Catalonia: The prison sentences are an attack on democracy

Marx21

This text was written on the afternoon of October 15. The situation is changing rapidly but, as the article explains, the basic arguments haven’t changed much in the last two years.

Castellano · Català · English

The long jail sentences declared on 14 October against pro independence political prisoners are a cause of outrage and rage for any democratic person. Even though expected, the news was a shock. Even the liberal British newspaper, The Guardian, declared that “The draconian jailings shame Spain.”

Let’s remember the sentences: Oriol Junqueras, 13 years; Raül Romeva, 12 years old; Jordi Turull, 12 years; Dolors Bassa, 12 years; Carme Forcadell, 11 years and 6 months; Joaquim Forn, 10 years and 6 months; Josep Rull, 10 years and 6 months; Jordi Sánchez, 9 years; and Jordi Cuixart, 9 years.

All of them are scandalous. Here we will only highlight two aspects.

Carme Forcadell has been sentenced for sedition for having, as Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, acted on the basis of the wishes of the country’s population, democratically expressed in elections. The Supreme Court jailed her for allowing a parliamentary debate on a referendum. This is a terrible precedent.

Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart —leaders of the two enormous civic pro independence movements— have been convicted of sedition for their prominent role in peaceful demonstrations. Again, a terrible precedent with enormous implications. As the anti evictions campaign PAH asked, in an excellent statement: “Is it sedition to demonstrate to disobey a court order? Is it then sedition to gather to stop a house eviction?”

All this shows once again that Spain (not the Spanish people, but the state, especially the “deep state”) fears mass citizens’ mobilisation. And this worries them much more than the armed actions of ETA, the former Basque armed group, ever did. ETA members and Basque left nationalist leaders were never accused of sedition, although, of course, their movement suffered brutal repression, through other means, legal or not.

In any case, their hypocrisy is confirmed. The establishment parties have always insisted that “if we exclude violence we can talk about everything.” Now it is clear that that is a lie.

We are facing a serious new setback in civil rights, and especially in the right to protest.

Protests and mobilisations

The sentence provoked an immediate popular reaction, in the form of mass protests. On the morning of 14 October, student demonstrations went in columns from the universities to the centre of Barcelona, ​​where they met many thousands more people, holding protests throughout the city.

Through the morning, there appeared a call to go to El Prat airport. The inspiration surely came from the Hong Kong mobilisations; it is a new example of how struggles are international and reinforce each other. With public transport paralysed, huge columns of protesters took over the motorway walking to the airport. At El Prat, the scenes were incredible, with perhaps tens of thousands of people occupying different parts of the airport. There was terrible brutality by the police forces — both the Catalan police, the Mossos, and the Spanish police — who even hit journalists and fired rubber bullets — illegal in Catalonia — causing the loss of an eye to a young man at the airport. In the end, many protesters resorted to using fire extinguishers, water hoses, makeshift shields… to defend themselves against the police attacks.

Meanwhile, there were road blocks throughout the country, including on the AP7, the motorway from Catalonia to France.

In the evening, there were rallies in many towns and cities across Catalonia. Barcelona’s central square, Plaça de Sant Jaume, was so full that it was impossible even to get close.

And at the end of the night, there were protests in front of the Spanish Police station in Vía Laietana, Barcelona, ​​notorious under the Franco dictatorship as a torture centre. The Spanish Police carried out violent baton charges against the people gathered there, even attacking elderly passers by.

At the time of writing, there are more actions going on, on a somewhat smaller scale, but still significant. In any case, there are many other important protests planned. We will see how the mobilisations develop over the next few days.

Tsunami_Laietana

International solidarity

The truth is that the independence movement woke up late and unevenly to the need to connect with activists and social movements in other countries. (One initiative from the social movements was WithCatalonia.org).

Now it has become clear once again that nothing can be expected from the European Union or other governments: they fully support their partner, the Spanish government.

