July 18, 2021
Lluís Bassets (Barcelona, 1950) considers that he is “in the last stretch” of his professional stage. But he does not give up explaining what has happened to himself and to society as a whole in the course of the Covid pandemic. Journalist and writer, columnist in El País, a newspaper in which he has been a correspondent in Paris and Brussels, and other positions of responsibility, he is a member of the founding team of Politica&Prosa. Bassets has just published Les ciutats interiors, enviat especial al voltant de la meva cambra [Inner cities, special envoy around my room] (Galàxia Gutenberg), a diary during the first six months of the pandemic that helps him reflect on his own disease, the state of alarm, the pro-independence process, his many readings and the balance of power on the planet, with the China model as a powerful magnet for many sectors in the West. In this interview with Crónica Global, he points out that the Catalan problem may have a solution, but that it will require time: “The way out is Catalanism, which has achieved the great victories in Catalonia.” And he claims Spanish democracy as one of the most complete due to the existence of “counter-powers” as has been demonstrated, in his opinion, with the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the state of alarm.
–Question: The journalist exercises journalism, whoever wants to reflect, must do so from the outside. You point out this question in your book Les ciutats interiors. What do you want to convey?
–Answer: What I am saying is that there is always a question about journalism. Reflection and discussion, debate about the profession is good. But when you come across the question, the best answer is to practice journalism. What do I do during the pandemic, locked up, what can I do? And what I do, although I could have taken another approach, is an intimate reflection, but, mainly, I record what happens to us. I record my experience as a journalist in the last stages of the job, as a citizen, and as a reader. It is a diary about what happens to me, and about what happens to us.
— “And what happened to us?” What main deficiency have we had, as a society?
— There has only been one sector of society that has shone brilliantly, that has shown that progress exists, which is science and medicine. It is moral progress, with doctors and caregivers. All the rest, politics, journalism, citizens, we have acted as we are: quite flawed. I wanted to reflect it in the book with the figure of Dr. Rieux, the character of La Peste, by Camus. He is a doctor who suffers, but he acts. My evaluation is that: humanity is saved by action, by scientific and medical action. And it is that we have not realized what we have lived. They told us that a vaccine would take six years, and it was achieved in less than a year. I am not a specialist in scientific information, but I think it can be pointed out that the scientific leap that will be experienced in the coming years will be enormous, right after the pandemic, which will act as a turning point.
— Has the pandemic in Spain acted as a catalyst to highlight institutional dysfunctions, which, otherwise, would have been ignored?
–Yes, it is quite like that. There has only been one place where criticism, strong reproaches have not appeared, which is China and I don’t think it was really like that. When we first saw what the Swedes, or the Germans, or the French were doing, thinking that they could be a model, then we found that they had similar problems. What has happened is of a cosmic dimension, or better, if you like, planetary. It is the first time that the human species has faced a health crisis, which affects everyone and raises questions for the future. It is a ‘stress test’ for everyone, for parties, ideologies, institutions and professions, and we are still working on it. It is not over.
— Is it a challenge for liberal democracies, beyond the characteristics of each country?
— Yes, but it must be remembered that Trump would not have lost the elections without the pandemic. Liberal democracy has revealed its miseries, but also its greatness. The democratic system wants to ensure individual freedoms and needs consensus and see how it is improved. We have seen, it is true, the cracks in the model, but we also know what a dictatorship is and what a democracy means. There is no doubt about it.
–So why is it so difficult to admit, for example, from Spain that Cuba is a dictatorship?
–Those weaknesses about concepts, about positions, are shown both on the left and on the right. But we must put one question on the table and that is that Spain has practically no foreign policy. As an international subject, its position does not correspond to its economic, demographic and social reality. And that has been seen with governments of the left and of the right, which kneel before Morocco or Cuba. The attitude of Draghi towards Putin, or of Biden towards Putin, who have made their concept of what a dictatorship is clear, should be maintained. It is shameful in Spain that the left uses euphemisms, but also that the right that has practiced the same when it has been in government, criticizes it when the tables are turned. I am very concerned that a case like that of Cuba, which affects the entire Hispanic world, is being used for internal conflicts. Instead of helping Cubans, it is used in a macabra way for partisan struggle.
–Because, what does the decision of the Constitutional Court show about the state of alarm?
