I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain during the spring semester of 2019. I loved my experience, especially the experience I recieved by choosing to live with a host family. I was able to really immerse myself in Spanish culture through my host family and in turn they eagerly showed me their city and their traditions. One of the things my host mother said when she was walking me around Alicante for the first time has stuck with me, even since I left Spain. She pointed out the many Spanish flags that were hanging on the balconies and outside of the windows of the myriad apartment buildings around the city. Unless there is a soccer game, she said, Spaniards hang the Spanish flag outside to show their solidarity with the rising nationalistic ideals in Spanish politics. I looked around that day and was surprised at the number of flags that I saw.
Nationalism was the primary basis of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that lasted from 1939 until his death in 1975. Franco’s ideologies have been compared to Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. He led a civil war that lasted three years, dramatically reduced the rights of women to almost nothing, and is considered responsible for killing close to 150,000 people. When Franco died, many Spaniards hoped that extreme Spanish nationalism died with him. Spain has been one of the few countries that has not seen a conservative resurgence until very recently. The rise of the political party Vox has led to a return in ultra-right, conservative, nationalism.
Vox is a far-right nationalist party in Spain that was founded in 2013 by politicians who did not believe that the right wing People’s Party was conservative enough. Vox is considered socially conservative as it works to restrict abortion and economically liberal as it champions policies that reduce taxes. The party’s chief goals include removing the current system of regional powers in favor of one government and one parliament, eliminating the Constitutional Court and the Senate, and introducing Spanish language examinations at the end of each school cycle. At the forefront of Vox’s goals are the needs of Spaniards as party supporters chant the phrase “Spain first.” The party and its leader Santiago Abascal have been compared to the United States President, Donald Trump, and his administration. Ultimately, Vox has gained power by taking a stoic stance against the Catalan separation movement, a movement where the wealthy region of Catalonia attempts to secede from the country of Spain, solidifying the party’s nationalistic views.
A large concern about the rise of Vox surrounds the controversial policies that they support. One of the ways that Spaniards have compared Vox and Franco is with their treatment of women and their stance on women rights. Spain recently passed a gender violence law in hopes of reducing the number of women killed or harmed by domestic abuse within the country. The first Spanish political party to openly challenge the law, Vox advocates for repealing the gender violence law as they deem it discriminatory against men. Instead, the party is campaigning for replacing the gender violence law with a Family Violence law that will, as they say, protect all groups. At the same time, the leaders want to create a Family Ministry and use the law to protect the “natural family.” It is interesting because Vox routinely advocates for the family group as a whole, as shown by their support for longer maternity leave and their support for mothers, but when asked about their stance on the divorce or separation of a woman and a man, the party has always argued in favor of the man. Vox aims to eliminate what they consider to be radical feminist groups and prosecute any rape or sexual harassment claims that could be deemed phony. This is problematic because a political party that citizens trust publicly decreeing a claim to be phony without any evidence against the claim delegitimizes the woman making the claim as well as any claims made after. The delegitimization removes any power the woman may have as well as the power of any women who follow her. Vox claims that a “genocide” of men is taking place in the modern era and their policy choices have reflected their stance on women’s rights.
Immigration has been a touchy subject for many countries around the world in the past couple of years. Vox has taken a very strict perspective on immigration which has gained the party a lot of supporters from the conservative right. However, these strict policy choices could have some serious ramifications on many people in the country should the policies be enacted. Vox advocates for immigration quotas for a majority of countries around the world, referencing back to their “Spain First” mentality. The nationalities that would be exempted from these quotas would be those that also speak Spanish and have good cultural ties to Spain. Vox is also in favor of deporting all undocumented immigrants, no matter their home country situations or the circumstances that caused them to move to Spain illegally. At the same time, Vox wants to prosecute non-profit groups that aid illegal immigrants with anything from providing legal representation to finding shelter for the immigrants. Finally, the party states that removing state aid for illegal immigrants would be a priority.
