Fractured communities, splintered families, broken friendships.
In Catalonia the economy is already beginning to feel the pinch from the rise in political tensions, as tourist number plunge 20-30% and as hundreds of companies, both domestic and foreign, move their headquarters to other parts of Spain, albeit in most cases only on paper.
But there’s one business that’s doing a brisk trade: the flag business.
Wherever you go these days, flags are everywhere. For years the estelada flag, the starry symbol of Catalan independence, has been a ubiquitous feature of the urban landscape. But now the Spanish flag is doing its best to catch up. As Catalonia’s separatist movement grows in confidence, more and more balconies in Madrid, Valencia, Seville and other Spanish cities, including even Barcelona, are sporting the bold red and yellow of the Spanish flag.
The Chinese are happy to manufacture the flags and the Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis that run many of Spain’s convenience stores are happy to sell them. As the Catalans are fond of saying, pela és pela (money is money).
But while all this frenetic flag buying, selling, waving and draping may be good business for some, it points to a very dark reality for Spanish and Catalan society: two deeply rooted, diametrically opposed forms of nationalism with a bleak not-so-distant past are on the verge of a head-on clash. While much of the focus of the international media has been on divisions between Spain and Catalonia, it’s within Catalonia itself that the most toxic affects of this political crisis are being felt.
Communities within the region are fracturing, families are splintering and friendships are breaking apart as the politics of sectarianism worm their way into just about every public and private space.
Stress levels are rising and many people are struggling to sleep. A friend of mine told me last week that the morning after the violence-marred referendum on Oct.1, two colleagues at the office where she works, belonging to a company whose management is fiercely unionist, were entrusted with the unpleasant task of finding out where all the other junior employees’ loyalties lie.
“On the side of dialogue” was my friend’s improvised response.
The pressures to conform are at times unbearable. The wife of a close friend complained at the weekend that she had been strongly criticised by her work colleagues for not taking part in last Tuesday’s general strike. If there’s another strike she’ll probably stay at home, if only to avoid the accusatory glares of her fellow colleagues.
Another friend, of Spanish-German descent, was interviewed today by a German newspaper about his feelings over recent developments in Catalonia. Having suffered serious setbacks in his work as sales manager for a German chemicals company and facing the possibility of having to move to Madrid as a direct result of the political chaos in Catalonia, my friend was pretty candid about the chaos it’s causing.
But when the journalist sent him the final copy of the article, he saw that she had featured his full name and the name of the company he works for. “You can’t do that,” he told her. “I could lose my job. My company could lose all its contracts with local government institutions. I could even be blacklisted.” In the end the journalist agreed to remove all mention of my friend and his business from the article.
That more or less sums up the bleak reality that has descended on Catalonia, a place where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to express your opinions freely and openly without paying a high price.
The fact that this is happening in a country where the roots of democracy are still fairly shallow and the scars of one of Europe’s bitterest modern civil wars are still pretty fresh should give pause for thought. Franco’s dictatorship ended only 42 years ago — a mere blink of the eye in the great scheme of things — and Spain’s “transition” into a full-fledged constitutional democracy remains very much half-finished. Its institutions of democracy and civil society are still precariously young and extremely fragile, as the proliferation of political scandals in recent years has demonstrably shown.
Perhaps most importantly, Spain, as a living, breathing whole, is yet to come to terms with its recent past. The reason for this is simple: In the wake of Franco’s death in 1975, rather than confronting and reconciling themselves to the injustices and horrors perpetrated in his name, most Spanish people, including many on the left, simply swept all memory of them under the rug of collective amnesia.
Instead of confronting the fear and loathing that had built up during 36 years of brutal dictatorship, not to mention three years of bloody civil war, the Spanish people, egged on by the political and business establishment, chose to simply forget.
Forgetting the horrors of the past seemed expedient at the time, but now, thanks to the recent escalation of political tensions between Barcelona and Madrid, the ghosts of the past are coming back. If tensions aren’t deescalated soon, from both sides of the divide — and yes, Brussels, this will mean some form of international mediation — this simmering conflict could soon boil over with brutal consequences that will likely extend far beyond Spanish and Catalan borders.