Javier Carballo, 10 September 2022
Santi Vila, in the interview for El Confidencial (Javier Luengo)
“The majority of Puigdemont’s government were super-Catalanists, but also Spaniards”.
The only ‘conseller’ of Puigdemont’s Government who resigned before the unilateral declaration of independence in 2017, recalls those moments of effervescence in Catalonia, the political ins and outs of the conflict and the fracturing of separatism
This interview takes place on the date that will forever mark the life of this man, Santi Vila, whom everyone will remember because he was the only one of Puigdemont’s disciples in the pro-independence revolt who decided to slam the door when the abyss loomed. He left with a message on social media: “I resign. My attempts at dialogue have once again failed. I hope I have been useful until the last minute to President Carles Puigdemont and the Catalans”.
But that was a month after the fateful date, on 7 Septiember 2017. It was on that day that Santi Vila began to be investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office of the High Court of Justice of Catalonia for various crimes, prevarication, embezzlement, disobedience to the Constitutional Court, having signed the decree calling for the referendum on self-determination.
He was sentenced to 1 year and 8 months of special disqualification for a crime of disobedience and a fine of 2,000 euros, but acquitted of embezzlement, for which both the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office had asked for seven years in prison. Today, Santiago Vila Vicente (Granollers, 15 March 1973) still has a trial pending for the incidents of those years of the ‘procés’, on 5 October. He is accused, along with the ‘exconseller’ of Culture, Lluís Puig, fugitive from justice since 2017, for the so-called ‘caso Sijena’‘, a case for disobedience when a judge ordered them to deliver the goods and works of the monastery of this Aragonese town, they refused and it had to be the Civil Guard who went to recover them from the Museum of Lérida.
QUESTION: I would like to know what you were thinking in those days, five years ago. I don’t know if it makes you feel dizzy to look back. The Public Prosecutor’s Office began to investigate you, but you kept on going. At no time did you think of stopping because of the serious illegalities you were committing, or had you already begun to think about resigning?
ANSWER. With the perspective we have today, it is clear that there were two souls in the Catalan Government: that of the counsellors who thought it was a question of tightening the rope without breaking it, and that of those who wanted to set in motion a process of independence. I was among the former, who were super-Catalanists, but also Spaniards, and in Carles Puigdemont’s government, without a doubt, we were the vast majority of those who did not want to break up Spain. That was all we wanted, to tighten the rope to get something from Rajoy’s government, a constitutional reform or the renewal of the Statute. We wanted to capitalise on a great mobilisation of citizens in Catalonia to update what had been stuck since 2010 [the year in which the Constitutional Court ruled on the Statute of Catalonia].
Q. Did you really not think that you were doing something very serious, beyond what we understand to mean by tightening the rope? You had already been warned that it was illegal to call a referendum on independence and you called it?
A. In the worst-case scenario, we thought that we risked a crime of disobedience and that, in the interests of both sides, the train crash would never happen. We never, never, never imagined that the offence could be greater than that, disobedience. Never. Nobody thought that, nobody…
Q. Let’s see, Mr Vila, then what happened happened: you called the referendum, you held it, you approved it and declared independence. I don’t know how you got on with Puigdemont, but there was no doubt about what he was doing.
A. I got on very well, we were very good friends and we had an excellent relationship, maybe that’s what lost me… [laughs]. But it is clear to me that the possibility of Catalonia becoming an independent state never crossed the mind of ‘president’ Puigdemont either. Never. In any case, he thought he could achieve an agreed consultation.
Q. In the end, what is clear is that, if things were as you say they were, it was the Catalans who were being lied to when they spoke to them about independence.
A. To those who thought they were serious, yes, but not to many others who were only instrumental and whose objective was only to empower the Catalan government so that it would have the strength to negotiate with Rajoy. I know a lot of people who were in that position, who put pressure on, but with their feet on the ground.
Q. Are you still pro-independence?
A. I have never been pro-independence.
“I am one of the millions of Catalans who think that Spain is a nation of nations and a composite state”.