Vox has proven to be a party that wants Spain to return to an entirely Catholic country. They champion Catholic values and the Catholic church while threatening to remove the presence of other religions within the country. This is especially concerning for Muslim groups within Spain. Spain has a large percentage of people who identify as Muslim, especially in the south of Spain because of the close proximity to the north of the continent of Africa. Vox supports shutting down mosques throughout the country and arresting and deporting what the party leaders consider to be extremist imams. They are also advocating for government funded military missions against “Jihadist threats.” Finally, in a fashion comparable to that of President Trump, Vox lobbies for the Spanish government to enclose the two Spanish cities in Northern Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, in walls in order to prevent any immigrants entering Spain by way of the cities.
The concern following Vox stems from the connections people can draw between the party and the former dictator, Francisco Franco. Vox draws on a voter population that openly sympathizes with Franco. Their support is at 10% with the average voters being men between the ages of 35 and 44 despite the support for Vox within the youth population of Spain also growing. Comparisons are drawn between Vox and Franco’s doctrines of nationalism, policies of limiting women’s rights, and traditional catholic ideologies. The rise of the alt-right within Spain is important to watch as many people within and outside the country can and will be directly affected.
After an enormous earthquake destroys the city of Lisbon in Candide, Voltaire poignantly asks the reader, “If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others” (Voltaire, 26)? Increasingly, the most potent of political earthquakes – nationalism – is enjoying a powerful rebirth following a long and tortuous decline in the aftermath of World War II. People across the globe are beginning to envision a different world, a better world – one in which they possess a nation of their own. Whether this rebirth will result in bloodshed on a scale not seen since the 1930s or in a peaceful resolution of differences is yet to be seen, but in all likelihood it will be determined on the opposite side of the Iberian Peninsula – in Catalonia.
Since at least the 1920s, the issue of self-determination – which can be defined as the ability of a distinct people to establish a nation of their own and exercise unimpeded sovereignty in their own affairs – began to be adopted into the lexicon of human rights. Woodrow Wilson was one of the first to interject self-determination into human rights, claiming that “nationalities … should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development” in his Fourteen Points. Ultimately, this belief influenced nearly every major, Western-produced document concerning human rights. Self-determination is explicitly guaranteed to all peoples in the Atlantic Charter, the Declaration by the United Nations, the United Nations Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights among others.
Curiously, however, the European Convention on Human Rights – which is the most relevant document in this situation due to Spanish membership in the European Union – does not guarantee self-determination. In fact, it states that freedom of expression may be limited “in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, … or for maintaining the authority … of the judiciary” (ECHR, 11). As will be demonstrated later, the Spanish government has employed all of these arguments in its bids to stop the Catalonian independence referendum from coming to fruition.
Aside from the European Convention on Human Rights, the connection between human rights and self-determination – at least until recently – has not been prominently disputed. The question then becomes, how do we determine to which groups the right of self-determination applies? The general consensus is that this right is primarily granted to peoples demonstrating the characteristics of a nation. However, the question of who constitutes a nation, and on what basis, generates considerable disagreement, particularly in the West, which has long attempted to suppress its own nationalism as penance for the destruction wreaked by Nazi Germany.
Some claim that the nation is a figment of the imagination, that it is an invented national tradition, that it is an imagined community (Hobsbawm and Ranger; Anderson). This is not to say that it does not possess meaning – history clearly demonstrates that it does – but that there is very little actual quantitative or qualitative basis on which a nation can be delineated. Others suggest that the nation is real, but that its membership is constantly in flux, shaped solely by economic considerations, individual choices, and shared beliefs (Deutsch; Gellner; Kohn). This “civic nationalism” generally possesses a more cosmopolitan outlook, and it often taken to the extreme by intellectuals, such as Ernest Renan, who claimed that “a nation’s existence is … [simply] a daily plebiscite,” (10) a daily referendum.
