Catalonia's Catalonia

From human pyramids to traditional breakfasts, Dale Fuchs finds a renewed appetite for preserving the cultural quirks that make this region unique
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The Independent Online

The preferred breakfast menu is now official in Catalonia: under a new set of industry rules passed by the Socialist-led government, any Catalan lodging that aspires to four-star status must serve regional dishes such as butifarra, a white garlic sausage, or "pa amb tomaquet", that toast-and-tomato combo drizzled with olive oil, at its breakfast buffet.

It might seem like pointless bureaucracy – most self-respecting hotels offer this fare anyway – but the mandatory Catalan breakfast is symptomatic of the mood in this wealthy north-eastern region of 7 million people, which is gearing up for local elections this weekend. Political parties in the independent-minded swath of land that gave birth to Antoni Gaudi, Salvador Dalí, hundreds of acrobatic human towers and most recently, hefty fines for failing to put shop signs in the Catalan language, are struggling to demonstrate their regional patriotism.

The Socialist Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which rules in coalition with two left-wing Catalan parties, is expected to suffer a resounding defeat in tomorrow's poll, and a conservative nationalist party, Convergence and Union, is slated to win control of the Catalonian parliament. The vote is expected to be the first in a string of Socialist defeats leading up to the general elections in 2012, as voters register anger at the government's handling of the economic crisis.

But in Catalan politics, regional identity is always an important part of the electoral equation. And so here the electoral die was cast not at the unemployment office (the regional jobless rate is 17.4 per cent, below the national average) but at a street protest in July, when the Supreme Court watered down a Catalan autonomy statute that the Socialist Party had pledged to uphold.

This inscrutable legislation changed little in the relationship between Catalonia and the rest of the Spanish state, but it managed to spark the fury of all political parties. Nationalist sympathisers believed it didn't go far enough. Doomsday centrists equated it with the break-up of Spain. When the Supreme Court finally ruled, throwing out a symbolic reference to the Catalan "nation", thousands demonstrated.

"Remember the excitement the Catalans experienced on 10 July when people poured into the streets in the Catalan capital [Barcelona] to make their voices heard?" said the Convergence and Union candidate, Artur Mas, in a recent campaign speech in Tarragona. "Now is the time not only to make your voice heard, but to call for the change Catalonia needs with your vote."

He cast the region as a victim of the supposed Machiavellian interests of Spain's two centrist parties: "What they want is a government of a weak Catalonia that is indebted, mortgaged and against the ropes so they can manipulate it as they wish."

Meanwhile, the radical separatist party, the Republican Left, a small party that governs in coalition with the Socialists, has tried to rally its disenchanted voters with talk about Catalonia's "right to decide" its political future.

"The Republican Left will form part of, or support, a government if our conditions are met, but let it be clear, the first one is a referendum to decide whether Catalonia should be independent," said Joan Puigcercos, the party's leader.

The former president of Barcelona football club, Joan Laporta, proponent of a Catalan "national" team, even formed his own independence party. The greatest claim to fame of Mr Laporta's Catalan Solidarity for Independence appears to be the backing of a porn star, but some polls predict his populist message will pick up one parliamentary seat.

"Instead of talking about unemployment, the parties are taking refuge in identity politics because it's an easy shortcut to voters' minds," said Charles Powell, director of a think tank on Spanish politics, the Spanish Transition Foundation. "There are few tangible ideas put forward, so it's all happening on an emotional identity level."

A bit of emotion is clearly needed. Abstention on Sunday is expected to reach 50 per cent. To rouse apathetic young voters, the Catalan parties have put their nationalist rhetoric on hold long enough to unleash spicy campaign ad spots.

The Socialists devised a video entitled "voting is a pleasure", which equates the act of casting a ballot with orgasm in an effort to peel young leftists off the couch. Reminiscent of the "faking" scene in When Harry Met Sally, a young woman caresses her ballot paper, licks her lips, fans her heaving chest and reaches climax before the puzzled poll workers.

An alternative party took the risqué theme a bit further with a video that simulates a soft-porn movie with a groaning soundtrack. Statistics about political corruption cases and government expenses flash on screen as the camera pans to scattered lingerie, champagne flutes and a rumpled bed. At last, the svelte blonde candidate, Montserrat Nebrera, appears in a white towel. "If I wanted to cause a scandal, I would have taken off my clothes too," she says. "But we believe that, in politics, not everything goes."

