Letter to President Obama
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20500-0004
United States of America
Dear President Obama:
I write to you not only in your capacity as president of the United States, but also in your capacity as a former professor of constitutional law. In The Audacity of Hope, you propose shifting the metaphor through which we understand democracy in order to see it “not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had.” What the American constitution does, therefore, is to “organize the way by which we argue about our future.” Importantly, “Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single unalterable course…”.
I write to you, then, because in the country in which I live and work, what is happening is precisely this sort of attempt to end conversation by arguing that the house is already built, constitutionally, and that no further debate is even legimate. In a formally democratic European state, a completely politicized constitutional court, four members of which – including the chief justice – have served for years on expired terms of office, has taken four years to produce a decision using the constitution as a weapon to crush the legitimate national aspirations of a people and to set absolute limits, once and for all, on the powers of home rule defined in that people’s statute of autonomy. The European state in question is Spain. The country in which I live and work is Catalonia. Its statute of autonomy was approved no fewer than three times: by the Catalan parliament, by the Spanish parliament, and by the Catalan people in a referendum. What is happening here, then, is an assault on democracy. In the United States, when the will of the people is not reflected in the constitution, the constitution has been amended, a total of 27 times since the year 1791. What the Spanish constitutional court has done is to consider the Spanish constitution of 1980 untouchable, engraved in stone, and their reading of it is so restrictive that the democratically expressed will of the Catalan people has no place in it.
What is Catalonia? You will remember something about it from your visit to Barcelona many years ago. Catalonia is an ancient European nation with an equally ancient tradition of representative government. The document on which this form of government is based predates the English Magna Carta, and only Iceland has an older parliament. In the Middle Ages Catalonia was an independent polity, and later the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation ruled a Mediterranean empire that extended as far as Greece. During the 14th century, the dynastic marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile integrated Catalonia into “the Spains”, as the composite kingdom was known. But Catalonia did not lose its institutions of self-government until 1714, by force of arms, at the end of the Spanish War of Succession, when an absolutist monarchy came to power. It did not get them back for another 200 years, with the arrival of the Second Spanish Republic, but lost them again at the end of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Despite this history, Catalonia continued to remain linguistically, culturally, socially and economically distinct from the rest of the Spanish state. With the death of General Franco and his dictatorial regime in 1975, Catalonia began to recover once more its political institutions and the powers of home rule home abrogated by the victorious fascists, to reconstruct its national story in its own voice.
How and why does the decision of Spain’s constitutional court affect me, since I retain my American passport although I am a permanent resident who lives and works here? It affects me because I have known Catalonia for three decades, since I came here to do anthropological research at the end of the Franco dictatorship and the beginning of the transition to democracy, when it became apparent that the transition would have no legitimacy at all unless the political autonomy Catalonia enjoyed under the Second Republic were restored. Because I experienced, as an anthropologist, the cultural and political resistance to the Franco regime and the beginning of the process of national reconstruction in Catalonia during the transition to democracy. Because with the passage of time I have become a professor in a Catalan university, where I teach my classes in Catalan. I have, then, things at stake in Catalonia’s future. Many things, starting with the language in which I teach and write, which is recognized in the Catalan statute of autonomy as having preferential status in Catalan public institutions including schools and universities. This language, my second first language, is now threatened by the decision of the Spanish constitutional court.
On Saturday, July 10, more than a million Catalans (according to the Barcelona city police, 1,100,000; according to the organizers of the demonstration, a million and a half; the total population of Catalonia now stands at just over 7 million) filled the streets in the heart of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, to reject the court’s decision to eviscerate the Catalan statute of autonomy and make our voices heard: “We are a nation. We decide.” After years of indignities, the court’s decision was the last straw and increasing numbers of Catalans see no other path to national survival except through full sovereignty, a peaceful and negotiated separation from the Spanish state and the establishment of a new Catalan state within the framework of the European Union. Kosova’s history is different from Catalonia’s, but there is nothing in international law that prevents the democratically elected representatives of a people from unilaterally declaring independence.
Earlier this summer former president Jimmy Carter came to Barcelona to accept from the president of the Generalitat (the Catalan government) the Premi Internacional Catalunya, an international award in recognition of his work on behalf of human rights, democracy, and peace. His visit coincided closely with the announcement of the decision of the constitutional court. President Carter described this decision as an “error,” and offered to send international observed in the event of a referendum on Catalan independence. You should know that to date well over half a million Catalans have already voted for independence in nonbinding municipal referenda all over Catalonia. More such referenda are planned.
I am not asking you to intervene in this process. I ask only that you interest yourself in what is happening here, that you discuss it with your advisers, that you seek information, and that you begin to establish contacts with the Catalan government that will emerge from this fall’s election. If I can help you to do this, you need only ask. Catalonia badly needs international interlocutors and international visibility.
Susan M. DiGiacomo, Ph.D.
Departament d’Antropologia, Filosofia i Treball Social
Universitat Rovira i Virgili
Susan M. DiGiacomo is a cultural anthropologist who received her PhD in anthropology in 1985 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has done ethnographic research on Catalan political life since 1977 (the year of the first democratic elections in Spain since 1936) and teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona. A fluent speaker and writer of Catalan, she is also a professional translator.