Catalonia and the fight against the Spanish state

catalonia protest

The Catalan referendum on 1 October 2017, with a 90.1% vote in favour of independence, has accelerated a crisis for the Spanish state that has been a long time brewing. The repressive and autocratic response of the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy has exposed its Francoist leanings; in doing so it can only strengthen those sections of the independence movement which identify their struggle not with purely nationalist aspirations but with an unrelenting struggle against the brutality, austerity measures and corruption of the Spanish state. The 21 December regional election imposed on Catalonia by the Rajoy government will be a litmus test for that emerging movement. Juanjo Rivas and Cat Wiener report.

Catalan referendum, Spanish repression

The run-up to the referendum and the day of the ballot itself were marked by the extreme violence of the Spanish national police drafted into Catalonia in an attempt to prevent the vote going ahead. Hundreds of people were battered by police batons and rubber bullets, many dragged bleeding out of polling stations. Ballot boxes were seized and those suspected of facilitating the vote arrested. But across the region, people mobilised in their thousands to defend the polling stations – mostly local schools – and resist the police onslaught. The days that followed saw mass mobilisations and strikes in support of independence and against police brutality. The Spanish King Felipe added his reactionary support for state repression in a menacing televised broadcast in which, with the arrogance of a true Bourbon, he condemned Catalan nationalists for their ‘inadmissible disloyalty’ and called on the governing party to ‘restore constitutional order’. Meanwhile, those supporting a ‘unified Spain’ also came out on the streets in Barcelona and in the capital Madrid, some sporting the fascist insignia and flags of the Franco era.

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Catalan referendum: Spanish state flexes its Francoist muscle

Spanish state police have launched widespread attacks on the Catalan people’s attempts to hold an independence referendum. Hundreds have been injured in police attacks. The vote, ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court, asks Catalans if they want to start the process of building a republic, independent of the Spanish state. The people have faced massive repression by the Spanish government, which includes financial intervention, arrests of members of the Catalan government, raids to seize voting material and mass deployment of armed police. Far from seeking dialogue and political negotiation, the government of Mariano Rajoy has stepped up authoritarian measures which echo those of Franco’s dictatorship. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Madrid.

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The struggle to expose torture in Spanish prisons

In September 2016, the Human Rights Association of Andalucia sent a detailed submission to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, asking it to investigate torture and mistreatment in Spanish prisons, and particularly in the Sevilla II central penitentiary at Moron de la Frontera. Earlier in 2016 the office of the Public Defender had referred complaints about violent behaviour by staff towards prisoners to the Ombudsman. However, according to communist political prisoner MARCOS MARTIN POUCE, all these inquiries and investigations are simply a smokescreen, under which the inhumane treatment continues. He writes:

On 12 November 2012, four jailers gave me a bad beating using truncheons, kicks, knee strikes and punches. All this while I was handcuffed and naked. The last image I remember before passing out was how they nudged each other, looking for the best angle to beat me ever more viciously. When I recovered consciousness, I was being dragged – still naked and handcuffed – on my back, with no power left in my muscles to offer resistance. My mouth was bleeding and my feet slipped in my own blood, leaving two red trails all down the corridors of the solitary confinement unit until we reached a punishment cell. There I was tied by my hands, feet and waist to a metal bedframe without a mattress. As I lay there still gushing blood from my mouth, the jailers verbally abused me, spitting out their class hatred (as good mercenaries of capitalism) and attacking my background as a communist political prisoner.

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Spain: protests grow against EU-mandated austerity

justice for women

After only five months in office, the conservative and pro-austerity cabinet of Mariano Rajoy is struggling to sustain a government reliant on fragile alliances and hounded by corruption charges. The parliamentary projects of his People’s Party’s (PP) are dependent on agreements with the opportunistic right-wing party Ciudadanos, whose sporadic withdrawal of support has at times prompted Rajoy to threaten to call early elections. However, President Rajoy feels confident about obtaining parliamentary approval for the General Budget, which will put into effect European Union demands for more cuts and ‘labour flexibility’. The permanent compliance with these austerity policies has resulted in a severe decline in the living standards of the vast majority of people. As a result, protests by social movements are growing again, but fascist and neo-Nazi groups are also on the rise. Juanjo Rivas reports from Madrid.

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Spain: political manoeuvres ensure further austerity

On 27 October 2016, after 314 days of vacillation and two general elections, the Spanish Parliament voted in the conservative Mariano Rajoy as prime minister. The reelection of the People’s Party (PP) candidate was made possible only by the abstention of the social democratic politicians of the Socialist Party (PSOE), who claimed they had a responsibility to prevent the country being forced into a third general election. The European Commission immediately demanded new measures to reduce Spain’s deficit, which will inevitably lead to more cuts and more precarious working conditions. With the PSOE wounded and the left-wing Podemos restructuring its strategy, the stability of Rajoy’s new Brussels-friendly cabinet is yet to be tested. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Madrid. 

