Interview with Catalan political prisoner Jordi Cuixart
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
‘The state does not tolerate being questioned’
Interview by David Karvala
Jordi Cuixart, president of Òmnium Cutural, the biggest pro-independence organisation in Catalonia, was interviewed by David Karvala, of Marx21.net. The interview took place just as the Spanish Supreme Court sent Cuixart back to prison after a short period of parole in his 9-year sentence for organising peaceful protests and defending Catalonia’s right to decide on its future.
You’ve been a political prisoner for more than two and a half years. How are you coping with it?
When you become a political prisoner, prison becomes a platform for struggle. And fighting for freedom is a privilege, because you know you stand for a collective cause, and because before you - throughout history - thousands of men and women have done that - in infinitely worse conditions than ours. You feel, modestly, a tiny part of an endless chain of people who have done much more than you will ever do, but at the same time you feel part of that. Thoreau said: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”. And I am there for exercising human rights such as the freedom of speech or the right to protest, which are now being persecuted and condemned in Spain. And I have always acted on the basis of nonviolent struggle and civil disobedience.
In October 2017, the first day my partner and my sisters visited me at the Soto del Real prison, I told them to be prepared for a 10-year stretch. The 9-year sentence was no surprise, because we already knew that at the Supreme Court we’d face a political trial, with the aim of making a public example of us, of the political dissent represented by the movement for self-determination in Catalonia. A state trial based on the criminal law of the enemy. What we are used to seeing in countries like Turkey, outside the European Union. That is why, rather than defending ourselves for a crime that we didn’t commit: We accuse this state. The prosecution and the state advocate presented the accusation (of rebellion) alongside lawyers representing the “popular prosecution” by the far right party - VOX.
What lessons do you draw from the experience of the referendum and the failed attempt to declare the republic in October 2017?
I am the president of 'Òmnium Cultural', the biggest civic-cultural entity in the Spanish state, with 185,000 members and 60 years of history. And, as part of civil society, we exercised the right to protest against the powers of the state. This was in a demonstration against the judiciary on 20 September 2017, as well as exercising our freedom of expression to promote and call for citizens’ participation in the 1-O self-determination referendum, organised by the Catalan government a few days later.
And bodies like the UN’s 'Working Group on Arbitrary Detention', Amnesty International, 'Front Line Defenders', the 'World Organisation Against Torture', and PEN International - say the same thing, and have demanded my release. We defended and we still defend the legitimacy of the act of mass civil disobedience carried out by more than 2 million citizens. They defended with their own bodies the ballot boxes and the voting papers banned by the state, a state that is responsible for 1,000 people being injured due to police brutality.
The state does not tolerate being questioned, not even through its own mechanisms. When it saw thousands of citizens saying "Enough is enough", it acted violently, both through the institutions and on the street through the police. One of things we’ve learnt is that the state knows no limits when it comes to maintaining its power - including the power of the monarchy - over the citizenry. We haven’t yet seen how far they will go in terms of institutional violence and the abuse of power. But we have been able to see one thing very clearly. Although we have received quite a lot of support from the other parts of the Spanish state (and some of them are now also suffering repression), the powers of the state and the whole system of the media, dedicated to maintaining the political unity of Spain at any cost - have at the same time helped to anesthetise a very significant part of the population.
The repression is a fact. But neither prison nor exile can limit our legitimate aspirations to defend fundamental human rights or to exercise the right to self-determination and - if a majority so wishes, to build the Catalan Republic. This right has long been defended, from Marx and Lenin - “no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations” - to the Nobel Peace Prize winner Woodrow Wilson. Non-violent struggle and civil disobedience are one of the best tools people have to change unjust situations.
The current Spanish government, the coalition of the Socialist Party and Podemos, has been labelled the “most progressive in history”. How do you evaluate their record regarding the Catalan struggle?
