Catalonia: huge march in Barcelona to demand freedom for political prisoners

Hundreds-of-thousands took to the streets of Barcelona once again on Sunday 15 April to reject Spanish state repression. A key demand was freedom for Catalan political prisoners – the demonstrators marched under the slogan “Us Volem a Casa” (“We want you home”). This came at the end of a week in which the state attempted (and failed) to charge members of the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) with terrorism. The massive demonstration revealed the resilience of the movement, despite a leadership that is failing to show the way forward.

The demonstration in Barcelona was vast. An hour before its scheduled starting time there were already tens-of-thousands, filling the length of Paral·lel Avenue and Espanya Square. Over 900 coaches had been organised from towns and cities across Catalonia. The demonstration had originally been called after the jailing of an additional five members of the previous Catalan government and the detention of Catalan president (dismissed) Carles Puigdemont in Germany three weeks earlier.

The immediate response to the arrest of the another five Catalan government members (a total of seven are in pre-trial detention) was organised through the CDRs, which quickly coordinated militant mass demonstrations and then a series of mass road and train blockades the following week, culminating in the opening of highway toll booths over the Easter weekend. Clearly, the most advanced section of the movement considers mass marches (in which participants trek from point A to B – and achieve nothing) as insufficient to take the struggle forward, and there was a growing demand for a general strike.

The masses defiant, despite weakness of leadership

The main unions, CCOO and UGT, could not afford to be seen sitting on their hands after the outrageous jailings and increase in state repression. So they resorted to the well-worn tactic of calling for an action which was not too militant and could be contained within safe channels, as far away as possible from the events – in this case, three weeks later.

Thus, a broad based coalition decided to call for this demonstration. This involves the two main pro-independence mass organisations (ANC and Òmnium) as well as the majority of mass organisations in Catalonia (the main trade unions CCOO and UGT, the parents’ associations federation FAPAC, the confederation of tenant’s organisations CONFAVC, the peasants union UP and so on). At the time it was called, the aim of the demonstration was not to organise the struggle against repression but to provide a safe channel to let off steam.

The official manifesto therefore was as bland and general as possible, expressing “concern” at the “violation of fundamental rights and democratic freedoms” but also at the “social polarisation created in the current situation”. It does not specifically mention the political prisoners nor demands their release, but rather talks in vague terms about how “political problems require a political solution, not repression” and calls on “Catalan, State and European institutions” to “find forms and spaces for political dialogue and negotiation”.

Nevertheless, the masses turned out again, in a show of strength, to make clear their opposition to state repression. According to Barcelona local police, there were 315,000 present. The organisers put the figure at 750,000. Politicians from all pro-independence parties were present, as well as those from Catalunya en Comú (the Catalan ally of Podemos):

The mood was not for dialogue, but for demanding that the will of the Catalan people be respected, and for an end to repression.

CDR activists detained on charges of terrorism

The week before the campaign of criminalisation launched against the CDRs was taken one step further. On Tuesday 10 April, two CDR activists were charged with rebellion, sedition and terrorism. The Civil Guard made a very high-profile arrest of one of them, Tamara Carrasco, 30, from the Viladecans CDR, who was escorted from her home by balaclava-clad police armed with assault rifles to the National Audience in Madrid. The media was quick to cover the arrest, and the state prosecutor leaked all sorts of incriminating details. It was said she was a “coordinator” of the CDRs’ “sabotage actions”. An audio file was released in which she allegedly discussed disrupting the Barcelona airport, freight trains and fibre optic cables. Furthermore, the papers reported that, during her arrest, the police had seized “certain documentation about the Barcelona barracks of the Civil Guard”, giving a clear impression that she was involved in plotting a terrorist attack. The other CDR activist could not be apprehended and an arrest warrant has been issued against him.

