Magazine article Foreign Policy

A Secessionist Abroad

Magazine article Foreign Policy

A Secessionist Abroad

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Carles Puigdemont, the president of the government of Catalonia--bespectacled and shaggy haired at 54--surveyed the passing monuments and museums as we skirted the National Mall in his black SUV. This was his first time in the United States. "Seven million people visit here each year," he informed me, gesturing vaguely toward one of the Smithsonian museums. "The same as the population of Catalonia."

It was early afternoon on a cloudy Tuesday in March, and we were headed to The Monocle, a restaurant on Capitol Hill where generations of legislators and their coteries have hobnobbed over steaks and crab cakes, and where you might have to pass a signed photo of Dick Cheney to use the bathroom.

"During the Women's March, the Mall was covered with protesters as far as the eye could see," I told Puigdemont. He asked how many had attended. Maybe half a million, I said.

"In Catalonia, we get more than a million people in the streets on National Day," he said. "And that's out of 7 million." He pressed his phone to the car's window and snapped a photo.

When we got to the restaurant on D Street, the delegation made its way to a white-clothed table toward the back of the wood-paneled dining room, a series of D.C. aphorisms emblazoned along the top of each wall. One of them read, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

The restaurant was full of patrons, none of whom seemed to recognize the almost-world-leader in their midst. An advisor passed around a phone so that the entire company--a group of eight that included Catalonia's foreign minister and the head of its delegation to the United States-could see the latest excitement: a tweet by a Washington Post reporter noting Puigdemont's visit. The president ordered salmon, followed by a generous portion of vanilla ice cream and an espresso, which came not in an espresso cup, but at the very bottom of an oversized mug, resembling a nearly finished cup of coffee. Puigdemont examined it quizzically.

When Matteo Renzi, then the Italian prime minister, visited Washington last year for Barack Obama's final state dinner, the White House rolled out the red carpet. It's not hard to imagine a president of Catalonia--which is just larger than Bulgaria and just smaller than Switzerland in population, has a higher gross domestic product per capita than Spain, and contains Barcelona, one of the largest cities in Europe--receiving similar treatment. But one fact gets in the way: Catalonia isn't a real country.

The National Day demonstrators that Puigdemont mentioned take to the streets each year to agitate for their region's independence from Spain. Puigdemont--the former mayor of Girona, one of Catalonia's largest cities--is a staunch secessionist, and his ruling coalition in the regional government wants to leave Spain. But the region remains firmly under Spanish control.

Once we'd finished lunch--and the Catalans had paid--we headed over to CNN en Espanol for a quick taped interview, after which Puigdemont met briefly with a few members of Congress in their offices. (I was not invited to these closed-door conversations.) Later, Puigdemont told me they had discussed "normal things."

"We try to explain what's happened in Catalonia," he said. They asked, "What do you think of European Union or Brexit?"--questions he called "neutral, without a previous point of view."

Catalan independence tops the list of polarizing issues in Spanish politics. But in the United States, it's met mostly with mild curiosity. Puigdemont, who spent decades as a journalist before entering politics, is versed in the contrast between this domestic contentiousness and foreign indifference. In 1994, he published Cata ... What? Catalonia as Seen by the Foreign Press--a book about articles like this one.

Catalonia's view of itself, and interest in the way others see it, must be understood in the context of Spain's 20th-century history. …

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