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Hiram José Irizarry Osorio, a Professor of Mediterranean Politics and Politics of the Developing World at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, recently interviewed Benet Salellas, Parliamentary Member (CUP) during the 2015-2017 legislature, about the ongoing crisis in Catalonia. 

Why the independence of Catalonia?

It is not an easy question. But we, the CUP, think about it from a democratizing perspective. We use this term extensively: to regain sovereignty. But we probably do not do it from a strictly nation-state logic as it has always been understood. At least we talk about concepts that have to do with how current capitalism has ended up imposing a logic of powers, of non-political powers, of hidden powers, which also end up greatly affecting our lives. With this, what I want to say is that we use the term sovereignty from an optic to regain control of our lives in every way. For example, when the Greeks go out to denounce the effects of the European Troika's intervention and the European Memorandums, they are making a struggle to recover their sovereignty in which we too feel mirrored. Therefore, it is a very broad concept of recovery of sovereignty in order to exercise democratic control over it from the community as a whole. This is our concept of independence or why we think maybe independence is useful. Because we read that beyond the national issues, the Spanish state as it is configured today, is mainly the representative of this political and economic system that represents the capitalism of the European Union.

And yes, probably the instrument at first would be the nation-state. But since the political will is a democratizing one, we can imagine other instruments that are to be built within which we would materialize this independence. I would like to underscore the idea that this Catalan independence process (since 2015 at least ) has revealed a set of hidden interests and powers (business, economics, etc.) that I think will be going to become more obvious and more important in this whole process of independence. Therefore, the final result, I honestly do not know what it will be, and since we always act from an internationalist’s logic (let us say we are independentists without borders), I think that in the future we have to build federations and horizontal work-relationships with so many other communities. Therefore, the realization of a nation-state in Catalonia, though surely in a much more up-to-date way.

Do you consider the CUP a "leftist" and "non-nationalist" political party? If yes, how and why a left-wing and non-nationalist political party advocates for independence/secession?

Take a look at the debate between Ramón Grosfoguel and Juan Carlos Monedero, where they deal with the Catalan independentist process. One of the elements that most makes me think is how sometimes there are phenomena that you can only understand if you share a certain logic of oppression. And if you are not part of any element of discrimination or oppression, oppression itself is very difficult to understand. What I want to say is that I understand that in the countries in which there is no conflict similar to ours, an internal national conflict, a colonization conflict, or an imperialist conflict, what we live in some way (with many shades of difference) in Catalonia, then it is difficult to understand that the left participates in these phenomena. In contrast, in all countries where these sort of conflicts already exist, the leftist organizations of these countries do have a lot more capacity to understand.

So, why does a leftist political party advocate for independence? I think that the objective of any left-wing political formation is the search for the improvement of the living conditions of the majorities, of the popular classes; and we understand that the only way to guarantee this improvement in living conditions is by breaking the current status quo. That is, we are clear that the current status quo does not allow it (i.e., autocracy, budget cuts, regression of social rights). And one way to accomplish these victories it is independence as an instrument of emancipation. And we think that as a left-wing party this is a good opportunity and a good way to go in this direction.