Tamara Carrasco Image fair useTamara Carrasco, from the Viladecans CDR, was escorted from her home by armed police to the National Audience in Madrid / Image: fair use

The grounds for accusing Tamara of terrorism are based on the 2015 reform of anti-terrorism legislation, agreed between the right-wing, ruling PP and the social democratic PSOE in “opposition”. At the time, the reform was justified on the grounds of being able to effectively prosecute “lone wolf” Islamic terrorists. As a result, one does not need to be part of a terrorist organisation to be charged with terrorism. The new wording of the law allows the state to prosecute for terrorism anyone involved in “public disorders” or actions against “state property”, as long as their intention is to “force public powers to act in a certain way or desist from acting” or simply to “severely alter the public peace”.

Basically, people responsible for such heinous acts as, for instance, blockading a road during a protest or strike; or resisting a home repossession, can be charged with terrorism.

On the same day, another six CDR activists were arrested by the Catalan police, the Mossos, in Malgrat de Mar, Solsona, Dosrius, Arenys de Mar and el Pont de Vilomara, for their part in the protests outside the Catalan Parliament on 30 January, when Puigdemont was supposed to be invested as president. They were all accused of assaulting an agent of the law, public disorder and disobedience, and were released pending trial.

On the day of these arrests, thousands came to the streets in Barcelona and other towns and cities under the slogan of “We are all CDR” and shouting “You, fascists, are the real terrorists!”

In the case of Carrasco, she was being charged with terrorism as a result of her participation in a peaceful road blockade after the arrest of Puigdemont. After being held for 48 hours in Madrid, she finally appeared in front of the National Audience judge. Let us remember the National Audience tries crimes against the state and is the direct successor of the Franco era “Public Order Tribunal”, in turn a continuation of the 1940 “Special Tribunal for the Repression of Masons and Communism”. The message being sent by the state was clear: “the CDRs are dangerous, radical and terroristic and therefore must be suppressed”, and furthermore: “if you are involved in protesting against repression you can go to jail charged with terrorism”.

In the event, the case was so outrageous that it completely collapsed. According to her lawyer, material seized from Carrasco’s home during her arrest included CDR posters, a mask of political prisoner Jordi Cuixart, a whistle (!!), her mobile phone and laptop computer. The so-called “documentation on the Civil Guard barracks” turned out to be a Google Maps screenshot of the barracks’ location that she had taken on her way to a protest outside said barracks! Despite the intentions of the state prosecution, the judge threw out charges of rebellion, sedition and terrorism and only charged Tamara Carrasco with “public disorder”. She was released without bail but cannot leave her hometown of Viladecans without permission from the judge.

The case of Carrasco is very interesting, as she comes from Viladecans – a very working-class town in the Baix Llobregat, with a very high percentage of Spanish speakers. She is a local activist involved in the struggle against cuts to the healthcare system, and had been involved in the local branch of Podemos, to the point of standing in the 2015 election as part of a local list linked to the party. Then she was part of the defence of polling stations during the 1 October referendum and became involved in the local CDR.

It reveals how one of the strands in the struggle in Catalonia is made up of social activists, who were part of the 15M indignados movement, became disillusioned with Podemos, and who now see the struggle for a Catalan Republic as a continuation of their struggle against the 1978 regime and for fundamental social change.

Political impasse

The situation in Catalonia is at an impasse. The repression of the Spanish state has certainly not managed to put an end to the movement, but its political leaders have completely caved in and accepted the limits imposed by this repression. There have been four attempts by Catalan Parliament to elect a president and in each case the Spanish judge has blocked the candidates.

The decision of the German court not to extradite Puigdemont on rebellion charges was a major blow to the strategy of judge Llarena from the Spanish Constitutional Court. The German ruling class was trying to send a message to its Spanish counterparts: the conflict in Catalonia must be solved through political negotiation. Of course the German government was quick to add “within the limits of Spanish legality and the Constitution”, which means that there cannot be any talk of self-determination.

The former Spanish President Felipe González, a staunch defender of the regime who publicly called for article 155 to be used to dismiss the Catalan government in October, has also said that he thinks Catalan politicians should not be in jail. It is clear that a section of the ruling class can see how the Catalan politicians (from both ERC and PDECAT) have already accepted the limits imposed by Spanish repression and are quite prepared to stay within the Constitution. They would like a negotiated settlement in Catalonia, in which, perhaps, more tax raising powers could be granted, politicians released and any idea of an independent Catalan republic abandoned sine die.

