martes, 31 de octubre de 2017

Down from a high

I  have been writing about events in Catalunya from a mostly narrow perspective these last weeks, because I wanted to include the mood in the street in my reports, the anxiety and hopes that stem from not knowing what to expect next. I wrote from the same height as most commentators do. Now, I believe it is time to take some steps back and start from a wider perspective. For this, I would like to return to the year 1992, when Barcelona put itself on the world map thanks to its successful Olympic Games. Look at us, the city said, we are modern people in a beautiful town with a new beach, we are the stuff that tourists dream of. And, horror, those uppity Catalans claimed it all for themselves. Never did they mention the country they officially belonged to. It must have been around this time that the Madrid power structure realised they were going to lose Catalunya if they didn't stop its quick development in its tracks. It was becoming the Catalunya they had always feared, strong and independent, a blessing to the country's economy but a sting in their lust for control. Goya knew. When Jose María Aznar rose to the highest office, he started his project of recentralisation of economic and administrative power, going against the spirit and in fact the letter of the holy constitution of 1978 so many people like to refer to these days when they are looking for excuses to justify Madrid's power grab. Then Mariano Rajoy aspired to follow up Aznar, against the wishes of the inner circles as they rightly didn't view him as exceptionally gifted, so he needed a successful project to secure his ascendancy. He found it in Catalunya. First, he organised the infamous signature campaign against the Catalan statute, giving off a clear sign that in his book laws offer no protection with regards to Catalunya's position in Spain. Next, he had the constitutional court throw the agreement in the dustbin with a set of considerations which bespoke irrational hatred of Catalunya more than anything else. The groundwork was laid for an angry reaction, and indeed, he wouldn't have to wait long, only six days in all. People in the street, etcetera. The independence movement was born.

Surprisingly, the right-wing Catalan power party CiU, always in line with Partido Popular on economic affairs, was quick to embrace the idea. Did they really believe an independent state of little over 7 million inhabitants would serve the interests of la burgesia catalana, with its ties all over the country? Or were they perhaps in on Rajoy's ploy? The downside of economic success is the growth of the middle class, with lowly born people broadening their horizons and demanding to be treated with respect. This can never be in the interest of an autocratic oligarchy which means to stay in power, and it is one of the main reasons why economic crises are used to specifically hurt these step-ups in society, kick those high-minded achievers back into the class they rose from. But why go through the trouble of uplifting and empowering your population if you mean to take it all away from them one day? Who thrive on such high levels of up- and downward energy? You would be tempted to say our collective energy is being siphoned off, I am sure for benign reasons. To show how this works a simple example: in last season's Champions League FC Barcelona played Paris Saint-Germain. The wrong team tactics had them trail by 2-0 at half time in the first leg, yet instead of changing the set-up they continued in this line and finally lost 4-0, a mistake no Barça coach is ever allowed to make. Their campaign was effectively over. Then two remarkable things happened. First, the local press fought hard to work up a believe we could overcome the deficit in the return match (“if one man is capable of such a feat, it must be Leo Messi”), and on the night, with the help of the referee, we beat PSG by 6-1 with a last gap goal which sealed progress to the next round. I didn't see the match, as I was working, but when I stepped out of the metro I saw in the faces of all those euphoric people spilling onto the streets how much the match had drained them. From an all-time low to nirvana in a matter of weeks, with all the despair in between, if it wasn't planned this way then surely prospects must have been paying close attention. In Paris, meanwhile, emotions ran precisely in the opposite direction, from euphoria to nerves to dismay, creating similar levels of exhaustion. Was it all a dry run for things to come? I often think football matches are theatre, that the right players are in on the game to help the referee turn the tables. There's way too much drama in sports these days.

