OUT OF NOWHERE
The Catalan President: A Small-Town Boy Who Could Destroy Europe
Carles Puigdemont’s father says, ‘Independence is in our blood.’ His uncle remembers he was always ‘stubborn as a mule,’ and says proudly he’ll probably be thrown in jail.
AMER, Spain—Even as a slanting rain pummeled Barcelona’s waterfront on Wednesday, Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia and leader of the region’s independence movement, seemed oblivious to the storm.
He walked toward a reunion of his Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT) smiling a practiced smile—the kind that refused to acknowledge the forces arrayed against him in what has become a protracted showdown with the government of Mariano Rajoy in Madrid that could tear Spain apart and, indeed, open deep wounds in the European Union.
When Puigdemont rose to power, the former journalist was considered an inexperienced politician who was merely a cypher for his party’s bosses. In Madrid, especially, Puigdemont and his odd-couple coalition of businessmen and conservatives—and anarchists—was considered to be an experiment doomed to early failure.
But over a single year Puigdemont has purged the party of anyone not willing to go the limit for independence. And each effort the Rajoy government makes to squeeze the movement only serves to imbue it with a hornets’ nest of energy.
The source of Puigdemont’s drive does not reside in cosmopolitan Barcelona’s bustling center. In order to understand the man, his fervor and his base of support, one must travel into the independentista hinterland.
For the people who reside in towns like Girona, Olot, and Amer, Puigdemont is more than just a local boy made good. He is the embodiment of a collective aspiration.
Amer, the village of 2,600 people where Puigdemont was born, is nestled in the pristine heart of the Catalan countryside some two hours’ drive from Barcelona. For centuries, the village, founded by Benedictine monks in the 10th century, survived from weekly markets serving the local peasants.
During the Spanish Civil War, Amer was fervently Catalanista, subscribing to a vision of Catalonia as a nation within the Spanish Republic. Puigdemont’s father Javier, now 89 years old, was an independentista. His grandfather, who fought during the civil war then fled to France, was an independentista. His uncle, Josep, the first mayor of the village after the fall of Franco, was an independentista.
Carles Puigdemont was born on Dec. 29, 1962, a few days before heavy rains in the village caused one of the town’s homes to collapse. And so even though Puigdemont was baptized in the village church, the tolling of the village bells were prohibited out of mourning for the dead.
“This is a quiet place and we are a peaceful people,” said Javier Puigdemont, Carles’ father, as we strolled through the village square festooned with Catalan flags. “But independence is in our blood. We want to be a country.”
The family owns a local bakery and tobacco shop and Carles’ uncle Josep, 88, is considered to be the village intellectual. He was also Carles’ early political mentor. To hear him talk about Amer during the Franco period is to understand the nature of cunning, persistent resistance.
Unlike the big cities of Girona and Barcelona where the fascists outlawed the use of regional languages, Catalan was freely spoken in Amer and other country villages. When the fascists came to the local church demanding that Spanish be spoken in the village, the locals responded by saying that the population was largely illiterate.
“Who was going to teach them Spanish?” Josep Puigdemont said. “The authorities relented and we went about our business.”
Over time, even the local outpost of Franco’s dreaded Guardia Civil came to learn Catalan. And as they did, they became accepted as part of the community. “The Guardia Civil were good people. A real civil guard and not fascists,” said the elder Puigdemont. “We spoke to them in Catalan and they learned Catalan.”
During the post-war period, Franco had encouraged the migration of people from the far reaches of Spain to Catalonia, which was known as a source of resistance to the regime. While Josep said that these newcomers insisted on speaking Spanish, their children spoke Catalan and many of them were also convinced to support independence.
“Josep was Carles’ political mentor,” said Joan Güell, 52, mayor of the village from 1999 to 2007. Güell went to school with the younger Puigdemont. “As a student he was normal, not number one in his class,” said Güell. “But he was politicized at an early age by his uncle.”
Josep remembers talking politics with Carles as a boy. “He was tozudo,” said Josep Puigdemont using the Spanish word for obstinate. “He was as stubborn as a mule.” The family of independentistas would have stood out even in most parts of Catalonia where independence was until recently considered to be a fringe issue. But in Amer, there was the sense that they belonged.
“And now he’s probably going to get himself arrested and thrown in jail,” he said. “And that makes me very proud of him. Catalonia needs to be a nation. This is fundamental. Madrid doesn’t understand us.”
In other parts of Spain and even in Europe, Puigdemont’s brinksmanship may be perceived as reckless. But the son of Amer and the former mayor of Girona is a political survivor. He came to the presidency from relative obscurity after the Catalan regional elections in 2015. He took office the following year after pro-independence parties won the majority of seats and the anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) refused to endorse Puigdemont’s party leader Artur Mas for the presidency.
(Mas has been banned from holding political office for two years for organizing an illegal referendum on independence in 2014. The party had been preparing for independence for years.)
As the independence drama continued toward week’s end, Madrid threatened to replace Catalonia’s government and refused several potential mediators, from a former UN Secretary-General to the Vatican. The country’s highest court had declared the region’s Oct. 1 referendum on independence illegal and when it took place anyway Spain’s national police had beaten heads to try to stop the voting.
Most of the country’s opposition parties have stood against Puigdemont. The European allies he had hoped would stand with his calls for independence came down firmly on the side of Madrid. Two independence leaders were jailed on charges of sedition, and the mop-haired Puigdemont could soon join them.
Last week Puigdemont declared Catalan independent—but in the next breath “suspended” that declaration.
Madrid offered not to shut down the Catalan government if it agreed to early elections. For his part, Puigdemont responded by telling Rajoy that if the Prime Minister tried to invoke article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution calling for the takeover of the regional government in times of grave crisis, Catalonia would simply formalize its independence.
Rajoy then told the Catalan president that he had until Saturday before the article authorizing a central government takeover would be invoked.
Another week. Another deadline. Rajoy, with the help of political allies, has tried to string things along. He seems to have learned that sending in the national police represents a public relations catastrophe. Small moves may not rid him of his opponents, but boring the public to death with endless ephemera deprives independentistas their dramatic moment.
For the secessionists, Rajoy’s stalling smells like weakness. Besides, if independence is not feasible now, the appearance of a negotiation around independence is not a bad alternative.
In parts of Catalonia where the independentista flag flies in one village after the next, the process only serves to reinforce the idea that regardless of what Rajoy has to say, independence is for the most part already a kind of community reality. The longer the process continues, the more that reality is taken for granted.