Q. But, let’s see, you signed the call for the independence referendum, and then what did you vote for?
A. Yes, I signed the call for the referendum, it’s true, but I am one of the millions of Catalans who think that Spain is a nation of nations and a composite state. It seemed to me absolutely necessary to force the updating of the agreement between Catalonia and Spain. Never forget that Catalonia is constitutionally recognised as a nationality for legal and historical reasons. That is why the Generalitat of Catalonia was re-established before the vote on the Spanish Constitution, after the return of Josep Tarradellas. I am part of this tradition, Catalanist and Spanish.
Q. Yes, but what did you vote for in the referendum?
A. I was willing to give my all so that we could vote, but I was not in favour of Catalan independence.
Q. What did you vote? Yes to independence or no?
A. I voted yes.
Q. OK, that’s what I wanted to get to because that’s what I don’t understand: you say you have never been pro-independence but you voted in favour of independence, and you were a councillor. And you were a councillor. Don’t you think it’s frivolous, to say the least?
A. It is clear that it was not a legal mobilisation, just a political mobilisation, and, in fact, soon after, the debate arose about how many of those who had voted yes to independence would have done so if it had been a legal referendum. I am convinced, therefore, that the number of Catalans who are in the same position as me has grown in recent years, those of us who think that together we are better off but that Spain has to be conceived as a great nation, which it is, but a nation of nations. The constitutional framework of 1978 was exhausted due to the clumsiness of many and had to be renewed. That said, it is true that we must also be self-critical, because in Catalonia we tend to be more accusatory towards the Spanish Government than self-critical. From this point of view, in Catalonia we have lacked a principle of loyalty when we have sat at a table to negotiate with the Spanish Government. We have not always adequately accredited the presumption of goodness and the defence of a shared project. We have given the impression that each negotiation was nothing more than a stop on the way to achieving the final goal… In my case, my final goal is a plural and diverse Spain.
Q. Certainly, now that you mention it, it is rare to see a Catalan nationalist with a discourse of self-criticism. The lack of loyalty of Catalan nationalism, for example, nobody usually says so…
A. I honestly believe that, in those two years, 2016 and 2017, of which I am not at all proud, we lost control because emotions and feelings took over reason. But, having admitted this, it is also true that we needed to vindicate, for the sake of dignity, the absurdity that occurred in the ruling against the Statute. Lack of loyalty? Undoubtedly, undoubtedly. In the last decade, political Catalanism has amply demonstrated its ideology, but not so much its Spanishness. It has not always been like this, remember that in 1985 even the newspaper ‘ABC’ named Jordi Pujol ‘Spaniard of the Year’. And it was a radically Catalan project, but also Spanish. At some point we stopped defending it in this way, political Catalanism stopped feeling comfortable, until it collapsed after 2010, as I said before.
Q. One thing is ‘discomfort’ and another is promoting illegality, don’t you think?
A. Rajoy’s government, in which I have good friends, was also a very tough government, which could move little for its electorate, and we stretched the rope so much that it ended up breaking. In any case, in my opinion, and this will not be shared by everyone in Catalonia, what happened was nonsense because we should never have gone to that extreme. Neither Catalonia nor Spain as a whole deserved, for its reputation, a crisis like the one in October 2017 and images like the ones we saw, of elderly people on the floor when they went to vote. I took part in that nonsense and I say this with all my sorrow. I would not repeat it.
Q. You said earlier that the majority of Puigdemont’s government did not want independence, but nevertheless, the only one who resigned was you?
A. They can tell you whatever they want, but I assure you that the vast majority of the ‘consellers’ played those cards. Was I the only one who resigned? Well, yes, it’s true, of course, because I refused to make the symbolic gesture of a declaration of independence, but that brings us to another question: the trust we could have in Rajoy’s word as president of the government. Privately, he had told us that he would not suspend Catalonia’s autonomy if we took our foot off the accelerator, but Puigdemont thought that, whatever we did, he was determined to suspend it. I remain convinced that Rajoy would not have suspended self-government if we had stopped, but this is counterfactual history.