There are, however, a number of important obstacles to this scenario. On the one hand, the repression against Catalonia is not necessarily led by the more astute sections of the Spanish ruling class, but rather by the Spanish state apparatus: a wholly reactionary institution with its own interests. The Spanish regime feels its authority was challenged on 1 October and that an exemplary punishment must be meted out so that no one ever dares repeat such an act of defiance.

For the regime it is not enough that the Catalan politicians accept the limits of the Constitution: they must be crushed and humiliated. In one of judge Llarena’s latest rulings against the accused, he used as an argument the “fact” that “one cannot see in their inner psychological sphere a powerful element which would allow us to conclude that their respect for the decisions of this judge will be permanent”. Apparently, the judge has the power to peek into the “inner psychological sphere” to determine what the accused will do in the future. This is the stuff of Orwell’s nightmarish 1984!

On the other hand, the ruling PP is weak and mired in corruption scandals. The latest involves the forging of a Masters Degree by Madrid region president, Cristina Cifuentes. Ciudadanos, the Macron-like, ultra-liberal party, has already overtaken the PP in most opinion polls and has an even more reactionary position on the Catalan question. If the PP government were to be seen as being weak, conciliatory or making gestures towards negotiation with the Catalan “coup plotting separatists”, that would only benefit Ciudadanos. They are therefore trapped.

Finally, the Catalan leaders of pro-independence ERC and PDECAT have shown to be quite prepared to abide by the law, having not once broken the law in defence of the popular will since 27 October, when the state dismissed the Catalan government. Their position is not a comfortable one either. On the one hand there are the CDRs, which continue to keep the flame of the struggle alive. On the other, Puigdemont himself needs to keep the embers burning and prevent another president from being elected, otherwise he will be completely out of the picture.

The only way to break this impasse, and advance the struggle to bring down the 1978 regime, would be for the masses to return to the streets on the basis of a program combining the struggle for a Catalan Republic with the struggle for social and democratic rights. That can only be organised on the basis of the CDRs and the anti-capitalist CUP: the only pro-independence party that has consistently stuck to the struggle for a republic.

The opening of a ‘second front’ against the regime in the rest of the Spanish state would also be a powerful contribution to bringing down a government that is already against the ropes. In this respect, there are a number of hopeful signs which reveal the potential of uniting the struggle for democratic rights in Catalonia with the struggle against the regime in the rest of Spain.

Unity against repression

Two weeks ago a delegation from the Catalan CDRs travelled to Murcia to show support and solidarity with the struggle against the building of a high speed railway line across the middle of this city. Local residents have been holding daily demonstrations and faced brutal police repression for over 200 days, demanding that the railway line be buried underground rather than dividing the city in two. The visit of a solidarity delegation from Catalonia was met with a hysterical reaction by the local, right-wing media, but the local activists were pleasantly surprised to find out that people fighting in Catalonia are basically like themselves. On 15 April, a delegation from Murcia returned the visit and turned up at demonstration in Barcelona, where they were warmly received.

There was also a demonstration in Madrid for the Catalan political prisoners on 6 April. The demonstration was only attended by a few hundred people as it did not have the support of the official leaders of Podemos nor United Left, but it was politically very significant in that it sent a message to the Catalan people: “you are not alone”.

On 14 April, the anniversary of the Spanish republic’s declaration, the Catalan CDR issued a public statement to republicans in the Spanish state explaining that the struggle for a Catalan Republic was not one based on nationalism, but rather, on the struggle against the 1978 regime, which oppresses all the peoples in Spain and the working class as a whole. Representatives of the CDRs spoke at the Madrid republican demo and read this statement.

These are small indications of what is possible, and point towards the only way forward. The struggle for a Catalan Republic can only succeed by linking the defence of democratic and national rights with the struggle for social rights, against the 1978 regime and against capitalism across the whole of the Spanish state.

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