Some observers wondered why Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was so eager to travel to the United States, rather than wait to get some positive news on the economic front. It soon became clear, however, that the reason he wished to meet US President Obama had nothing to do with the financial crisis. Rather, it was a desperate attempt to get the White House to support his obstinate refusal to engage in talks on the coming 11/9 referendum in Catalonia. Rajoy may even have dreamed of getting Washington's green light to employ force against Catalonia. With the National Security Council telling him that no public support would be forthcoming, and Obama visibly failing to utter a single word in support of Madrid at their joint press conference, it quickly became clear that the Spanish leader had failed on both counts. To add insult to injury, the US media by and large ignored him. The arsenal of democracy is not supplying any ammo to Mariano.
Rajoy has persistently refused to hold talks with the Catalan Government. He not only wants to prevent voters from going to the polls, but has issued a number of threats and failed to rule out resorting to force. Spanish troops conquered Catalonia in 1714, and three centuries later a number of officers have publicly threatened to stage a coup against the referendum. Not a single one has been court martialed. Despite such threats, a solid majority of the country's population and parliament want to go to the polls. Obama's refusal to support Rajoy is likely to embolden Catalans, increasing the chances that the 11/9 vote will take place peacefully. Of course, this is no guarantee that Spain will not use the bullet against the ballot, but with the White House squarely against a coup the chances are much lower.Mariano Rajoy cannot speak English. He has never studied or worked abroad, and obviously is not familiar with US political culture and values. When traveling to other countries, he is out of his depth. Anti-democratic attitudes tolerated in Spain get him into trouble. Foreign policy is not his first priority, and he seems to be concerned only with getting other countries to speak out against the Catalan referendum, with little success to date. British Prime Minister David Cameron has already warned him not to persist in his refusal to hold talks with Catalonia, and now US President Obama's silence speaks volumes.
The choice is thus clear for Rajoy. He can decide how to go down in history. He can be the Spanish prime minister who put an end to three centuries of military occupation of Catalonia, reaching an agreement whereby the people could decide, with the ballot not the bullet as the ultimate arbiter, and in accordance with common sense and International Law. He can also be, however, the war criminal who used force to try to prevent Catalans from recovering their freedom, turning Spain into even more of a pariah state and ending up before an international court himself and his accomplices. The choice is his, and only his. Catalan people have already spoken, in mass demonstrations, holding hands in a 400-kilometer long way, and in successive elections. Catalan institutions have also spoken, making it clear there is no turning back. Last, but not least, the international community is speaking, refusing to support violence. The time has come for Mariano to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. A statesman or a thug? It is the Spanish prime minister's choice. Something is clear though: there is no US ammo for Mariano.
Alex Calvo is currently a Guest Professor at Nagoya University, and a Professor of International Relations and International Law at European University (Barcelona Campus). An expert on Asian security and defense issues, he got his LLB from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and is currently doing an MA in Second World War Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is a former teaching and research fellow at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).