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Joking about Jordi Pujol

Proximity to power makes criticism of it difficult, blocks checks and balances, and encourages corruption

A little over a decade ago, during a conversation about Jordi Pujol, then the head of the Catalan regional government, a renowned Catalan financier, now deceased, said to me: “You know, we’re worse off now than during the Franco era.” Somewhat surprised at this assertion, I suggested that he was exaggerating. “OK,” he replied, “how many Pujol jokes do you know? Not one, I’ll bet. In the old days we never stopped telling jokes about Franco.” I had to admit that he was right on both counts. He then added: “And do you know why there are no Pujol jokes? Because if we went around telling them, he would find out immediately and put us on his black list. This is a frightened society, everybody is frightened of the Generalitat, that’s the problem with being so close to power.”

I have always remembered that anecdote, and it has never been more apposite than now. Naturally, my friend’s comments regarding comparisons with Franco were an exaggeration, but he was certainly right in one regard: proximity to power makes criticism of it difficult, blocks checks and balances, and encourages corruption.

Critics from outside the region were enemies, and anybody inside who dared question Pujol was a traitor

Pujol was first elected the head of the Generalitat, the Catalan regional government, in 1980, but he did not win an absolute majority until 1984. At that point the way he exercised power changed, and not just because he no longer had to do deals with the opposition. It turned out that after the 1984 elections, but prior to taking office, public prosecutors opened a case against the former board of Banca Catalana, which included Jordi Pujol himself, accusing it of financial wrongdoing. His investiture in the regional parliament was a stormy affair, and opposition members marched out and down to the Plaza Sant Jaume, where the regional government is located. There, from the balcony, Pujol gave a rousing speech in which he claimed that the attack on him by the public prosecutor’s office was “in reality, an attack on Catalonia.”

In other words, Pujol was now Catalonia. In the preceding four years, the foundations of the nationalist regime had already been laid: a few months before, publicly funded Catalan-language television station TV-3 had gone on air. This was when some of us began to realize that we were moving from a democratic society toward a regime: any criticism of Pujol was akin to denigrating Catalonia the nation. Critics from outside the region were enemies, and anybody inside who dared question Pujol was a traitor.

These were the years when, without any opposition, the nation-building process that is supposed to conclude with the referendum on independence in November started. Catalonia became a regime. But in what sense am I using the word? In the sense of building a power structure in which the electorate, aside from being subject to laws based on rights guaranteed by a democratic Constitution, are also obliged to obey certain rules of another kind, imposed by certain social and cultural elites who consider themselves the true representatives of the homeland. If breaking the rules of democracy involves legal sanctions, then breaking the rules of the regime means being excluded from the community, and being dubbed a traitor.

The Catalan establishment knew what was going on, and in many cases, was benefiting from it

During the Franco years, those who dared criticize the regime in public statements were dubbed anti-Spanish. In Catalonia over the last 34 years, anybody who disagreed with the regime was treated similarly. The result has been a society that in certain regards was lacking in any critical opinion. Even opposition parties rolled over and submitted to the designs of the regime, which imposed its rules, and when these didn’t fit with our constitutional freedoms, then the courts that guaranteed those freedoms were also dubbed anti-Catalan. Catalonia became a society that was democratically weak, silenced, frightened, troubled, and cowardly.

Over the last few days, a number of public figures have said that they are surprised by the revelations about Jordi Pujol – pure hypocrisy, nobody is surprised. The Catalan establishment, and others, all knew perfectly well what was going on, and in many cases, they were benefiting from it. In private there were rumors, but in public, they were silent, and nobody dared report what was happening, because they knew that there would be payback.

It has taken the response of the High Court, the Tax Agency, and the National Police, all of them institutions outside the control of Catalonia, to the accusations of a former girlfriend and the leaks of an Andorran bank employee to flush out the false patriots from their hiding place. My financier friend was right: they couldn’t have told jokes about Pujol because somebody would have found out.

Francesc de Carreras is a lecturer in constitutional law.

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