Nine Catalan political prisoners walked free on Wednesday after being pardoned by Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez.
They include six former ministers in the Catalan government, two leaders of civil society organisations and the former speaker of the Catalan parliament.
The nine were arrested in the wake of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum for their involvement in organising the vote, demonstrations and mass civil disobedience.
The right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy responded to the referendum, organised in defiance of the state, with brutal violence. In 2019, the nine were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison.
Speaking to supporters outside a prison in Barcelona province, Jordi Sanchez said, “Make no mistake, repression didn’t defeat us and it won’t.”
The pardons are only partial. The nine are barred from holding office and the pardons could be reversed any time for at least the next four years.
Meanwhile, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont remains in exile, as do others who fled the country to escape prosecution.
Another prisoner, Jordi Cuixart, spoke to the Nacional newspaper ahead of the pardons: “I have spent more time in prison during the rule of [Socialist Prime Minister Pedro] Sanchez than with Rajoy. Repression hasn’t stopped.
“There are more than 3,400 victims of prosecutions, there are people in exile. And four years on from 1,000 citizens injured on 1 October, not a single police officer has been sentenced.”
Pedro Sanchez’s calculation is that this gesture will allow him to deescalate tensions and solve the crisis. He has called for dialogue and is due to meet with current Catalan president Pere Aragones.
The independence movement says the precondition to negotiations is for a new, binding referendum and amnesty for all those affected by repression to be on the table.
But the Spanish government hasn’t moved from its position of four years ago. It says any referendum that questions Spanish unity is illegal and cannot happen.
The right is emboldened. Far right party Vox grew enormously in the wake of the repression that followed the referendum, in a context where all political parties ramped up nationalism. The parties of the right have already said they will appeal the pardons.
They will try to use this issue to bring down the coalition government and they will demand tough measures against independence supporters.
Mass demonstrations, civil disobedience and general strikes defied the Spanish state in 2017. The mass movement, and strikes, resurged in 2019 in response to the sentences.
A new confrontation with the Spanish state will require learning the right lessons from 2017. The movement wasn’t defeated because it went too far or was too militant.
Overcoming the might of a capitalist state requires a power to match it. That means looking not to the European Union and the so-called “international community”, but to the power of ordinary working people, both inside Catalonia and across the Spanish state.