An Interview with Catalan Independence Leader Artur Mas

By Thomas Harrington. 

Photo: Artur Mas at Barcelona April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino.

Though he no longer holds elective office, Artur Mas is, in the eyes of many, still  the most important politician in Catalonia. As the longtime leader of the center-right CDC  (Democratic Convergence of Catalonia)—recently renamed as the PDC (Catalan Democratic Party) for reasons alluded to below—he is still seen by allies and enemies alike as the most central figure of his country’s increasingly forceful drive to separate from the rest of the Spanish Kingdom.

Following the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain embarked on what is commonly called the “Transition to Democracy”, a process in which former Franco supporters and a coalition of those that had been excluded from engaging in political activity during the 36-year history of the single-party dictatorship, agreed on the parameters of a new democratic constitution.  The document that emerged from those discussions in 1978 carried provisions for the establishment of Autonomous Communities, first in in Spain’s historically bilingual areas (Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country) and subsequently, in any other region able to present itself as having some recognizable form of geographic or social cohesion.

In 1980, Jordi Pujol was elected as the first president of the Catalan Autonomous government, or Generalitat.  He would hold the post for the next 23 years, pursuing a vigorous policy of cultural and linguistic reconstruction at home (Franco had severely oppressed the non-Castilian languages and cultures of the state) and an opportunistic approach in his negotiations with Madrid. During his long tenure in office, he never remotely pursued the idea of independence.

Upon Pujol’s retirement from public life 2003, his hand-picked successor, Artur Mas.  took control of the center-right party Pujol had founded, the CDC, which throughout Pujol’s long career had always gone to the polls in coalition with the now defunct Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) under the combined rubric of Convergence and  Union, or CiU.

Despite winning the largest number votes in his first electoral contest in November of that same year, Mas and CiU were unable to form a government. The control of the Generalitat was thus thrown to the a coalition formed by the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Green Initiative for Catalonia (ICV) that, following the surprise victory of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) in the March 2004 Spanish elections, set out to renegotiate the statute which governed the terms of Catalonia’s relationship with the Spanish state.  By early 2006, both the Catalan Parliament and the Spanish national parliament in Madrid had, as the 1978 Constitution stipulated, approved the new and expanded Catalan statute of autonomy. In June of that same year, it was approved by a referendum of the Catalan people with a 74% plurality

At this point, however, the arch-conservative Popular Party (PP) filled with many people possessing familial and sociological ties to Francoism, as well as an unquestioning adherence to the idea of a centralist and monolingual Spain, lodged a series of legal objections to the new law before the country’s Constitutional Tribunal (TC). As they did so, they openly crowed about how “their people” on the supposedly august and impartial body would resolve the matter.  And sure enough, after four years of unseemly deliberations, rife with transparent manipulations of process, the court in Madrid annulled many of the law’s key provisions, including the symbolically and psychologically important matter of the Catalans’ right to refer to their collective as a “nation” under the law.

The move generated large and spontaneous protests in Catalonia in the summer of 2010, protests that have grown in both frequency and intensity during the ensuing years. Sensing the enormous groundswell of support in favor the idea of independence, or at least the right of the Catalans to democratically decide on the matter themselves, Artur Mas, the president of the Generalitat since 2010, broke with his party’s past and declared himself in favor of what was now being called  “the process” in early September of 2012.

Two weeks later, he called snap elections designed to fortify his role as the unquestioned leader of the movement. While those November 2012 elections did not provide him or his party with the mandate they had hoped for (in fact, CiU lost 12 seats in the 135-seat Catalan Parliament), Mas did not desist in his efforts, choosing instead to make common cause on the matter of “the process” with his long-time rivals on the left, the ERC, who had gained many of the parliamentary seats he had just lost.

In December of 2013, a little more than a year after the elections, CiU and ERC finally agreed on a plan to hold a referendum on the matter of self-determination in November of 2014. The Spanish government, led by the PP’s Mariano Rajoy, quickly declared the proposed vote illegal. In order to avoid a frontal collision with Madrid, Mas declared that the poll would be non-binding and would be staffed,  not by public employees, but by volunteers. In that vote held on the 9th of November 2014, in which roughly 40% of the Catalan population participated, those in favor of the “right to decide” achieved an overwhelming victory (80%). Despite his efforts to not infringe upon state prerogatives, the Spanish government quickly lodged criminal charges against Mas and key members of his government.

