association Impulso Ciudadano.

Domingo believes that the drivers of the independence movement are not really trying to achieve it now, but rather “to groom a generation that will admit nothing short of full-fledged independence five, ten years from now.” He is also a member of another association fighting to get Catalan schools to teach some coursework in Castilian Spanish.

Alsina agrees that “nationalist control over the schools” has played a key role in this pro-independence surge. “Linguistic immersion has led to ideological immersion.”

Why do parents who want bilingual education for their children not complain more vigorously? Several members of Domingo’s Impulso Ciudadano provide varying answers: “You don’t want to single your children out;” “You need time and money to get into lawsuits with the authorities.”

Marita Rodríguez, a former teacher and a veteran activist, sums it up like this: “Nobody wants a bad relationship with their children’s teachers or with their doctors. And the nationalist rhetoric permeates everything here.”

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