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Opinion: Catalonia’s Fight for Democracy Deserves More Attention

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Catalonia is a semiautonomous region of Spain that shares a border with France to the north and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea to the east. If you know nothing else about Catalonia you have most certainly heard of its most famous city, Barcelona. Long seeking a path to independence, Catalans headed to the ballot box on Oct. 1 to vote on their future. Their peaceful, democratic referendum was met with force and violence from the government in Madrid.

While it is easy to ignore the plight of a region you may be hearing of for the first time, Catalonia’s struggle for independence is sure to have ramifications that stretch far beyond a single vote.

The BBC reported that 42 percent of Catalans (approximately 2.3 million citizens) came out to vote in their secession referendum. Of that, Catalan officials say, 90 percent voted yes to secession and the subsequent independence of the region.

But the biggest news of the day occurred not with the vote but with the baton. In what the New York Times called “one of the gravest tests of Spain’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship,” Spanish police battalions assaulted voters using rubber bullets and seized the voting booths in an effort to stop the people of Catalonia from voting. Close to 800 people were hurt in the skirmish.

Police intervention was prompted by Spanish courts and Madrid’s conservative government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, declaring the vote illegal and unconstitutional and demanding the suppression of the vote. Still, Catalans turned out to have their voice heard and their voice called out a resounding and collective “yes” to secession.

Spain’s aversion to Catalonia’s long-standing desire for independence is due to the country’s recent economic struggles and its reliance on Catalonia’s economic potential, especially the tourism industry in Barcelona. Because of this, Catalans feel that the government has been using their region as a private bank and such animosity has led to the recent uptick in nationalistic sentiments. While separatist leader Carles Puigdemont is set to declare their independence from Spain, it will be some time before the true fate of the region is finally decided.

The vote has put Catalonia’s independence on a forward moving track and yet the actions of Spanish officials have rightfully stolen all the headlines. Spanish democracy is new compared to the rest of Western Europe, having only reemerged after the death of fascist General Francisco Franco in 1975. A member of the European Union, Spain’s fellow member-states should be embarrassed and concerned by the actions of Rajoy and the Spanish police.

Suppression of suffrage, regardless of what is being voted on, through force of any kind is wholly undemocratic and entirely egregious in any state which claims to uphold democratic principles. If the global community stands idly by and allows for a peaceful expression of the democratic system to be scuttled by the Rajoy Administration then any action in the name of “preserving democracy” loses any meaning.

The United States and Spain are both members of NATO and America cannot sit silent and allow for such an egregious infringement of rights to be perpetrated within the borders of a republican state. As the leader state of the European Union, President Emmanuel Macron’s France, whose southern border with Spain includes Catalonia, should take point in denouncing the actions taken by Spanish officials. Anything short of an official condemnation of the state’s interference in a regional election should be considered entirely unacceptable.

National self-determination, the right of a distinct group of people to declare themselves a nation if they do so choose, is an essential aspect of the democratic philosophy. It is this concept which America’s Founding Fathers embraced when they rebelled from the tyranny of King George III, that which Mahatma Gandhi quoted when striving to free India from British Imperialism and what the West touted following the fall of Soviet Bloc and the emergence of new Eastern European states. Why is Catalonia’s search for independence any different from the struggle of those who came before? Why should the world turn a blind eye while a people are forbidden from choosing their own path?

Many believe that Catalonia’s independence could potentially lead to further dissolution on the Iberian Peninsula and the end of the Spain as the unified nation we’ve long known it as. There are serious doubts about Spain’s ability to continue without their economic arm. However, Catalonia’s long-standing quest for independence trumps the failure of the Madrid government to sustain the nation’s economy. Since the Middle Ages, Catalonia has felt the pressure of a larger state placing its thumb on the region’s destiny and that pain has only increased since the restoration of “Spanish democracy.”

As Americans seek to maintain democracy at home in the face of a governmental identity crisis, the masses must not turn a blind eye to abuses abroad. Instead, we Americans must recognize the needs of their brethren who only strive for the same rights our own founders fought and died for over two hundred years ago. This is not an issue affecting just Catalonia, just Spain or just Europe. The entire future of global democracy is at a turning point all throughout the world and Catalonia is no small theatre. Best we stand up for those who only seek the same freedoms we ourselves hold so dear.

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