What Comes After Spain’s Identity Crisis?

Convivencia was how the country proudly held itself together. Its meaning is fading with Catalonia’s bid for independence.
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Demonstrators in Barcelona protest police actions against Catalonia’s Oct. 1 referendum on independence, two days after the vote.

Photographer: Rex Features/AP Photo

Mariano Rajoy chooses his words carefully. He’s the prime minister who refused to use the term “bailout,” insisting instead that the financial rescue Spain received in 2012 was “a loan with very favorable terms.” On Oct. 21, responding to the crisis over Catalonia’s bid for independence, Rajoy invoked Article 155, a provision of the Spanish constitution never used before that allows Madrid to strip regional governments of their autonomy in times of crisis. He maintained that he was not suspending Catalan autonomy, even as he proposed removing from office the entire Catalan executive body, transferring their duties to corresponding Spanish ministries, and calling new elections in the region within six months. His decision was greeted by many Spaniards as a welcome return to the rule of law and by many Catalans as nothing short of a coup d’état.

One thing is clear: As its politicians engage in face-saving, bluff-calling, and other machinations, and citizens on all sides anxiously hold their breath, Spain is careening through the most severe constitutional crisis of its recent democratic history. But it isn’t just constitutional; it’s also, perhaps more profoundly, a crisis of identity. Nations derive their cohesion and their strength from a sense of shared identity—from the story they tell themselves about who they are as a collective. When that sense of a shared story is eroded, the nation frays. [On Oct. 27, the Catalan parliament voted to set up an independent republic, in a session boycotted by opposition parties.]

Several times during his speech, Rajoy explained his use of Article 155 as a means of restoring convivencia. “Convivencia” is one of those words whose resistance to translation is an indication of its cultural significance. It refers generally to peaceful coexistence among different groups, but its roots go deep. The word is frequently invoked to describe the period in the Middle Ages when Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula lived harmoniously under Muslim rule. But it was resurrected as a foundational principle after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Resting on a fiercely homogeneous and centralized vision of the Spanish nation, his government denied—and actively repressed—the distinct languages, histories, and cultures of the peoples it ruled. In contrast, the democratic state that followed enshrined plurality in its new constitution by creating a system of 17 autonomous communities endowed with their own parliaments and authority over areas such as education, health care, and police. The nation that emerged with the 1978 constitution was based, in other words, on convivencia—an understanding that all citizens could say they were both Spanish and Catalan or Basque or Andalusian.

The coexistence was never perfect. Terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA brought extortions, kidnappings, and assassinations into the early 2000s. And Spain has had its own struggles integrating the North Africans, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans who have migrated to the country in great waves in the past decade or two. But as an organizing principle and a shared basis for identity, convivencia has worked—until now.

A case in point is the world of Spain’s acclaimed restaurants and chefs. Like millions of other Catalans, and much of the world, Albert Raurich was horrified to see riot police smashing school doors and beating his fellow citizens as they attempted to vote in Catalonia’s Oct. 1 referendum on independence. In the aftermath, the chef of Barcelona’s Dos Palillos and Dos Pebrots restaurants reached out to other prominent chefs in the region, encouraging them to participate in a general strike intended to protest the violence. “But we realized it wasn’t enough just to close our doors,” he says. “We had to explain why we were doing it.” Together, he and a dozen or so others, including Albert Adria, Fina Puigdevall, and Xavier Pellicer, issued a statement objecting to the violence and calling for dialogue. That’s when all hell broke loose within Spain’s normally cohesive chef community.

“Curses from Madrid started raining on us,” says Raurich. “They were insulting us, calling us delinquents, criminals, even terrorists.” Adding to the outcry from other chefs, Carlos Maribona, one of Spain’s most prominent restaurant critics, took to Twitter to denounce the statement as “sickening” and to promise “I’m taking notes.” Some interpreted this as a threat that he would use his power as a critic to punish the outspoken. (Maribona, who strongly believes chefs should stay out of politics, says the phrase “was just an expression to show that they had made a mistake and I had noted that they made a mistake.”) So powerful was the reaction and its accompanying calls to boycott the restaurants in question that even some of the chefs who signed the statement have since refused to speak about it, fearful for their businesses. At chefs’ conferences and collective dinners that have taken place in the weeks since, the bonhomie built by Andalusians, Basques, Galicians, Castilians, and Catalans over decades has given way to unease and, in some cases, outright mistrust.

Within Catalonia, and in the rest of Spain, citizens are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground with one another. A poll cited by the Catalan newspaper El Periódico found 58 percent of Catalans believe the nation’s convivencia had been damaged by the crisis. Just like in the U.S., words whose meaning had previously seemed straightforward—“democracy,” “law”—are no longer stable, with each side accusing the other of grave, sometimes criminal, misinterpretations. Even the wounded on Oct. 1 have been politicized, with one side lamenting their great numbers and the other claiming “fake news.” Isabel Coixet, a Catalan filmmaker and a fervent progressive who also favors remaining in the union, recounts being derided as fascist when she walks her dog through Barcelona’s streets. A Barcelona-born economics student named Natalia Casas says her neighbor refused to rent her a parking space unless she removed the Spanish flag she’d hung from her balcony.

The responsibility for that fraying lies with both Rajoy and Catalonia’s government, the Generalitat led by Carles Puigdemont. Catalans never supported secession in percentages greater than 25 percent—most often polls put it around 18 percent—until 2011. By that point, Spain’s constitutional court, at the request of Rajoy’s Popular Party, had repealed a new autonomy agreement that referred to Catalonia as a nation, and Rajoy himself, at the height of the economic crisis, had brusquely rejected a Catalan effort to renegotiate the region’s tax structure. More recently, his hard-line responses—sending in the Guardia Civil to confiscate ballot boxes and physically prevent people from voting, along with the proposed removal from office of the democratically elected Puigdemont—have served only to inflame passions and drive more Catalans to the independence movement. At the same time, Puigdemont willfully broke the law and put his own officials and citizens at risk of prosecution or worse. His calls for dialogue with Spain, which have been interpreted by various parties as either noble or calculated, are undermined by the effective lack of debate so far on the question of secession within the Catalan Parliament itself.

There have been suggestions within Catalonia that Puigdemont could call his own elections as a way of preempting any Spanish move to unseat the government. According to another poll cited by El Periódico, 68.6 percent of the population support the idea of elections. But Puigdemont’s own advisers have said elections aren’t on the table. That leaves either an admission of defeat or the unilateral declaration of independence. Such a declaration will make the crisis even more acute, and Puigdemont himself will likely face arrest for rebellion. Either way, pro-independence forces—already furious over a judge’s imprisonment of two of their leaders on Oct. 17—are promising a long season of civil disobedience and resistance once Spain starts imposing direct rule.

Whatever happens, it’s hard to see how Spain’s sense of itself hasn’t been permanently damaged, if not outright destroyed. Rajoy and the opposition Socialist party are now saying that, once the situation is resolved, they will undertake the kind of constitutional reform that might have prevented this crisis in the first place. But the model of convivencia is dead. And that, as Raurich, the chef, observes, is a shame. “The sad thing is that we built this together, Catalans and Spaniards. Together, we achieved great success, together we earned the world’s respect.” He was talking about cuisine, but he just as easily could have been talking about Spain as a whole.
Abend has reported on Spain for Time, the New York Times, and Newsweek. She is the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, a book about Ferran Adria’s El Bulli.

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