On the other hand, there has been some international support from ordinary people: solidarity rallies were held in many cities, such as New York, Montreal, Paris, London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh… even a small action in Warsaw. That said, quite a few protests were called exclusively by Catalan pro independence groups abroad — such as the ANC (Catalan National Assembly) or CDRs (Committees to Defend the Republic)— and involved more Catalan people living abroad than local people; this is something that activists should aim to change.

Political responses in the Spanish State

As in Europe, activists in different parts of the Spanish State have mobilised protests against the sentences.

Basque movements, and it seems that not only from the nationalist left, understood their importance completely and responded with about 200 rallies throughout the Basque country: a central demonstration has been called for Saturday, 19 October, which is expected to be enormous. There have also been rallies in many cities in Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Granada and Seville in Andalusia… There are protests scheduled for Wednesday, 16 October, such as the rally in Madrid’s central square, Puerta del Sol, called by the admirable platform, Madrid for the Right to Decide.

But from the Spanish political mainstream, the reaction has been predictable and depressing.

We criticise, and rightly so, the “trifachito” —the “triple fash” alliance that now governs Andalucía, of the conservative PP, the centre right Ciudadanos party (Cs), and the far-right VOX— while knowing that it is important not to lose the nuances and to understand that the PP and Cs are not the same as the far-right… but on this issue they make it difficult to maintain the nuances. The whole right —from Cs to the fascist gangs — is demanding tougher measures. In any case, on this website we often deal with the fight against the far-right and there is no need to repeat that here.

The response by the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, confirmed the rightward turn we already saw in his threats to the Open Arms rescue ship and his closure of the ports to the refugees. Part of his hypocrisy was the statement that “If we put aside extremism, we can start a new phase in which the return of agreement becomes one of the central pillars of Catalonia.” He said that on the same day that the Spanish police, sent especially to Catalonia by his government, was repressing people who were peacefully demonstrating.

But the most hypocritical thing was his declaration that respect for the courts meant the “complete serving” of the sentence, thus excluding the possibility of a pardon. He seems to forget the cases of former minister José Barrionuevo and other senior officials of the previous socialist government involved in the dirty war against the Basque nationalist left, who were partially pardoned by the PP in 1998, after just a few months in jail. On that occasion, the Socialist Party, PSOE,  demanded a “complete pardon”. The socialist government of José Luis Zapatero granted 62 pardons in cases of corruption. It seems that in these cases there was no need for “respect for the courts.”

Pablo Iglesias was a bit better, talking about dialogue, expressing solidarity with the prisoners, saying that the sentence is unfair and pointing out the hypocrisy of the PSOE on the issue of pardons. Still, he insisted that “Everyone will have to respect the law and accept the sentence.” From his calls to “assault the heavens” when he launched Podemos, not even a distant memory remains. He also said that “UP (Podemos) have to represent another idea of ​​Spain”: seems not to recognise that a significant part of the population of Catalonia does not want to be part of any “idea of ​​Spain.”

Catalunya en Común, the slightly broader coalition involving Podemos alongside other left groups and social movement activists, responded much more correctly. Their MP Jaume Asens — himself a lawyer — called the sentence an “injustice”, adding: “With this sentence, today they come for the independentists, tomorrow it may be the PAH (housing campaign) or others. Those who think that this doesn’t affect them are wrong. It is an attack on some, but a threat against everybody.”

Tsunami_Laietana2

The pro-independence block?

What can we say about the pro-independence parties and movements?

The reactivation of the movement on the streets is obviously positive, but the underlying questions have continued to be pending since October 2017. The problem then was not just the repression: something failed inside the independence movement and — as we have been arguing here for some time — this must be analysed and solved if we want to avoid future disappointments.

The retreat following the referendum by the governing parties — especially the Catalan centre right party, Convergència, but also, in its own way, by the centre left Esquerra Republicana, ERC — revealed fundamental problems, which are still there.

