Go back five years ago and I was experiencing my first international travel in the province of Québec in Canada. Besides the excitement of a different country, a different culture and a different language, Québec opened my eyes to the concept of separatism – a complex issue that, thankfully, hasn’t been too much of an issue in idyllic Australia for quite some time.
I quickly became fascinated with the issue, and subsequently read up about it on the Internet and became interested in influential politicians on both sides such as Trudeau and Lévesque. At the time I didn’t really see much reason for separatism and it puzzled me why some people were so passionate about becoming their own republic. Over time however, I’ve began to sympathise more with those people, and after following the political state (albeit a bit more loosely) over the last few years, I’ve started to understand some of the reasons for why there might be such a push.
My personal opinion remains that the benefits of staying as part of Canada outweigh the benefits of splitting with it, but I remain very interested in the cause.
It’s for this reason that I became interested in the situation of Catalonia, the east coastal Spanish province that has a much documented plight of secession themselves. I had always known about it but never bothered to look too much into it and didn’t have a real appreciation for just how large the movement had become in Catalonia. It wasn’t until watching the news telecast in Granada one night that there was a passionate debate between some members of the media. I didn’t understand what was being said but Javier explained to me that they were debating about the state of Catalonia.
This seems to be an ongoing occurrence. Almost every day, there’s something new about it reported in the papers or online. It’s not always directly about the secession cause, but it does show that there always seems to be a disagreement between Catalonia and the Spanish government.
It made me interested to find out more about the situation so, naturally, I turned to Couchsurfing. I came across the profile of Olga of Barcelona who, in her description, made it clear that she was an avid separatist and would than happy to discuss the matter with any Couchsurfers interested.
Olga did warn me that she wouldn’t be able to dedicate too much time to the cause of explaining the situation to me as she was getting to the pointy end of writing her thesis for her studies. It wasn’t long after meeting each other that the conversation turned to the issue of Catalonia and it’s role within Spain. It was inevitable I guess. I was interested in the matter and she was clearly passionate about it. It turns out that she is the editor/administrator for a bunch of websites rallying for the cause and would dedicate a lot of her time to maintaining these and providing the latest news regarding the matter to the readers.
I read a few of these sites and they were certainly updated to the minute. The impression I got from them is that the movement had actually been gaining a lot of momentum in the last year or so, and that there was the potential for big changes to be happening soon. I thought it better to go straight to the source and find out.
Olga and I went out to a bar in Barcelona for dinner – a nifty restaurant on a side street off of La Rambla. As in most places in Europe, Barcelona plays host to a lot of low powered scooters. This is the preference of many drivers as parking can often be hard to find for cars and the cost of running a scooter is a lot cheaper. Olga was no exception and had a scooter of her own and she organised with one of her friends to get an extra helmet for me. I didn’t admit it at the time, but at the age of twenty five I had never even been on the back of a scooter before and was more than slightly nervous.
Off we scooted, with me hanging on to the support bar behind tightly. The roads weren’t too busy at that time of night and quite spacious and when we were flowing along smoothly I was much more at ease. Although smoothly may be a poor choice of words, as being that low to the ground with a light vehicle meant that every bump and imperfection in the road was felt. This constant vibration meant that I continually slipped down the slightly sloped seat into a more uncomfortable position, and this was probably only enhanced by my nerve induced rigidity.
Each stop light gave me the opportunity to readjust my seating position before, inevitably, the same ritual would occur until the following set of lights. Each take off from a standing position would require a slight swerving to maintain balance and it was at these times that my heart was in my mouth. Olga didn’t seem too fazed at all though and I took comfort and trusted that she knew what she was doing. Regardless, it was a relief when we finally arrived at the destination and I was able to demount.
The food during the dinner was great, consisting of cured meats and other assortments – all traditionally Catalonian apparently. To be honest I don’t remember the specifics of it – I was more engaged in the conversation. Olga was very happy to describe the situation to me and it was clear that she was very passionate about the matter. She had spent years devoting much of her time to the cause and I got the impression that it was becoming more of a chore for her, but a chore that she felt was a necessary one for the good of Catalonia. She would much prefer not to have to do all the work she does for it but to her the only way it will ever end is with a successful referendum. To Olga, this seemed an inevitability. Whether it was next week or ten years from now, Catalonia will one day be it’s own independent nation and so it might as well happen sooner rather than later.
