Catalonia votes to ban all forms of bullfighting in nationalist move

Animal rights groups are celebrating, but fans say the ruling is nothing but a desire to be un-Spanish
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The Independent Online

In a tense, historic vote, Catalonia's regional parliament yesterday banned Spain's "national fiesta" – bullfighting, handing a victory to animal rights activists, who predicted the start of a bloodless era across the country.

As of 1 January 2012, the choreographed estocada de muerte – or death knell – will be history throughout the wealthy, independent-minded region and the fighting bull – toro bravo – will receive protection under Catalonia's animal rights laws. The 96-year-old Monumental bullring in Barcelona has already demanded more than €300m (£250m) from the regional government to compensate for losses.

"Today five centuries of cruelty have come to an end," said Elena Escoda, representative of the Catalan citizens' group Prou! (Enough!) that lobbied for the ban.

"From today onward, ethics must be considered a valid reason to question our traditions," she went on.

The international association People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also applauded the vote. "The people have spoken," the group said in a statement. "Cruelty to animals, disguised as tradition, will no longer be tolerated."

Politicians elsewhere in the land of banderilleros and sequined suits of lights have expressed fears that their regions could be the next target of animal rights groups. The legislative offensive is a quantum leap from activists' previous protest-centred tactics or city-wide declarations against bullfighting. In anticipation of yesterday's vote, the government of Madrid – home to the emblematic Las Ventas bullring – even passed a law protecting bullfighting as a "cultural value" to fend off an anticipated onslaught. Anyone violating the law, which includes tax breaks to bullfight organisers, could face fines of up to €1.2m.

Activists cheered and hugged as the votes were counted on a giant screen: 68 in favour of outlawing the matadors' manoeuvres to 55 against, with nine abstentions. Nationalists, eager to distance themselves from bull-loving Madrid, overwhelmingly supported the ban, although most deputies were allowed to vote according to their consciences. But the issue is so delicate that ballots were kept secret in a preliminary vote to determine whether the original citizens' proposal – backed by 180,000 signatures – would even make it to the official docket.

"Our responsibility is progress. That could be our contribution to future generations," said Joan Puigcercos, leader of the separatist Catalonian party, a staunch supporter of the ban.

The despondent corrida crowd, which waved capes outside the parliament, immediately vowed to challenge the Catalan prohibition in the Spanish Supreme Court. The conservative Popular Party plans to fight for nationwide legislation that would protect the sport Ernest Hemingway celebrated in Death in the Afternoon. They accuse the Catalonian deputies of using the bullfighting ban to symbolically separate the region from the rest of the bull-rearing, cape-watching country.

"They're not looking to protect bulls – they want a radical break with everything identified with Spain," said Ramó*Luis Valcarcel, head of the Murcia regional government, on the south-eastern coast.

The nation's bullfighters reacted to the defeat with sadness and anger. At first in denial, they eventually joined a last-minute lobby to save Catalonia's fiesta from what seemed increasingly like the inevitable death in the ring. They joined a platform of left-wing intellectuals, writers and artists, who defended the sport so often depicted in the work of Picasso or Goya – or at least citizens' freedom to choose whether or not to watch it.

"They should have respected the rights of people who freely decide to go to a bullring to see a spectacle that is so much a part of our heritage," said bullfighter Juan José Padilla after the vote.

"It seems like we are back in the time of the dictatorship," added the popular matador Curro Romero.

Matador Manuel Jesus – known as El Cid – said he felt "tremendous rage".

"I feel like here the bull is what is least important," he said. "The fiesta has been used by Catalan nationalists as a weapon against Spain; a way for them to say that we aren't Spaniards; we don't want anything that even sounds Spanish."

Catalonia is not the first region of Spain to put those magenta capes and knotted black caps out of business. The Canary Islands banned the corrida 19 years ago, but few people on the mainland minded because the islands off the African coast were seen to have little bullfighting tradition. Catalonia, anchored in northern mainland Spain, is different. Here bullfighting did enjoy a strong, though now dwindling, following. The head of the regional government, Jose Montilla, is known as a fan. Last year an appearance by José Tomás in the Barcelona ring sold out in 50 minutes, with tickets fetching as much as €3,000. But the anti-movement in Catalonia charges fast. Picketers smeared in fake blood are common outside the Barcelona bullring and nude protests fill public squares. Before the vote, the World Society for the Protection of Animals presented parliamentarians with 140,000 signatures from 120 countries urging Catalonia to "lead the way for other regions and countries to follow so the cruelty of bullfighting can be made history".

Bullfighting supporters point out that traditional Catalan fiestas known as Correbous – in which bulls are chased through the streets with their horns on fire – will be allowed under the modified animal rights law.

"The death of the animal is no small difference," Josep Rull, a member of the Catalan nationalist party, said in defence of the practice. But the Correbous remains high on the agenda of international animal activists.

Bullfighting in literature

Ernest Hemingway

"The chances are that the first bullfight any spectator attends may not be a good one artistically; for that to happen there must be good bullfighters and good bulls; artistic bullfighters and poor bulls do not make interesting fights, for the bullfighter who has ability to do extraordinary things with the bull is capable of producing the intensest degree of emotion in the spectator but will not attempt them with a bull which he cannot depend on to charge..."

From "Death in the Afternoon"

A L Kennedy

"The life of the matador must be governed by the same dark mathematics which calculates a soldier's ability to tolerate combat: so many months in a tour of duty, so many missions flown and mental change, mental trauma, becomes a statistical inevitability.

"But in the corrida, the matador is not exposed to physical and emotional damage by duty, or conscription – he is a volunteer, a true believer, a lover with his love."

From "On Bullfighting"

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