Up until two years ago Joaquim ‘Quim’ Torra was a business executive and cultural activist who had never been involved in electoral politics. However, when the Spanish central government dissolved the Catalan parliament over its late October 2017 vote in favour of seceding from Spain, and subsequently ordered new elections that it clearly presumed would restore a pro-unionist majority in that body. To the surprise of much of the world, and the intense dismay of the Spanish government, exiled President Carles Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia list won the elections, and hence the right to form a new government. Torra was successful as a parliamentary candidate.
But Spain would have none of it. When, on January 30 2018, the Catalan Parliament was about to swear Puigdemont in by video connection from Belgium, the president of that body abruptly stopped the process in reaction to the threat of judicial sanctions – sanctions rooted in highly questionable jurisprudence – he had received from the Spanish courts. Two further candidacies centring on pro-independence figures were similarly scuttled in the succeeding months.
Finally, on 17 May 2018 the then still largely unknown Torra was voted head of a pro-independence coalition government. Since assuming office he has repeatedly made clear that he believes that Carles Puigdemont is still the legitimate president of Catalonia and that his prime goal is that of advancing Catalonia toward independence in the most expeditious manner possible.
The fact that he is a political newcomer who did not come up through ranks of his own party has led the generally pro-unionist press of both Catalonia and Spain, a press corps that tends to view machine politics as normative and their continuation as inevitable, to treat this most cultured and literate of public figures with no small amount of condescension, though Torra does not seem to care.
This interview, conducted in Catalan and edited for reasons of space, took place on 30 October in the Palace of the Generalitat (The Catalan Government) in Barcelona, that is, 16 days into the massive and still ongoing acts of civil disobedience unleashed in reaction to the Spanish Supreme Court’s harsh sentencing of the politicians and civil society leaders responsible for promoting the October 1, 2017 independence referendum, 11 days before the fourth Spanish general elections in as many years, and 19 days before Torra’s own trial, at which he defiantly pleaded guilty to disobeying a Spanish government order to remove a banner hanging on the front of the Generalitat that made reference to Catalan “exiles” and “political prisoners”.
TH: How would you explain what is going on in Catalonia today to a reader who has little or no detailed understanding of the country’s history?
QT: A quick response would be to compare it to a case with which most English language readers are familiar, and have to a certain extent reflected upon, which is Scotland – and the UK. I would speak of an ancient nation from Southern Europe that has always demonstrated a firm dedication to the pursuit of liberty, and that, after suffering a number of setbacks over the last three hundred years – years during which it worked to fit into the Spanish state and gain its trust – has, over the last decade or so, chosen to initiate a democratic process aimed at gaining independence. This is not about flags and borders. It is about quality of life, better education, better healthcare, an improved infrastructure and, of course, greater protections for the country’s language and culture. But above all, it is about being able to face the challenges of the twenty-first century with all of the tools that any modern country can expect to have at its disposal.
TH: Do you think Catalans have a special obsession with freedom?
QT: There are historians, such as Rovira i Virgili, who define the history of Catalonia precisely in terms of this special relationship to freedom. Others, such as Vicens Vives, link it more to a “will to exist”. Josep Benet, in turn, has summed it up, in a marvellous phrase, as centring on a “combat in the service of hope”. Others, of perhaps a more fatalistic cast, like Ferrater Mora say that a people cannot live life always on the defensive, that it must arrive, or seek to arrive, to a state of vital fullness.
TH: How did you come to be president of the Generalitat in the Spring of 2018?
QT: I spent most of my life as a lawyer in private business, the last two years of that in Switzerland, an experience that allowed me get to know a country, the Helvetian Confederation, that I admire a lot. Returning to Catalonia, I founded a publishing house and got involved in historical research and writing. I’d always had strong cultural, civic and political interests thanks to my work in voluntary organisations of the type that are, in my view, fundamental to gaining an understanding of the country. These entities are the basis of its strongly ‘associative’ social fabric, and what provides it with very strong social cohesion from below.
