My name is Vinyet Miró. I’m a 20-year-old exchange student in Calgary from Barcelona, Catalonia.
I’d like to take you back in time so that you might better understand what happened in my country on Oct. 1, 2017.
The people in my region, Catalonia, voted on whether to separate from Spain or not.
Voter turnout in Catalonia was 45 per cent, of which 90 per cent of Catalans voted for independence. But there was nothing peaceful or satisfying about the end result. Spain rejected it.
The experience forever changed me and how I see politics. We must have the ability to accept and demonstrate respect for others (rights, language, education, culture, etc), while remaining committed to a continued and open dialogue.
Catalonia, my homeland, is a region in the north-east of Spain separated from France by the Pyrenees Mountains. It is one of the wealthiest provinces of Spain, with its own identity, culture, language and history.
The evening before the independence vote, my friends, neighbours, family members and I received word that Spanish police were going to break into our local school and steal our ballot boxes.
To resist, we planned to spend the night locked in the high school where the voting was going to take place. There were 30 of us sitting on the floor; organizers were explaining what consequences we were likely to face if we decided to remain: arrests, fines, even jail. We were silent as they spoke.
“What am I getting into?” I thought. Some people left but the majority of us stayed.
The night was long. We took turns guarding the entrance while others tried to rest on mattresses set up in the classrooms. I couldn’t get much sleep, instead engaging in intense conversations about democracy, freedom and the future while we waited.
At 6 a.m. there was the roar of an engine and I went running to the entrance. In the distance a car drove at full speed towards us, with two men in hooded jackets inside.
Some thought that it was an attacker; however, two men got out carrying two boxes. They were deliverers of the ballot boxes that we would use to vote.
Everybody cleared a path for these mysterious men, amidst applause. In that moment, we felt victorious. With ballot boxes in place, we knew that we would soon be able to vote. It’s a feeling that I will never forget — we laughed, cried, embraced and went home only to return in a few hours.
Nearly a hundred people of all ages quietly and calmly lined up in the pouring rain waiting to vote at 8 a.m. Finally, the doors opened. As more and more people arrived I could feel the tension increase, but everything seemed to progress normally.
Then, something went wrong.
Everybody was astonished as images of violence and police charging peaceful citizens in adjacent villages began to pop up on our phones. I was frozen, unable to say a single word. The woman next to me asked with a trembling voice, “But what is this? What are they doing? Please!”
We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Women being dragged by their hair from polling stations by armed police, elderly people being hit, rubber bullets used against citizens, tear gas used to disperse the population. It was a wake-up call for all Catalans. Across the region we laid down in passive resistance to try and protect ourselves.
Only a couple of minutes after the news of police violence reached us, we received news that the Spanish police were on their way to our voting station.
We closed the doors and everyone gathered in front of the main school entrance to try and stop the police. We sat on the ground, holding each other’s hands, in an attempt to defend our ballots and our rights.
Minutes later a loud chant began,“We will vote! We will vote!” I knew something bad was happening. I could see four police trucks coming slowly to us through the main street. A rush of adrenaline ran through my body; a mix of fear and bravery.
When the police rushed toward our voting station, I saw them use batons on anyone getting in their way.
Once inside, they could only find three ballot boxes out of six; somebody had hidden the other three on the roof of the building. When the police left, we tried to proceed with the elections. Some ambulances came to help those who were hurt. As the sun began to set, most of the people in the crowd left for home to await the results.
Roger Cross, a 29 year-old Catalan who is living in Quebec, left Spain a couple of years ago to work abroad. However, Cross booked a flight to Barcelona in order to cast his vote.
“My first reaction was a certain level of excitement, we were living a revolution; we were attacking the legitimacy of the Spanish state; we were empowering people as a political demo with the sense of belonging to a nation,” says Cross.
Unlike me, Cross didn’t experience any violence by police, but was astonished by the result.
Despite the harsh repression, the results of our independence vote were clear: 90 per cent of Catalan voters voted to become a republic, eight per cent said no and two per cent left their ballots blank. In addition, it is estimated Spanish police confiscated and never returned more than 700,000 ballots from the electoral roll.
Since Spain reacted violently to a democratic process — almost 900 people were hurt that day — the European Community has expressed concern about the violation of human rights in Spain, an EU country. To my disappointment, the EU didn’t do much else.
A view from Canada
Juanma Rodriguez, a 42-year-old Catalan who now lives in Vancouver working as a product marketer, watched the dramatic events unfold from his home in Canada.
“It was just past midnight in Vancouver when the polling stations opened and the voting started, so I was about to go to sleep hoping for a peaceful day in Catalonia. Unfortunately, the violence started shortly after. Given the recent events, it’s not that I didn’t believe Spain was capable of that, but I was still totally shocked,”
His sister was in one of the schools, prepared to defend it if necessary, but she was lucky that her polling station was not invaded by the Spanish police.
“I simply couldn’t fall asleep until 6 or 7 a.m., listening to the radio, crying at times, chatting with my friends in Catalonia, and watching TV on my phone all night long,” Rodriguez says.
One year later
In Canada there was partial coverage of the referendum and its immediate consequences in the following weeks. However, media coverage was limited, compared to other countries. When I arrived in Canada to study journalism in September 2018, not only did people not understand the conflict that gripped my homeland, they didn’t even know where I was from, Catalonia.
Perhaps the only way Canadians might understand the issue is if they were to think back to its own history of separatism, most notably in Quebec. However, both cases proceeded in very different ways.
Rodriguez says the Catalan situation probably shouldn’t be compared.
“You should imagine a situation where Quebec is not allowed to have a referendum. Every law its parliament approves can be automatically annulled by the Federal Government, including its very autonomy, the Quebec premier is imprisoned after organizing a referendum, French immersion is continuously threatened by the Federal government. People from Quebec are systematically insulted across Canada just for being Quebecois or speaking French, and the crowds gather in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Regina, Ottawa and Toronto encouraging RCMP to beat with batons and shoot blast balls to elderly people who just wanted to vote.”
Seeing all this it has become clear that we live in a world that needs to recognize different nations; sharing common core values while respecting local and regional differences.
What happens next?
Now, a year after the referendum, things are a bit quieter in the streets. Despite Catalan politicians declaring independence, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont suspended its effects with a promise to open a period of dialogue. However, the response of the Spanish Government was to jail the two leading civil society figures of the pro-independence movement along with half of the Catalan government officials who were accused of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. The remaining Catalan officials, including Puigdemont were forced into exile in Brussels.
Juanma Rodriguez explains, “They are basically political prisoners, hostages of a disguised dictatorship. Despite Spain’s claims, the referendum wasn’t illegal; a Catalan law had been passed and Spain hadn’t yet annulled it when the referendum took place. What’s more, there was no violence at all from the Catalan side, and the icing on the cake was that everything Spain did following the referendum was illegal according to their own Constitution.”
Rodriguez continues, “That only shows how Spanish justice is corrupt, there is no separation of powers in Spain, and all the consequences including the imprisonment of the Catalan politicians as well as the leaders of two grassroots organizations should all be annulled by the European Court of Human Rights.”
As for me, I feel a duty to keep fighting to protect and defend my rights and freedoms, through my actions, and my words.
- By Vinyet Miró Pujadas