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Lessons on Independence from Catalonia


Contrary to an order by the Constitutional Court of Spain, more than 2 million Catalans voted on Sunday in a regional referendum for independence. The outcome, as predicted, was a resounding victory for a permanent break from Spain, with more than 80% of the votes favoring independence. Spanish Justice Minister called the vote a “farce” that would have “no effect whatsoever.”

The Catalan secessionist move follows a September vote in Scotland in which people voted to remain united with England. That referendum, however, was authorized by the British government in London.

Independence  advocates say that Catalan is quite different from Spain, historically, linguistically, and economically. They claim 7.5 million people in Catalonia proper, and 13,000,000 altogether among all the geographic areas which identify themselves with Catalan. They point to the long cultural heritage of the Catalan people and the Catalan language.

Independence advocates claim, further, that Spain is limiting Catalonia culturally and “throttling” them economically. They point to Catalonia’s economic strength — it would be #12 among European nations if it were a nation, and lays claim to 20% of the total GDP of Spain and its medieval history, before it was united with Spain in the 1500s and completely placed under Spanish centralized rule in 1742.

The advocates of independence in Catalonia are calling the vote an important “symbolic vote” and asking for an official referendum. The Spanish government calls it political grandstanding and has so far refused to consider an official vote, though news media are suggesting that Spain may have to change that stance.

The referendum, designed by the pro-independence faction, posed a two-part question: first, whether Catalonia should be a state, and then whether it should be an independent one. Of the 2.3 million people who voted, 81% backed the full “yes and yes” option.

Puerto Rico held a two-part vote on its political status in 2012.  The first question asked whether Puerto Rico should continue to have its present territorial status, and 54% of the voters answered in the negative.  In the second question, which gave voters options on which political status they would prefer for the island territory, independence received roughly 5.5% of the vote.   In previous plebiscites in 1967, 1993 and 1998, the independence option on the ballot received .6%, 4.4% and 2.5% respectively.  The majority of voters (61%) who responded to the second question in 2012 chose statehood for Puerto Rico.

Like the vote in Catalonia, the 2012 plebiscite in Puerto Rico did not have the endorsement of the federal government.  In response to the results, the U.S. has set aside funds for a federally-sponsored referendum on Puerto Rico’s status, which should not leave Congress the option of considering the vote as merely symbolic.  At this time, the focus has returned to Puerto Rico, where the three major political parties (independence, statehood and “commonwealth”) are tasked with preparing definitions to represent their preferred status choice on the ballot.  The U.S. Department of Justice must first approve these definitions before they are presented as valid options to Puerto Rican voters.

The issue of independence for Catalonia was not resolved on Sunday, and the vote demonstrated an intensity about Catalonia’s status that can be expected to continue.  The same can be said of Puerto Rico.

Editor’s Note:  This article reflects changes made on November 11th in response to input from our readers.  The Puerto Rico Report invites and strongly encourages readers to share comments and suggestions.  


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