Catalanophobia has a long history in Spain, and democracy has failed to eradicate it. Now, conservative politicians and media are stirring it up again, now that the regional funding system has been reformed.
The recent decision on the new model of regional funding has resulted in the reemergence of a reflex, an instinct, a political resource that has run spasmodically through Spanish public life for several centuries at least, even though some are bent on denying its very existence: I’m talking about “Catalanophobia”.
Arguably, since the 17th century, almost every time that Catalonia –that is, the hegemonic sectors at each moment in Catalan society - has endeavoured to preserve or improve its status within the Spanish state (whether the latter was a monarchy or a republic, traditional or parliamentary), powerful movements of rejection and disqualification have arisen in Castilian Spain, often acquiring tones of anti-Catalan prejudice or phobia. Back in the days of King Philip IV and the Duke of Olivares someone of the stature of Quevedo did not hesitate to write that "the Catalans are a monstrous abortion of politics," or "The Catalan is the saddest and most miserable creature that God created" among other niceties.
Two and a half centuries later, the leading role of Catalans such as Figueras, Pi i Margall, Tutau or Sunyer i Capdevila in the first governments of the 1873 Republic led to a Madrid newspaper to report that "Spain has become the asset of Catalonia," a alarm which has never raised when there are Andalusians, Basques or Galicians, however numerous, in the government. The editor added: "Well, they are still not content. The rest of Spain will have to pay them (the Catalans) a handsome tribute, so they bequeath upon us the gift of not declaring their independence or thinking of changing their nationality."
Does the melody sound familiar? With such precedents, the birth of political Catalanism infused into Catalanophobic speeches a justification and returns that made them flourish.
When the Catalanist movement was in its infancy, two promising young members of the Conservative Party, José Martos O'Neale and Julio Amado, published Peligro nacional. Estudios e impresiones sobre el catalanismo (National danger. Studies and impressions of Catalanism (Madrid, 1901). It was a shrill and melodramatic warning about the risk that Catalonia might become, in the near future, another Cuba, this time within the confines of the Iberian peninsula. But, in chapter on solutions, Martos and Amado proposed measures not just against the Catalanists (repressive emergency laws, exile), but against the whole of the suspect society: a complete ban on the "Catalan dialect" in the public sphere, "incompatibility of the Catalans to hold official positions in the service of the State in Catalonia ", replacing all the local clergy by churchmen “from other Spanish provinces”, the elimination of protective tariff to punish the manufacturing bourgeoisie ..
From then until the Civil War, Catalanophobia ("... the unpleasing behaviour of the Catalan people ...") was a stable ingredient of españolista rhetoric, all the more so during the home rule campaigns of 1907, 1918-19 and 1931-32, and even became the main personal platform of politicians such as Antonio Royo Villanova.
It contained two main sub-themes: an economic one ("Catalonia has been the heir of poor Spain", "if the Catalan provinces have thrived it has been at the expense of the rest of the country", "after all, they live off our sweat and our blood "), seasoned with more or less explicit threats of trade boycotts; and the language one ("are we going to accept that in those furiously autonomic regions children leave school barely being able to speak Castilian?" asked state school teachers in the Alcañiz region in late 1918).
During the transition, the ominous shadow of the Franco regime slowed the return of this rhetoric. But not for long: the old prejudices quickly lost their shamefulness and once again attained an ideological mainstream which comfortably included from people such as Alejandro Marcos Rojas and Juan Carlos Rodríguez Ibarra. However, for political cultural as well as tactical reasons (the combat to end the long hegemony of Felipe González, the little that AP-PP stood to lose in Catalonia...), it was Spain’s center-right and their media entourage that devoted most energy to cultivate messages depicting los catalanes or Cataluña as a selfish, rapacious, uncaring community, privileged within the shared State and, at the same time, disloyally plotting to break it.
From 1993 on, the political situation (the impatience of the People's Party to regain power, the then current parliamentary alliance between Gonzalez and Pujol, the subsequent transfer to regional governments of 15% of income tax ...) fed that discourse. "It cannot be that rich regions become richer and the poor ones become poorer, nor can we accept that the conflictive regions are always the biggest beneficiaries," asserted Juan José Lucas, then president of Castilla y León. What the Socialist Government was doing was "to take several billion pesetas from Spanish pensioners and unemployed" to give them to Catalonia, in the words of José María Aznar. Mercedes de la Merced, meanwhile, launched a dire warning about the risk that "any madman might become tomorrow's president of the Catalan government."
Naturally, the parliamentary arithmetic during the 1996-2000 legislature, the first government of the People's Party, was to bring about a complete withdrawal of these theses: no crazy presidents, no plundered pensioners, no Catalans raking it in. Then (from 2000 to 2004), a comfortable absolute majority and the ensuing superiority complex in Aznar’s team made bogey of an interior unnecessary enemy, the devious - and what is more, separatist - Phoenician.
In fact, the Popular Party (PP) did not return to its ways until 2005, once the trauma of March 2004 was being overcome. It was during the takeover bid by (the Catalan firm) Gas Natural for Endesa when Catalanophobic reflexes resurfaced in the conservative party and on-social media news and opinion-leaders. They were well expressed by Manuel Pizarro – later to become an MP - with his "never will I become an employee of La Caixa." Other, lower ranking authors called on “los catalanes" to keep "their dirty hands " off the electricity company, on whose future the slogan "German rather than Catalan" became popular.
And then, without a break, the campaign against the new Statute began. To criticize and combat a bill sponsored by any government, or by certain political forces, is perfectly legitimate and even healthy in a democracy, no doubt. But in this case, the excess and the alarmism of the offensive often made opinion slide down into collective disqualification and stereotyping.
With the new Statute of Autonomy, "the poorest regions will be pulverised", said Mariano Rajoy drawing on the age-old cliché. As regards the boycott against Catalan cava wine, stirred up by a public television company controlled by the PP, it seems that their goal was to harm not a government, or a party, or several, but rather the Catalan economy as a whole.
So the playing field - the playing field of the political and media discourse, that of the collective imagination, that of identity construction... - is such a fertile breeding ground that inevitably the role of the Catalan government in the funding reform has made the clichés reemerge: "That a Catalan be worth twice as much as a Madrideño is intolerable!" blurted regional Minister Beteta. "The money is going to the wealthy Catalans" it was reported in Asturias;
"Spain was and is a sumptuous business for Catalonia" they say in Galicia.
After three decades of democracy and an autonomic State, there are discussions in which we are the same as during the days of Castelar (1832-1899) or Moret (1838-1913).
Joan B. Culla i Clarà is a historian.