And with regard to the “non-nationalist” theme, there is no unity of criteria in the CUP. I do not consider myself a “nationalist.” I understand certain people within the CUP that consider themselves “nationalists,” but they do a radical construction of what “nationalism” mean. I understand that the “nationalism” that in any case they are promoting would be a “nationalism” that cannot be ascribed to the “extreme right-wing nationalism” that lives today in Europe. Because the logic and approach to it is in no way an identitary “nationalism” nor an “exclusionary nationalism,” nor an approach that starts from the idea of ​​supremacy. In external logic, I understand that the term “nationalist” is a very pejorative term. And since I feel in the antipodes of current nationalist phenomena (like the Spanish one) I think that what I practice cannot be labeled as nationalism. In any case, in our (CUP) historical tradition we had used the distinction between independentist and nationalist precisely to distinguish ourselves from bourgeois-nationalism, from the nationalism that represents the transition from the Catalan right (from Cambó to Pujol). Therefore, I have always felt more of an independentist. In the CUP, those who feel like nationalists do so from a perspective of the oppressed, of liberation; and in no way a supremacist-nationalism. The issue is that the construction of identity that we are posing, the concept of Catalan identity, does not fit within a nationalistic concept (in its’ mainstream understanding). We start from an idea of ​​Catalan identity where basically the only element of pertinence is the fact that you belong to a political community that is established and conformed by the people who live and work (or who try to work) in Catalonia. This identity includes people who feel Catalan, Catalan and Spanish, Argentine and Catalan, Moroccan and Catalan…thousand identities linked to gender, sexual orientation with thousand political elements…

How can the referendum on October 1st be considered valid and legitimate given the low participation due to the boycott (active or passive) by the non-independent part of Catalonia?

Yes, it must be considered valid and legitimate. Because not doing so would be to give the reason, first, to those who understand that issues are not resolved through voting, but they are solved by imposing. That is, when you offer an instrument, such as the referendum (i.e., which is not an independentist instrument, it is an instrument for the whole country), there is a section of Catalonia that uses the boycott in order not to allow a complete count of the results. I think that letting them be right (or letting them think so), is in a way to validate this type of approach. And people who believe and start from democratizing positions (like the CUP), find it very difficult to validate the theses of imposition of those who boycott a referendum.

Secondly, because in the specific case of Catalonia, in the circumstances in which the referendum occurred on October 1st with such an important unfolding of State violence, not validating the democratic exercise of the people is to validate the use of violence to cover people’s mouths. I will not validate violence in any way, and I will never validate violence to cover people’s mouths.

What happened at the parliamentary session on October 27th? The Republic of Catalonia was proclaimed? If so, what are the practical consequences of such a proclamation?

I think it is a bit difficult to interpret what happens on October 27 in isolation. I think it’s a cycle that begins on October 1 and ends on October 27. During this cycle things took place that the government of Puigdemont did not plan and, even I dare say, that they did not want them to take place. In the cycle from October 1 to the 3, there is virtually a process of insurgency, or prior to  popular insurgency, and the government is not willing to validate it or in any way contribute to this situation. We think that if the Republic had been proclaimed on the 4th (which is the day we proposed), we would not be on the stage that we are today. I do not know where we would be, but we would not be in this scenario. Why? Because the force, the organization, the mobilization, the degree of rupture (will of rupture in all the senses), and of the force of that rupture that there was then, would have allowed to give more effectiveness to the declaration of the republic. On the other hand, Puigdemont and his government chose to lower and to de-escalate at the time in accordance with both the PSC and Ada Colau’s approach to de-escalating the situation, and thus this leads us to an October 27 of absolute weakness. Why? Because in those days instead of reinforcing the position of strength obtained on October 1 and 3, what happens is that unionism (the state and its’ allies) in this regard are empowered. They built more alliances, both internally and internationally with factic powers. And therefore, Puigdemont arrives on October 27 in a situation of absolute weakness. Moreover, I think that Puigdemont would not even have proclaimed the republic, but is the force of the independentism on the streets that drives him towards the proclamation. The power of the independence movement on the streets and the lack of a political alternative on the part of the State (since Puigdemont tried to reach an agreement with the State government to de-escalate the situation, but the State did not want anything to do with an agreed de-escalation). Thus, we arrive in this way on October 27. What happened? That a declaration of independence was made, but there was not enough force to implement it on the street nor from the Catalan institutions of power.

How do you and your party understand the elections of December 21st convened by Madrid after the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution?