I had the good fortune of working side by side with the late Muriel Casals at Omnium Cultural [along with the Catalan National Congress, the country’s most important pro-independence civic organization], an experience that allowed me to participate, as it were, from the “second row”, in the last ten years of the country’s fast-moving history. During the latter part of this time, the country’s government was forcibly dismissed by the Spanish state (on 27 October 2017) while our elected leaders were either imprisoned or forced into exile. In the lead up to the 21 December 2017 elections imposed by Spain, I received a call from President Puigdemont in which he asked me to run as a candidate on his parliamentary list (Together for Catalonia).
But owing to a series of events that would take a very long time to explain, and that are rooted in the repression that this country currently suffers within Spain, and which resulted in the Spring of 2018 in our not being allowed to swear-in our first three chosen candidates to lead the Generalitat (the Catalan Autonomous Government) President Puigdemont entrusted me with the task of leading the government of the country. I accepted the challenge because I believed that in historical moments such as the ones we are living you cannot run away from the responsibilities that fate brings you. As a good liberal, I believe that any person, no matter what political position they might initially occupy, should be able to respond with responsibility and honesty to the challenges posed to his country in decisive moments of its history.
In practical terms, this means seeking the restitution of all the powers taken from us under Spain’s imposition of article 155 of the Constitution, the effects of which we are still very present, and putting the Catalan Constitution into effect. I say this fully cognisant of the fact that, owing to the recent handing down of the sentences against our imprisoned leaders, we are now entering into an entirely new set of realities.
TH: Please explain the concepts of Catalonia’s distinctive “associative” cultural fabric and pactism.
QT: I believe this is the most essential trait of Catalan culture and a key reason why we have been able to remain a distinct people over the years. The country has always had a very strong sense of collective belonging and collective action honed over the years on objectives that go from being very strongly involved in saving immigrant lives in the Mediterranean to involvement in one’s neighbourhood council or the enormous and highly organised collective effort that goes into castellers, or the building of “human towers”. We could also talk about the enormous importance of esplais (neighbourhood civic groups) and hiking clubs among our youth. And all this, of course, in addition to our very strong trade-union tradition and the pro-sovereignty groups like Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Congress. From a very early age, Catalans engage in voluntary collective activities that are not rooted in either the family or the school. And this generates a widespread sense of fraternity and solidarity in the culture: bonds that, make possible, for example, things like the citizen-led and organised referendum on independence that took place here on October 1, 2017.
And within recent years, we have seen new consensuses forged in this atmosphere emerge. For example, somewhere around 80-90% of Catalans now look upon the Spanish monarchy as an institution with little or no relevance in their lives. There is a similarly high rejection of Spain’s judicialisation of basic political questions and processes.
Ours too is a culture that expects and demands that one accept the criticisms of others. We are very given to protesting and criticising. Maybe this is a more generally Mediterranean tendency. But I can assure you it is very prominent among our people.
“Pactism” is a vocation for the making and signing of pacts, something that is deeply rooted in our history, going all the way back to the power-limiting agreements between the people and the kings in medieval times. What we need is “a sit down and talk” (he says these words in English). And the dramatic reality here is that the Spanish Government has not put forth any proposal at all. Nothing at all. I’d accept anything as a starting point. This drift toward centralism and authoritarianism in the Socialist Party is extremely worrying for us.
I believe the Catalan independence movement has laid bare the reality of the Spanish Transaction – not the Transition – that resulted in the adoption of the Spanish Constitution of 1978. In Portugal, from left to right, all have effectuated a total break with Salazar’s dictatorial regime. The Spanish state’s problem is that this break did not take place. It carried out a reform that kept intact several important bastions of Francoism and an authoritarian way of approaching public life and politics, something we can see quite clearly in the comportment of the state judicial and police sectors. We can also see it in the very figure of the King, who is the inheritor of prerogatives derived directly from the Franco regime and whose presence deprives all Spaniards of the right to decide whether they wish to live in a monarchy or a republic. And all of this has become more evident as a result of the rise of the Catalan independence movement which has brought this not always visible Francoism, which is profoundly rooted within the organs of the state, to the surface.
