Saturday, December 30, 2017

Catalan Christmas Concert at the Palau de la Música

Every year in Barcelona, the city's great choral society -- the Orfeo Català -- puts on a Christmas concert on the 26th of December, Sant Esteve, which is also a holiday.  If you spent Christmas with your family, then you will probably spend Sant Esteve with your in-laws. 

The concert takes place in the great modernist (Catalan art nouveau) concert hall, the Palau de la Música, and all the different choruses of the Orfeo Català, children, chamber, adults, etc. participate.  This year's concert was one hour forty minutes in duration.  It was shown live on Catalan public television and here is a link to the video (which will begin with one or two advertisements, but have patience).  One song will run through the concert, the Catalan classic Fum, Fum, Fum.  And if you pay attention, you will see various members of the choruses wearing (of their own accord) yellow ribbons to remember the Catalan political prisoners imprisoned in Madrid.

If you don't want to watch or listen to the whole thing, you can watch this two-minute video of the finale, El Cant de la Senyera.  It's not the national anthem, but it is an anthem dedicated to the Catalan national flag.  And it is very beautiful


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Catalan Elections and the Invisible Rabbit

Once again the Catalans landed a peaceful, democratic blow to Spain.   On 1 October over 2 million Catalans voted on the banned referendum that the Spanish government said would never happen and tried to block with 12,000 bat-wielding, riot-geared police.  The result was 2,262,425 votes counted (many ballots were stolen by the Spanish police), with 89% (2,020,144) voting Yes, and 7.8% (176,566) voting No.

This pissed off Madrid so it decided it would get rid of the Catalan government.  Never mind that it was a legitimate, democratically elected government.  The Spanish government made illegal use of Article 155 of the Spanish constitution – an article that says that the government is empowered to give directions to an autonomous community if it sees that things are out of control.  Rather than give directions to the Catalan government, it disbanded it and took over everything: the government, parliament, the economy, the police, agriculture, culture, even sending art works housed in a Catalan museum whose ownership was being disputed in the courts back to the complaining town they had come from years ago, before the final sentence of the judge.  They took over everything.

With half of the Catalan government in prison awaiting trial and others in exile escaping the Spanish government-run judicial system, Madrid also called for Catalan parliamentary elections, thinking this was a good moment for the pro-unity parties to win.  After all, the independence parties were incapacitated.  These would be “real” elections (unlike the banned referendum) run by a company owned in part by the Spanish government.  When Madrid said it would not allow foreign observers, people worried about the honesty of these elections.  And Catalan President Puigdemont asked if Spain would honor the results if the independence parties won.

Madrid said that now the silent majority of Catalans would have a voice.  Of course they had a voice in the September 2015 parliament elections and did not achieve a majority then, and anyone who wanted to could have voted – was encouraged to vote – in the 1 October referendum.  Silent majorities tend to resemble invisible rabbits and it would be interesting to see if Madrid could pull this rabbit out of its hat.

What it did pull out of that hat was a lot of repression.  Freedom of speech almost disappeared.  The Catalan public media was not allowed to call President Puigdemont “President Puigdemont” even though all former presidents maintain their title.  First yellow ribbons (in support of the Catalan political prisoners held in Madrid) were banned from all government buildings, then the color yellow was banned from everything – including night lighting for fountains.   Yellow scarves were banned.  Then, yellow ribbons began to appear everywhere: tied to trees, utility poles, bridges, balconies.

Passeig Maritim, Tarragona

Girona city hall

Citizens who demonstrated in protest of the Catalan political prisoners were not allowed to carry signs that said “Freedom for Political Prisoners.”  The signs were changed to read simply “Democracy” and those were banned too.  A few days before Thursday’s election, Spain’s vice president, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, bragged at a meeting of the Popular Party faithful in Girona: “Who has ordered the liquidation of Catalan secessionism? Mariano Rajoy and the Popular Party. Who has seen to it that the secessionists don’t have leaders because they’ve been beheaded? Mariano Rajoy and the Popular Party.”  We all knew there was no separation of powers in Spain, and here was the Spanish vice president confirming it on television.  Rajoy had orchestrated the whole judicial procedure and there is no separation of powers between government and judiciary in Spain.

The independentists were not declared illegal, but, as Sáenz de Santamaría pointed out, most of the leaders were either in prison awaiting trial, in exile, or out on bail with charges of rebellion pending.  Any whisper of the word independence would put those people back in jail.  And so the campaign – hat tipped to favor the silent majority -- was under way.

On 21 December the Catalans (both silent and vocal) voted. 

