Friday, October 6, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Catalunya: A Personal Note

[This article first appeared in Intellectual Takeout - see 
link to the right]

 For about a year, in the period 1966-67, I lived in Spain while
it was still under the Franco dictatorship. I arrived in August,
1966 and enrolled in the University of Madrid. The falangista
(extreme right wing) government had been in power for 30
years, and were celebrating the anniversary under the slogan
“treinta anos de paz” (thirty years of peace), but those three
decades had come at a great cost following the bitter Spanish
civil war (1936-39). The dictator Francisco Franco, known as
“el caudillo” (the leader) was an admirer and ally of Adolf
Hitler before and during World War II. Although no fighting
took place in Spain during that war, it sent a “Blue brigade”
of Spanish soldiers to fight with the Nazi armies on the
Russian front. After the war, Spain was politically shunned
by its European neighbors and by the United States. Only
Argentina, led by right wing dictator Juan Peron, sent
economic aid during and after the war.

By the mid-1960s, however, Spain was moving towards an
economic reawakening. An aging Franco decided to make his
successor the grandson of the last Spanish king, Alfonso XIII.
This young man, Juan Carlos, had been brought from exile
with his father (the presumptive but uncrowned king) in
Portugal to be educated at the University of Madrid where I
was enrolled. On December 14, 1966, at the Spanish parliament
(El Cortes), Franco personally brought his new Organic Law
for rubber-stamp approval. There was much pomp, music
and ceremony. I was there in the front row at the steps of the
Cortes taking photos and absorbing the colorful pageantry.
It was thrilling until the moment when Franco arrived in his
black limousine, and stepped out at the base of the Cortes
steps. As he did, virtually everyone in the crowd of about
30,000 made the Nazi one-arm salute and began singing the
fascist anthem. My mood of excitement instantly was
chilled by this live image of a Nazi rally that had existed for
me only as documentary footage from before when I was
born. It was truly scary.

Madrid in 1966 was very oppressive. The creative arts and
political free speech were cruelly repressed. Unrest at the
University resulted in extend periods of no classes. I then
decided to transfer to the University of Barcelona where I
was told there was a a better environment. In February,
1967, I moved to the Catalan capital. As promised, it was a
very different circumstance. A small region in northeastern
Spain on the Pyrenees French border, Catalunya was almost
a thousand years old as a distinct country, spoke its own
language (as old as Castillian Spanish or French), and had its
own cultural identity. Merged with Spain in the 1500s, it
was the commercial and industrial hub of the Iberian
peninsula (Spain and Portugal). A late holdout of the
brief democratic Spanish republic (1931-39), it fell at the
end of the civil war --- with many of its anti-Franco citizens
fleeing to southern France.

After World War II, the Catalan people felt increasingly
repressed by the Franco government in Madrid. The Catalan
language was publicly prohibited. As in Madrid, the arts,
especially new literature, were heavily censored. Spaniards
across the country who openly criticized the regime were
arrested and tortured. By the time I had arrived in
Barcelona, the city seemed in a state of siege.

But, unlike in Madrid, there was a much greater resistance
to the Franco regime in Barcelona. In private, most Catalans
spoke to each other in their own tongue. An underground
bookstore existed where you could purchase banned books.
I befriended an older muralist, Guillermo Soler, who was
part of a secret group of prominent Catalan painters,
musicians and writers called Estudi that met clandestinely
for discussions and concerts, some of which I attended with
him. He introduced me to Aurora Bertrana, then the gran
dama of Catalan poetry and pioneer feminist, when we met
at Oro de Rhin, a famous coffeehouse and artist hangout on
the Plaza de Catalunya.

Sr. Soler told me of his support for the Republic during the
civil war, and his flight to France after it was over. He then,
he said, returned to Barcelona to rejoin his family and
continue his career as a painter and muralist. I also met, at
the U.S. consulate in the city, a young Catalan woman who,
on learning I was an American poet (I was then on a sabbatical
abroad from my studies at the Writers Workshop at the
University of Iowa), told me she was the proprietor of a
clandestine bookshop in Barcelona where I could buy most
of the banned American and European books. Every night
at the pension where I was living, the Catalan innkeeper
stopped outside my room and said “Bona nit tingui! (“Have
a good night!”).

I felt part of the siege.

That was, of course, then. In 1975, Franco died, and the
young prince became King Juan Carlos. In 1981, the
falangistas staged a desperate, brief and unsuccessful coup.
The king bravely led an effort to put down the insurrection.
The new democratic Spain rose quickly economically, and
became part of the European Union. Regional tensions in
Spain remained, however.

Modern Spain is really made of distinct historic regions.
In addition to Catalunya, the neighboring Basque region
also has its own non-Indo European language and culture.
To the northwest, Galicia has its own history, and had a
language related to Portuguese. The region in the south
around Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada, still has a distinct
Moorish influence from its period when the Arabs from
North Africa ruled it. To the southeast, another distinct
region existed. In the center of the peninsula was Castille
where from Toledo, and later, Madrid, the feudal Spanish
kings conquered and reconquered the country.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella not only sent a Genoan
ship captain, Christopher Columbus, with three ships to
discover a western passage to the Indies (and we all now
know what he did discover), but also inaugurated the
infamous Inquisition that forced conversion, death or
exile of Spain’s large and important Jewish community.

From that period until the beginning of the 19th century,
Spain played a major role in Europe and in global
colonization. By the mid-1800s, however, Spain declined
as it lost its North and South American colonies, and
Europe’s empires and monarchies faded into popular
unrest and revolution.

After liberalizing its society until World War I, Spain had
a brief dictatorship until a republic was established in
1931. As fascism and communism arose in Europe in the
1930s, Spain became a rehearsal for World War II, with
the far right brutally excising the far left. Dictator Franco
then ruled for more than three decades.

The new Spanish constitutional monarchy system has
made great strides. Parties of the center right and center
left have governed for its entire history. After centuries
of top-down rule, the nation has enjoys a healthy
representative government. Regional nationalism has
continued, but the central government has granted levels
of autonomy to them, especially to the Basque region
which can levy its own taxes, and to Catalunya which has
its own prime minister, parliament, and local laws.
Catalan is the de facto language of the region. The main
sticking pint is that this prosperous region complains
that it cannot levy its own taxes, and that it contributes
more in taxes to Madrid than it receives in return.

As someone who knows the history of Catalunya, the
sufferings it has endured, the great industrial and
cultural life its people have built and maintained, and the
beauty of its landscape and cities, I have much empathy
for the Catalan sense of identity and pride in its character.
In the not-so-distant past, Catalan independence might
have been a no-brainer. But today Spain is essentially a
nation of cooperating regions with a federal central
government. Should Catalunya become independent,
the Basque region would almost surely follow suit.
Economic chaos might well follow, as the European Union
to which Spain belongs is not likely to support or include
a break-away state --- this nationalistic tension exists
throughout Europe, and if secession took place
everywhere its impulse exists, the EU would almost surely

King Felipe VI is now the Spanish head of state, but has no
real power. He spoke to the nation calling for a unified
democratic Spain, and he denounced the separatists. Prime
Minister Rajoy is no Abraham Lincoln, but he faces the
same dilemma confronting the American president in 1860,
an illegal disunion. Several years ago, the artificial nation
of Czechoslovakia split into two sovereign states, the Czech
Republic and Slovakia. The process was voluntary and legal
on all sides. It created economic problems, especially for
Slovakia, but it was done within a democratic and legal

Sympathy and empathy for my Catalan friends aside,
Barcelona and Madrid need to come up with a far better
solution than the one now facing this historic and important

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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