The outrage of Catalan society is even greater these days, after seeing how the Pedro Sánchez government has just permitted the former king Juan Carlos I to escape. This when the corruption accusations became unsustainable, and secretly agreeing this escape with his son, King Felipe VI. We have always valued Podemos’s support for Catalan political prisoners and their defence of Catalonia’s right to self-determination. They have insisted that repression will never lead to the resolution of a political conflict. Podemos now face a big challenge. The gag law they promised to repeal is a brutal repressive tool, as is the former right wing government’s “labour reform”. If they are really progressive and left-wing, they will repeal both laws, as they pledged to do.
The problem is that the political, economic, media or judicial powers in Spain have inherited many things from Francoism. This is the result of a democratic transition that brought some social advances that we thought had been consolidated. But at the moment of truth we can see that there was a clear will to maintain the old regime and its privileges. Look at the attitude of the former king, which is more in keeping with the beginning of the last century than this one.
Since the beginning of the transition from the Franco dictatorship, the powers that be in Madrid have never tried to offer a real and sincere project to the Catalan people. Whether from a pluri-national or federal vision, of a state that really defends the well-being and a dignified future for everybody, for all the peoples of Spain, and also for all the citizens of the Catalan nations. To begin with, the state must recognise that there is a political conflict, not just the legal cases, with imprisonments and thousands of defendants… but today we are a long way from that.
You are known for highlighting the social side of the national struggle. How would you respond to someone who argues that independence would only mean changing the national flag, and would not bring social improvements for the majority?
If it was just about changing a flag, I assure you I wouldn’t be in jail for it. We want the Catalan Republic because of our commitment to democratic and social justice. We can’t conceive the national struggle without the social struggle because they are two sides of the same coin. I refused to do compulsory military service, thus breaking the law. It made no difference to me whether it was the Spanish monarchy or a Catalan Republic. I did so out of deep pacifist and anti-militarist convictions. During the Covid-19 crisis we have seen uniformed officers acting as government spokesmen on how to respond to a health pandemic…
The parliamentary monarchy we’re living under is failing in social, economic and democratic terms. We live in a Spanish state that rescued the banks with 60 billion Euros, but since then there have been more than 600,000 thousand house evictions. Now we supposedly have a left-wing government. But it continues a policy on immigration that denies people’s right to life; officers of the paramilitary Guardia Civil were acquitted after killing 15 people in Tarajal, on the Spanish-Moroccan border. And as against the clichés that portray Catalonia as a rich region, 1 in 4 of our neighbours suffer from poverty or is at risk of social exclusion. The social emergency is an intolerable social divide and we in 'Omnium Cultural' also fight on this front; we are strengthening the social networks and promoting citizens’ empowerment. In 2016 we launched the project Lliures (Freedom), alongside voluntary sector and ethical banking organisations, to respond to these needs. Now with Covid, things are even worse, but also the citizen response has been much stronger.
We first met when you helped promote and participated in the demonstration of United Against Fascism and Racism in March 2016. How do you see the threat of racism and the far right in the international arena, and also in terms of the small but growing Catalan far right?
In the protests against our sentence that I mentioned, young Catalans of Maghrebi origin were doubly repressed due to the colour of their skin. They faced deportations and pre-trial detention of up to 8 months on charges that were then dismissed. Barcelona had the biggest pro-refugee demonstration in Europe, just as it had enormous protests against the Iraq war in 2003.
Anti-racism is also a shared struggle, that goes beyond the borders of different countries. Cultural and political Catalanism draws on the fundamental diversity of Catalan society and I don’t think that an ethnocentric version has any chance of success. My mother came from Murcia in the south of Spain and more than 70% of Catalans have family origins outside Catalonia. But this has never been an obstacle. On the contrary, the Catalan language and culture have been one of the main backbones of social cohesion in the country. Migration is structural and in-built in Catalonia, not just something temporary - it is thus a reason for immense pride and self-esteem. The new waves of migration are, and will be, of people from outside Europe. The big challenge we face is that no one should have to give up anything to feel part of a national project built on the basis of tolerance, respect for diversity and the feeling of collective membership. This is the Catalan-ness of the 20th and 21st centuries and I don’t think it is at risk, quite the opposite. Catalan literature is whatever is written in Catalan anywhere in the world. Catalan culture is everything that is done across the Catalan Countries, let’s not get lost in sterile purist debates.