They mean the dissolution of a validly constituted parliament. By the way, a parliament chosen in the elections where more people have voted in Catalonia (at least until September 27, 2015). We will see what happens with those of December 21. Therefore, it was a parliament with a lot of democratic legitimacy, and it was dissolved by an external executive authority (Madrid). I think that as a phenomenon (i.e., the parliament dissolution), the pro-independence political parties have not given enough importance to it. There has been a part of the pro-independence movement (i.e., PDECat and ERC) that in 24 or 48 hours publicly stated that they would participate in this electoral call. The CUP was more in favor of contemplating other strategies to make clear the absolute exceptionality (legal and political in nature) of the December 21 elections. Because we stayed alone, we chose to participate. 1) Since we believe that certain observers (internal and external) will end up reading the results of this upcoming elections as determinants of the future that this political community known as Catalonia must have; 2) because we think that we [CUP] represent or give voice to a part of the population that must also be represented in these elections. Now, these will be no regular elections, and we will not play them as such, even though we will discuss governmental programs and make proposals in health, education, etc. Nonetheless, we think that the debate here must be about how the day after December 21 we are recovering our sovereignty. But we cannot recover it in terms of returning to the starting point, as nothing has happened since 2015 (at least). We need to discuss how we walk toward the Catalan Republic. What does it mean? I ask because I know it sounds a bit empty.

Regarding boycotting the elections strategy, we did stayed alone, but it is important to underscore the circumstances of the other pro-independence political parties. The boycott was one of the strategies to make it visible that the way in which they were summoned, that the actor that summons these elections, is not the political subject that is legitimate to do so. It is an external actor, and it does so in an anti-democratic and authoritarian logic. In order to impose a determined political project and to alter a parliament that existed. Also accompanied by a series of repressive mechanisms on many levels, but some are very evident as it is to pressure the government legitimately chosen by this parliament, and also threaten to put the Parliament’s Governing Board in jail (which heads this legislative branch). Therefore, it is very difficult for me to validate these elections as a democratic instrument. Well, if the logic of the boycott (that could be more active or more passive, we had several proposals) would have been pursued, I think it would have been a sign of maturity and strength of the pro-independence movement. Having underscored these difficult circumstances for the other two pro-independence political parties, I do think that there are still pro-independence actors that continue to function in an imaginary of managing an autonomous community, and argue: “we do not want to lose the money they pay us for being in parliament, we do not want to lose the contracts that will be discussed in parliamentary councils,” and therefore, in 24 hours, after the announcement of new elections, they were saying that they were going to participate.

So, this is why we could not do sit down and discussed this possibility because the state (very skilfully) within 48 hours of the declaration of independence activates a repressive operation against the direction of the process, which is the government and the Parliament’s Governing Board. Therefore, this generates a logic in these people to solve the legal issue first because they were being legally threatened with around 30 years in prison, but this places us (pro-independence movement) in a situation of lack of direction at that time. And we did not meet with anyone, because it was difficult to meet with anyone in those conditions.

What kind of relationship would a Republic of Catalonia have with the Spanish State and the different peoples of that State?

I have never ruled out that the Republic of Catalonia may have federal relations with other republics that may be born in Spain. We have always thought that the achievement of the objective of the Catalan Republic would mean that the regime of 1978 would explode. And therefore, it would open the door to other peoples and other political subjects of the Spanish State to make their own processes of republican creation. We always wanted to make it very clear that our project was not against the peoples of the Spanish state, it was a project against the political regime of 1978 and all the amalgam of political and economic interests that exist behind it. This sort of commitment explains why during our  referendum campaign events different people came: e.g., from the SAT of Andalusia [Andalusian Union of Workers], from the left of Madrid, people from Galicia, from the Basque Country, etc. And therefore, I have the hope that if the Catalan Republic succeeds in being created and other republics are created, our relationship will have to be one of fraternity with these republics. Now, if it is to be a federation or confederation, this will be decide in the future. Also in our case, as you know, we consider that our political framework of action is the Catalan Countries (Països Catalans), not just Catalonia.

