From time to time, countries, like amebas, feel an urge to subdivide. The latest is Spanish Catalonia. Before that it was Scotland and, in Belgium, the French-speaking south and the Dutch-speaking north threaten to split that nation down the middle. A few years ago Quebec seemed poised to leave the Canadian federation. In South America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela once comprised a single nation called La Gran Colombia. In the United States, which fought its bloodiest war over Southern secession, we hear new secessionist rumblings from California.
Catalonian separatism has festered for centuries and resentments run deep. Catalan, spoken in Rousillon (France), Andorra, the Balearic Islands, and Alghero (Sardinia, Italy), is derived from Latin and has a splendid literary and cultural tradition. But don’t expect to understand it readily, even if you speak Spanish and French. I recall a conversation with a French lady in Catalonia who lamented that after spending months learning Spanish she discovered upon her arrival in Barcelona that the Catalonians spoke a different language.
She was right, but not entirely. Nearly all Catalonians are bilingual in both languages and, like many people who live close to the Pyrenees border, also speak French. During the Franco regime (1939-1975) Catalan was officially prohibited, but the more it was suppressed, the more Catalonians spoke it in protest. Since only newspaper obituaries were allowed in Catalan during my first visit, dead people taught me to read enough Catalan to survive. Today, Catalonians freely speak both languages, but I noticed on a visit with a university professor there several years ago that Catalan is mandated for all official correspondence. He told me recently that persons from other regions of Spain, as he is, must learn Catalan to survive.
The French lady asked plaintively, “What kind of country is this?” I could not answer her question, for often I wondered myself. Spain and France are neighbors but historically vastly different in national temperament and attitudes. Centuries ago French leaders imposed a unifying system of language (Parisian variety) and education over the entire nation, leaving only a few small pockets of other languages. Even though Spanish is the national language of Spain, several others survive: Catalan and related Valencian, Basque and Galician.
Catalonians for secession hoped Scotland would vote for independence and enhance their own chances for separation from Spain. The Generalitat, the regional political capital, declared Catalonian independence, but the Spanish government did not consider the vote legitimate, pointing out that only a minority of the population voted for separation. Likewise, the European Union, beset with many problems, opposes the fragmentation of Spain.
Traditionally, Catalonia has been the economic leader of Spain. The Catalonian people are known for their enterprising spirt and resent the fact that they contribute more than their share to the national economy without receiving fair compensation in services. However, the business community apparently does not see an economic upside to the proposed separation. Several major banks and businesses have already left Barcelona for Madrid.