The results were as follows: (the Catalan parliament has 135 seats and 68 are needed for a majority)
Pro-Independence parties (70 seats total)
JxCat:  34 seats, 21.65% of vote
ERC:  32 seats, 21.39% of vote
CUP:  4 seats, 4.45% of vote

Pro-Unity parties (57 seats total)
C’s:  36 seats, 25.37% of vote
PSC:  17 seats, 13.88% of vote
PP:  4 seats, 4.24% of vote

No stand on independence/unity
ComuPodem: 8 seats, 7.45% of vote

The party that won the most seats was Ciutadans – a pro-unity party.  The party that won the fewest seats was PP – the ruling party of Spain and the one that brought police violence and so-called Article 155 to the Catalans.  It fell from 11 seats to 4.  This is a notable result in that the PP is the ruling party in Spain while it is the least voted in Catalonia.  

The block that won the most seats and the majority of parliament was the independence block of three parties Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), L’Esquerra Republicana (ERC), and the CUP.  So much for the silent majority.

And what about that invisible rabbit?  Donald Trump sees millions of happy faces at an inauguration that was poorly attended because he is a man plagued by narcissism.   On the other side of the pond there are those who also don’t see reality, but in their case their vision is warped by political expediency.  This is why the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt sees invisible rabbits.  He could completely ignore the fact that the three separatist parties had won a total of 70 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament – ensuring a separatist majority – and instead congratulate the pro-Spanish Ciutadans (C’s) party which gained 37 seats, the largest single party but one without enough allies to form a government.  The Spanish president has the same vision impairment and did the same.  Not only that, but he announced that he would be happy to talk with the C’s leader while he stated he was not interested in speaking to Carles Puigdemont, the head of the independence block.  We are not talking here about good-natured Elwood P. Dowd who turns out to be wiser than many think.  These are political leaders who will not deal with reality, who are not democrats, and who are demonstrating that the EU has become an old-boys’ club led by people who see invisible rabbits.

What will happen now?  There are many questions pending.  The four Catalan political prisoners have court dates in early January to see if they will be released on bail.  If not, it would make it difficult for those elected to parliament to do their jobs.  If Carles Puigdemont returns to Spain will he be immediately arrested and also imprisoned without bail?  He is likely to be elected President of the parliament, but being imprisoned would make it impossible for him to serve.  Will the Catalans have the elected officials they voted for?  Or will they once again be decapitated by Rajoy?

After all the repression, the Catalans came out and voted once again for independence.  47.8% of the votes were for independence, 43.49% were for unity, and 7.45% were for neither.  Independence votes have been steadily growing.  In the September 2015 elections, the independence block won 1,966,508 votes, in the banned October referendum Yes won 2,020,144 votes, and on 21 December the independence parties won 2,063,361 votes.

There are those who say that independence does not have a majority of the population and that therefore independence cannot be an option.  But you could also say that unity does not have a majority and therefore unity cannot be an option.  If there are those who would be unhappy with the change, there are even more who are unhappy with the status quo.   In a democracy, the citizens would be able to vote on a referendum and decide the issue. 

In the meantime, the Spanish interior minister has decided that the 12,000 para-military police that he sent on 20 September to stop the referendum (which they did not succeed in doing given that all the ballot boxes appeared out of nowhere on the morning of 1 October, over 2 million people voted, and their votes were counted) can go home now.  They’ve been posted in Catalonia for three months.  After beating up unarmed citizens on 1 October, they haven’t had much to do except go out in their vans and helicopters from time to time just to make their presence felt and to intimidate people.  Every now and then a few would go into a bar and start a fight if they were spoken to in Catalan.  Once they started a fight when the two waiters spoke to each other in Catalan, but it turned out that they were speaking to each other in Italian.  How were the Spanish police to know it wasn’t Catalan?  They have nothing against Italian.  Mostly they sat on those ridiculous, expensive boats and complained about the food.

The cost of this police operation is a government secret.  Rajoy has made it so in order not to have to answer questions about it in the Spanish congress.  Estimates make it at about 80 million euros for the three months – just the ships they were housed on cost 300,000 euros a day.  Whatever the amount, it’s a lot of money for a sustained, failed enterprise.

Tweety in the Port of Barcelona
These police are called “Piolins” (Tweeties) by the Catalans.  This is because one of the boats they were housed in had Tweety and other Looney Tunes cartoon characters painted bigger than life on its sides.  Tweety is leaving.  How much longer will the invisible rabbit be with us?  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Catalans tell the E.U. to Wake Up

Today 45,000 Catalans went to demonstrate in Brussels.  Brussels is the capital of Europe, it’s where the European Union has its headquarters. 

Forty-five thousand is a lot of people.  That was the count of the Brussels municipal police.  The Belgian federal police estimated the count at 60,000.  They travelled 1,346 kilometers (836 miles).  It takes 13 hours by car or bus from Barcelona.  Going by plane is faster but it costs more.  A round trip bus ride costs about 100 euros.  There were 250 chartered buses and many regular and chartered planes full of Catalans.  And many people went by car and a few even in motor homes.  

