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The Catalan Dilemma

The demonstrations, some of them violent, are still going on in Catalonia a week after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition. This was the last thing Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez needed three weeks before a national election in which his Socialist Party was already losing ground to right-wing nationalist parties.

Catalan separatists are convinced that the evil ‘Spanish state’ as a whole is conspiring to crush their movement, but the Court had little choice because those leaders deliberately broke the law. They held an illegal independence referendum two years ago in which few people except the separatists voted, and used that ‘victory’ to proclaim independence.

Opinion poll always show that a majority of people in Catalonia don’t want independence, but 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for it. It was cynical manipulation which exploited the fact that the anti-separatist parties in Catalonia all told their supporters not to vote in an illegal poll.

The bid for independence failed when Madrid dissolved the regional parliament and removed the separatists from office. In the subsequent provincial election in December 2017, the pro-independence parties got 47.7% of the vote, so the separatists would probably have lost a real referendum by the same margin.

Yet it was the separatists who formed the next provincial government too, because they enjoy strong support in rural constituencies where almost everybody speaks Catalan. As in most countries, the system gives more weight to rural voters, so the separatists won five more seats in parliament than the pro-Spain parties and are still in power.

The real problem for the separatists is that about half the people in Catalonia are Spanish-speakers who have no interest whatever in seceding from Spain. Some are relatively recent arrivals, but most were born in Catalonia, the children and grandchildren of migrants from other parts of Spain who were attracted by the booming economy.

It’s still one of the richest parts of Spain, and – again as in most developed countries – some of its tax revenues are transferred to help poorer regions of the country. This is bitterly resented by most Catalan-speakers and partly explains the drive for independence, although the most powerful factor is simply ethnic nationalism.

How can ethnic Catalans achieve their goal in a democratic way, however, when half the voters by definition are not interested in it? The only way is somehow to define Spanish-speakers as not really full citizens of Catalonia, and although they never say that in so many words that was their unspoken justification for the manipulation they practised in the 2017 ‘referendum’.

Josep Borrel, Spain’s foreign minister, but himself a Catalan, recently offered a lethal analysis of this attitude: “I think the root of the problem is that the independence movement denies the ‘Catalanness’ of those people who aren’t in favour of independence. When you…claim that only those who think like you are ‘the people’, that’s a totalitarian attitude.”

‘Totalitarian’ is too strong a word, but there’s no doubt that this opinion is widely shared among Catalans, and that it makes Spanish-speakers keep their heads down. You’d never think, looking at the half-million-strong crowds of protesters who have been thronging Barcelona’s streets in the past week, that more than half the city’s residents are actually Spanish-speakers who oppose independence.

On the other hand, you cannot fail to feel some sympathy for the Catalan nationalists, for as recently as 1950 the great majority of the city’s residents were Catalan-speakers. You also cannot ignore the history: Catalans are not oppressed now, but the only language used in the schools and in all official communications in Catalonia under the Franco dictatorship, right down to the 1980s, was Spanish.

None of this has been forgotten by the Catalans, who at one time even feared that their language might be lost. An independent Catalonia might have restricted the arrival of so many Spanish-speakers if such an entity had existed 75 years ago, but it’s too late now.

Those Catalans who respect democracy but want independence therefore face an insoluble problem, and it’s only Spain’s refusal to permit a real referendum that spares them from having to face up to the conflict between these two values. But the Spanish constitution talks of the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ and does not permit any region to hold a referendum on independence.

This is hardly surprising in a country that has had four civil wars in the past two centuries, but it effectively guarantees that the unrest in Catalonia will continue indefinitely.

So far it has been almost entirely non-violent, but the traditional pro-independence civil society groups, the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, are now being outflanked by Tsunami Democratic, a more combative and secretive group. (It was they who occupied the airport last week.)

They are almost all young, they are at home with apps and social media, and they are up for a fight, but Catalonia is still a pretty peaceful place. Long may it remain so.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 10. (“Yet…power”; “It’s…nationalism”; and “Totalitarian…independence”)

Venezuela: Civil War?