With CiU politicising the idea of independence and Madrid refusing to even listen to our demands, just barking threats and calling us nazis, soon enough only two outcomes seemed conceivable, success or total failure, our own republic or a new dark period of submission. It is usually not in the interest of political parties to play such high stakes games, they prefer nurturing long-term goals. Makes you wonder if they knew the end of the movie, as people say here. For us ordinary folk things moved on for many slow months, the steep decline of Rajoy's first three years at least having come to a halt, until this spring everything finally sped up. When police pummelled voters on 1-O, the between win and loss there is only an abyss idea was reinforced. And when Madrid still reneged our right to be listened to, independence became more and more like jumping from a high-rise on fire. Last Saturday was one of the weirdest, most wonderful days I have lived in Barcelona. So many happy people on the streets. They finally had their republic and they were fully embracing the idea, even if it weren't going to last beyond Monday morning. On Sunday the fatal deadline had come too close to truly enjoy the fruits of freedom, yet a sensation was growing things might pan out not quite as horrific as we had been led to believe by either side of the media divide. Were we somehow going to be rewarded for our steadfastness? Would we, with the help of outside players, perhaps get what many would always sign off on, a fair deal within the confines of the country they shared such a long, if troubled, history with? Or was it merely their happiness not being ready to turn into depression overnight? If we take all the, sometimes contradictory, signs emanating from Madrid together, it is safe to say the economic interests of Barcelona's zona alta will not be at risk. Catalan culture, its language, media and educational system, all wiped out the last time the centre took stage, equally seem to be salvaged, at least in the short run. Once foreign attention has faded, though, tougher minds may seek headlines with pleas for a scorched earth approach. As a local newspaper wrote, the weeks towards the elections of 21 December will be full of unpleasant surprises aimed at diminishing our resolve. And here we have perhaps the strangest result of Madrid's interference. There will be elections for the Catalan parliament just before Xmas and all political parties are invited to participate. But how will this create the kind of stability Madrid pretends to seek? What charm offensive will we be subjected to? Because it is absolutely clear that ERC, the social-democrat indepes, and Podemos' local offshoot In Comu will win these elections as long as the results are being honoured. This is by no means guaranteed, as last year's national elections made clear. It's an interesting little detail that Mr Rajoy, who loves to cite legal justifications for his actions, is in fact a criminal whose current position is utterly untenable in a court of law. Stealing the elections to crack down on a region in uproar, I am quite sure his holy constitution does not contain any article referring to this scenario.

We have gone up and down again, up and down once more, and currently we are cautiously optimistic, it has been a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Just look into Carles Puigdemont's hollowed out eyes to see what he and his people have gone through lately. A lot of energy has risen up over our heads these last few days, a great feast for whoever live on that, souls who have chosen not to come back, perhaps. And then there was the counter march on Sunday, so much anger at display. These people do not call for union, as their slogan claims, they call for Madrid to be tough on us. None of this sizable crowd, a good few hundred thousands, demanded talks and understanding. They came to claim their prize for having endured the natives. And this demo our local PSOE frontman Miquel Iceta headed in a pledge of allegiance to his immediate future as a politician. I can't see many people still voting this man.

Most people will want to take it easy, make stupid jokes again, but it's still a bit early. We must remain alert to dirty tricks. This man Rajoy and his crew have from the very beginning played dirty tricks on us, according to both sets of news writers. Can you imagine? Your own government is your greatest and most dangerous enemy. That's not a nice feeling. Now that they are all over us, we need these fools to open their eyes and see who we are. They don't have to like us, please don't bother, but they should understand we're just running our own town and it would be in everybody's best interest to keep it that way. This is our struggle now. It would be nice if smart Spain came to our rescue.

This is the latest contribution to the series I started two weeks ago on my blogspot emptyplaneta. I’ll be slowing down my frequency a bit, but do expect growing insight. I’m in it to gain wisdom. Preparing the soul for its journey, is all. By the way, my blogspot has changed from català to español. Sign of the times?
Be good.

lunes, 30 de octubre de 2017


España es un país de pandereta. Spain is a tambourine country, a country where la fiesta comes first. What we have seen evolve over the last couple days had high pandereta levels. To sum up, on Friday afternoon the Catalan republic was declared, immediately Madrid evoked article 155 of the constitution, allowing it to take over Catalunya, and then the weekend started. With scarce news coming from the capital, for a whole two days Catalans enjoyed their republic in the sun. I foresaw something like this when I wrote Real Madrid would hopefully play late Sunday night. They played in the afternoon, but on the right day, and then lost to indepes Girona. By design, one is tempted to believe. This is league is Barcelona's to win, as a thank you for their submission. But back to the main show.

The signs coming out of Madrid hadn't been too pleasant over the last couple days and weeks, you could add here months and years. There was a distinct feeling tough times were arriving. The republic was more and more becoming a final means of rescue. I myself contributed to this collective psychosis by painting ink dark futures, a specialty of mine, I have to say. Still, I was hoping for some kind of rescue plan, and indeed strings must have been pulled, as it seems we are in for a light version after all. Indepe must go, clearly, but the rest of Catalan institutions may escape unscathed, a remarkable result which should also see the economy remain largely intact. Much ado about nothing, if this would be the case. Pura pandereta. It's hard to imagine the genius behind this outcome resides in Madrid. As I wrote, they did their utmost to threaten us with hell and damnation and they struck a convincing pose. Ada and her moneymen were steering in this direction and they certainly will have done their best to get some heads together. The lehendakari, the governor of Euskadi, openly offered his assistance and even had some fruitless talks. But the EU must have been behind it all. They can't afford to have a country which is hovering on the brink of collapse to self-destruct in a vengeful rush. As obnoxious as the Catalan problem was for the rest of the world, it needed to be dealt with in a decent way. But nobody was saying. Yet nobody wants to lose Barcelona. So we get what I was pleading for last Saturday, plus hopefully some well-guided financial negotiations once ERC has won the December elections.