And we do know that these public and open intentions of the CUP (i.e., encourage and support other republican struggles within the Spanish State and our realm political action within the known   Països Catalans) have quite virulent responses from the powers-that-be of the Spanish State. And yes, this is scary, because even under this democratic time, the Spanish State has played a dirty war that we have seen at many levels, with many resources, and with a lot of types of resorts, therefore, we are aware that there is a strategic alliance among many powerful elements which make it very complicated. Actually, the most strategically interesting move would be to strengthen our alliances with the other peoples of the State in order to go against the 1978 regime. What happens is that it is being difficult because the political frameworks between Catalonia and the rest of the State are costing much to synchronize. Only “Podemos” is playing this right of self-determination card with many difficulties because it is being politically costly for them. And there is a contradiction, there are people in “Podemos” (Spain) who defend with more vehemence the right to self-determination of Catalans than some leaders of “Podemos” (Catalonia). This is a paradox that there are people in Spain who defend more our right to self-determination than certain people here in Catalonia, who supposedly, because of their left-wing status should not do so.

How do read the demonstration of the strength of non-independentists in Catalonia in their concentration of October 29th in Barcelona?

It is very worrying. One of the complexities of the conflict is that we do not have a democratic Spanish nationalism with whom we can dialogue and build alternatives. It is very difficult. The people who go out to defend their belonging to Spain, which is a politically legitimate idea, does not do it with a democratic logic, but with an imposition logic. They do so following the logic of  “we will never let you vote on it. We will never let you decide on that.” Therefore, we will never let us implement this political principle that is as legitimate as any other. It is built on a logic of nationalism that is very identitary, about what is Spanish, about an absolutely uniform idea of Spain, with one language, with one culture, with only one way to see the world. And therefore I am very scared because I am aware that if this conflict is extended (and it is predictably what will happen) there is a risk of consolidation of these two positions; while I understand that the pro-independence sector has always wanted to build a plural society, and in a logic of not just a single identity; the nationalism of the Spanish State is building on the basis of a single identity. Therefore, having this  section of the population in Catalonia with this imposition logic of a single identity makes me scared because I think it maybe a “broth” of extreme right and fascist attitudes, and therefore of violence that accompanies the violence of the State (non-institutional violence). In fact it is already happening today. There is a certain press that has published and accounted around 100 cases since October 29th that virtually all manifestations of pro-Spain sign have had aggressions toward journalists and independentists who passed by. I am worried about this, not as a pro-independence party (which will obviously be the focus of this violence), but because I want that in this community (Catalonia) beyond the decisions we make, we have as well a democratic culture and know-how of how to make decisions that are not what the current pro-Spain unity mentality in Catalonia advocates

On the international scene, what kind of international lobby your party is working on? Which international player(s) is (are) fundamental(s) in helping the navigation to the Catalan Republic?

We are very critical of the discourse surrounding the European Union as a place of our hopes as a people. We have always been critical of the EU. We have worked, internationally, basically in two directions: 1) Establishing alliances with international actors beyond the European Union. The planet is very large. There are many people, many countries. And we have been traveling a lot trying to spread the Catalan question around the planet. I think with a lot of complicity with Latin America, because there is obviously a cultural ease for certain agreements. And there we have been engaging many people, planting seeds so that we can enjoy the fruits of our harvest in the near future. 2) Within the European framework, we have worked hard with the European left. Beyond the states, since we already know what logic they follow and will defend practically until the last moment. We have tried to establish alliances with the organizations of the alternative left; for example, Die Linke (Germany) or Syriza (Greece) or movements with whom we have shared so many struggles from the leftist logic of anti-capitalism, explaining our situation and turning them into allies. Obviously we also have worked with the European Independentist Left (e.g., Sinn Fein [Ireland], Rise [Scotland], Bildu [Euskal Herria]). We have opened ourselves to work hard with left-wing movements in many European countries, so that when their states have to make a decision regarding our cause, there is at least one “lobby” for the Catalan question that is working in those countries. Now, as I stated at the beginning, it is always easier in those countries where there is already a national question in internal discussions.