Realizing that Madrid would never allow a Scottish-style vote on the matter the CiU-ERC, independentist coalition, began to pursue different means for achieving their goals.  Calling itself  Together for Yes (JxSi),  they decided that, in light of Madrid’s  staunch refusal to permit a referendum in any way shape or form,  the best approach was to consider the next Catalan elections (which Mas,  as President,  was free to call)  to be “plebiscitary” in nature.   A bi-product of this particular accord was the definitive end of CDC’s long-running electoral alliance with UDC under the label of CiU.

If (JxSi) were to win a parliamentary majority, the reasoning went, it would constitute an endorsement (hence the descriptor “plebiscitary”) of the country’s desire to advance toward a declaration of independence. In their search for the establishment broader front of voters the coalition placed a compromise candidate, Raül Romeva at the top of the ticket and invited the Candidacy of Popular Unity (CUP) to join the coalition.

The members of this last, self-proclaimed “anti-system” party refused the offer owing to their distaste for the social and economic policies of bourgeois parties in general, and those of Artur Mas’ CDC in particular. They did suggest, however, that they would back the drive for independence in the new legislative session. But they would only do so, they insisted, if Artur Mas–who was slated to reassume his previous role as top of the ticket after the elections headed by Romeva—were to be eliminated from the presidential equation.

In the September 27th, 2015 elections, JxSi  obtained 39.59 % of the popular vote and 62 out 135 seats in the Catalan parliament, 10 seats short of the number needed to form a government with an independentist majority.  As it turned out, the CUP had won precisely 10 seats. There thus began a series of intense and often nail-biting negotiations between JxSí and the CUP, nail-biting because the anti-system party was itself almost perfectly divided between those to open to a new Mas-led government in favor of independence and those firmly opposed to its formation.

Finally those in the CUP opposed to his candidacy won the day.  On January 10th, Mas, unable to hide his obvious disgust for the intransigence of the CUP, stepped aside as the presidential candidate of  JxSi in favor of a much less well-known member of his CDC party, Carles Puigdemont, who was then serving  as mayor of  Girona, the smallest of Catalonia’s four provincial capitals, but its strongest redoubt of independentism.  By stepping aside against his will, Mas saved “the process”. But as he made quite clear at the time, he considered himself  far from done with politics.

Since his resignation, he has devoted himself primarily re-founding the CDC which had been rocked in the summer of 2014 by the revelation that its founder, Jordi Pujol had, for years, hidden the existence of his family’s secret bank accounts in Andorra.  Though few have suggested that he ever benefitted personally form the monies (which, as he himself told me in an interview earlier this year were fruit of his father’s work as a grey market currency trader during the Franco dictatorship and upon his father’s passing were left to directly to his seven children), the revelation had a devastating effect on his considerable legacy as the “father of the nation” and, for some, the very legitimacy of drive for independence, something  which Pujol, after years of calculated ambiguity,  had finally embraced in the Spring of 2012.

INTERVIEW

Artur Mas meets me at his office in the Palau Robert, an elegant manse built by a pioneering political figure of early 20th century located at the corner of Barcelona’s two grandest thoroughfares, the Passeig de Gràcia and La Diagonal. A trim and very fit man of a little less than medium height dressed in business attire, he greets me with a firm handshake and looks me quite directly in the eyes. His jaw is just as chiseled and his thick head of hair just a as immaculately coiffed as political caricaturists would have us believe.

The interview, conducted in Catalan, took place on the very day that the office of the Chief Prosecutor of Catalonia, a local branch of the central government, announced that it would not try Mas for embezzlement of public funds, the only one of the battery of charges filed against after the 9 November 2014 vote that potentially carried jail time. However, the other charges, which are administrative disobedience and breach of public trust, were sustained.

TH: The must be a good day for you in that you’ve been freed from the possibility of going to prison.

AM: It seems to be the case.

TH: Were you worried about this matter?

AM:  The truth I haven’t given it a lot of thought. The thing is, though, the trial continues.  I am being charged with three possible crimes, and of the three, one has been dropped, embezzlement of public funds. Two remain, administrative disobedience and breach of public trust whose penalties include fines and the possibility of being banned from the exercise of public office.

TH: Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Does this event still have a direct effect on the courses of Catalan and Spanish politics? If so, where is it present?

AM:  I think that the Civil War is, fortunately, no longer a key factor in Spanish society. What we do find, however, are certain underlying Francoist tics in the culture. It is no longer generalized, nor a mass phenomenon but in certain layers of the society and the power structure of Spain this substrate of Francoist tics still exists and this generates problems.

TH:  As you speak, I am thinking about the Fernández case of a few weeks back when the Spanish Minister of the Interior was heard on tape brainstorming with the head of the Catalan Parliament’s anti-fraud office about how use the intelligence services to dig up dirt on you and other member of the Catalan movement for independence.

AM: Exactly.

TH: A number of social science researchers have suggested that in most societies somewhere along the lines of 30% of the people are said to have what are called an “authoritarian personality”.  Any sense of how many such people there are in Spain?

AM:  I really don’t know if it is 30%. What I do know is that these Francoist tics are   found buried inside the sociological and political structures of a part of the Spanish right. Of course, it’s better that they are found on the inside that rather than outside! It is mostly gone, but some of it still remains.

TH: Why do you consider the re-founding of your party, the CDC, to be such and urgent matter?

AM: It is urgent because, if our general goal is to create of a new and independent country, as we are trying to do, then new and updated political instruments are needed.  In other words, or a new country, a new party. This is the “frame” (he says this last word in English), a new party for a new country.  Additional reasons are the fact that that party had become worn out by the responsibility of its many years in power and the last year’s confession by President Jordi Pujol, founder of the movement and our party, an occurrence that raised very serious doubts about how that party had managed public affairs during many years. So, the first general concern, and the second, a more instrumental one, have set in motion a profound re-making of the party. This is the party that best represents the middle class of this country and the working class. And without these middle and working classes Catalonia will not bear up very well over time, and more importantly, it will not be able create a state of its own. So, this is why we had to bring the party up to date. There were two possible way of doing so.  One was to restructure Convergència (CDC) and reform it from within. The other was to use Convergència as the basis for creating a new political generation. We have chosen to do the latter.  A new name.  New ways of  functioning.  And new faces…except for my own.

TH: A difficult question. Speaking of President Pujol, what will be his historical legacy?

AM: I believe it will be very important and positive. With his confession, he himself contributed to the process of dismantling that legacy, which was very good, extraordinarily good.  I believe that with the passage of time, the doubts about his performance as a public servant will fade and eventually evaporate, leaving what was a very positive body of work on behalf the country and its government, to be made plain for all to see

TH: As an outside observer, and one of fairly clear leftist tendencies, I have always been surprised by the vehemence of leftist attacks on the so-called nationalist “right” in Catalonia, a right that would be downright leftist in my country. How do explain this?

AM; In a country like Catalonia that self-identifies as leftist, to present the other as if they were “The Right”, is politically profitable. And for this reason there is an very strong tendency to characterize what we represent as “The Right”, obscuring the fact that while within our political party, or political movement, there are, of course, people from  the Center-Right,  but that there are also of people that come from the ranks of the Republican Left  (ERC), from the Socialists ranks and the Communist ranks.  In other words, our party is an amalgam, a party with a broad representation of forces. And for some, this is a convenient thing to overlook. Since we have never identified ourselves as a party of the Left, it is this easy for them to identify us as “The Right”.

TH; Could this tendency have anything to do with the party’s past identification with social Catholicism, that is, the sector of the society with a more positive view of the potential social role of the Church? 

AM: Possibly, quite possibly. Within Convergència there is a considerable number of people that come from the Christian world and the nationalist, or Catalanist world as well. But this is just a part of the reality. It is part of our history, but is not all of it.  It is hard to believe that a real party of  “The   Right” would have been able to win all of the elections to date in the Catalan Parliament. In a country that self-identifies as leftist, it is impossible to believe that the party that has won all of the elections since 1980, every one, does not have at least a little bit of leftist thought within it as well.  So, I think this tendency basically has its roots in the need to label political parties and the need for certain partisan groups to present a transversal formation that has won many elections in Catalonia as an entity stuck in an extreme corner in the political spectrum.

TH: All this has a very long history. No? All the way back to Prat de la Riba, who was the great organizer of the Catalanist movement at the beginning of the 20th century.

AM:  Exactly. When I am asked about my personal identification with figures of the Catalan past, I tell people I try to be a mixture, a symbiosis, between Prat de la Riba and President Macià  (author note: the leader of Catalonia in the first two years of the Spanish Republic established in 1931 which was unlawfully attacked by Nazi and Fascist-backed Spanish troops in 1936 and eventually snuffed out by those same forces in 1939). Prat de la Riba was a man who did things, who generated a country of concrete results and, in this sense, left us an enormous legacy. President Macià is the idealist who had great goals for the country and articulated the great nationalist objective and personally laid himself on the line to try and achieve those things.

TH: Can you pinpoint a moment or a concrete event that made you realize the need to begin pursuing the political independence form Spain?  

AM: September of 2012.

TH: On the traditional September 11th national holiday when large-scale demonstrations in favor of the idea took place?

AM: Yes, more or less at that time.  Between June of 2010 and September of 2012 a lot of important things took place in this country.  In June of 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal (TC) nullified a very substantial part of a new and already greatly scaled-back Catalan Statute of Autonomy.  And September of 2012 is when we witnessed the first great mass demonstrations here under the slogan of “Catalonia, a New European State”, and when Spanish President Rajoy said to “no” to me regarding the possibility of negotiating new revenue-sharing agreement between Catalonia and the Spanish state, an issue that had nothing to do with either the fate of the Statute or independence.  It was an attempt to find at “third way” (he voices the last two words in English).   And he simply said “no” to me. Looking at the decision of the TC on the Statute of Autonomy and the Spanish government’s refusal to talk about a new fiscal pact as a possible solution, I realized there was no other way out. If the Constitutional Tribunal was going to firmly mark the upper limits of our system of self-governance and the Spanish government was going to flatly refuse to talk about a an possible third way, the only solution was to pay attention to the popular mobilization, that “grass roots movement”  (he says these words in English) that was taking place in the streets and try, in some way or another, to channel it  toward concrete ends.

TH: I am ever more convinced that what the Pentagon like to call “perception management” is arguably the single most important factor any attempt  to achieve significant political change in a culture. Assuming you are in agreement with his general premise, I wonder how you think the Catalan political class will be able to effect the changes it hopes effect when its media machine is not remotely comparable in strength to the one the Spanish state currently has at its disposition?   

AM: Things are exactly as you’ve described them. We will never have a media apparatus comparable that of the Spanish state, and this being the case, we either do it in its absence, or we don’t do it at all. We do not have many options. Either we do it under the present conditions or we do not do it. Not doing it is one alternative, but I do not think it is an acceptable one from the point of view of a very significant part of the Catalan population. So we are doing things under fairly precarious conditions, but we are doing them. But it must also be said that while we have had considerable difficulty getting our message across in Spain and Catalonia, our movement has never, ever had greater media reverberations in the rest of Europe and the world.  In this realm, we have been able to explain an awful lot about ourselves and about the political conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state.

TH: In one of his many creative flights of thought the great Catalan philosopher Francesc Pujols predicted that at some point in the future the stereotypically skinflint residents of Catalonia would be able to travel the world with “tot pagat”, that is, with all of their bills taken care of.  While that might be too much to ask, do you see a day, in the not too distant future, when the citizens of this place where we sit will be able to roam the world with a Catalan passport in their pocket?   

AM: More important to me in the long run is that they roam the world as Europeans, with a widely recognized European passport, symbol of a strong political and social union, in their pocket.  And if, in addition to showing that they are Europeans, the passport were to indicate that they come from an historic nation called Catalonia as well, that would wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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