Catalan Nationalism and the Pioneers of Accountability

A recent deportation case in Spain has reignited debates over a potential referendum for Catalan independence. Nourredine Ziani, a Spanish-Moroccan was served deportation papers, amidst claims that he is a “threat to national security”. Ziani vehemently denies charges of collaboration with extremist Muslims or that he is a spy for the Moroccan government. Importantly, Ziani is a director of the New Catalan Foundation, an organisation that helps immigrants integrate into Catalan society. The foundation is pro-independence and consequently Ziani’s dubious deportation has been highlighted as an effort by the Madrid-based government to stifle a potentially troublesome voice.

Catalonia has always retained a strong regional identity, like most of the Spanish states. The recent push for independence from many Catalan quarters stems from the perceived misrepresentation of the region by the Madrid politicians. Catalonia pays a disproportionate amount of taxes and contributes significantly to the Spanish economy and yet the politicians continue along the lines of financial mismanagement and austerity measures within the province.

Catalan independence rallies intensified last year
Catalan independence rallies intensified last year

For the people of Catalonia, the lack of accountability from the government is unacceptable and this region of Spain is particularly well-imbued with such sentiments. Whilst medieval European societies remained dominated by powerful monarchies and noblemen, the Crown of Aragon (incorporating the domains of Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia) was setting an historical benchmark.

The Cortes, comprising representatives of the nobility, clergy and townspeople (the three estates), were particularly well developed in the territories of the Aragonese Crown. As early as 1283 in Catalonia, laws could only be created or amended with the express permission of both the monarchy and the Corts. This prevented a dictatorial monarchy. Furthermore, in Aragon, Justicias were appointed to prevent individual noble houses from acquiring too much influence within the Corts, to ensure that no royal officials broke the laws of the land, and to guard the individual subjects against any exercising of arbitrary power.

The Cortes of the Aragonese Crown were a rare medieval expression of democratic representation
The Cortes of the Aragonese Crown were a rare medieval expression of democratic representation

In 14th century Catalonia was developed the institution of the Diputacio. This consisted of three Diputats to represent each of the three estates of society and each Diputat was limited to an office term of three years. The Diputacio organised the payment of fair and reasonable subsidies to the Crown and the Diputats also became guardians of Catalan liberties. Royal officials overstepping their authority were brought into line with the withdrawal of subsidies and severe repudiations were handed out. Similar institutions would be established in Aragon and Valencia.

The three estates were therefore free from encroachment by the Crown as long as the Diputacio functioned effectively, a phenomenon alien to the rest of Europe at the turn of the 15th century. Writing in 1406, a representative of the Catalan Corts asked:

What people is there in the world enjoying as many freedoms and exemptions as you; and what people so generous? 

An allegiance oath to the Aragonese king in the 16th century is rumoured to have proceeded:

We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws: but if not, not.

Where else would you hear words such as this in late medieval and early modern Europe? The people equal to their sovereign? Before Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau espoused the virtue of a social contract between a ruler and his people, the Aragonese and Catalan people had entered into one with their king.

Such a process of accountability was a cornerstone of stability for the Aragonese Crown, allowing it to build a prosperous mercantile empire in the Mediterranean, with the acquisition of Sicily and much of the Italian peninsula. Political appointments made by the Crown to colonial outposts entered into similar contracts with the colonists, prohibiting their misrule.

Simultaneously, the Castillan (Madrid) model was one of unchallenged monarchical power and the favouritism bestowed on particular noble houses. For the Catalan people, lack of accountability for the ruling elite was unacceptable. When their liberties were challenged by a united Crown ruled from Madrid in the seventeenth century, the Catalans revolted to the extent that part of their territory was ceded to France.

The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) challenged the authoritarian rule of the Spanish Crown
The Catalan Revolt (1640-1659) challenged the authoritarian rule of the Spanish Crown

With this history behind them, the people of Catalonia will not give up their quest for accountability, independence and, ultimately, control over their own destiny.

Source: J H  Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716


Copahue: the history and myth of morality and recuperation

Residents living in the shadow of Copahue, a stratovolcano on the Chilean-Argentine border, have been told to evacuate after warnings that an eruption is imminent. Volcanic eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict with any great degree of accuracy, so caution is always advisable. Copahue last erupted in December 2012 and is a very vulnerable geological area. Despite the potentially catastrophic consequences of a large eruption, the volcano has an interesting, mythical, history.

Terror and beauty collide at Copahue
Terror and beauty collide at Copahue

Mapuche legend claims that a native cacique (head chief) named Copahue ruled the area surrounding the volcano, subjugating his people with intolerable cruelty. After years of repression, Copahue was eventually killed and his former subjects buried his remains in the volcano that now bears his name.

Copahue’s son crossed the mountains from Chile seeking to take control of the tribe by reuniting the dissatisfied subjects under his rule. During his journey, he came across a sorceress, high on the mountaintop of whom he asked his destiny. The sorceress told him that his destiny lay on the other side of the mountains. Legend has it that the sorceress was of incomparable beauty and Copahue’s son fell under her spell. She convinced the young warrior to make his way toward’s his father’s land and attack the treacherous tribes. On his first encounter with his father’s killers, Copahue’s son succeeded in defeating many warriors. Drunk with pride, he returned to the sorceress and the continuation of his prophecy.

The tribal elders had been convinced by the young warrior’s strength and purpose and begged him to stay but, swayed by the beauty of the sorceress, he ignored custom and returned to the mountains.