Although a few went a day or two early or stayed a day or two afterwards, most went only to spend the one day.  Those who went by charter bus left Wednesday afternoon to sleep on the bus and arrive in Brussels on Thursday morning.  The demonstration started at 11 am.  They got back on the same bus that afternoon to travel by night and return home the next morning.  To spend the few hundred euros to go by plane or to put up with the discomfort of traveling two nights in a row on a bus takes determination.  The Catalans who went to Brussels were determined. 

Spain managed to convince the world that the referendum held on 1 October was illegal.  But there is nothing in Spanish law or the constitution that says so.  And if there were, there is the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, to which Spain is a signee, that says that all people have a right to self-determination.  So under international law, the referendum was perfectly legal.  Even so, the European Union has gone along with Spain to say that the referendum was illegal.  They also squirmed their way out of condemning the police violence on 1 October, which in any democratic context, is unacceptable, whether or not those going to vote were going to vote on a legal or illegal referendum.  Going to vote is not illegal and does not under any circumstances merit police batons hitting you on the head.

The 45,000 Catalans who descended on Brussels today did so for several reasons.  First of all they were there to show support for their democratically elected president who has not only been illegally removed from office by the Spanish government, but has also gone into exile to avoid charges of rebellion and sedition, among others, charges that stem from his having a different political viewpoint than the Spanish government has. 

Different viewpoints are not allowed in Spain – in fact, the Spanish government says they are unconstitutional -- and there was evidence that fair treatment and a fair trial would not be forthcoming.  Those government officials who remained in Spain were all hauled off to jail immediately from their preliminary hearing, before any trial, and even before any investigation into the charges.  And they have been sitting in jail, without benefit of bail, for over a month, until a few days ago, six of them were released on bail, while four others remain in prison, the judge saying that their release could explode into violence. 

Why suddenly worry about violence when there has never been any violence on the part of the Catalan independence movement?  Maybe the judge is worried about the Spanish fascists exploding into violence if the Catalans are released?  This could be a possibility since there has been violence at each and every one of the ultra-right fascist demonstrations.  But in that case, wouldn’t it be more just to imprison the fascists? 

It turns out that Puigdemont’s going into exile to Belgium was a good move because when the Spanish issued an extradition order, expecting the Belgian judge to pack Puigdemont up and send him back, the judge didn’t do that.  He gave the accused (Puigdemont and four of his cabinet who are with him in Brussels) over a week to prepare a defense to the extradition charges.  The accused in Spain were given 24 hours to do the same before they were sent off to prison without bail from their preliminary hearing.  After the hearing he reserved two weeks for his own decision.  And before the date set for his decision, the Spanish suddenly withdrew their extradition order.  Why?  Because it seemed that the Belgian judge was not going to honor it and that would make the Spanish look bad.  What are charges of sedition and rebellion that carry 30 years prison terms in Spain, are not crimes at all in Belgium.  Spain’s fame as the home of the Inquisition lives on.

Besides showing support for President Puigdemont and his four ministers, the Catalans wanted to bring the issue of the lack of human and civil rights that they are suffering to the door of the European Union, the international organization that was founded on the priniciples of ensuring those rights and who are seen as failing their EU citizens who live in Catalonia.  They have had their legally elected government deposed and replaced by political leaders in Madrid for whom they did not vote.  They consider it a coup d’etat.  They have leaders in jail without bail before any trial.  They are in jail for their political beliefs and that is not something the EU should tolerate.

Seven hundred Catalan mayors have been charged with disobedience for having made polling spaces available for the referendum vote.  Some have already been called to testify before the judge, others are pending.  Several people have been arrested by police for having said things critical of the Spanish government or the Spanish police on social media.  Broadcasters on radio are also being charged for saying things critical of the Spanish government or police.  The Catalan public broadcasting company is under constant scrutiny and daily threat of being taken over by the Spanish government if they utter a word that the government doesn't like -- such as calling President Puigdement "President Puigdemont."

Each day Catalans' civil liberties are being curtailed.  One day they can’t hang yellow ribbons from government buildings, the next day city governments are instructed to remove any yellow ribbons that citizens tied anywhere they might appear throughout the city – park benches, bridges, lamp poles, balconies, or be charged with disobedience. 

They can’t light their public fountains with yellow lights.  A group of seniors is prohibited from wearing yellow ribbons and scarves and demonstrating in front of their city hall in the town of Reus, demanding the release of the political prisoners in Madrid.  The right to demonstrate and protest is fundamental in a democracy, but Catalans are being prohibited from exercising those rights.  Catalans believe that if they want to wear yellow, they should be free to wear yellow.  Catalan media is prohibited from referring to President Puigdemont as “President Puigdemont” even though every ex-president is referred to in that way.  The media cannot say he and his ministers are in exile. 