Can you comment on the meeting with President Puigdemont in Brussels?

When we talked with President Puigdemont in Brussels he told us that he would not head any of the electoral list for the upcoming elections. Nevertheless, he ended up putting together an electoral list  (and heading it) to compete in the December 21st elections. Nonetheless, there is a shared reading with President Puigdemont of the need to not normalize the Article 155’s application and to imagine a post-December 21st, whichever the correlation of forces that emerge from the elections, that will not treat nor perceive as a normal governance of the Generalitat. We need to look for governing formulas that will allow us to underscore that there is a part of the government in prison and that another part of the government is in exile. We must think of the governing formulas that would allow that the forthcoming government of Catalonia has this logic of exceptionality. This is an element that is shared. The need to continue to internationalize the pro-independence process as a long-run walk is also shared. The need to further accumulate majorities, I think is also a shared element.

I do think that President Puigdemont’s decision to leave Catalonia as strategy to avoid incarceration was a good decision. Now we have to see how we give continuity and content to it. What is the political agenda built from there? How we make it a very visible subject. Removing the conflict from here and taking it to another place is a good idea. Maybe we would not have gone to Brussels, I do not know. But it is true that a factor used to make such a decision was also that from our neighbouring states, it is surely the place where there are more guarantees in judicial matters to raise awareness regarding the conflict in Catalonia. And to me especially, speaking from a professional logic as a lawyer, I find it very interesting to place a mirror on Spanish justice as it is, of how it works. It allows us to compare how Belgian justice works, how the Spanish justice works, and that is something that does not happen often. Because Spanish justice is always portrayed as being the one that provides the most amount of legal guarantees, the maximum, the best. When you take it out, you open a debate that I think is very interesting and serves as a mirror, so that it is demonstrated  that the Spanish justice is of very low quality.

Impressions on the arguments of the Government justifying the reverse after October 27 regarding a supposed violent reaction of the State? How would the CUP act?

To answer this question, we must engage into the deep debate over power. That is, beyond the declaratory aspect, this has a materiality aspect as well. And here we [CUP] do an analysis, and throughout the legislature we kept saying, “do not declare so much, do not make big statements, and think more about how we will do the implementation of the republic.” If you do not have an army (and the CUP does not want to have one), but you do have a police force [i.e., Mossos d’Esquadra], we pointed out that the role of the Mossos needed to be clearly positioned in favor of implementing the popular mandates that came out of the Catalan parliament. But this was a debate that the government of Catalonia did not want to have, and therefore, we arrived on October 27 with a Catalan police that is not clearly positioned in this sense, at least in a majority and collective way. There is no army and no police. Therefore, there is only one more element of power creation, and that is the power in the streets. And the government of Catalonia was not prepared to play this card. Therefore, in front of a state that has an army, police forces, court system, prosecutors, etc. and is willing to make use of all of its’ power repertoire, it was a very naive point of view to imagine that this proclamation of the republic could be implemented after the October 27 proclamation.

I think that the degree of organization and mobilization, and how mentally we were collectively placed and arranged during October 1, 2, and 3 versus how we were on October 26 and 27 are two radically different positions. The point is that in terms of organizational power, what begins during those days is not given continuity. It is true that the “referendum advocacy committees” (i.e., CDRs, Committees of the Defense of the Referendum) are given some continuity (i.e., CDR, Committee of the Defense of the Republic), but in those first days people weaved alliances at their jobs, at their children’s schools, and in all spaces where community relations take place, which could have been reinforced and given continuity, but it did not do happen. I am well aware of the many limitations, even if those praised relations during those first days were potentiated. When you only have a support of 48, 50, or 51 percent of the population, the difficulty of implementing a republic under these conditions is very evident. Therefore, I want to make it clear that for me a preliminary element of all this is one of the debates that the CUP underscored throughout the legislature, which was how to broaden the bases of independentism. And we have always argued that if you do not make policies geared toward those who do not feel directly interpellated by the pro-independence project can somehow feel at least “not excluded” from this republican project through social policies, policies for the majority, etc. If you do not make this bet, then when the moments of tension come (like the 1 and 27) you do not count with an enlarged social majority. That is to say, if we had made clear social policies, clearly for the majorities (popular classes) during the legislature, it could have been the case that when we arrived at the time of proclaiming the republic, not only would the independentists be involved in the process, but we would have had 60-70 percent of the country in our support and that is what we surely need to implement, from a street logic, this republic. And it is true that many approved social policies ended up being declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, but this government could have done much more with regard to the social dimension.