There are two stories about the assault on Fuerte Paramacay military barracks in Carabobo state on Sunday. The Venezuelan government says that half the twenty attackers were killed or captured, and the rest are being hunted down. Sgt. Giomar Flores, who defected from the Venezuelan navy in June and now lives in Colombia, told The Guardian that the attack had been “a complete success.”

“We took four battalions and one put up resistance,” he said, claiming to be in direct contact with the leader of the attack, Capt. Juan Caguaripano. The rebels took “a large amount of weapons,” mostly assault rifles, and got away with no casualties.

Whichever story you believe, witnesses agree that large numbers of civilians living near the base in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo, spilled out onto the streets in support of the rebels. Civil war in Venezuela is not yet a reality, but there is ample dry tinder lying around just waiting for a match.

The attack came just one week after the election of a “constituent assembly” by the supporters of President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered government. It’s hardly surprising that the opposition boycotted the vote, because the purpose of the new assembly is to rewrite the constitution and save Maduro from defeat at the next election.

That’s not Maduro’s explanation for it, of course. He says it is the only way to bring “reconciliation and peace” to the country after months of political and economic crisis, but everybody outside his Socialist Party sees it as a constitutional coup.

The constituent assembly, which Maduro created by decree, consists exclusively of 545 Maduro supporters. There is no time limit on how long it will sit, nor any restrictions on what it can do. It can, for example, postpone the presidential elections that are due next year indefinitely. This matters a lot, since Maduro would certainly lose in a fair vote – recent estimates put his popular support at around 20 percent.

More immediately, it can dissolve the legitimate National Assembly, in which the opposition parties won a two-thirds majority in the December, 2015 election. And it has already fired Prosecutor-General Luisa Ortega, a member of the Socialist Party and former ally of Maduro’s who broke with him over his increasingly arbitrary behaviour.

The most threatening thing Ortega did was to open an investigation last week into the vote on 30 July that created the constituent assembly. Since only Maduro’s supporters voted, that would seem irrelevant – but in mid-July the opposition had held an informal referendum in which seven million people voted against the constituent assembly.

Maduro therefore felt the need to claim that more than eight million Venezuelans had voted for the new assembly. Even that would not really be a very impressive turnout in a country of 30 million people – but then the company that supplied the voting machines, SmartMatic, said that the result had been deliberately inflated. At least a million extra votes had been added.

Antonio Mugica, the chief executive of SmartMatic, said that all previous elections in Venezuela using their machines had been conducted fairly. “It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout figures on 30 July for the Constituent Assembly in Venezuela were tampered with,” he said.

It may have been worse than that. Internal figures from the National Electoral Council (probably shown to Reuters by Luis Rondón, the only one of the five NEC directors who is not a government loyalist), show that only 3.7 million people had voted by 5.30 pm – and the polls closed at 7 pm. Ortega appointed two prosecutors to investigate the other four directors of the NEC, but she is gone now and the investigation will not continue.

“This is a dictatorship,” Luisa Ortega said on Sunday, and she is right. Maduro has concluded that he and his Socialist Party can only stay in power by suppressing all opposition, and he is probably right. The regime he inherited in 2013 on the death of its founder, Hugo Chavez, was once genuinely popular and won free elections, but four years of falling oil prices, economic mismanagement and growing corruption have put an end to that.

The street protests against Maduro have lasted four months now, and at least 120 people have been killed. Inflation is 1,600 percent, food and medicines are scarce, and the murder rate is among the highest in the world. The generals are richly rewarded for serving the regime, but rank-and-file soldiers earn a couple of dozen dollars a month.

Venezuela is a tinderbox. There are hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters of the “Chavista” regime, and the government has distributed weapons to them. If the report that most soldiers did not resist the attack on the Valencia barracks is true, the army may be about to split. The violence in the streets is mutating, with more police casualties as well as the daily toll of demonstrators.

There is no worse disaster for a country than a civil war, but Venezuela is drifting towards one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“That’s…coup”; and “It may…continue”)