There was a remarkably subdued atmosphere in all my classes today. Everybody has been living through a lot of anxieties over the last month, whatever their persuasion. The weekend came just at the right moment and it wasn't even raining. Now, with the tension gone, people feel the lack of rest they've built up these weeks. Revolution months want to be lived every minute. I must admit I haven't been able to suppress feelings of disappointment over my neighbours' behaviour. Where stronger nations prepare for battle around this time, Catalans shrug their shoulders and shed a tear for the beautiful memories. Another glorious defeat. They're not going to die for their ideals. Madrid knows this and disdains our weakness. The Basques were prepared to kill for their future and got at least something. Our reasoning is too far outside the Castilian mindset to garner any admiration. I believe indepe will quickly inflate to a hardcore resistance, especially millennials seem to've had enough. Families will keep the desire alive, but quietly awaiting the next opportunity. It may come quicker than last time around.

All this is not to say we are in for an easy ride. We have created a lot of bad feelings in Spain, or rather, Spain has created a lot of bad feelings about us. Catalans think they have a right to being as Catalan as they want to be, since they have never in Spain's history sought to conquer or subdue other regions. They mind their own business. This cannot be said, unfortunately, of Castilla. I find the upper classes of Madrid quite arrogant and possessive, wherever I meet them. I know la alta burgesia catalana isn't approachable either, but at least we are eating from their trough. These people are bad news to us and we have so far managed to keep them out. We must seek to maintain this sensation.

First is Soraya, our caretaker governor. It is imperative she falls in love with Barcelona as soon as possible, not an unthinkable task. After all, her anger is inherent, not authentic. I'm sure Ada must be following her twitter account by now. Then the crowd in Madrid needs to be cooled down, the bloodhounds screaming to devour us. The example was set by exterior minister Dastís (we always smile when exterior ministers double as spoke person for the Catalan troubles), when he retracted his claims the 1-O footage was fake and even offered to put the highlights on dvd, or something. Though not all are of his meek kind. And finally, we will have to face our new neighbours, the hideaways who have come out to show their frustration on the street, cheering on the disaster befalling them as well. Meanwhile the hired heavies attack some bystanders. We need to confront these people before they want to take it out on us. I myself live in a mixed neighbourhood with Catalans, Latinos, assorted foreigners and Spaniards, and I am starting to see what I am up to. As I know not too many people are able to effectively calm down group emotions, I fear my contribution is required once again. I'll let you know.

domingo, 29 de octubre de 2017


I arrived in Barcelona on the first Saturday of November, in 2003. I had been before on through visits, but now I was going to work here, become part of its economy and social fabric. I didn’t yet know I was bound to stay. I'd flown in to take a group of tourists around town for three days, something I would repeat that winter every two or three weeks, telling them stories quickly gained from interested reading, and the rest of the time I was needed by my son back in Amsterdam. For me, these trips were nothing but little escapes from the dreary, cold days up north and the pain a divorce was putting me through. But as happens more often in such circumstances, boy meets girl, and less than two years later I drove a rental van south with my books, my clothes, my music collection and my by now 6 years old kid and started a new life at the age of 42.

I chose to add Spanish to my list of languages as it was ubiquitous and spoken by half a billion people worldwide, whereas the local tongue wasn't mastered by even all of the Catalan population. Two years later, after my business contacts in Amsterdam had sufficiently dried up, I became an in-company English teacher. This brought me to the industrial areas around town, where I quickly got a taste of the difficult relationship between Catalunya and what many referred to as el estado, or Spain. Most of my students were descendants of immigrants from all over the peninsula, looking for a new life in the north-east. Some chose to fully integrate into their new environment, some chose to maintain their Spanish identity while paying their Catalan neighbours due respect, others stubbornly refused to have anything to do at all with their surroundings, even after three generations seeing themselves as full-blooded Spaniards who are only in it for the money. To me, this all made little sense. Barcelona was doing fine in those years and formally belonging to Spain while being mentally on a separate island, as unnecessary and little productive as it seemed, it neither posed a great threat. Why not loosen up about it. Yet, who was I to question the local mindset?