– It shows that we have a very serious democracy, with very powerful powers and counter-powers and counter-majoritarian powers. What happened is very positive. That is why it is a shame that it is said that Spain is a fascist country, when it is one of the countries with the most counter-powers. But it also shows that we are in a democracy in a critical situation, which needs major reforms. And the division of the Constitutional Court proves it. It has played a very important role in the pro-independence proces, and now it appears divided. In the United States, institutions are trusted, even though they may be seized up. And here the problem is the blockade of the PP of the General Council of the Judicial Power. On another scale, in Catalonia, what we have is a partisan and sectarian occupation of TV3, which is one of the most serious things. It also affects the Catalan language, because that occupation, that partisan propaganda of the independence movement, has alienated many people from Catalan. And that must be paid by those who have committed that appropriation.
–The vote of the jurist Encarna Roca in the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the state of alarm has been decisive in breaking the tie; what lesson should it give us? Does it simply mean that Roca has gone over to the conservative bloc, or that the issue has been addressed purely from the legal field?
— She has probably leaned towards conservative positions, but we should not criticize her. She has made a decision in conscience and with legal arguments. I don’t like it, but I respect her a lot, she is a splendid jurist and as a Catalan I am proud that she is vice president of the TC.
— You speaks in your book of Artur Mas, and of his own “self-justifying” book about his role in the independence proces. Is much of what happened due to his decisions and is he one of the most accountable for it?
— His book belongs to the Catalan genre of political memoirs, which say nothing, and which are used to sell a few copies to admirers. They are self-justifying books. Like all of Pujol. That of Carles Puigdemont, at least, serves to attack Republican Esquerra, and is part of the books they attack. But I think that one of the dramas that we have is that nothing of what happened has been explained to us, and that it is related to the so-called General Staff, of characters who do not appear and who are the ones who made the decisions. None of the important decisions were made by the Government, but by people who were outside. I have elements to think that it was so.
— Can pardons be used, precisely, so that all the politicians who were imprisoned explain themselves and resolve their contradictions?
— I was in favor of pardons from the first moment, since they were suggested by Miquel Iceta, and I argued in my newspaper. And it is related to a question: do you want to solve this issue or not? And I think that it cannot be solved with the political elite of the independence movement in prison. I think the pardons should have come earlier. And that such long pretrial prisons and harsh sentences should have been avoided. Everything is the product of the outsourcing of politics, which is left to the Justice, and it goes the way it sees fit, without being accountable to anyone. And it is that there has been no political action, which does not imply giving in, but proposing alternatives. If we link it now with Cuba, we must point out the very poor performance of Spanish diplomacy with Margallo at the helm. I am not surprised now by the lack of self-criticism in the areas of the PP. They are smarter and don’t write or say anything. Because they could not explain what they have done.
–There is a solid criticism of the so-called third parties, because they leave as orphans a part of Catalans who do not understand that an agreement or approach is sought with the pro-independence side. Do you share it?
–If third parties are a problem, I say that I am a third party from day one. There is no two-piece Catalan society. There are more shades and colors. The problem is that there are two sectors that prefer this polarization, which are mutually exclusive. There is a clear synergy between them. It is convenient for both of them that the third parties are reflected as the other party. This led to the departure of many leaders of the PSC, who withdrew. But the alternative is third-party, there is no other. An inclusive discourse is needed so powerful that it dissolves the extremes. The way out is Catalanism, historical Catalanism, which has achieved the great victories for Catalonia, and which has learned from its mistakes. The one that has promoted the language, culture, and the ability to influence in Spain and Europe. The problem is to see how that discourse is recovered, because it has been discredited. But it is the way. If that road is impassable, then the future of Catalonia will be black. The independence movement alone, without the set of the entire range of colors of Catalonia, has no strength, not even to maintain autonomy. That independence movement wants to destroy historic Catalanism and thinks that now is the opportunity, but it does not know what it says, because it will be like a phoenix, which will rise again. The classics have always said it: Catalonia does not have enough strength for chimerical projects. But Spain cannot do without the cultural and linguistic reality and the differentiated personality of Catalonia.
–Artur Mas and a large part of the independence movement points out – and you criticize it in the book – that the independence movement is a good formula for Spain to modernize, because that way it can be a state with a Spanish nation, without the hassle of the Catalans. Is that the great perversion of sovereignty?
— It is that one of the things that the independence movement has done wrong is the attempt to destroy the idea of Spain. And from the Catalan point of view, Spain must be defended as a good idea, as a good inclusive idea. Catalonia is part of Spain, but Spain is part of Catalonia, and if it does not realize that the greatness of Catalonia is to understand that question, we will not go anywhere. And the independence movement has not yet changed its register, so it will cost us everything a few years, but I do not see another way.
