Catalan Referendum: Meet the Young Radicals Agitating for Independence

by David Ferreira

9 November 2014

Catalonia will attempt to host an independence vote today despite two prohibitions from the Spanish Constitutional Court. One of the political parties playing an intimate role in the independence process is the left wing CUP (Popular Unity Candidates), which entered the Catalan parliament for the first time in 2012 with three MPs. I spoke with Lluc Salellas of CUP on Wednesday to hear his perspective on Catalonia’s independence bid just days before the vote.

Novara: For those unfamiliar with CUP, could you explain the party’s history and ideological position within Catalan politics?

Lluc Salellas: CUP was created during the eighties, although it didn’t have much electoral success until the 21st century. CUP is the political party that defends the idea of independent and socialist Catalan Countries (Catalonia, Valencia and Balearic Islands). This is the main claim but we can also say that CUP is a left wing political organization that strongly believes in the idea that politics should not be from the top-down, but the exact opposite. So in CUP, the local branches are very important and we have many powerful ones inside the organization. Moreover, CUP is not an old-fashioned left wing movement. It is the product, especially since 2000, of the increase in social movements and civil society organizations in Catalonia and the other regions of the Catalan Countries.

What sort of social movements and how intimate is their relationship with CUP?

CUP has increased its presence in many Catalan towns since 2000. Many people who created local branches came from anti-globalization, squatter, youth or student movements, also from pro Catalan language or traditional culture associations. In that sense, CUP has few older people inside; it is mostly an under-50 political movement, although in the last few years even older people are joining us.

English language coverage of Catalonia’s independence focuses almost exclusively on the economic crisis and grievances over taxation. What is CUP’s reading of the conflict’s origin?

We believe there are three main causes that explain why most people want independence now in Catalonia. First of all, the collapse of the ’78 regime. The main agreements of those days are no longer shared by the majority of Catalans. Neither the political parties, nor the monarchy have the support of the Catalan people.

The second main reason is the idea that Catalan people want to be in charge of their own future. They do not want anyone else taking decisions for them. This idea is widespread among Catalan society and increases every day with the behaviour of the Spanish state.

Last, but not least, there is the feeling that our identity, our language and our way of life will never be accepted by Spanish institutions which usually legislate against Catalan decisions.

On what matters has the Spanish state overridden decisions taken in Catalonia?

According to the Catalan statute, Catalonia can pass laws on education, the healthcare system and culture. However, in these three big issues which Catalan autonomy covers, Spanish institutions have overridden decisions taken by Catalan parliament. Two examples: Spanish education law says that Spanish needs to be more present in our schools instead of Catalan, and the Spanish supreme court has forbidden the Catalan law against energy poverty.

As part of the independence effort, CUP has collaborated with centre-right (CiU) and centre-left forces (ERC & ICV) in Catalonia’s parliament on hosting a referendum. How does CUP’s vision of an independent Catalonia differ from those of its referendum partners?

CUP is completely different from centre-right and partly different from the centre-left. The centre-right party wants a ‘normal’ country in southern Europe which currently means having high poverty levels and having the main financial powers with all the power while the working class suffers high unemployment. Their idea is just changing a flag – but not how Catalan society is working, which everyone knows is suffering deeply.

On the other hand, the centre-left political parties want independence to build a better country, even though they are not proposing anything new from what they did five years ago when they were governing Catalonia. In that sense, we believe that Catalan independence is the best way to change to common sense and left wing policies, instead of how southern European countries have been managed in the last few years. Basically, to return power to the people, and far away from banks and the Troika.

CUP has firmly asserted that Catalan political forces will have to disobey the authority of the Spanish state to achieve self-determination. Is the party succeeding in driving the pro-referendum camp to the idea of disobedience?

Today (Wednesday 5 November) the Catalan president said that on Sunday Catalans will vote even after the Constitutional Court decision [to block the referendum]. That drives us to disobey the Court as the only way to obey the Catalan parliament and Catalan people who have democratically chosen to hold a referendum. We hope that on Sunday Catalans will have the chance to to cast their vote.

Spanish nationalists denounce the concept of Catalan Countries (Catalonia, Valencia, Balearic islands & north Catalonia in France) as imperialism by Catalonia. As CUP is the foremost advocate of the Catalan Countries, is it a “greater Catalonia” as the Spanish right condemns?

It is a political project for a shared future. The Catalan Countries will be a political subject if the people who live there believe that is the best option. It is not imperialism, it is a project that thousands of people believe would be the best option and we are only fighting to achieve a referendum to decide in a democratic way if people want it or not.

The photos of migrants scaling the Spanish border fence have been seen across the world. Would an independent Catalonia have a different approach to immigration than that taken by the Spanish state and the European Union?

What will happen in an independent Catalonia is difficult to know. However, in Catalonia there have been many demonstrations lately against Spanish immigration policies (and Migrant Internment Centres). The demonstrations have been successful, so there is a large consensus among Catalans that our immigration policy should be very different from the one that Spain has now. I hope that the process to write a Catalan constitution will be the basis to make a different approach to immigration.

The creation of a federal Spanish republic is the solution advocated by the Spanish left for the aspirations of self rule by Basques, Catalans, and other peoples. Does this align or clash with the independence process which has been under-way for some years now in Catalonia?

The federal solution is not possible because it is only truly proposed by some Catalans and Basques. The main political parties in Spain and also many Spaniards believe that Catalonia and the Basque Country currently have too much self-rule. In that context, it looks to me that is so difficult to achieve the federal proposal. Moreover, the Spanish institutions, even when PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) has been in power, have dismissed all the proposals from Catalonia and they have recentralized regional powers. Nowadays, the best option is cooperation between Catalonia and Spain as two independent states, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia did in the nineties.

CUP has expressed solidarity with Basques, Scots, Palestinians and Kurds as part of its internationalist stance. Does this solidarity apply to all independence movements, like those in Flanders, eastern Ukraine and northern Italy?

We believe in the people’s right to self-determination. So, if a community asks for a referendum with a democratic majority, this referendum should be done after a logical process. Apart from that, each pro-independence movement has more or less solidarity from CUP depending on if they share our political principles. In Scotland we went to meetings of the Radical Independence Campaign because they are on the left, and we do the same with the Kurds who are fighting really hard against ISIS and Turkey’s oppression.

Finally, CUP participated in elections for Catalonia’s parliament for the first time in 2012. Will it continue to do so or will it return to its roots as a municipalist force?

We know that the best place to develop politics and win the future for the Catalan people is on the streets, from the ground up, organizing events, rallies and making the social movements stronger. This is our first objective. However, we have realized that the Catalan parliament gives us another place to develop and propose those ideas which the social movements are fighting for. At the same time, the parliament has given us the opportunity to discuss capitalism, neoliberalism, gender violence and many topics that we want to tackle. I think that we will continue on two fronts: on the streets and in the Catalan parliament.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.