Yet others still define a nation as something timeless and primordial (Geertz; Isaacs; Smith). To these theorists, physical characteristics, shared culture, shared history, and shared language – to put it simply – combine to create “a self-aware ethnic group,” which forms a nation (Connor, 279-88; Schmitt). In modern academia, this conception of the nation is generally regarded with scorn as an outdated, primitive view. Among many people, however, it still holds tremendous sway as demonstrated vividly by the universal opposition to immigration by nationalist, as well as by the decline in social trust in multi-ethnic areas of the United States (Putnam). While there exists some genetic overlap between different ethnic groups in border regions, generally speaking, ethnic groups, and the nations they constitute, remain homogenous and distinct from one another. And even if they did not, as Walker Connor notes, “what ultimately matters is not what is but what people believe is” (Connor, 379-88).
In determining if Catalonia possesses the right to independence and self-determination, one must first decide whether or not Catalonia constitutes a nation. As evidenced by the slogan above – which means “We are a nation, we decide” – Catalans clearly believe that they do. And all evidence unequivocally indicates that they are correct.
Indeed, Catalonia has previously experienced independence, existing as an independent kingdom until the fifteenth century when it was divided between the Spanish and French monarchies. Despite this conquest, Catalan culture – and a sense of “Catalan-ness” – survived and even thrived (Sahlins). The people of the region possessed a common language (Catalan), culture, symbols, and history that both united them and kept them distinct from their neighbors and conquerors. However, this distinctiveness was not preserved without a struggle. Various Spanish monarchs, as well as the dictator Francisco Franco from 1936 to 1975, sought to hispanicize the Catalans by banning their language and symbols. Attempts to resist were brutally and bloodily repressed, yet Catalonia’s distinctiveness survived into the current century.
After the death of Franco, the new Spanish Constitution granted Catalonia a limited form of autonomous self-government, and for several decades this largely satisfied the Catalans. Between 2009 and 2011, with the repression of Franco but a distant memory, this rapidly changed as various Catalan towns voted in symbolic independence referendums. In 2014, the first non-binding, Catalonia-wide referendum was held with a result of 81% in favor of independence.
Ultimately, this brings us to the Catalan independent referendum of 2017, which – due to the intransigence of both parties – threatens to engulf the Iberian Peninsula in its second civil war in under one hundred years. There were crucial differences between this referendum and those that preceded it. Unlike the previous referendum, the results of the 2017 referendum were binding. Furthermore, it was administered by a new Catalan leader, Carlos Puigdemont, who refused to swear the customary oaths of allegiance to the Spanish Constitution and monarch, King Felipe VI.
To many Spaniards, the referendum was an illegal act and those who participated were criminals. Following the announcement of the results, millions of Spaniards took to the streets, shouting slogans – as in the video above – such as “I am Spanish,” “No negotiations with traitors,” and “Puigdemont to prison.” It is abundantly clear that the Spanish government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took a similar hardline view of the Catalan independence referendum.
Although the Spanish government was correct in its stance that the referendum was illegal, and it rightly questioned the legitimacy of the vote, it grossly violated the human rights of its Catalan citizens as established in nearly every human rights document. As previously noted, however, it did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights, leading – along with no doubt more cynical reasons – the European Union to support Spain’s actions.
Los independentistas catalanes han fracturado la unidad española
Addressing the Spanish nation in response to the Catalan independence referendum, King Felipe VI claimed that the separatists had fractured the unity of Spain, as well as Catalonia itself, and were undermining democracy. In an interview with El Pais, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy admitted that Catalans constituted their own nation, but denied their right to secede. Rajoy professed the belief that Catalans should abandon extremism, and work to coexist with the rest of Spain in a peaceful and mutually beneficial manner.
Are the Spanish monarch and prime minister correct? Or do the Catalan people possess the right to secede?
Ultimately, the Catalan pursuit of a pointless independence, possessing little to no basis in human rights or even common sense, could see a return to the bloodshed that characterized the apex of nationalism – the 1930s. Already the signs can be observed. The referendum is serving to polarize both sides of the issue, heightening Spanish nationalism, and encouraging violence. Increasingly, many disillusioned Spaniards – in a last bid attempt to maintain their country’s longstanding territorial unity – will look for example to the last Spanish leader who was able to control the separatist tendencies of Catalonia: Francisco Franco. And if that occurs, Catalonia will certainly have created a different world, but will it be a better world for Catalans?
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