Spanish state tightens the noose

The authoritarian Spanish state has dramatically stepped up its repression of Catalan separatists involved in the independence referendum held in the region in October 2017. The third attempt to swear in a president of the Catalan parliament has failed and the candidate has been jailed; the Spanish state is blocking any political way forward as it continues its control of the region, under Article 155 of the Constitution; more politicians have been jailed or persecuted, and those protesting on the streets of Catalonia against repressive rule from Madrid have been met with sustained police brutality. In part, the right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy hopes to divert attention away from mass mobilisations in Spanish cities against austerity, corruption and racism, coupled with Rajoy’s own struggle to get his Budget passed in parliament. Juanjo Rivas and Cat Alison report.

Crackdown against Catalan politicians and protesters

On the night of 25 March, the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was detained on a European arrest warrant by police in Germany, following a tip-off from Spanish intelligence agents who were tracking him via GPS on one of his companion’s mobile phones. Puigdemont had been travelling back from Finland to Belgium, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since Spain charged him with rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds following the independence referendum. He could face up to 30 years in jail if found guilty by a Spanish court. Spain is now seeking his extradition. A German court will decide if the charges he faces can be considered offences under German law.

Two days earlier, the Spanish government had issued arrest warrants for rebellion against thirteen other Catalan politicians. Three are in Belgium and one in Scotland; two other radical leaders - Marta Rovira, the general secretary of Catalan Left Republicans and Anna Gabriel, from the left-wing nationalist CUP have taken refuge in Switzerland.

On Friday 23 March – the night of the first wave of arrests - thousands of protesters in Barcelona closed down a motorway while others headed for Spanish government offices; they faced baton charges and arrests by police. 35 people were injured. Following Puigdemont’s arrest two days later, thousands more demonstrated on the streets of the main cities in Catalonia. In Barcelona, protesters gathered outside the office of the European Commission chanting ‘no more repression’ and ‘general strike’, before moving on to the German consulate. They too were met with police violence.

One of those jailed on 23 March was the failed candidate for the Catalan presidency. Jordi Turull was the third candidate put forward, after Puigdemont was barred from taking up his post ‘virtually’ from Brussels. The Catalan parliament’s next choice, Jordi Sánchez, the leader of the Catalan National Association, has been in prison since October 2017 on sedition charges. In March, a Spanish judge refused to allow him to be released to attend his swearing-in ceremony. (Sánchez has since declared his intention to resign as a Catalan MP as his imprisonment makes it impossible to fulfil his duties. ) Turull failed to get enough votes to become president in the first round of voting as the left-wing CUP refused to support him. The second round, due the following day – Saturday 24 March – never happened as by that time Turull and another four Catalan MPs had been arrested and imprisoned on the orders of the Spanish Supreme court.

Repression and censorship

The repression currently being meted out in Catalonia reflects the increasingly repressive measures being taken by the Spanish state to quell opposition in any form. In March, Amnesty International condemned political censorship by the Spanish state, writing ‘Freedom of expression in Spain is under attack. The government is targeting a whole range of online speech…under the catch-all categories of “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliating the victims of terrorism” set out in the country’s vaguely-worded counter terrorism laws.’

In March, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Spain to pay €9,000 to two Catalan men fined for burning photographs of the king in 2007, categorising it as a peaceful and lawful exercise of their freedom of speech. The case is just one of many instances of censorship, which reflect the increasingly oppressive path being taken by the Spanish state and which have increased with the introduction of the Law on the Protection of Public Security in 2015, the so-called ‘gag law’. A two-year prison sentence was imposed on rapper Pablo Hasel for 'insulting the royal family' and 'making terrorist threats' in his songs; Rapper Valtonic is on trial on similar charges. A book published three years ago on the links between drug traffic and politicians in Galicia has now been banned and removed from bookshops. At the International Fair of Contemporary Art (ARCO), under government pressure a photograph on display was removed, because it contained blurred photograhs of Catalan leaders under the label 'political prisoners'.

Resistance on the streets

The nationwide women’s strike in Spain on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day was the culmination of a year’s mobilisation by feminist organisations. On the day, up to six million women took to the streets across the country, demanding policies towards real equality, equal pay and funds to protect victims of sexual violence. In Madrid, an estimated one million marched in a lively and colourful protest, and in several towns women occupied clothes shops to denounce the sexual use of women in advertising and the precarious conditions of female workers in the industry; in a number of workplaces women staged a 24-hour walkout under the slogan ‘Without us, the world stops’. So widespread was popular support for the protest that female journalists from most TV channnels supported the strike and even detractors like Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were forced to change their tone and hypocritically pin a purple ribbon on their suits in solidarity. The feminist movement has proved to be the current spearhead of grassroots struggle, with great potential to organise at all levels.

Institutional racism is also on the increase; African street sellers are systematically harassed by police and threatened with deportation. On 15 March, in the multicultural neighbourhood of Lavapiés in Madrid, Mmame Mbage, a 35-year-old Senegalese man, had a heart attack while police were searching other street sellers nearby. His death sparked riots by the Senegalese community. The Senegalese consul turned up, but was driven away by angry protesters who felt that he had abandoned them to their fate for too long. Activists gathered with migrants in a huge rally; when police tried to take back the streets protesters burned barricades and smashed ATMs and bank windows. Police used the events to target activists from revolutionary organisations. The solidarity movement organised a fundraising meal in a city square, to pay for the return of Mbage’s body to his family.

Meanwhile, pensioners have also been organising against the falling value of their state pensions. As reported before, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) government has plundered pension funds to avoid a second bailout from the EU. While the government claims that economic growth is 3% and the rate of inflation 1.1%, pensions have risen by only 0.25%. A third of pensioners receive less than €8,200 a year, pushing them below the poverty line. Working people are being advised to invest in private pension schemes because the political class has used their pensions to save banks. The government declares that the system of public funding of pensions is unsustainable, while announcing increasing defence spending by €10.8bn for new military equipment.

In February, pensioners started to mobilise. Angry pickets in Bilbao grew from 500 to 35,000. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in two national demonstrations in February and again on 17 March, each time growing in numbers and gaining support from trade unions, youth organisations and feminists. This represents a major threat to the PP, which has traditionally won votes from older people, who are now promising to punish the government at the polls.