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Comparing and Contrasting Catalan and Puerto Rican Independence Movements

Comparing and Contrasting Catalan and Puerto Rican Independence Movements

While studying in Barcelona last fall, I found myself comparing and contrasting the independence movements of Catalunya and my native Puerto Rico, reflecting on the history that led up to the present circumstances. Catalan independence is a legitimate possibility, whereas Puerto Rican independence will likely never be granted. There are distinct cultural impacts from the Spanish Empire’s governance in Catalunya and Puerto Rico, respectively, that reverberate today. Despite the major geographic, demographic, and socioeconomic differences, they both find themselves in a situation in which they have not been granted full and equal privileges as provinces of their respective countries. To demonstrate this, I will examine aspects of autonomy and relative prosperity in their respective histories, the differences and commonalities in how each pseudo-autonomous territory was abused by Spain, how they remain mistreated in their relationships with their respective modern central governments, and their current independence prospects.

The unification of Aragón and Catalunya in 1137 and up until the War of 1714 was the most prolonged and prosperous autonomous period for the region. This almost 600-year era was a tremendous time - economically, politically, and socially - for Catalunya. Not only were they able to maintain their regional institutions, but they had a budding empire, a network of commercial trade, and equal representation in the Spanish Monarchy, as well as the Audiencia Real in Barcelona. Catalan National Day on September 11th, marks the infamous day in which Barcelona fell during the War of 1714. Els Segadors, or the Reapers, is the Catalan anthem that was inspired by the war. The Generalitat and Consell de Cent were abolished, and Felipe V started ruling over a centralized, unified Spain. Catalan was then abolished as an official language, and banned from Court documents. The only surviving Catalan institutions were some private law practices, marriage laws, inheritance laws, and others of the like (Fernández).

Catalunya had known autonomy for most of its existence and had it stripped away, whereas, under Spain, Puerto Rico fell short of having representation and was largely ignored. In the New World, Spanish colonial emphasis during the late 17th and 18th centuries went toward the more prosperous mainland territories, leaving Puerto Rico with impoverished settlers. While Napoleon occupied the majority of the Spanish peninsula in 1809, a populist assembly based in Cádiz recognized Puerto Rico as an overseas province of Spain with the right to send representatives to the Spanish court. The representative, Ramón Power y Giralt, died soon after arriving in Spain, and constitutional reforms were reversed upon the restoration of the autocratic monarchy. This type of non-committal policy implementation would become characteristic of the Spanish Empire at home and abroad (New World).

Toward the end of the 19th century, poverty and political estrangement with Spain led to a small but significant uprising to achieve personal freedom, the abolition of slavery, and full self-government. Leaders of the movement went into exile in New York City, forming the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee. This autonomist movement, led by Luis Muñoz Rivera, persuaded the liberal Spanish government to agree to Charters of Autonomy for Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1897. However, in 1898, with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was invaded by the U.S. Spain was forced to cede Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris (New World).

Having lost the last of its colonies, Spain was no longer an empire and struggled to maintain stability on the peninsula. Under the Conservative Party’s Republican government elected in 1933, the Estatut was abolished and President Lluís Companys was sentenced to 30 years in prison for declaring Catalunya “a State within a Federation of Spanish Republics.” During the Civil War, the Generalitat was overruled by Anarchist troops and later by the Spanish Republican government, which was transferred to Barcelona in 1937 (Fernández).

Franco’s regime was the most unjust time for the Catalan people. Companys was arrested and executed in Barcelona in 1940. The Catalan language was publicly banned, and political institutions were once again abolished. 150,000 Catalans were imprisoned and 4,000 executed. The previous presidents of Generalitat remained in exile (Fernández).

Puerto Rico’s most autonomous and prosperous time did not come to fruition until the modern era, as Estado Libre Asociado, or a Commonwealth, of the United States. Puerto Ricans reaped the benefits of the robust American economy. Unlike Catalunya, whose economy has generally been self-sufficient for much of its existence, Puerto Rico received a great deal of direct investment. The island experienced rapid industrialization during the 1950s, which aimed to industrialize the economy from agriculture to manufacturing to provide more jobs. Low wage rates, advantageous tax breaks, and government-supported start-up costs induced hundreds of companies from the United States, and even some from Europe, to establish operations in Puerto Rico. By the late 20th century, much of the island’s poverty had been eliminated, partially because of growth in manufacturing but also because of the growing importance of services, particularly tourism (Britannica). In 1996, the U.S. Congress voted to gradually phase out the tax breaks, marking the end of the island’s most prosperous time (Borrás).