That said, there is a part the independence protest that is related to the current global wave of political dissatisfaction.
TH: If someone were to ask you to about the performance of the Spanish judicial system in the recently concluded trial of the Catalan politicians and civil society leaders in Madrid, how would you describe it?
QT: I would begin by reminding that person of the words of the president of the General Council of the Spanish Judiciary Carlos Lesmes when he said that the Spanish Constitution is based in the sacred and indivisible unity of the fatherland and that the judicial powers have the obligation of preserving this unity above all other things. Nothing about preserving the people’s will. I think the Spanish Judiciary has appointed itself as the royal guardian of the indivisible unity of Spain, and for this reason gives itself the right to use any and all means achieve this end, including twisting decisions and opinions as they see fit. And when the police can’t achieve the desired end, the prosecutors are sent in. And when the prosecutors fall short, they resort to the full force of the courts.
TH: Pedro Sánchez, the head of the interim Spanish government, suggested a few days ago that these protests are of a fundamentally violent character and his Minister of the Interior Fernando Grande-Marlaska recently said, , “The violence in Catalonia has been of greater impact than that which took place in the Basque Country”. Are you, as Spanish government sources and certain members of the press have recently suggested, an apologist for this supposed violence?
QT: Violence has never been representative of the independence movement. We have always condemned any and all acts of violence that have occurred. Always. I think it is important to call attention to the serious level of banalisation at play here. Spanish associations of terrorist victims have spoken out against these unfortunate statements. For me, to compare occurrences that have taken place in Catalonia with deaths and assassinations in the Basque Country over years, is absolutely appalling.
TH: It has been suggested that your government has lost control of the Catalan police, the Mossos, in these last few weeks of street protests around Catalonia and that the force is acting in an unnecessarily violent manner against demonstrators.. What do you say to these criticisms?
QT: That everything will be investigated by a Parliamentary Commission and that any and all responsibilities for wrongful activities will brought to light in a completely transparent fashion.
TH: To what extent must the ongoing protests and disturbances in the streets of Catalonia be seen as a demonstration of the failure of the Catalan political class and the political class of the Spanish state?
QT: These critiques no doubt have some basis in truth. The roots of the conflict can been found in in our not having had the opportunity to decide things in a frank and honest fashion, allowing those in which the those in favour of remaining in the kingdom of Spain and those in favour of independence to place their arguments on the table and to let the citizens of Catalonia would decide which solution is best. If we were to have such a referendum and a majority of Catalans prefer to continue as part of Spain, I would resign immediately as the President of the Generalitat. This is the basis of the conflict. And there really is no other. The two million Catalans in favour of independence are not going to disappear. The last four elections, counting local, Catalan, Spanish and European elections) have been won by pro-independence forces.
TH: I have read all sort of characterisations of you in the press, a number of them in publications opposed to independence, being quite negative. How would you define yourself as a political actor?
QT: Ideologically, I define myself as a republican in the modern sense of the term employed, for example, by Princeton scholar Philip Pettit. I see myself as a person with a humanistic bent interested in working for others, a person with a radical belief in democracy who is only capable of conceptualising democracy as the practice of listening to the voice of the citizenry and respecting their decisions.
Thomas Harrington is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches courses on 20th and 21st Century Spanish Cultural History, Literature and Film.
In a legally questionable move taken on January 3, 2020, the Central Electoral Commission of the Spanish government, an administrative body with no judicial standing, voted to remove Torra from office immediately. In a speech given that same evening Torra remained defiant, saying that when it comes to attempts to remove him from office he only responds to the will of the Catalan people and the Catalan Parliament. In an emergency session of parliament convened the following day, Torra received the full and unambiguous backing of the majority pro-independence bloc of the Catalan parliament. Meanwhile, during the investiture ceremony of Socialist prime minister candidate Pedro Sanchez taking place simultaneously in Madrid, the right-wing parties, Vox and PP, called for Torra’s immediate imprisonment and the suspension of the Catalan statute of autonomy through the reimposition of article 155 of the Constitution as was done following the Catalan declaration of independence on October 27, 2017.