Catalonia: an incomplete transition?

The revolution to build democratic ‘stability’ and peace based on human rights and respect for citizen participation is an open-ended process in which dialogue, negotiation and participation are vital and ‘immortal’ cornerstones. Español

Cecilia Milesi
17 October 2017

A banner in Spanish : "Franco was not dead, he was partying". Photo: Cecilia MilesiHistory is almost palpable at the moment, as though it were a living thing or tangible presence, splayed out and filling the streets of Barcelona, where I live. I feel like I can almost touch it with my fingertips and take it in with each breath.

It is a living history that is confronting each and every Catalan abruptly and indiscriminately; it brings back memories, stirs up emotions, pushes forward through stories retold, and is reconstructed through retrospective conversations that attempt to make sense of an ever-painful past, confused present and uncertain future.

As an Argentine who has only been living Spain for a year, I ask questions, listen closely and am learning all the time. Of course, I cannot avoid drawing parallels with my own Argentine and Latin American story.

A few days ago, I ended a hurried conversation with a colleague and friend who is an expert in peacebuilding policy. He said, ‘Let’s talk again in two weeks when everything has calmed down’. I answered, ‘Get used to the fact that history is a perpetual revolution. The fight was, is, and will continue. There won’t be anything like a calmer moment. The struggle for peace and human rights is an open-ended process.’

Human rights and peace: not just transitions, a perpetual process

‘Transition’ theories and policies with a liberal, linear perspective take building politico-institutional ‘stability’ to mean a process that has an end. They see ‘stability’ as something permanent that is condensed into treaties, agreements, laws, institutions and constitutions that are relatively static. As these analysts generally tend to be from the Global North, they describe their own democracies and institutions as ‘solid’, ‘developed’ and ‘stable’. However, Spain today, and the conflict between Spain and Catalonia in particular, demonstrate that just like in Argentina, Latin America and many other countries in the Global South, this modernist continuum is just an illusion. History is a living thing.

The revolution to build democratic ‘stability’ and peace based on human rights and respect for citizen participation is an open-ended process in which dialogue, negotiation and participation are vital and ‘immortal’ cornerstones. They require active local actors who are alert and organised in monitoring these dynamic processes. There are no definitive victories, only partial ones, which those of us who value rights and human dignity must win. In this article, I will review this hypothesis by drawing parallels between the examples of Spain and Catalonia, and Argentina today.

Living history in Catalonia and Spain today

History is making itself felt at every bus stop, cafe, university and school, and in every corner in Catalonia and Spain today. The Spanish and the Catalans need to ‘retell’ their story. As a foreigner, I can use ignorance as an excuse for asking the simplest of questions. I have curious conversations with groups on both sides of the continuum for and against independence: the moderates, separatists and the confused. As well as listening to stories, I have to contain to their emotions.

One of the first debatable reactions that these conversations provoke in me is astonishment at realising that some sectors believed (or it suited them to believe) that the ideological, institutional, emotional and cultural structures of the Franco dictatorship could be dismantled to create a stable and strong democracy without a ‘transition’ based on justice, truth and reparation. The ghosts of this post-dictatorship ‘transition’ hover over the Catalan independence process. The pain and fear of that time live on and have mobilised citizens.

For example, a Catalan friend of mine confessed to me, ‘My aunt always felt Catalan. But when the anarchist gunmen began killing nuns, neighbours or anyone who wasn’t pro-Catalan in the 1930s, she became a Francoist. These are the same people who, today, organise themselves in the CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy): the extremists who now want to push us into unilateral independence’. Although the independence movement is made up of parties that were associated with Francoism at the time, it is also co-led by progressive groups associated with republicanism, feminism and radical participation. Other friends are convinced that neighbours who peacefully protest or go to polling stations are ‘seditious’; suddenly, the neighbourhood pharmacist and local baker are ‘seditious’. Reality is criminalised in pace with mistrust and exasperation.