The far-right VOX has 52 seats in the Spanish Congress, but the most worrying thing is that they often set the agenda for the PSOE government, not to mention the right wing social sectors across Spain... This is one of the most serious problems we have today: the legitimation given by a lot of the media to the totalitarian and intolerant positions of the Spanish far right, whatever the party they’re in.
How do you see the relationship between the Catalan independence movement and the ordinary Spanish population? How could the situation be improved?
As I said at the Supreme Court trial, they will never be able to confront us as peoples or citizens. We stand in solidarity and are jointly responsible for the defence of human rights anywhere around the world. Today Dani Gallardo has been in pre-trial detention for 8 months just for taking part in a demonstration against our sentence in Madrid.
We need to get to know each other better. Many media, parties and institutions push the other way because they want people to confront each other. The call “a por ellos” [“go after them”1], is this: 'Send police from different parts of Spain to beat the Catalans'. There is nothing innocent about this call. Ordinary people being sent to hit their brothers and sisters. Here we must spare no effort in explaining ourselves, every day, more and better, and without slackening. The attacks on democracy in Catalonia also affect people in the north of Spain, in the neighbourhoods of Madrid, or in poorer rural areas in the south. Because what it’s about, what really annoys the powers of the state, is the simple idea that citizens can question the current status quo and put their privileges into question.
The independence movement seems very divided today and above all, I think, lacking a strategy. And now we have the Covid crisis. What proposals do you make for the coming period?
In 'Òmnium Cultural' we don’t have a political program. It is not up to us to do, or say, what the parties should do. But as an entity we will continue to work to strengthen social cohesion from the orbit of culture and education. That has always been our obsession and today it is more so than ever. We will also continue to exercise the fundamental rights that the Supreme Court is now condemning. Because we know that exercising our rights is the best way of protecting them, and obviously we will continue to work so that Catalonia can exercise and make real its right to self-determination.
Right now we know that a referendum agreed with the Spanish government - as happened with Scotland and the United Kingdom - is impossible. And certainly, the movement for Catalan sovereignty must agree on a shared strategy to achieve the goal we share, respecting the plurality and differences that enrich the movement but without forgetting that we are facing a state that will not give us anything for free. Because no social conquest has ever been won without struggle or sacrifice. We will never act “on behalf” of anyone, we are very clear that this is not about winning regional elections or quotas of power, but about exercising rights that are being violated today and about improving the living conditions of everyone.
Why should this issue matter to international anti-capitalist activists, and what can they do to help?
We are waging a fight for democracy in very favourable conditions, if we compare them with those faced by other legitimate causes and other political prisoners around the world. But the European Union allows criminal convictions for exercising fundamental rights of protest and expression in 2020, to allow the imprisonment of activists so as to maintain the territorial integrity of a member state. This is a situation that, leaving to one side the cynicism of the official position of Brussels, has consequences for all citizens across Europe and around the world and, by extension, for all activists who fight for a better world. From 'Extinction Rebellion' that is fighting the climate emergency, the feminist movement that fights to overthrow patriarchy or the movement for decent housing as represented by the PAH in Spain, people have denounced the consequences of the sentence that keeps us imprisoned.
Because a trench that is abandoned is a trench that we all lose. When a government tramples rights and freedoms with impunity and without meeting social resistance, there is an obvious risk of other governments doing the same. We are already suffering enough from the global impact of Trump, Bolsonaro or Orban.
As Leone Ginzburg said goodbye to his partner Natalia, shortly before he was killed by a firing squad: “Let’s be brave.”
A version of this article first appeared in Socialist Worker. Reproduced with permission - but slightly edited for ease of reading.
1 “A por ellos”, “go after them”, was the slogan shouted by groups of people across Spain when they were filmed seeing off the repressive forces on their way to repress the referendum. It was later found that most of them were the families of members of the security forces. - DK