Q. Do you maintain any relationship with the fugitive Puigdemont or do they consider you a ‘botifler’, a traitor?
A. Puigdemont has never called me a ‘botifler’ because he knows that I was a loyal ‘conseller’. In fact, we are still in contact and we have a correct, cordial, but distant relationship because politically we are very far apart, although personally I can only wish him good things.
Q. Catalan independence has always wanted to compare itself to Scotland or Quebec. Don’t you think that the way in which the Diada has been deflated in just five years shows that it has nothing to do with that?
A. A lot has happened in these five years, such as the pandemic, which is no small thing. In such serious and exceptional circumstances, the public appreciates leaders who are focused on the concrete, on health, on employment… Disillusionment also affects a lot, of course; the disenchantment of seeing how projects that appeared to be very easy entail enormous costs in terms of prestige, deterioration of coexistence, economic progress… I would like to think that the people have also reflected in this sense. In short, the Catalan reality is very complex and I believe that it cannot be compared with that of Scotland or Quebec. We will see what happens from now on and whether the president of the PP, Núñez Feijóo, who now has the favourable winds, will apply Pedro Sánchez’s extinguisher tactics if he reaches the Moncloa, or whether he comes with flamethrowers with the same mistakes of the Popular Party, as in 2017, which left us moderates out in the cold.
“If the PP wins, I hope they don’t come again with the syrup of sticks because it would be a great unexpected gift for the most radicals.”
Q. I agree, as you say, that President Sánchez has made a decisive contribution to deflating the conflict and pricking the balloon, but the most effective thing against the illegality was the Supreme Court’s conviction. You were in the dock. What do you think?
A. Well, as you point out, this question is being asked of someone who is a party and, therefore, cannot be objective. In any case, I served my sentence, I was not pardoned by Pedro Sánchez; I served my sentence for disobedience and I believe that my sentence was fair and proportionate. However, some of my colleagues who were convicted of embezzlement and sedition suffered a disproportionate sentence. This is the situation that Pedro Sánchez’s government has corrected, and it has said so. I repeat what I said before: at no time did we think that we could be committing crimes of sedition and much less rebellion, because in Catalonia not a single litter bin was broken in those two years. That said, it is clear that when the courts remind us that breaking the law has consequences, it makes everyone think. Of course it does. As it should, because there is no democracy without law. But I reiterate, and I am not at all suspicious of being a socialist, that Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE has been providential for coexistence in Catalonia because it has defused the victimhood against Spain. All that remains is the problem of Puigdemont and, if it were solved, everything would return to where it should be, in the offices. The streets and the demonstrations are the devil’s work, as we well know.
Q. You said that you have a good relationship with Puigdemont. Does he intend to remain a fugitive forever or is he going to give himself up?
A. You have to ask him about that. The only thing I can tell him is what I tell him, which is to be very prudent because, although he gets recognition from the European institutions, Spain is a state governed by the rule of law with a very bad track record, as he has shown. So, if he wants to return to Spain, he should have it very clear to the right and to the left.
Q. I now ask you to play the role of political analyst. What does the internal division of independence, as reflected in this Diada of 2022, mean?
A. This Diada embodies something that was inevitable, the clash between a pragmatic pro-independence movement, such as Esquerra, and a more intransigent and radical one, linked to a sector of Junts per Catalunya. The latter are committed to a return to collapse, to ‘the worse, the better’, which is something that leads nowhere and does not even have a way forward. In the face of this, Esquerra has acted, in my opinion, in a courageous and intelligent way, and has realised that an independence project can only be viable if it has a huge majority, including the calling of a referendum. Therefore, Esquerra has reasonably played the management card, with the conviction that they will only have sufficient support if they can prove that they are better managers than Madrid, more austere and more beneficial to citizens. They have to regain solvency in management and demonstrate that they are in tune with reality, that their idealism does not invalidate the principle of realism. Alongside this, as we mentioned earlier, the performance of the PSOE and of Pedro Sánchez, in particular, has been very healing, in terms of the tone of the speech and the pardons. . Objectively speaking, it has not addressed any of the political objectives of independence, but it has been very soothing and conciliatory. With this alone, the moderates of Catalan nationalism feel very comforted and can contribute to putting the political crisis that should never have happened behind us once and for all.