In contrast, many other people think that separating from the Spanish state is a way of leaving behind a conservative and authoritative Spain that no longer has any ideological links with Catalonia (not to detract from other interconnected economic, political and social issues).[1] For example, university students organise huge demonstrations to come together with one voice to ‘call for the right to decide’. Some want independence, others don’t. They paint signs, print ballot papers and celebrate their desire to be ‘free’ to the beat of drums. They tell me, ‘No, we don’t feel free today. Not like this, under the centralist, authoritarian power of the Partido Popular and Madrid who ‘talk’ by sending in police and water cannons, while blocking access to referendum-related websites and suspending regional authorities’.

In fact, during the attempt to hold the Catalan referendum, there were widely documented police abuses. The brutality of the police was seen around the world and condemned by organisations such as Amnesty International and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)[2]. A large majority believe that these events have shown that Spain is still totalitarian and conservative, just as it was in the Franco era. Many fully believe (as was written on a sign I was shown), that ‘Franco is not dead; he was out partying’.

On the day of the referendum (1 October) and the mass marches across Spain (8 October), I was stunned by the behaviour of some  pro-Spain groups. For example, I saw one group verbally and physically attack a group of young people who had gathered in Plaza Cataluña holding the Catalan flag. Hundreds of people walked down my street singing militaristic slogans at the top of their lungs.

Spain still has not enacted the Historical Memory Law (widely criticised by human rights organisations and some political parties for not subscribing to international law). The law outlaws Falangist symbols on public institutions but not those worn by people at ‘cultural events’[3]. Many parties and groups think that keeping Catalonia united with Spain goes hand in hand with reviewing the 1978 constitutional agreement (post-Franco ‘transition’) and boldly opening up the process of memory, truth, justice and reparation to guarantee non-recurrence. Perhaps there could even be ‘reconciliation’ based on the recognition and prosecution of those responsible.

As I listen to all the different stories, I draw parallels and reflect: the emotions and analyses emerging among Catalans and Spaniards could be likened to an unfinished ‘Nunca Más’ (Never Again), which should also be accompanied by various constitutional, fiscal and legal reforms to ensure that a new form of autonomous federalism can be built.

So, I ask myself: is a real ‘Never Again’ possible in Spain? Is a ‘Never Again’ possible in Argentina? Is it possible to guarantee the institutional robustness and fundamental cultural transformation needed to ensure non-recurrence, once and for all?

Parallels with the Global South: Argentina

While the vote was happening in Catalonia, thousands of people in Argentina mobilised once again in Plaza de Mayo to call for Santiago Maldonado[4] to be found alive. Debates also began over renewed pressure from certain sectors for the social leader Milagro Sala to be returned to a normal prison[5].

Since the ‘centre-right’ PRO (Propuesta Republicana) returned to national and local government, citizens’ organisations have constantly had to work and mobilise against what has been called ‘Argentinian denialism’. For example, debating and resisting open declarations by some political leaders that 30,000 people have not been disappeared in Argentina, and fighting the introduction of measures to dismantle the solid pillars of policies of memory, truth and justice that exist in the country. At the same time, various citizen spaces are staying alert to the development of theories and practices that treat security simply as a matter of repression; merely an issue for the military and police.

The need for renewed defence of human rights policies after the dictatorship is nothing new for Argentinians. Since the return to democracy, there has been a constant need to fight at citizen, parliament and government level, and in the echelons of justice, to keep the focus on truth and justice as a means of opening a truly new chapter in the country’s history and marking clear boundaries to guarantee non-recurrence. The struggle and work organised under the cries of ‘Never Again’ has been an ongoing process. It has kept a lot of different organisations, parties and groups that promote human rights as the cornerstone of all public policy active, alert and mobilised. There was a need to overturn amnesties, pardons, budget cuts and all kinds of measures (including the most recent one called the ‘2x1’ Supreme Court ruling) that attempted to play down the severity of the crimes against humanity committed under the dictatorship.