Initial reports I’ve read in the foreign (English-speaking) press say that the Catalans went to Brussels to ask the EU to support their move for independence.  But that isn’t so, not that they wouldn’t like that.  They went to Brussels to show support for their president who was illegally deposed, with the consent of the EU.  They went to Brussels because two leaders of their legitimate government, the government they elected, are in prison as are two grassroots leaders -- all of them imprisoned without trial for their political beliefs.  These are political prisoners and Europe should be concerned.  They went to Brussels to tell the EU that it should be ashamed for having abandoned its founding principles of human rights.  They have abandoned their citizens -- all Catalans are EU citizens -- to repression by the Spanish government.  Frans Timmermans, the European Commission Vice President, gave a short, cynical statement after the demonstration today that if the Catalans don’t like the Spanish constitution, they should set out to change it.  But Timmermans knows that Catalans are a minority in Spain, and a minority cannot change the constitution when the majority does not want to.  The Catalans went to Brussels to tell the E.U. to wake up.  That democracy is threatened in Spain by flagrant repression, and if democracy is threatened in Spain it is threatened in Europe.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Spain Takes Note of Belgian Justice

The decision of Judge Llarena to withdraw the extradition order against members of the Catalan government in exile was meant to save face, but what it did was to highlight the anomalous functioning of Spanish justice for all to see.

It was possible that the Belgian judge would not approve the extradition order on the basis of doubt that the accused would receive decent treatment and a fair trial in Spain.  But word had it that the Belgian judge was not going to allow the charges of rebellion, sedition, or misappropriation of funds, leaving only the charge of disobedience.  Rebellion and sedition carry penalties of up to 30 years in Spain, while disobedience carries no prison sentence – only the possibility of the person being suspended from holding office. 

Llarena withdrew the extradition order of the president and his cabinet because he knew that there were only those two possibilities: (1) that the Belgian judge would not grant it - finding that in Spain there are no procedural guarantees for a fair trial, or (2) that he would accept it but limit the charges to disobedience.  This is because the charges of rebellion and sedition do not exist in Belgium, or in most other modern countries, having been condemned to obsolescence sometime after the middle ages, and a European extradition order must be for a crime that exists in both member states or appear on a list of 39 specified crimes.  In any case, even the Spanish definition of rebellion requires violence and there was no violence in this case.  And finally, in Belgian law, misappropriation of funds can only be applied when the accused has personally appropriated the funds and that was not in the accusation.  This would mean that Puigdemont and the four ministers, if extradited, could only be tried for disobedience, which carries no prison sentence. 

Either of these two outcomes – denying the extradition or reducing the charges -- would be a great embarrassment to Spain and the Spanish justice system.  When Llarena wants to hold a trial which could condemn the accused to thirty years in prison, and Belgium considers that at most they could be prevented from holding office, the difference in the possible charges and the penalty is so gross that it is inexplicable.   So to avoid the embarrassment of having to answer to the inexplicable, Llarena withdrew the extradition before the Belgian judge’s decision on the matter.

With the withdrawal of the extradition order by the Spanish, the Belgian judge has immediately withdrawn preventive measures (where unlike their counterparts in Spain who are in prison without bail, those in Belgium were free without bail but had to remain in Belgium and make themselves available to the court whenever called).  President Puigdemont and his ministers are now free persons except if they enter Spain where they would be immediately arrested to face charges of crimes that are not crimes in other European countries.

The first consequence of the withdrawal of preventive measures against the legitimate government of Catalonia will be that President Puigdemont, counselors Ponsatí, Serret, Comín, and Puig will be able to participate freely in the demonstration on Thursday in Brussels where it is expected that 20,000-30,000 Catalans will gather before the EU headquarters to demand that the EU uphold the basic human and civil rights written into its constitution and supposedly guaranteed to all EU citizens (Catalans included). 

They are coming to Brussels because the coup d'état against the self-government of Catalonia would not have been possible without the total support of the European Commission.  Claude Juncker made a bad decision for the interests of the Union and in terms of European morals and politics.

President Puigdemont made a statement from Brussels about the cancelling of the extradition order, saying that the “Spanish are not so brave when the world is looking at them.  When they can’t control the whole chain, when they don’t have judges who are friends, or prosecutors who are close to them, and they have the whole world looking at them, then they are not so brave.”

Puigdemont asked why the charges against the rest of the accused were also not withdrawn.  He said that they were victims of a political persecution for carrying out the mandate of the Catalan public that voted for them.  “That’s not a crime, that’s democracy,” he said.

He said the extradition order was withdrawn because Spain has realized that the accusations of rebellion and sedition are not acceptable in Europe and that Europe prohibits persecution for political crimes.  He also said that leaving Spain and going to Europe was a useful strategy because it brought to light the state of Spanish justice.