The conservative Popular Party, a foe of Catalan nationalism, skirted the bedroom. It launched a Tomb Raider-style video in which the candidate, Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, appears as a cartoon superhero astride the party mascot, a seagull, destroying icons that symbolise the perceived problems of the region: government waste, independence movements and the perceived lack of linguistic freedom because of the government-mandated primacy of Catalan. In the game, bull icons are stuck onto car bumpers, a reference to the Catalonia's recent bullfighting ban, which the party opposed.

The video game backfired because one of the icons to destroy was labelled "illegal immigrants." The Popular Party blamed the games' creators for misinterpreting instructions. The icon should have said "illegal mafias" that traffic immigrants, party spokesmen said. But the slip echoed the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Catalonia, which has welcomed a large proportion of Spain's 4 million new immigrants in the last decade. Several Catalan cities, such as Lleida, have instituted bans on burkas, although few, if any, have graced their main squares.

Debate on how to absorb the non-EU residents has crept into Sunday's election with a distinctly Catalan twist. Mr Mas, the Convergence and Union candidate, evoked the Catalan equivalent of the American Dream by which the world's poor, humble and downtrodden may seek their fortunes by imbibing Catalan culture.

"Sign up for this country dream," said Mr Mas at a campaign rally in Barcelona filled with foreign flags and the slogan "New Catalans". "What does Catalonia ask in order to welcome you? It asks that you understand and adopt the values that built this land over the centuries – quality work, the spirit to overcome adversity, effort and tolerance."

Mr Mas's party has backtracked, however, on a plan to measure the level of an immigrant's integration with a points system.

Indeed, even beyond the penchant of odd, nit-picky legislation, Catalonia is unlike the rest of Spain in many ways. Only between 30 and 40 per cent of the population supports true independence from Spain, but the regional identity is so strong that many people consider Catalonia its own "nation" within the Spanish state.

The Catalan language, which to a foreigner might seem like French with a Spanish accent, permeates the school system. It is the language of commerce and government dealings. Publishers and theatres are paid for artistic work in Catalan.

Regional traditions are exalted and protected. The most eye-catching are the human towers, or castells, which have been granted Unesco human heritage status. The lobbying effort was headed by the president of the Catalonia parliament, Ernest Benach, an avid castell builder. The towers, which can reach 10 storeys, date to the 18th century, but have become more popular since the Nineties as an expression of Catalan pride.

To observers abroad, perhaps the most obvious sign of Catalonia's disenchantment is the regional ban on Spain's national fiesta, bullfighting. A majority in the regional parliament dealt the death blow to the corrida this summer. As of 2012, matadors will cease to wave capes anywhere that the regional Catalonian flag, the Senyera, flies. The legislators said they were concerned about animal rights. Bullfighting loyalists didn't buy it. Especially after the Correbous, a popular Catalan bull run in which the torches on the animals' horns are set ablaze, were excluded from the ban.

Catalans have some reason to be smug. Many of Spain's artistic claims to fame – from surrealist painter Salvador Dalí to the modernist architect of the recently-consecrated Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi, hail from the land of tomato-and-oil toasts. It is one of Spain's capitals of haut cuisine, where for decades famed chef Ferran Adrià cooked up melon caviar at his waiting-list only restaurant near Gerona, El Bulli.

But the region packs more than star power for the rest of Spain. Nationalist sympathisers claim that the wealthy region also contributes an unfair amount to the coffers of Spain's poorer southern parts. Nationalist candidates are calling for a new economic arrangement with the rest of Spain that allows Catalonia to keep more of its tax revenues.

"We don't want the great fiesta in the rest of Spain to be paid for with Catalan money, Mr Mas said.

The History of Catalonia

*1125: Liber maiolichinus, a Latin text chronicling military expeditions throughout the region, makes first-known reference to "Catalans".

*1137: Catalonia and Aragon are united through marriage of Ramon Berenguer IV and Petronilla of Aragon.

*1705-14: wars of Spanish Succession see Catalan language suppressed as punishment for sedition.

*1901: the Regionalist League, an early Catalan nationalist political party, is formed by Enric Prat de la Riba, achieving partial self governance in 1913.

*July 1936-April 1939: during the Spanish Civil War Barcelona is a stronghold of the Republican war effort.

*1939-1975: Franco's dictatorship sees Catalan language and culture violently repressed.

*2006: Statute of Autonomy is passed, giving the Catalans the right to call themselves a nation.

Charles Parkinson