Spain’s poor governance directly impacted the culture and governance of Puerto Rico. My father would always present to me his views on Puerto Rico and one of the more interesting concepts he found there to be in the people of the island is what he called a “colonial attitude.” After being subjugated for over 500 years, given no definitive autonomy or self-determination to this day, the islanders grew accustomed to “big brother” taking care of matters. While the U.S. somewhat assuaged this attitude upon its arrival and presented feasible possibilities for change in the future, it is difficult to undo centuries of cultural complacency. I believe this to be a contributing factor as to why its independence movement never sparked in the way it did in Cuba and other Hispanic countries to this day; Puerto Rico was so consistently neglected and subjugated that it fomented this confused, subservient status (Pelet).

Catalunya did not experience this key difference in neglect but was constantly at the whim of the various, shifting centralized regimes after 1714. In the eyes of monarchs, prime ministers, and military dictators, Catalunya was an asset until the end of Franco’s reign in 1975; potentially the most productive region throughout history. Granting  full autonomy was not in Spain’s interest of retaining power in the region. This inconsistency and disenfranchisement, grew into the frustration and passion that we see in Catalunya’s independence movement today (Fernández).

Puerto Rico’s independence movement never was as powerful and influential as that of Catalunya’s. Puerto Rico benefitted from tremendous growth and rapid modernization after becoming Estado Libre Asociado in 1952. At the time, the establishment of this definitive status was a huge socioeconomic driver for its development. However, since being acquired by the U.S., it remains legally an “unincorporated territory.” Four non-binding, referendums have been held since the late 20th century resolution of political status. In the most recent 2017 referendum, 97% voted in favor of statehood, but turnout was low with only 23% of the electorate voting. Independence has consistently hovered around or under 5% in Puerto Rico, making it a very unlikely possibility unless there were to finally be a referendum in which just Statehood and Independence were presented as the only options (New World).

The Catalan independence movement has strengthened significantly over the past several years. On September 11th, 2013, pro-independence Catalans organized a spectacular human chain of an estimated 1.6 million people from the French border to the Ebro Delta. In January 2016, Puigdemont was elected Catalan President and announced that he would call for an in-or-out binding referendum in 2017, with or without the approval of the Spanish Central State. In the second unconstitutional referendum organized by Catalonia’s regional assembly since 2014, 90% of the 2.26 million who voted chose yes, and participation was 43%. Puigdemont assumed the mandate of the people for it to become an independent state in the form of a republic, but then added that he would ask Parliament to suspend the effects of the declaration to undertake dialogue. On October 27th, Catalan lawmakers voted to set up an independent state. The resolution approved by Parliament in Barcelona said, a new republic independent from Spain had been set in motion (Catalonia Profile). The Spanish Senate then approved the request of Rajoy to impose direct rule on Catalunya. This led to Puigdemont and four other ministers fleeing to Belgium as Spanish prosecutors called for him to be charged with rebellion and jailed for up to 30 years. Nine Catalan ministers were jailed and the thirteen member Cabinet is being investigated for rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement stemming from the independence pursuit. The pro-independence parties, including one reorganized by Puigdemont in exile, won an absolute majority in the December regional elections. In May 2018, Quim Torra became the 131st President of Catalunya, claiming to be a temporary President and that Puigdemont is the legitimate leader (Fernández).

In a broader sense, comparing Catalunya and Puerto Rico’s situations puts in perspective how democratic countries like Spain and the United States really are. Economics and politics are complicated, but identity adds a whole other dimension. It is an emotional, gut feeling that is not necessarily about who wins or loses; in a democratic system, the will of the people comes first. If an entire nation organizes and wills it to become an independent state, why should anyone hold them from that?

Works Cited

Borrás, Martiínez, and José Gabriel. “Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Enciclopedia

De Puerto Rico, 15 Sept. 2014,

“Catalonia Profile - Timeline.” BBC, 14 May 2018,

Fernández de Castro Krings, Alex. "Spain and Catalunya Today: Recent History and Current

Affairs.” ESADE - Sant Cugat.

Pelet del Toro, Valeria M. “Beyond the Critique of Rights: The Puerto Rico Legal Project and Civil

Rights Litigation in America's Colony.” The Yale Law Journal , 2019.

“Puerto Rico.” New World Encyclopedia,

“Puerto Rico.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

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