No regrets, says Catalan ex-minister on referendum anniversary

Five years after the failed secession push in Catalonia which landed him in jail, Oriol Junqueras remains convinced that defying Spain with a banned independence referendum was the right move.

Former deputy head of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras
Former deputy head of the Catalan government Oriol Junqueras holds an interview with AFP at the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) separatist political party's headquarters in Barcelona on September 29, 2022. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

But the former deputy head of the region says the separatist camp needs to rally more support if its dream of an independent Catalan state is to one day become a reality.

“We did what we had to do,” the professor-turned-politician said during an interview with AFP when asked about the failed secession drive that came to a head in October 2017.

“I am deeply proud of all that we have done, of our commitment, of having been able to convene, organise and hold a referendum on self-determination,” the 53-year-old added.

Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the October 1, 2017 referendum organised by Catalonia’s separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.

Based on the results of this vote — which were never independently corroborated — the Catalan parliament declared independence on October 27.

Spanish authorities responded by sacking the Catalan government and pressed charges against the region’s leaders who either fled abroad or were jailed like Junqueras.

Declining support

Today the separatist movement is deeply divided over the path forward and Catalonia’s ruling pro-independence coalition is on the point of collapse.

While Junqueras’s ERC party favours dialogue with Madrid, its junior coalition partners, the JxC of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has taken a more confrontational approach.

Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself also remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.

In an October 2017 poll, support for independence in the wealthy northeastern region of Spain stood at 49 percent.

“What we must do today, is be democratically stronger” in the face of the “repressive” Spanish state, said Junqueras, a lifelong supporter of independence and father-of-two who also served as Catalonia’s economy minister.

The “main mistake” of the separatist camp in 2017 was that it did not “talk more with people, convince more people” to back the cause, he added.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government last year pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were serving lengthy jail terms for their roles in the ill-fated independence bid.

Junqueras was in 2019 sentenced to 13 years behind bars, the longest term among the nine pardoned leaders. He spent over three years in prison before his pardon.

As Catalonia’s former vice president Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds after the unauthorised 2017 referendum which led to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

‘Made us stronger’

Puigdemont, who was the head of Catalonia’s government at the time of the referendum, evaded arrest by fleeing to Belgium after Catalonia’s short-lived declaration of independence.

“I was convinced that my obligation was to be as close as possible to my citizens, at the same time I understand perfectly that other people opted for exile,” Junqueras said.

“The fact that we have been in jail has only made us stronger in every way,” he added.

“It has also opened many doors in the international community that were more difficult to open previously, so in this sense the time in prison has also been a very profitable investment.”

He cited as an example an August finding from the UN’s Human Rights Committee which concluded Spain had violated the political rights of Catalan politicians including Junqueras.

The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from office before having been convicted.


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Spanish government begins proceedings to outlaw Franco Foundation

Spain's Ministry of Culture has opened legal proceedings to shut down the 'Fundación Francisco Franco', a group dedicated to the dictator who ruled Spain for almost forty years.

Spanish government begins proceedings to outlaw Franco Foundation

Spain’s Ministry of Culture has begun the process of outlawing the Fundación Francisco Franco because it fails to comply with the Democratic Memory Law, controversial legislation passed two years ago by the ruling Socialists (PSOE) to try and help Spain come to terms with its dictatorial past.

The foundation, which essentially promotes the legacy of former dictator General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, was founded in 1976 and presents itself as a “cultural institution without political affiliation”. It also sells nationalist memorabilia and books.

Among many admiring articles on its website, the foundation claims that Franco helped lay “the foundations on which it was possible for the democracy we enjoy to be built” and that “his successes are considerably greater than his mistakes.”

READ ALSO: 13 changes you may have missed about Spain’s new ‘Civil War’ law

The Ministry explained that it started legal proceedings to shut down the foundation “because it is considered contrary to the general interest to defend Francoism”. The move, which will likely prove controversial in Spain, has been justified by the government because it “complies with the provisions of the Democratic Memory Law.”

The legal justification is an article of the law that outlaws any group “that glorifies the coup d’état and the dictatorship or extols its leaders, with contempt and humiliation of the dignity of the victims of the coup d’état, the war or Francoism, or direct or indirect incitement to hatred or violence against them because of their status as such.”

The Democratic Memory Law, sometimes also referred to as the Historical Memory Law, was passed in October 2022 and is a wide-ranging piece of legislation that aims to settle Spanish democracy’s debt to the past and deal with the complicated legacies of its Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.

READ ALSO: Spain to relocate remains of Franco’s fascist allies to more low-key grave

The Spanish right has long been opposed to any kind of historical memory legislation, claiming that it digs up old rivalries and causes political tension. Spain’s centre-right party, the Partido Popular, pledged at the time to overturn the law if it entered government.

Among many other measures, the law made the search and excavation of mass graves the responsibility of the government, started DNA banks to identify victims, and annulled Franco-era convictions.

Culture Minister Ernest Urtasun stated in the Spanish press that the decision will ultimately be made by the courts. “Basically what we are doing is starting the implementation of the Democratic Memory Law,” he said.

The Franco Foundation said in a press statement that “we find it incomprehensible” that the law is being “directed exclusively against the Francisco Franco National Foundation.”

The process is expected to be lengthy and could involve several levels of the Spanish judiciary. The Franco Foundation may appeal any decision.

Democratic memory legislation is one of a series of steps by the PSOE government to make amends with the past, including exhuming Franco’s body and moving his body to a private family grave in 2019.

The Franco dictatorship is in living memory for many Spaniards and still an emotive issue. Critics argue historical memory legislation digs up historical divisions, and several right-wing run regions of Spain have attempted to repeal the Democratic Memory Law, including Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and Castilla y León.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: Franco exhumed, transported by helicopter, and reburied as Spain takes ‘step towards reconciliation’