The story of Copahue and his son mirrors many European myths of morals
The story of Copahue and his son mirrors many European myths of morality

Several months later, Copahue’s son returned to the valley, with his beloved sorceress in tow. The tribal elders now refused the boy as their leader and dubbed his companion the “Snow Devil” after discovering that the boy called her his “Snow Flower”. Attracting some followers amongst the youth of the tribes, Copahue’s son triumphed and celebrated with a drug-fuelled orgy provided from the sorceress’s apothecary. Drunk with power, the son ruled in the image of his father and suffered the same fatal end.

Blamed for his corruption, the sorceress was condemned by the tribal elders to be hung from a tree. As the workers dug deep into the volcanic earth, in order to bury the sorceress far away from their mortal belongings, vicious jets of warm water burst from the bedrock. Fleeing with anguished concern, the native Mapuche reaffirmed the name of the mountains as Copahue, believing the hot springs to be a punishment brought by him for the death of the sorceress. Only by wearing a green stone could one cross those evil-infested lands, as a means of driving away the spirits.

A lesson of morality not completely dissimilar to Macbeth, the Mapuche legend meant Copahue’s slopes remained dormant for several centuries.

Nevertheless, these volcanic spas would become a popular medicinal pilgrimage site in the 19th century, as the indigenous influence eroded in the face of decades of European colonisation. In 1870, a Chilean physician, Dr Pedro Velez, attained permission from the local indigenous community to bring several of his patients to the Copahue springs for treatment. The popularity of the springs increased as the century drew to a close and the 1899 publication of J.M. Cabezon and L. Maciel’s “Thermal Baths of Copahue” attracted visitors from across the continent.

The legendary spirits of the Copahue had a different effect on Europeans
The legendary spirits of the Copahue had a different effect on Europeans

In 1903 a medical study of the springs was carried out by Dr Enrique Ducloux who declared that the unique chemical and gaseous properties of the water, brought on by the volcanic activity beneath the surface, gave Copahue’s springs special recuperative powers. The creation of the Copahue National Reserve in 1937 ensured the enduring status of Copahue as a popular tourist destination.

To the indigenous Mapuche forefathers, the healing properties of the great Copahue springs evolve from the power and the spirit of the dead chieftain and his son whose remains were buried within the great volcanic crater.

Whatever viewpoint, Copahue provides a link between the land and its people, between the contemporary inhabitants of its slopes and the tribes of centuries before who sought to overthrow their tyrannical rulers. People will continue to reside in its great shadow despite the frequent warnings of indigenous history and the fear that the volcano’s masters seek their final revenge.

‘Great Leap Forward’ for the African Union: an unfortunate choice of words

The African Union (AU) (formerly the Organisation of African Unity) has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend. Opening a specially-convened conference for the occasion, Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, praised the “great leap forward in the pan-African quest for freedom, independence and unity”.

Like most regional organisations, the AU has had a checkered history since its founding in 1963. It became a rallying point for ending colonial, white-minority rule in several African countries and has provided a continental forum that forces some political cooperation between the African states.

An opponent of colonial rule, the Organisation of African Unity included among its ranks many dictators
An opponent of colonial rule, the Organisation of African Unity included among its ranks many dictators

Simultaneously, and particularly in its formative years, the AU has been accused of gross inaction. Previously pursuing a policy of non-interference in a state’s affairs, something the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) persists with, the AU has failed to prevent a series of coups, rebel insurgencies, civilian massacres and massive population displacements across the continent.

Even since changing its stance on interference in 2002, the AU has sometimes been slow to respond to challenges posed. Peacekeeping forces in Somalia, Darfur, Central African Republic and Mali have shown undeniable resolve and skill in fighting insurgents and terrorists but the political response has often been confused and cautious. When heavily-armed terrorists of Ansar Dine began their march through Mali last year, the AU stood idle, waiting for promises of French intervention and support before committing troops of its own. Responding so feebly to such a grave threat to the “freedom, independence and unity” of a member state is not a good advert for the AU’s crisis-management credentials.

AU soldiers have fought with some success in Somalia - but they need to be backed up by strong political action
AU soldiers have fought with some success in Somalia – but they need to be backed up by strong political action

Perhaps most worrying in opening the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the organisation, was the use of the term “great leap forward”. Had Prime Minister Desalegn properly done his research, he would know that such a phrase is synonymous with one particular period in modern history; the insane years of forced collectivisation and industrialisation in communist China between 1958 and 1961 under the deluded and repressive leadership of Mao Zedong.

Hoping to drag the largely rural and impoverished Chinese people into the modern world, Mao embarked on a ruthless period of economic transformation in which private farming was abolished for the good of the “collective”. Due in part to horrendous resource management, appalling working conditions, ruthless reprisals for ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and a primitive form of industrial expansion (in which backyard furnaces quickly became a symbol for the failure of the whole experiment), at least 20 million people perished as famine gripped the country.

Backyard furnaces involved a massive waste of resources and produced only poor quality steel
Backyard furnaces involved a massive waste of resources and produced only poor quality steel

Why then would an African leader use such words to try and describe the ongoing development of his continent, the least advanced continent on the planet? Some of Africa’s states are experiencing rapid economic growth and the need for this to be managed accordingly, whilst creating an economic interdepedence between other states to help forge the unity and prosperity the AU desires, will require consideration. Neither the AU itself, nor the economic experience of its member states, needs to be associated with a dark period in history when the desperation for modernity was pursued at a cost of civilian disaster and national humiliation.

For Africa to avoid a dissimilar fate to China, its leaders (both national and continental) need to show greater appreciation of the challenges facing them than Mr Desalegn’s comments suggest. Only by accepting these challenges can Africa begin its slow march forward. And, in this respect, a slow march is far better than a great leap.