Therefore, the CUP, like any political party that encounters itself in the opposition and not governing, have to think about a scenario you have contributed to, but you have not built. One is the element of power we just discussed; the police element. I think it is clear that when the State knows that the Mossos will not be a problem, they gain a lot of advantage when it comes to imposing. When the State knows that Catalan bureaucracy (Catalan public-employees) will not be a problem because the government has always played the logic of treating the civil servants as if they were under-age and trying to keep them out. This is correct in a certain political logic, but since we know that our only instrument is the majority, it is a subject of multitude, of placing our bodies in front. Yes it’s important for civil servants to be engaged and positioned. And one last element, when you have privatized the country, and you have sold the roads, the ports, you have sold everything, it is more difficult to make resistance. And therefore, in the end, the logic with which the independentism has worked, a kind of magical independentism, always based on the thesis that sooner or later they could negotiate with the Spanish State, leads us to a sort of cul-de-sac or a situation that when October 27 arrives it is very difficult to manage. To reiterate myself, if you had a police that is on your side; when you have civil servants who will be on your side and therefore, they will not comply with all the regulations that come from the Spanish State, and you have a country’s structure that you control (i.e., Verizon will not be here to decide whether the phones work or not, but you are because there is a public telecommunications network, etc.). I think that with political determination it is possible to proclaim and defend the Catalan Republic with such conditions at hand. Now, in the context that we arrived to on the 27 is very difficult. Why do you think there is the obsession of the PP and Cs (and unfortunately sometimes the PSC) with TV3 (i.e., Catalan Public Television) and the Catalan school system? Because TV3 and the Catalan school system are public structures with committed civil servants. The teachers of this country are committed to the Catalan school model and disregard what Madrid says, they will continue to defend the Catalan school model as we have agreed as a country for many years. TV3 says that they will continue with the TV they do, independently of what Madrid says. Therefore, they [i.e., TV3 and public schools’ employees] are teaching us a bit the way to go; a public and mobilized structure is the key toward implementing the Republic of Catalonia.

It is important to underscore that we are not against negotiation. It seems to us to be a very valid mechanism, and it must always exist as an option, but the problem is when the other side does not want to negotiate and uses non-negotiation unilaterally. There is no more unilaterality than the Rajoy government. It is the most unilateral of all. He does not negotiate anything. You have to build a context of democratic conflict (of peaceful conflict) that ends up forcing the other side to sit down to negotiate. And while this does not happen, you have to make the way. And I am not clear that ERC and PDECat are willing to do so. I hear them and I do not understand anything they say. And I think that they are not at all clear, and not being clear is always a problem. And the pro-independence sector, during this cycle, what needs the least are cryptic speeches. People need clarity, and if we are not clear (i.e., independentism) we will go wrong. And being clear, according to the CUP, is to explain to the people that this process is a long process.

To conclude, I consider these upcoming elections of December 21, in addition to their illegitimacy as I have underscored before, they are the 155’s elections. They are not (cannot be) autonomous (regional) elections because they were not summoned by Autonomous Government of Catalonia. The state (Madrid) summoned them, but we want to turn them around and turn them into a new construction tool of the republic.

This interview does not represent the Haas Institute’s position on these issues.