A bourgeois party like Convergència (they are no longer called that officially; they have changed their name several times, partly to try to avoid being associated with their long standing former leader, now deeply implicated in corruption scandals) was dragged by its mainly petty bourgeois base of supporters into backing independence. However, at the moment of truth, it was not and will never be ready to make the break necessary to achieve independence. Far less do they want the fundamental social changes that are, for many working people, a key reason for wanting independence.

The Irish pro independence revolutionary socialist, James Connolly, wrote more than a century ago: “If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.” This applies equally to the Catalan republic; social change should be both the motive force and the main reason to exist of the struggle for independence. But this implies a strategy that does not depend on Convergència.

And that does not mean opting for another “more independentist” party, in the line of the “radical” (right wing) networks that are emerging following the disappointment with the current parties; the (small) xenophobic and neoliberal Catalanist right is not part of a positive change, however much they wave independence flags.

In principle Esquerra Republicana does want independence and also more social justice. The problem is that if it maintains its links to Convergència, and if it continues to base itself on administering the current system from the institutions, none of these wishes will be fulfilled. Again, it is not a question of “betrayals” by individuals, but about political limitations, in this case, those of social democracy.

Two years ago, these parties backed down at the key moment, and the reasons they did so still apply. If the same strategy is maintained, with a “broad pro independence bloc” hand in hand with bourgeois politicians, there is no reason to think that the disappointment from then will not be repeated. Right now, we have the spectacle of the Mossos, a police force controlled by Convergència, repressing protesters that are opposing sentences against Convergència leaders. The Catalan president Quim Torra is encouraging people to demonstrate while his Interior Secretary, Miquel Buch, justifies the brutal police action.

Now what?

Given this scenario, at the same time as existing mobilisations must go on, we have to deal with the fundamental strategic issues. If we want things to go differently, we have to do things differently. We must overcome the model of the “transversal pro independence bloc”, hand in hand with the parties of the system.

The alternative, however, cannot be a movement limited to the pro independence far left. It is necessary to open the movement in another direction, in the direction of class. If we really believe that the working people of Catalonia have something to gain from independence, in social and material terms, we must orient ourselves on this class, as a class, not only to the extent that a worker supports independence.

As a priority, we must build the fight for social and national change within the mainly Spanish-speaking working-class neighbourhoods. Progress in this would open the way to build alliances and solidarity with the working people of the rest of the Spanish State. In this way we could escape the empty dichotomy between “unilateralism” — which is justifiable in the abstract, but unable to overcome state repression — and the idea of ​​a “change agreed with the state”… when it is clear that the state doesn’t want any change.

Some people, in some neighbourhoods, are already working in this direction, but it should be generalised and systematised as an orientation of the radical left that defends Catalunya’s right to decide. In a recent article, “El Mandat del 3 d’Octubre”, Laure Vega and Maria Sirvent, prominent activists of the radical pro independence coalition, the CUP, argued something more or less in this line. They state that: “The mandate of the 1 October referendum has been emptied of content and has no possibility of becoming a strategy. In this rereading of the events of October [2017], we propose that the independence movement focuses on the forces deployed during the general strike of 3 October.” It remains to be seen if the CUP applies this vision and how.

The current demonstrations against the sentences include people from way beyond the pro independence movement. On Friday, 18 October, two Catalanist trade unions have called a general strike. It is an urgent task of the radical left of Catalonia to work to build the connections between the national struggle and the social struggle, seeing both of them as processes of liberation and change from below, not as mere gestures and reforms from above.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the Spanish state, there is an urgent need to mobilise solidarity against the repression. There is no room for “neutrality” in the face of such a grave attack on democratic rights.


With our modest forces, the people who form the Marx21 network defend this vision, both inside and outside Catalonia. If you are interested in participating in our network, or just want to know more, leave your details here, or sign up for our weekend event of workshops and debates on 1 and 2 November.

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