The Propaganda Army Fighting to Wrest Catalonia Away From Spain

Catalan Pro Independence Rally

Catalan Pro Independence Rally

Juanjo Perez Monclus/Bloomberg
  • Telephone volunteers say independence worth $18 billion a year
  • Catalan officials estimate benefits at just a fraction of that

In a warehouse in Barcelona, more than a thousand volunteers worked shifts through the summer bombarding Catalan voters with phone calls to persuade them to abandon Spain.

From the 100-seat call center, the volunteer army made more than 300,000 calls and had conversations with more than 56,000 people leading up to Sunday’s regional election. Working with advisers who helped on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, they asked potential voters how they would spend a 16 billion-euro ($18 billion) annual windfall from independence. Did they want to help the poor? Upgrade the region’s infrastructure? Raise pensions?

But secession will bring no such windfall. At least not according to the pro-independence officials in charge of the regional administration.

An independent Catalonia would have had a surplus of just 3.2 billion euros this year, according to estimates by the Catalan Economic Department. Regional President Artur Mas’s election manifesto estimates 5.8 billion euros a year in fiscal benefits. Neither include the untold costs of potentially getting kicked out of the euro, which Spain’s central bank governor Luis Maria Linde warned of this week.

“It’s all a massive propaganda effort to bring people who don’t have a strong independence sentiment to embrace independence for economic reasons,” said Josep Borrell, the 68-year-old former president of the European Parliament who comes from Catalonia.

Mixed Messages

After a five-year campaign and centuries of smoldering resentment, Catalans are voting for the first time this weekend in a legally sanctioned ballot where the central question is whether to remain part of Spain. They are doing it amid a hail of conflicting claims and counter claims.

An independent Catalonia would be automatically excluded from the European Union and the single currency. Or European officials would bend the rules to accommodate them. Catalan banks could still borrow from the European Central Bank if they were outside the euro. Or they’d run out of cash and be forced to freeze deposits. Subsidizing the rest of Spain costs the region 16 billion euros a year. Or 6 billion euros. Or 3 billion.

“People don’t have a clear sense of what the consequences of the vote really are,” said Felix Ovejero, a sociology professor at Barcelona University, who supports Catalonia remaining part of Spain. 

The pro-independence canvassing operation was set up by the Catalan National Assembly, or ANC, and Omnium Cultural, the two civic organizations that have brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets of Barcelona each year since the Constitutional Court revoked part of the region’s autonomy in 2010.

Key Battleground

They’ve used the intel gleaned from the phone campaign to produce videos and conferences tailored to different audiences.

“This is one of the key points of the battle,” Quim Torra, the Omnium chairman, said in an interview at the call center this month.
“We are trying to explain that things will be better if we become an independent country.”

The effort has brought the pro-independence movement to within reach of a majority in the regional assembly, a threshold that could trigger an 18-month race to build the structures of a new state in defiance of Spain.

The separatist groups ran a similar canvassing operation to mobilize voters before the informal referendum held in November last year, when they first worked with WPP Plc’s Blue State Digital unit, which managed Obama’s fundraising and networking efforts in 2008.

Last year, more than 2 million people voted, even though Spain’s constitutional court ruled the ballot illegal.

Broadcast Wars

That ground campaign is backed up by the news shows on the regional government television channel TV3, the most popular among Catalans, with a 42 percent audience share.

When Obama said last week he favored a “strong and unified Spain,” TV3 gave the comments seven seconds of airtime, according to pollster GAD3’s Chairman Narciso Michavila, who tracks media coverage. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy got 15 seconds while Mas’s response lasted for 52 seconds, said Michavila, who counts the the Spanish premier’s party among his clients.

Catalans say that they themselves are the victims of bias. Spain’s national media are skewed against the independence movement, according to the ANC and Omnium. About 96 percent of guests discussing Catalan politics on national channels such as La Sexta oppose independence, according to a study presented by the two civic groups last week.

“I’ve heard complaints about the plurality of the Catalan media,” Jordi Sanchez, head of the ANC, said in an interview. “But the numbers show that it’s more a problem for the media in Madrid.”

As Borrell, who led the Socialist opposition for a year in the late 1990s, toured Catalonia this month, he found the regional parties have had more success getting their message across than those in the national capital.

“Messages such as ‘Spain robs us’ have created a breeding ground for emotions and have gone unanswered,” he said. “We’ve collectively abandoned the civic and media space to the pro-independence camp.”

He’s hoping it’s not too late to claim it back.

The Catalonian Winemaker Who Wants to Bid Spain Adiós
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE