Catalonia: Draconian prison sentences of independence leaders provokes mass protests and strikes

This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.

Following a month long trial, the Supreme Court of the Spanish state pronounced brutal prison sentences on nine leaders of the Catalan independence movement. In total, prison sentences of over 100 years have been imposed on these former Catalan government ministers. At the same time, a renewed European arrest warrant has been issued for the former Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile, in Belgium.

These draconian sentences handed down by the Supreme Court, coupled with the recent arrest of members of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs), are a statement from the Spanish ruling class to try and intimidate workers and young people. They aim to show that they will not tolerate the idea of an independent Catalonia or secession from any part of the Spanish state

In the light of this latest attack, it is urgent to draw the lessons from the experience of the revolutionary upheavals which took place in Catalonia in 2017 (see: https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/10/01/catalonia-two-years-on-from-the-independence-referendum/).

The latest wave of repression is an attempt to intimidate the mass movement and cower it into submission. Yet revolution, on occasions, needs the whip of counter revolution. It is possible that this latest attack will trigger a renewed wave of upheaval and struggle.

Following the announcement of these sentences by the court, imposed by the regime of 1978, inherited from the Franco era, mass protests and strikes have erupted throughout Catalonia. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Barcelona and other towns and cities. Tens of thousands occupied the ‘El Prat’ airport at Barcelona. At least 100 flights were cancelled. The metro in Barcelona and others in the public sector took unofficial strike action in protest at the draconian sentences.

Spain’s Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell, also the EU’s foreign policy chief-elect, was whistling in the wind when he declared that the verdict could “serve as a means to bring Catalonia’s deeply divided society back together”.

The Catalan police, Mossos, and others carried out brutal repression and attacks on the demonstrators especially at El Prat airport. This repression has further enraged the people of Catalonia. It is likely to re-ignite the mass movements which had declined following the defeat of the 2017 movement.

Rather than bring charges of ‘violent rebellion’, the state prosecuted them variously with ‘sedition’, the ‘misuse of public funds’ and ‘disobedience. However, the viciousness of the sentences passed, against pro-capitalist nationalists, who when in government had introduced austerity measures against the working class and people of Catalonia, illustrates the ruthlessness of the Spanish state and capitalist class.

Pedro Sanchez, the acting PSOE (Spanish Workers’ Party) Prime Minister has bowed before this pressure and treacherously declared that his government, “respected the court’s decision”, which he alleged met all the requirements of “due process, transparency and separation of powers”. Sanchez and PSOE are determined to demonstrate their reliability to the Spanish ruling class in the run up to the general election which is scheduled for November. PSOE’s election slogans, “For Government” and “For Spain” make it crystal clear where it stands.

Podemos’s betrayal

In a further act of betrayal of the movement, Pablo Iglesias, radical leader of the left populist, Podemos, declared that “everyone must respect the law and accept the sentences”. In other words, accept the dictates of the Supreme Court bequeathed from the Francoist constitution of 1978! This was a continuation of Iglesia’s previous position of maintaining “equidistance” between the pro-independence movement and the Spanish state during the movement which erupted in 2017 and simply urging negotiations and agreement to be reached by both sides.

What these leaders of the “left” fear more than anything is the revolutionary movement of the masses and the threat that this potentially could pose for capitalism. The brutal sentences handed out by the Supreme Court are not because they fear the pro-capitalist Catalan nationalist leaders. What they fear is the potential revolutionary movements of the working class, and all those oppressed by capitalism, striving for Catalan independence, which could endanger the ruling class and their system.

If the struggle for an Independent Catalonia is linked together with a struggle to break with capitalism and establish an Independent Socialist Catalonia, it would set example for the working class throughout the Spanish state. Workers throughout the Spanish state could be roused to come together with the Catalan workers in a united struggle against capitalism throughout the Spanish state for a socialist alternative.

The idea of a “progressive” capitalist European Union was clearly exposed during the revolutionary events which developed in 2017. The EU refused to condemn the Spanish government and its use of brutal repression. This same EU has remained silent on the issue of “human rights” abuses by the Spanish state and has not condemned the vicious sentences announced by the Supreme Court.

The mass movement which has erupted in protest against the sentences and the struggle of the Catalan masses will undoubtedly arouse the sympathy and support of workers and socialists across Europe. This is graphically shown at recent rallies for Scottish independence. The struggles in Catalonia will possibly give a certain boost for those supporting independence for Scotland.

Yet, like their counterparts in Catalonia, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership fears the mass movement of workers and youth. In 2017, they urged “negotiation” and an attempt to secure an agreement between the Catalonia and Spanish government.

What was needed, however, was the mass mobilization by the working class and youth, on an independent class programme, for full democratic rights, and placing no confidence in the pro-capitalist Catalan nationalists (the policy advocated by the leadership of the ERC (Republican Catalan Left) in 2017 and subsequently).

Scottish nationalists

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP First Minister of Scotland, said she was “appalled” by the Spanish court’s draconian sentences but also restated her absurd view that: “We will continue to encourage the Spanish and Catalan Governments to resolve their differences by mutually agreed democratic means.”

It seems to have passed her by that the brutality of the Spanish capitalist state machine against the right to self-determination makes “mutually agreed democratic means” impossible.

Moreover, yet another European arrest warrant (EAW) is expected to be asked for by the Spanish state against former Catalan education minister, Clara Ponsati, who lives in Scotland. In 2018, when an EAW was allowed against Ponsati, Sturgeon said at the time: “Our justice system is legally obliged to follow due process in the determination of extradition requests and “government ministers cannot intervene.”

With a second independence referendum already being ruled out by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Tory leadership, the SNP’s craven insistence that the “only route to independence is through the gold standard” agreement between governments in Edinburgh and London is hopelessly inadequate. The interests of British capitalism could well mean that a “legal” referendum will be blocked.

Under those conditions, the only option would be to call for a mass movement for democratic rights, utilising the power of the working class. This is something the pro-capitalist SNP are organically opposed to, like their counterparts in Catalonia.

It is necessary to draw the lessons of the movement in Catalonia and the struggles of the working class and youth throughout the Spanish State, and to take up a struggle for:

  • A general strike and the building of democratically-elected committees of action, in all communities and workplaces
  • A party of the working class in Catalonia, and also in the Spanish state, that will fight to break with capitalism
  • Release of all political prisoners and the dropping of all charges against them
  • The right of self- determination for Catalan, Basque and all peoples
  • For an end to austerity and cuts programmes; repeal of all anti-labour laws
  • For an independent socialist Catalonia; a united struggle of the working class against capitalism and for a socialist alternative, throughout the Spanish state