What an American Citizen in Barcelona Wants You to Know About Catalonia

Anti-Media spoke with Isabelle Bolla, an American woman who has lived in Catalonia for the past two years.

ANTIMEDIA| — On October 1st, Catalonia held a disputed referendum vote in an attempt to declare independence from Spain. On voting day, Spanish police were documented using excessive force against Catalans attempting to place their vote. While the situation in Spain has recently garnered much attention from the media as it reaches a boiling point, tensions between the governments of Catalonia and Spain have been building for years.

Just yesterday, Spain’s ruling party made a veiled threat to assassinate the president of Catalonia, as shared in this tweet from Julian Assange, who continues to be outspoken on the issue.

In light of the recent unrest in Spain surrounding Catalonia’s vote for independence, we spoke by email with Isabelle Bolla, an American woman who has lived in various regions of Spain, including living in Catalonia for the past two years. As an outsider who has spent considerable time in Spain, Isabelle has a unique perspective on the situation from inside Barcelona.

Can you discuss the general atmosphere you have experienced recently in Catalonia?

“Over the past month, I have seen mass mobilizations of people who have peacefully gathered to affirm their desire to vote in a referendum. Many have felt discontent with the Spanish state and its treatment of Catalonia, and others want a say in their future. While not everyone may agree or want independence, 80% of Catalans wanted the right to vote on their future. Prior to October 1st, there was an energy in the air of excitement. People were ready to vote. I ended up being in a small town on the night before the election. Numerous people were camping out and sleeping inside of the designated locations for voting, to protect them from the possible threat of Guardia Civil (Spanish national police) which had been deployed to cities and towns all over the region. People were genuinely scared of what could happen if the police showed up, but there was a feeling of excitement – as some have waited their whole lives to vote.”

What did you witness on the day the referendum was held? You mentioned a feeling of excitement, did that continue throughout the day?

“People started lining up at 4am, and waited until the polling stations opened at 9am. Luckily, no police were deployed to the location I was in, so everything was peaceful and orderly. It was a normal and completely democratic process. At one point the voting systems completely crashed, as they did in ALL voting stations all over Catalonia, as the Spanish government had managed to shut them down with court orders. People resorted to voting manually, and the vote went ahead nonetheless. I saw a 93 year old man vote, and everyone clapped for him on his way out – it’s incredible to think of the things he has likely seen in his life, and that he made the morning walk to vote and have his voice heard. 

I returned to Barcelona the same day, and was filled with emotion at the devastating brutality which occurred on behalf of the Spanish police, and resulted in nearly 900 injuries. The videos which followed only further demonstrated the volatility of the operation. I attended a few manifestations in Plaza Catalunya and tried to check out other local polling places, in which people were still officially voting until 8pm.

Over the past month, the Spanish state has censored the press, shut down .CAT domains, sent in police forces, arrested government officials, and gave the order for riot police to conduct themselves in a violent manner to voters. Their strategy thus far has been questionable.”

What happened during the pro-unity march held on October 7th?

“Yesterday in Barcelona and Madrid people who oppose secession gathered to show support for a united spain. While a majority of these people were peaceful, it should be noted that there was a large amount of Falange and far-right attendees (such as Vox  another right wing, anti immigrant, racist group) These groups are notably fascist, and many were caught on camera doing Nazi salutes (which is banned in many parts of Europe) and carrying pre-constitutional Falange flags. Again, I am not alluding that the entire population was fascist as that certainly wasn’t the case, but rather that their presence was completely allowed and not explicitly banned, which in my opinion is an issue in and of itself.

There was a large turnout for pro-unity demonstration. I think many people from all over Spain are hurt about what probably feels like the dissolution of a marriage. It’s hard not to get personal, and feel a range of emotions. I think that’s why it’s so crucial for both sides to speak to each other, because ultimately a large standoff will end up hurting the populations and civilians the most.

It should also be stated that a majority of attendees were not from Catalonia, but were bussed in from other regions of Spain. Bus options were available to anyone all over Spain for a mere 34€. So a large population of those attending were from other Spanish regions. I personally witnessed an influx of busses throughout the day coming, and going. 

I also witnessed a car driving past my apartment, covered in Spanish flags and blasting the “Marcha Real” on the speakers, which is Franco’s national anthem and notoriously fascist

I would like to be clear again, that not all of the population there was fascist, but the fascists were not DENOUNCED or told to leave – which is problematic. 

Just last week, thousands gathered in Plaza del Sol in Madrid to sing “Cara Del Sol,” another fascist tune indoctrinated into the youth during Franco’s regime.

I believe in peaceful assembly and peaceful protests, but the appearance of these far-right exclusive and divisive groups calling for “unity” only incites intimidation and fear, and produces the opposite effect to many Catalans, and outsiders like myself.”

Can you give an example of the difference in attitudes between the Catalan people and the Spanish police?

On October 3rd, I attended the “vaga general” which was a general day of strike in Catalonia. It was called on by unions and approved by the Catalan government, leading to an entire work stoppage. This strike was called in solidarity with the Catalan people and against the unproportional use of force demonstrated by Spanish police on October 1st. As with all Catalan manifestations, the mood was festive and it was completely peaceful. I think the force and aggressiveness of Spanish police and the Spanish government has in turn had the opposite effect it hoped for, and has only further invigorated the separatist movement. Given the history in Catalonia, people here do not react well to force or oppression, as it is reminiscent of life merely 40 years ago. Another mobilization is called for this week, and we will likely continue to see more.”

Catalans attempted to vote in a democratic election for a referendum, and succeeded. But the Spanish government has maintained that this referendum vote would not take place. Can you tell us what the referendum is for?

“The referendum was for the right of Catalans to vote if they wanted to become an independent republic outside of Spain. As polls are constantly fluctuating, the numbers on who supports independence are unclear. What can be said is that 80% of the population supported a referendum to solve the matter. Over the past few years, unofficial non-binding referendums on the same matters did win overall support  but again, it’s hard to fully understand these numbers as whole. To get a full scope, it would be wise to analyze voter turnouts as a whole in regional and national elections, and cross reference them to referendum elections. The pressures that Catalans had to deal with to vote on October 1st should also be taken account. According to Catalan officials, around 770,000 were unable to vote due to police interference.

In Catalonia, 5.3 million or so are eligible to vote in a population of 7.5 million, and around 4.9 are Catalans.. The average turnout has been between 2-2.5 million people in many referendums, which should already be a signal of alarm to the Spanish state that nearly half of the population is voting in favor of independence — and that there is a deep divide present.”

The Spanish prime minister insists that no referendum was held in Catalonia but officials say, according to preliminary results, 90% voted for independence. Why does Catalonia want independence from Spain?

“Catalonia wants independence because of many issues and a variety of reasons. Many have to do with unfair treatment from the Spanish government, and the fact that in 2006 PP and namely Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy reneged on a previous promise made to Catalonia, and subsequently canceled out nearly 14 statutes of autonomy the region was granted by his predecessor. Stripping the autonomy of the region and turning its back on Catalonia left many people very angry. The following 2008 financial crisis further exasperated these sentiments.

It also has to do with money, as many Catalans pay more in taxes than what they receive back, leading them to borrow money from the Spanish government to provide basic services for its citizens. While this is always the precedent, that richer regions pay more in taxes; Catalonia has all together paid morethan it’s wealthy European counterparts in Paris, London, etc.

I believe it also boils down to identity, which is a VERY big factor. Many Catalans do not necessarily feel Spanish, they identify as Catalan.”