Everything changed with the constitutional court's verdict on the Catalan statute, back in 2010. I watched the streets fill up with angry people calling for freedom, and I decided to dig into the troubled history between Spain and Catalunya. I soon concluded that the Catalans were mostly right in their not trusting the Madrilenian power structure one bit, though I wondered where the dream of an independent republic was going to bring them, especially with the friendly and reasonable president Zapatero being replaced by the fascist fool Rajoy. We would need strong international support, but with Europe becoming more authoritarian by the day, who would be wanting to back our democratic vindications? While I attended every yearly mass demonstration to check on the mood, I refused to commit myself to the independence movement. Considering the importance of greater Barcelona for the Spanish economy, at some point the authorities in Madrid would have to come to their senses and find a way out of the growing tensions by offering Catalans a reasonable deal. What I didn't know then, was that this route was already securely closed off by the central power structure. They were not going to negotiate, nor going to address the Catalan people, they meant to steal back Catalunya like their great hero Franco had done before. I thought the movement aimed to ask too much in order to get at least something, a safe guarantee on a fair tax deal, for instance, instead of the dirty little games Madrid likes to play with its budget. Refusing to invest one penny in your second city and economic engine is not only undemocratic, as it deprives a large part of your population from the chance to pursue a better life (I am talking here of the working classes, always the first to suffer bad policies, with many of them by no means supportive of independence), it is also extraordinarily stupid. At some point, I assumed, saner heads would prevail, and a deal struck. So I became something of an indepe myself, though still seeing it as a ploy to be sold in the final instance for what this town really needs, to be given the chance to grow and prosper for the benefit of all of Spain. Yet my Catalan neighbours had different ideas. They had never put their faith in Madrid and they were never going to. Even though they had not managed to reach a secure majority, due to the mix-up of their society, they were focused on only one outcome, their own Catalan republic. Their rauxa, their desire, was stronger than their seny, their cool-headedness.

And here we are, a chilly Sunday evening, two days into our little republic and on the verge of being humiliated by Madrid's power grab, which must come into full effect by tomorrow morning. We can deny their measures, as a foreign power has no business interfering in an independent republic's affairs, but what do we do when they cut off our finances, when they take over our police (as they already have) and organise a blockade of our ports and motorways, and when both our president Carles Puigdemont and Spain's vice-president Soraya Saenz de Santamaría, appointed by Rajoy as caretaker governor, claim their right to the same throne? So far support for our republic has been limited to politicians with similar agendas. They are surely not going to persuade the Union into saving us.

I quickly fell in love with Barcelona, as I did many years prior with Amsterdam when I moved there. It's a dirty old rotten town with a beautiful core, that's where the tourists convene, and many ugly and horribly dysfunctional neighbourhoods further away. It's decidedly bigger than its municipal confines, contributing to the difficulties it has to organise itself well. Yet it's a thriving town, open to the world and to new ideas. While I consider Spain, which I have travelled extensively, as a backward country where people are enthused into valuing their holidays more than improvement of their circumstances, Barcelona is different. It wants to move ahead and forge relationships with the rest of the world, both inside and out of the Union, it wants to belong to what it considers its true home, the globe. Look at those people who filled Passeig de Gràcia today, waving their little flags for king and constitution! Who needs a king these days and who still believes the law is there to guard them if they only make 800 a month? I know many Spaniards here belong to the working classes, though others have established themselves nicely, thank you, but their lack of interest not only in Catalunya but in the world in general always strikes me as inherently exaggerated. You won't find that in Catalans. Can't they really see getting more integrated in Catalan society would benefit them greatly? The separation between both sides in this town seems more mental than economical, and independence has actually very little to do with it. It has a lot to do, unfortunately, with how power treats these people. Their employers, their politicians and their media take them for idiots, hurting and robbing and bedazzling them. They tell them to greatly fear the independence process instead of trying to contact it and see if understanding can be sought. They tell them to despise their neighbours as they, it's claimed, are despised themselves. Now they are coming out and will want to claim the town as theirs. They won't succeed. They might find a chance at establishing relations after all, though.

I fully understand why Catalans want to run away from Mr Rajoy's abject version of Spain, a country full of beautiful people who are never listened to. I question their method, but this has been discussed already. I hope the rest of the country in a near future, preferably the coming weeks, will wake up to what is really going on here. Because Catalunya is only the beginning. It's the hardest nut to crack, but once they have it all of Spain will be up for grabs. The European Union clearly don't care, as long as our payments are coming their way. We will be thrown back in the cold arrogance of Castilla, under the control of people who deeply hate us. Not for who we are, really, but for existing. They need Barcelona, for its location, its factories and its footballing rivalry, but they would be happier in a world without us. We are God's punishment for their usurpy. Perhaps this is after all why they call us jews. We are their jews. They hate us for needing us. This is why I still believe some kind of smart solution should be possible, especially if Catalan voters can swallow their pride and make sure no right-wing fucker gets their hands on Catalunya after December's elections.

Visca la nostra república!