Esquerra has played the management card, with the conviction that they will only have sufficient support if they are better managers than Madrid.
Q. In any case, you are not saying that Catalan independence is dead.
A. No, no, not at all. Independentism is not dead and this should be a message to politicians in Madrid, left and right. The political problem in Catalonia persists and, once the personal problems have been resolved, we must address the social malaise of a historic community that, for whatever reasons, objective or subjective, does not feel recognised in a project that must be shared, which is Spain. This is what we have to recognise and confront in order for Spain to be a great country and a successful project.
Q. You spoke earlier about Mariano Rajoy. Was your experience of your relationship with them that bad?
A. No, that’s not the point. I have an unbeatable impression of some ministers at the time, such as Méndez de Vigo, Rafa Catalán and Ana Pastor; people who understood that diversity was a value and not a problem. Another thing is that they were trapped by circumstances, as happened to us. We should all learn from what happened in that biennium and, if the Socialists win the general elections again, they should face up to the political reforms, as well as applying the fire extinguisher. But if it is the PP that wins, I also hope that they have learned and that they do not come again with the syrup of sticks because it would be a great unexpected gift for the most radical and intransigent pro-independence supporters. Just look at one detail: when Pedro Sánchez presented the motion of censure, the most radical pro-independence were absolutely opposed to removing Mariano Rajoy from the game. Against the PP, independence was better off.
Q. A veteran Catalan trade unionist and politician, Joan Coscubiela, said in these interviews that Oriol Junqueras was called ‘Cardinal Mazarino’, that Italian politician who began fighting against France and ended up replacing Cardinal Richelieu in the service of the French crown. Oriol Junqueras pretends and dissimulates, says Coscubiela. Is that so?
A. [laughs] Let me vindicate myself, if in the spring of 2017, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, who was vice-president of Rajoy’s government, had trusted me more than Oriol Junqueras, this would not have collapsed. It would have been a different story in Catalonia. I can tell you no more, but my visits to the Moncloa can be documented because official cars come and go.
“If in the spring of 2017, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría had trusted me more than Oriol Junqueras, this would not have collapsed.”
Q. One aspect that has always caught my attention, as an Andalusian and as a Spaniard, is what you repeat about Catalonia’s ‘fit’ and ‘comfort’ in Spain. What we are talking about is money, isn’t it?
A. Well, no, no. What we are talking about is sharing a project. Look at Barcelona, a brilliant city that now feels self-conscious because it is always being compared to Madrid and some people, I think that in order to puncture it, even say that it should be compared to Malaga, which is a city that is going like gangbusters, a great capital of the Mediterranean, which, on the other hand, I adore. All this is hurtful for a Barcelona resident and many of us have the feeling that Barcelona, with the support of the State, would be a capital that would really play in the first division. However, year after year, the State systematically benefits Madrid to the detriment of Barcelona. In these circumstances, the only possibility that there are those who do not think that independence would be better for us is with a Spanish state that feels that Barcelona and Madrid are its own.
Q. Well, let’s see, maybe you are overlooking other details that are not minor in this decline, such as the responsibility of the mayor, Ada Colau, don’t you think?
A. No doubt, no doubt; you are saying this to someone who is absolutely anti-Colau. So much so that I will help in any way I can to bring about a change in the next municipal elections, although personally I can’t consider anything because I am not yet judicially cleared of everything that happened in that two-year period of 16/17.
Q. One last question. You are a historian, what about the fact that some of your colleagues say that Cervantes, Columbus, Saint Teresa of Jesus and even Leonardo Da Vinci were Catalans?
A. Ah, this is very funny. Let’s see, I restrict everything related to identity issues to the private sphere. The important thing is that we are united by constitutional patriotism. Therefore, in the private sphere, let everyone think what they want. Is it history? No, man, nothing academic, that’s a joke, irrelevant noise that is part of the folklore of each tribe and, therefore, we should not pay any more attention to those books of chivalry.