The approval of a new National Constitution in 1994 guaranteed that all international human rights treaties would take precedence over Argentine law. It recognised the rights of native peoples, opening the way for laws identifying their ancestral lands to be passed. However, it took much more of a fight to extend the timeframe of the law that regulates the delayed process of demarcating lands belonging to indigenous people.

Constitutional changes, new laws, citizens’ groups that are actively and continually assembling and organising in spaces for debate, negotiation and mobilisation are all part of our day-to-day life. That is because we know that history never sleeps. The revolution in support of human rights is ongoing and must be tirelessly upheld, beyond the perceived security and stability that ‘economic progress’ can offer us. We know that the transition to a strong and robust democracy never ends: it must be constantly lived, reclaimed and won.

Living history and perpetual revolution

Ultimately, as it is impossible to know what will happen in the Spain-Catalan conflict over the coming weeks, I am drawing these parallels in an attempt to reflect openly on the need to think and work for their ‘transition’ to a more robust democracy much more actively and persistently. It is vital that the painful conversations and debates that are forcefully emerging today are sustained in the long-term so that work can begin in a profound and committed process towards a new socio-political agreement that supersedes post-dictatorship agreements and silences. Any initiative to mediate the current independence conflict, and any other political process that begins from this point on, must be committed to reviewing historical root causes at the cultural, relational and human levels. The structure of organisations that support human rights, debate, conciliation and citizen participation will need to be continuously strengthened in order to sustain this necessary and rightful social conversation locally, as a pillar of solid and strong democracy.

As in other contexts, international actors can and should play a supportive role. However, as the process is and will be a long-term one (which I call ‘living history’), it is vital to uphold local leadership at all levels. Perhaps South-North Cooperation could play a fundamental role, in view of the friendship between Argentina, Catalonia and Spain in particular. The links have already been forged. Could we, together, build a space for a dialogue that enables us to share even more technologies, ideas and potential solutions, and use this time of crisis as an opportunity? For example, it is Argentina that has requested extraditions for crimes committed during the Franco dictatorship[6]. How could this initiative be driven forward and other concrete lessons from the Argentine process shared?

To conclude, truth and memory initiatives, mediating to negotiate the parameters for ‘transitional’ justice and new agreements, and promoting dialogue for human rights and peace is a ‘perpetual revolution’. Processes of reinterpreting history develop in cycles, surfacing monsters from the past. Logically, at the same time, this generates opposition from those vying for the ‘true’ opposing version. Stories jostle in an attempt to mobilise support in the political arena. These cyclical processes demand social structures that are constantly active in order to promote the defence of human rights and dialogue based on inclusive parameters. Perhaps a new dialogue process could lay the foundations for a new future. If it happens, the process will be long and will require crosscutting commitment from multiple actors.

My friend said, ‘See you in two weeks, when all of this is over’. I remember my response: ‘This won’t end. It has just begun and it will never end. We need to get used to living in perpetual revolution.’ It is the struggle over how history is written, what version, and by whom, and how it is wielded as a narrative of power. That fight is living history.



Translation by Kate Hartley (


[1] The Guardian is producing a series of videos called ‘I am Catalan’. This is the testimony of one of the young people who supports the independence process, explaining the need to establish a republic.

[2] Amnesty International press release: ‘Catalan referendum: police must not use excessive or disproportionate force’. Call from the High Commissioner for Human Rights for police abuses to be investigated.

[3] More details on the Historical Memory Law can be found here and here. Criticisms of this law, and calls for progress to be made in the process of memory, truth, justice and reparation from organisations such as Amnesty International, can be seen here (in Spanish).

[4] The case of the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado is being called a ‘forced disappearance’. More details here (in Spanish).

[5] Reports by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Milagros Sala can be found here.

[6] The request was rejected by the Spanish authorities. More information here (in Spanish).

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