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Greetings from Barcelona,

I have been getting loads of questions from people trying to understand what is happening in Catalonia these days. You have no doubt seen some of the news coming out here recently. We are arguably living through one of the most interesting political periods in the last 40 years, but it can be confusing if you haven’t been following it so I wanted to help out with a little background.

It would be impossible to sum up the current political situation in a short email but I am going to do my best.

A brief background

Catalonia is a region in the Northeast of Spain that is home to about 7.5 million people.  Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and it is a region with its own language (Catalan), culture (too many aspects to list here) and with many autonomous rights that are controlled through the Catalan regional government, the Generalitat, and not from Spain’s capital, Madrid, such as Education, Health,  and some Transportation to name a few.

However, many people, but not all, in Catalonia want to go further. They want to be fully independent from Spain and create their own nation/country. It’s important to note that not all people in Catalonia want this and it’s probably fair to say that most people in the rest of Spain are opposed to it.

According to the Spanish constitution that was created in the late 1970’s after Spain’s dictator died, no autonomous region is allowed to break away from the rest of Spain, or even allowed to ask people if they would like to. However, those people in Catalonia who are for independence would at least like to hold a referendum to see what the opinion polls would say.

The vote on October 1

That is what they did / tried to do yesterday, October 1st.  But the president of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, vowed to do everything in his power to stop the vote from taking place.  Despite those efforts, according to Catalan sources, approximately 2.2 million people voted yesterday and 90% voted “yes” in favor of independence.

Before fully accepting those statistics, it’s important to keep in mind that:

  • Mariano Rajoy sent in Spain’s national police to stop the vote from taking place. The police removed ballot boxes from polling stations and physically removed voters as well. You have probably seen some horrific scenes at polling stations where people trying to vote were hit, kicked, thrown to the grown and forced to evacuate.
  • Many people who may have voted “no” did not go out to vote because according to the Spanish government, the vote was non-binding and therefore the vote in theory would not count no matter what the result. Even those who went to vote draped in a Spanish flag, voted peacefully, without incident, and in one case caught on camera, to applause by the others who were there.

What happens next?

Nobody really knows! The leader of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, is saying that he wants to take the results of the vote to the regional parliament to “act in accordance with the law of the referendum,” essentially meaning, to mark the path towards independence. The Spanish government does not agree.  Because of the brutal reactions by Spanish police, other nations in the EU have been called on to enter the discussions which may or may not happen. The Spanish government could continue to completely deny any route to independence.  The Catalan and Spanish politicians could come to some agreement. We don’t know!

Tomorrow, Tuesday, October 3 a General Strike has been called in Catalonia to condemn the police violence that took place yesterday.  Public transportation will be run at minimum levels and many public institutions will be closed. Our students studying at the UAB, UB, UPF and SIS will NOT have classes.  The Barcelona SAE offices will be closed although some of us will be working from home and of course we will have the 24/7 emergency phone available.

Is it safe to be in Barcelona right now?

Despite the terrible images of people beaten at polling stations, the great majority of people voted peacefully yesterday – over 2 million, or almost 50% of the eligible voters, if you believe the statistics. To paint a picture of what the day was like for me, since I am not able to vote so we had friends come over and I took my 2 year old daughter for a walk on the streets near my house with no issues. Some of my friends went out to vote in the afternoon with no problem. The beauty of the fight for independence, in my opinion, is that protests of millions of people have taken place with no incident in Catalonia. We all hope that it stays this way.

Can we guarantee that it will stay this way? Of course not; we can’t guarantee anything. Do I feel safe walking around as normal with my kids? Yes, 100%.

If you want to know more

Now is the time to read about it! This article in the Guardian provides a great summary of what has just happened. Here is a NY Times article that talks about it from the perspective of the EU. You can find countless videos on Youtube talking about how we got here in the first place. Remember that with each article you read, or video you watch, there may be a slant towards one version of the story or another, as always.

We are living through history right now and it’s going to be a fabulous story that your students/children will be able to tell that they were here for it.

If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.


Rich Kurtzman

Currently based in Barcelona, Rich grew up in the great city of Chicago but has been lucky to call Barcelona his home for over 15 years. His studies in Spanish and Russian Language and Culture led him on a path toward study abroad ever since high school. Starting with a summer in St. Petersburg, Russia then a semester in Madrid, Spain, there is no doubt that his study abroad experiences shaped his future. He later did an internship in Milan, Italy, led student groups through Spain, and volunteered in the Philippines. After earning his M.A. in Spanish Applied Linguistics, Rich taught Spanish History and Culture to study abroad students in Barcelona. Since 2002, Rich has organized and directed all aspects of study abroad in Barcelona. Rich regularly presents at International Education conferences on various topics and also works as an intercultural consultant for multinationals in Spain.