After the severe crisis in the PSOE (see FRFI 253), its leader Pedro Sanchez was forced to step down at the beginning of October over his refusal to endorse Rajoy as prime minister. Despite groups of militant activists protesting outside the PSOE headquarters, on 24 October the PSOE Federal Committee decided to allow the conservative pro-austerity and corrupt PP to gain office by abstaining in the parliamentary vote. Even so, 15 PSOE deputies voted against the motion to invest Rajoy as prime minister in defiance of the leadership. A number of them now face disciplinary measures. On 29 October, the final results were announced, with the support of the right-wing Ciudadanos party helping Rajoy garner 170 votes; there were 111 votes against and 68 abstentions.

Tens of thousands of people joined a protest near the Parliament denouncing a ‘coup against democracy’, despite the attempts of government officials and the media to dissuade them with statements warning of ‘radical groups’, and a large deployment of riot police to counter them on the day. Meanwhile in the Parliament, the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, ironically declared that the police presence made no sense as ‘there are more potential criminals inside this chamber than outside’. 

During the months of impasse, Mariano Rajoy had reassured the EU that if he succeeded in eventually being elected, his cabinet would adjust the budget and comply with policies to reduce the deficit. On 20 October he had informal talks about the political situation with some European leaders at the EU summit in Brussels. After discussions, the European Commission had decided not to fine Spain and Portugal for failing to meet their deficit targets. On 26 October, as soon as the PSOE decision to abstain made it clear what the outcome would be, the European Commission issued a demand for a commitment from the Spanish government to reduce the deficit from 3.6% to 3.1% of GDP in 2017. The road is paved for new cuts in social welfare, courtesy of a minority government eager to please European pro-austerity policy-makers.

Mariano Rajoy received praise and support from political and market leaders on becoming prime minister. With Francois Hollande of France on his way out and Britain’s Theresa May entangled in handling Brexit, Angela Merkel sees him as an obedient follower. At the multilateral EU summit on 18 November, she declared that from an economic point of view ‘Spain walks on a very positive path’. US president Barack Obama also expressed his relief at Spain’s resolution of its political quandary.

The mainstream media has played a major role during this period in manipulating and misleading public opinion. Prior to the election, there were daily, exaggerated reports on the economic crisis in Venezuela, drawing unfounded parallels with the ‘threat’ posed by Podemos. Since the election, other tactics have been used to undermine the emerging party. The media dwells on nebulous threats of ‘terrorist activity’ as a way of turning public opinion against certain groups, and of deflecting attention from anything that might embarrass the government or the state.  A pub fight in which two men were beaten who turned out to be police officers resulted in nine people being arrested and described as Basque promoters of terrorist attacks. When former president Felipe Gonzalez and a media magnate were due to speak at a university in Madrid, the event was cancelled as students peacefully picketed the hall shouting chants about their involvement in state terrorism. The media portrayed the students as radical and violent extremists and claimed Podemos was behind them. On 23 November, the former mayor of Valencia, the PP senator Rita Barberá, who had been involved in several cases of corruption, and had appeared before the court a few days earlier to testify about PP corruption died from a heart attack in a five-star hotel close to the Senate. Although her party had previously tried to distance itself from her, the media’s main concern was to lambast Podemos for the absence of its members in the Congress during a minute of silence for her.

In the long electoral campaign Podemos has tried to gain votes from a broad spectrum of society. The two mainstream leaders accuse the party of being two-faced, on the one hand presenting a confrontational left-wing attitude, to appeal to activists and grassroots movements, and on the other promoting themselves as a respectable new social democratic party, appealing to the general disenchantment that is seeking a ‘reasonable’ solution far from radicalism. The media tries to stir one faction against the other, reporting alleged divisions within the Podemos coalition.  Podemos says it aims to combine pressure within official political institutions institutions with dynamic branch work in the communities. However, it has shown itself at times to be changeable and opportunistic, and many grassroots groups are mistrustful of being under its umbrella. These groups are the ones that continue to build in the struggle for decent housing; who fight against TIPP, demonstrated against sexist violence on 25 November, will march for social services and against capitalism on 3 December and so on. These forces are searching for an alternative to strengthen the links between these struggles, rather than blindly relying on a political party that shows signs of steadily becoming an integral part of the political system.