I made a note to myself to maintain a critical mindset. It’s not that I thought that Olga would lie to me to benefit her cause – I genuinely believed that she believed what she was telling me. It’s whether or not the information that she had received was one hundred percent accurate or not. She was obviously biased about the situation and I questioned her on a few of the points that she raised. The thing is, I had no prior knowledge about the situation and so couldn’t rightly say that she was wrong or right, I simply had to listen and make my own judgements from that. She presented a strong argument and continually reassured me that they were facts and could easily be verified from statistics presented in various documents. I respected her points of view due to the fact that she argued based on facts instead of opinion.
To Olga the story was simple. Catalonia was it’s own nation before being overrun and claimed by the Spanish. Rightfully it shouldn’t be part of Spain. The people here were different to the Spanish and had different needs and that’s why it needed it’s own governance that would be unaffected by Spain.
It’s a case of one government cannot successfully satisfy the needs of a variety of people. This is essentially what I witnessed in Québec back when I was there. They want something different but they are the minority and by participating in the democracy they will lose time and time again. It’s a valid argument, and one that’s been the backbone of the movement right from the beginning.
But what intrigued me was why this movement seemed to be picking up so much momentum lately. One year ago more than one million people gathered in central Barcelona in a defiant stand to support a breakaway from Spain.
Why had this show of support not been commonplace before? Or had it been?
But here’s an interesting point to note. Spain is in the midst of close to, if not, it’s worst economic situation in history and it’s well documented that the unemployment of Spain is at record highs. But it’s not so well documented, Olga assures me, that Catalonia is doing quite fine for itself (or at least much better than Spain) financially. This bemused me, as the night I watched the television coverage in Granada, Javier told me that Catalonia was appealing to the Spanish government for more money.
Olga explains this by saying yes, the state does need more money, but this is only because the Spanish government took so much money out of the more thriving Catalonian industries in the first place in order to support the rest of the struggling provinces.
So now we have an economical factor to it as well. This situation, I thought, is not too dissimilar from that occurring in the Eurozone – the more wealthy states are having to dig deep into their pockets to support the less successful ones who, some will argue, simply don’t work hard or smart enough to earn it. It’s not a fair system.
This point I could wholeheartedly sympathise with and I wondered if the somewhat sudden increase in interest for secession could have been driven purely out of economical purposes.
To Olga, Spain was untrustworthy and irresponsible. It is comparable to being Mordor amidst Middle Earth, with Mount Doom being the black heart of the Spanish country that is Madrid. She recounted stories of Madrid refusing to release and return hidden Catalonian documents that were taken from Catalonia at the time of the invasion, and certain Spanish politicians who laughed at the concept of bombing the Catalonian parliament.
It was an intriguing discussion and, although I attempted to maintain a strong sense of independent thought and criticism, I must admit that by the end Olga had won me over somewhat. Of course, she is just one person. But if 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong, can 1,000,000 Catalonians? There is an evident show of support, and whether it be for identity reasons or economical ones, they all present a rational argument.
I couldn’t help but continue to think about the scenario on our scooter ride home. Perhaps it helped take my mind off of the fear of being on a scooter, but I was much more relaxed on the ride home, and it became a really enjoyable way to see the city of Barcelona, particularly at night when all the monuments and buildings are lit up and shimmer.
I looked forward to the proceeding cruise around town the following night.
Spain had seemingly become a liability to Catalonia, but one that had all the power to stay attached. It is in the best interests for the high powers of Spain to ensure that Catalonia is retained.
The thing that really gets me as I think about it now is, when I considered the case of Québec I had no doubt that there were benefits to break away from Canada, but I also felt that there were serious downsides too. With the case of Catalonia, I couldn’t do the same. I saw plenty of benefits, without too much risk of it backfiring against them.
Olga had presented a captivating argument to the situation, but didn’t manage to put the nail in the coffin. She did aid in lining up the nail and passing me the hammer, however. Ultimately, I needed to talk to more people to get their opinion to see if they shared that of Olga’s.
Perhaps we will find out soon though, as Olga is convinced that a referendum will most likely take place sometime next year and that, if it does, the result will be a resounding YES.
If this prediction turns out to be correct, you can place a great deal of emphasis on the tireless crusade of Olga for making the country of Catalonia possible.