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  • Catalans in the streets demand independence from Spain.

    Catalans in the streets demand independence from Spain. | Photo: Reuters

Spain sees its former colonies as a top foreign policy priority and maintains strong political, business, and cultural links with them.

Spain is partial to inquisitions. The Spanish Inquisition spread fear and loathing throughout the empire from 1478 until 1834 in its effort to purge heretics.

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Mission creep meant that ethnic intolerance and social repression eventually displaced its original intention as a form of Catholic doctrinal regulation. Branches of the Holy Office were established in Latin America, and as early as 1528 its zealots in Mexico were burning Jews at the stake.

The inquisition going on in Catalonia right now is a modern variation on an old theme. The purge that is being conducted by the Spanish central government – prosecuting elected politicians on charges of rebellion and sedition for staging a referendum on independence last month – shows signs of responding to wider, anti-Catalan sentiment in the divided country.

It appears that Madrid is bent on destroying a heresy, not merely jailing its detractors.

So why should this matter for Latin America? After all, Spain was kicked out during the wars of independence from 1810 to 1821.

It matters for several reasons, starting with the obvious parallels between the way Madrid is treating Catalonia and both its own imperialist and, more recently, its authoritarian past.

The intransigent refusal by the central government to discuss nationalist claims that would stand a good chance of achieving democratic legitimacy in an official referendum bears striking parallels with the behavior of the Spanish Crown during the late colonial period. Latin America learned all too painfully that independence would only be gained through force of arms.

Madrid’s recent behavior evokes even more uncomfortable parallels with Spain’s darkest era, the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, especially within Catalonia itself. Police violence against citizens trying to vote in the independence referendum on Oct. 1 was a haunting reminder of Spain’s history of right-wing repression.

Franco was a brute: annulling liberties in Catalonia, persecuting parties, imposing strict censorship, and banning left-wing activity. The generalissimo executed an estimated 4,000 Catalans between 1938 and 1953, and many more fled into exile.

Just as Franco imposed his version of political order with repression, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has chosen to quell separatism not by persuasion but by force and threats.

Rajoy’s rigid stance of absolutely no negotiation in the vein of Franco directly contradicts the justification he cites of being a democratically-elected leader operating within the bounds of Spain’s constitution. This is legalistic subterfuge: constitutions change all the time – Spain’s has taken at least 12 different forms since 1808.

Rajoy’s Popular Party, it must be remembered, is heir to the Popular Alliance led by Manuel Fraga Iribarne, a minister under Franco whose party after the transition to a fragile democracy after 1975-1977 was long perceived as loyal to the dictator’s legacy.

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In Catalonia, Franco’s dark memory lingers like a bad smell. Moreover, the dictator is still revered by Spanish fascists, neo-nazis and the far right – all of whom have assumed a greater profile in their opposition to the Catalan independence movement.

Worse still, Spain’s top military commander, General Fernando Alejandre, has made thinly veiled threats aimed at Catalonia that the army is “prepared to defend the nation” if required.

Franco’s story cannot, in fact, be divorced from Latin America’s own political development, which was discernibly influenced by the fate of the second Spanish Republic of 1931-1939.

Mexico, in particular, was a loyal supporter of the Republican cause and President Lazaro Cardenas believed the Spanish Civil War was similar to Mexico’s own revolution of 1910-1917. Up to 90 Mexicans are thought to have fought in the Republican International Brigades, and the Spanish Republican government in exile maintained an embassy in Mexico City until 1976.

Moreover, even though the governments of some Latin American countries such as Argentina were supportive of the Spanish nationalists, many of their citizens were not, and anti-fascist movements mobilized in significant numbers.

The Spanish civil war radicalized some of Latin America’s most important figures: the poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda; Nicolas Guillen, the poet laureate of revolutionary Cuba; and the young Che Guevara.

As most of the Spanish exiles that journeyed to Latin America were from educated upper classes, the region’s left-wing movements benefited significantly from the intellectual and ideological resources that they brought with them. In Mexico, Spanish exiles, many Catalan, became an important catalyst for development.

A second set of reasons why the Catalan crisis matters for Latin America are associated with its potential impact upon Spain’s own relations in the region and those of the European Union.

Spain sees its former colonies as a top foreign policy priority and maintains strong political, business, and cultural links with them. There is little doubt that the Spanish crisis will weaken this influence, mainly by exposing the government in Madrid to charges of hypocrisy.

In 1991, for example, Spain founded the annual round of Ibero-American Summits as a forum to promote political dialogue among government leaders at a time when Latin America was emerging from its own period of authoritarian rule. Needless to say, political dialogue has not been high on the agenda of Rajoy’s government in its dealings with Catalan leaders.

Moreover, this summit process has had limited influence mainly because of the divisions between left and right in its ranks – divisions that can easily feed off perceptions fuelled by the rightwing Spanish government’s intemperance in Catalonia that, when all is said and done, it takes sides.

Those divisions were laid bare in the starkly different responses within Latin America to the Catalan referendum. While rightwing governments refused to rock the boat – Mexico, for example, going against its own traditions, said it will not recognize Catalonia as a sovereign state – leftwing leaders were supportive. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, for example, blasted Spanish repression and called on Catalans to resist.

Rajoy’s regime has also damaged perceptions of Spain as a progressive actor in Latin America. In 1998, for example, it was a Spanish indictment of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for human rights violations that led to his arrest in London.

This image will inevitably be affected by the inquisition against democratic politicians now underway within Catalonia. It will be hard for Latin American judiciaries to take seriously Spanish attempts to pursue justice against the enemies of democracy in the region when at home Spain now categorizes democratic politicians themselves in similar terms.

European Community interest in Latin America was largely awoken when Spain and Portugal joined the EC in 1986 and has been mediated ever since by the special relationship they enjoy there.

Overtures towards the region were initially premised during the 1980s upon the San Jose Process in which the European community assumed the role of mediator in Central America’s civil wars. Since then, Europe has been influential in promoting peace.

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How ironic, then, that the EU has steadfastly refused to play anything like such a positive role mediating the crisis in Catalonia, generating genuine dismay among Catalans.

A series of EU-Latin America and Caribbean summits over the years have agreed on a roster of shared democratic values – which appear to wear somewhat thin when looked at alongside Madrid’s heavy-handed behavior in Catalonia.

The EU has also provided a potent model of integration for Latin American initiatives such as Mercosur and the Andean Community, not least on the basis of subsidiarity – a principle that advocates the greatest possible levels of autonomy downwards, a “Europe of the regions”.

But it seems clear that the EU – riven by centrifugal strains and populism – is now turning its back upon such ideas. This will alter perceptions in Latin America about Europe as a model of integration, with huge long-term implications.

Europe is important in Latin America not just as a trading partner and cultural madre patria, but also as a counterweight to U.S. hegemony. Indeed, the very term “Latin America” is a European concept.

That role as counterweight has been an important pillar of multilateralism, challenging Washington’s often clumsy unilateralism in its backyard. The Ibero-American summits, for example, were notable for including Cuba while excluding the U.S.

Anything that weakens that role, by implication strengthens opposite tendencies.

As Europe loses the legitimacy it once enjoyed as a beacon of democratic multilateralism – a loss epitomised by the crisis in Catalonia – Latin American states will begin to look elsewhere for their alliances.


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