A rally in Madrid in support of the Polisario Front. Wikimedia commons/-jkb-. Some rights reserved.
Behind Spain’s European veil is a country struggling to deal with its painful history. Catalonians’ quest for independence exposes Spaniards’ agony over Franco’s legacy and the destructive historical ramifications of the dictator’s actions in Europe and North Africa. For Moroccans, Madrid’s opposition to Catalans’ rights to self-determination while Spain supports the same rights for the Western Sahara represents an example of Spain’s’ political hypocrisy and dual personality.
Since Morocco seized the Western Sahara from Spain in 1975, Madrid has been publically and covertly supporting the Polisario Front separatists’ call for the self-determination of the former Spanish colony. While Moroccan diplomacy struggled to counter Madrid’s meticulously designed campaign to keep Rabat bogged down in the Sahara, indigenous minorities across Spain stared to ask for their rights to self-rule.
For years, Spain’s support for the Algeria based Polisario Front did not carry any political liability for the Iberian country. However, the nationalist awakening of the Catalan people turned Madrid’s policy in North Africa into a heavy diplomatic encumbrance.
Spanish civil society and partisan parties were Polisario’s first supporters. The former Marxist guerilla movement enjoyed a considerable diplomatic, financial and moral support from the right and the left across Spain’s’ political spectrum. Under the guise of “right to self-determination”, numerous Spanish politicians, human rights activists, writers and actors adopted the Sahrawi cause.
Moroccans watched helplessly as Spain’s support of the Polisario thrust the Sahara conflict onto the world stage. The Spanish government and civil society’s active enthusiasm were instrumental in the rise of Polisario’s profile worldwide. Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar engagement in this campaign was significant and deliberate
During PM Aznar’s tenure (2001-2004), Moroccan-Spanish relations deteriorated significantly. In the eyes of the Polisario leadership, Aznar moved “the Saharawi file towards a solution that respects the Saharawi people's inalienable right to self-determination." The former PM’s sympathy for the Polisario positions was not a proclamation of love for the people of the Western Sahara but rather a major element of his strategy to weaken Morocco.
In Rabat, Moroccans were mystified with Aznar’s right wing Partido Popular (PP) crusade to grant Sahrawi independence knowing the PP‘s disdain for Catalan and Basque nationalists. As Spanish “right wingers” continued their support for the former Marxist Polisario Front, the PP attacked and ridiculed Catalan nationalists.
Madrid contends that Catalans do not “deserve” an independent homeland based on flimsy facts that can easily be dispelled using the Polisario arguments for secession from Morocco. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2012, Aznar dismissed Catalonia’s independence as “Constitutionally impossible” since Catalonians “voted for the 1978 Spanish Constitution”. During the same interview, the former MP stated that Catalans are Spanish and have been part of a “historic nation in Europe for 500 years.”
Moroccans find such statements by a former high ranking Spanish statesman insulting, since Rabat argues the same position at the United Nations to dispel the Polisario arguments for an independent Sahara. The Western Sahara never existed as an independent country and has been part of the Kingdom of Morocco longer than 500 years.
For the Catalans and the Basques, their central government's explicit support for the right to self-determination in the case of the Moroccan Sahrawi, must be extended to all minorities in Spain. It is incomprehensible to hear Spain’s current Prime Minister Rajoy state at the United Nations that his country “is maintaining its commitment to finding a fair, long-lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the Western Sahara dispute that allows for the free determination of the Sahrawi people in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter”. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is actively engaged in a secret war against Catalan independence.
As Catalan nationalist campaigns keep on gaining European sympathy, Madrid has started to review its long held pro-Western Sahara independence positions. In a startling reversal of position, Spanish Socialists (PSOE) and PP parliamentarians shunned a recent visit by pro-Polisario parliamentarians to the Morocco controlled Sahara, despite their membership in the Cortes “intergroup on friendship with Western Sahara”.
Catalan and Basque political groups spearheaded this visit to the city of Laayoune intensifying their campaign to link the Saharan conflict to Catalonia’s drive for independence, thus using Madrid’s current and past positions calling for the Sahrawi rights to self-determination to highlight their central government illusory attitude.
Judging from Madrid's recent cool attitudes toward the Polisario, Spain appears to be falling into the same trap the PP dug for Morocco in the Western Sahara. On close inspection, none of the central government's anti- Catalonia independence arguments holds up. The contention that the Catalonian vote for the 1978 constitution makes their current demands for independence illegal is injudicious, since the balloting took place three years after the demise of the brutal Franco dictatorship when most of the country was still recovering from a political jolt.
Madrid must recognize the transition underway in Catalonia. Moreover, Spain, as a member of the European Union, should grant the Catalan people the basic right to vote on self-rule. Despite harassments and legal hurdles, a simmering Catalan nationalist movement is thriving and will eventually achieve its goal of creating an independent homeland. Meanwhile, the central government self-denial undermines Spain image as a democratic nation.