The Damaged Relationship of Catalonia and Spain

By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah

Tensions have been rumbling in Spain, as debate increases over the upcoming October 1st referendum. The vote will decide whether the region of Catalonia should remain part of the country or leave to become its own free state.

National identity and economic crisis headline the main reasons for a push towards Catalonian independence. This has become a theme throughout Spain’s history, though, as economic crises and a rebirth of the idea of sovereignty have led to a push for independence in Catalonia.

In 1150, the kingdom of Aragon absorbed the region of Catalonia united to create a new territorial unit. Its strong economy first emerged during the 11th and 12th centuries, thanks to the rise of the port city of Barcelona. Its role in agricultural and Mediterranean trade transformed it into an economic powerhouse and integral trade center. The rise of the Catalan language also took place in the second half of the 10th century, which became core to the national identity of Catalonia.

In 1469, the marriage of Queen Isabella of the kingdom of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon united the two kingdoms to create modern-day Spain. The new Crown would take the increasing power of the nobility and transfer it to itself by restructuring the government, especially during the Spanish Inquisition, in which religious minorities were purged out of the country and Catholicism was heavily reinforced. Through religion, the kingdom of Aragon (including Catalonia) and the kingdom of Castile were united, especially through the resistance to the Protestant Reformation. There was much pride about the monarchs’ actions, especially after the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Americas.

At this point, no major conflicts had arisen, for Catalonia had never been forced to assimilate into Castile Spain. Therefore, Catalan identity had been allowed to grow without pushback, which would affect how willing the region was to participate in endeavors pursued by the Spanish government.

In 1640, King Philip IV of Spain forced Catalan peasants to fight against France in the Spanish army. The peasants refused and revolted against what they felt was unfair treatment. As a result, in 1659, the Treaty of Pyrenees gave parts of Catalonia as territories to the French crown.

Territorial status would not last long, though. 1714 was the year of the end of the Catalan state. Philip V of the French royal house of Bourbon claimed victory over the opposing crown of Aragon. He forced the crown under absolutist Castilian law. The event signifies the first time Catalonia was subject to law that intended to unite all parts of Spain, which would repeatedly fuel nationalist sentiments unlike earlier centuries.

During the late 18th century and early 19th century, Catalonia experienced an economic crisis. Because Spain joined France in resisting the aggression of Great Britain, the British navy blockaded the major port of Barcelona, causing mass unemployment and riots. At the time, the French were also ruled by emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a leader who wanted to defeat Portugal, England’s ally. To do so, they would need to occupy and go through Spain.

Napoleon wanted to ignite nationalism into the Catalan region to divide the country, and promoted the Catalan language to do this. However, this nationalism became so strong that the region revolted against Bonaparte along with the rest of the nation, leading to the end of French occupation of Spain in 1813.

Despite this unity, Catalonia still had qualms with the rest of Spain, especially with the Constitution of 1812. Upset by the little autonomy it gave to the region, Catalans and the central government in Madrid were frustrated with each other throughout the 19th century.

Yet again, the mid-late 1800s saw a renaissance of Catalan culture, the Renaixença. Another push for recognition came during a time of political chaos for Spain in which the country had lost territories like Cuba and the Philippines, was suffering a plague of political violence, and had an unsolved conflict in Morocco. The political instability raged on and reached a peak in 1923, when General Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a military and took control of the Spanish government.

To unite the country through its instability, he censored the press, suppressed efforts of gaining Catalan independence, and censored a political opponent that argued for anarchy. Catalans thought that Primo would preserve their culture given that he was captain general of Catalonia. Instead, he banned the language and switched instruction in schools to the Castilian language. He even shut down the soccer club in Barcelona. Unrest ensued in the Catalan church, legitimizing another rise in Catalan nationalism.

Primo may have had a promising start, but civil unrest in all parts of society, including the Catholic Church and military, grew due to Primo’s oppressive rule. Civil war broke out in 1936, and it would not end until 1939.

Then, nationalist Francisco Franco rose to power, overthrowing the Second Republic and heavily promoting a united Spain. He pushed this agenda in schools and churches. He made a deal with the Catholic Church, convincing them to promote his ideals in return for regained dominance over the social lives of ordinary Spaniards. Catalans were thus scared into believing that revolting against Franco would be revolting against their religion.

The Franco agenda also included suppressing the Catalan and Basque languages, a major part of the identity of both cultures. However, the 1960s saw a shift in the Catholic church’s acceptance of human rights, leading to a more progressive church that fundamentally changed the social fabric of Spain and Catalonia. This acceptance of human rights gave more legitimacy to Catalonian nationalism, with advocates arguing that they had a right to exist without persecution. The re-emergence of the Catalan language and an economic pitfall due to lack of motivation and protest from workers in Barcelona marked another rise of the Catalan culture.

Throughout history, Catalan identity has been powered by isolation from the rest of the country and central governmental intervention into the region’s affairs. As a result, the people of the region revolted by expressing their culture and sometimes using physical force to revolt. Now, Catalonia will hope to break away from Spain peacefully and become its own sovereign nation.


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