–You point to the Sant Gervasi neighborhood, your walks in the last months of the pandemic, with those small and aesthetically attractive squares. And you consider that Catalonia is made by little men, who confuse Turó Park with Central Park, and who are already happy. Is that the problem, if we focus on the process, starring little men who thought they were doing something great?
— One of the characteristics of the historical independence movement is its difficulty to understand reality and to understand it on two levels: the weight, strength and real power of Catalonia and the reality that is the world. There is a historical blur. This is what Tarradellas said about Jordi Pujol: he is a milhomes. We have been ruled by very small people who brag, who strut, and who think they are extraordinary. When you look at the geographical measure, the demographic and economic weight of Catalonia in its years of autonomy, embodied in the Constitution, it is verified that it has had much more influence through Spain. The “us alone”, pre-trump player, is not going anywhere. It is necessary to have allies, of course among the Catalans themselves, to achieve broad consensus, but also with the whole of Spain and Europe. And, how are we going to have allies saying the things that are said, banning the word Spain on TV3,a word only pronounced to insult? Javier Solana once said a phrase that I made mine forever and that extends it: “I will never speak ill of Europe.” I say, I will never speak ill of Catalonia, Spain and Europe. That should be the responsible position of Catalanism, to give support to Catalonia, Spain and Europe.
— Can the Winter Olympics be a lever for this institutional collaboration?
— Hopefully, although I see it with a certain humorous skepticism, because the Olympic Games were something exceptional, probably unique. In 2030 I don’t think I can ski, but I don’t know if there will be snow. Now, the Government and the Generalitat agree and if the different administrations do, I agree. This is how it should work. The objective is not the brightest, but the method is, it is the one that suits us.
— You recall Thomas Mann’s book, Death in Venice, and you do it to distance yourself, to point out that we must approach things with a certain irony. Regarding the proces too?
–With the rereading of the books one thing happens and that is that the subsequent interpretation can be very different. It happened to me with Death in Venice. I have changed the idea that I had, surely very influenced by the film and the myth. But Mann himself explained it, pointing out that there was a misreading of that work of his. It has a lot of irony, of taking distance, and that is what literature should serve, to distance yourself from reality.
–Therefore, wasn’t that done with the procés and took everything too seriously, which helped its protagonists to appear as authors of something serious?
–If it can be. The essence of the proces is that: convincing of the seriousness of something that is neither powerful nor serious. And that also works because there are some very important media that exploit it. I think we have to do an analysis that is still pending. On whether what happened was the result of an objective political situation or manipulation. And on that we are divided. Some say it was manipulation, others that it was a Catalan conscience that woke up. They both have some truth. But I reiterate that there is a problem and it is that without specific means of communication, it would not have worked.
— Literature, you point out, is important to take distances. The pandemic has made it possible for reflection, thought, and reading to be at the center. Can it be used from now on in order to assume our status as citizens?
–As citizens and human beings. It has been a good occasion to reflect. That is why I speak of “inner cities”. We must think about human nature. As a species we have faced collective disease, death. And we have seen a terrible thing that is the liquidation of an almost entire generation. In the West, the weakness of the care systems and of the mental and moral shields that we had set up so as not to take responsibility for the elderly have been demonstrated. It is a question that continues to embitter me. It’s bad. We make an effort to forget and we should reflect on it.
— It could have been a real drama if the most affected had been the youngest, rather than the oldest. What would have happened?
— What we must take into account now is the reality and the immediate future from a new wave of the virus. There are countries like Myanmar with very serious situations, with a lack of medical supplies, which can become very contagious countries. In the West there is concern now for the youngest, but in poor countries mortality could be very high. I am very surprised when you think of vaccinating children while in African countries they have very little vaccination, or when in Israel you think of a third Pfizer vaccine and the Palestinians are not vaccinated.
— The model of China is still there, latent. Have we been vaccinated against that authoritarian virus?
— It is a game that is open. It will be the game of the next few years. The fight between Democrats and Republicans in the United States is related to it. Also the conflict that the Polish government presents with the European Union. That is why it is very important to have clear ideas and preserve democracy in the United States, in Europe, maintain alliances between democracies and get rid of the old reflections of the Cold War.
— Was there a miscalculation when everyone rejoiced at China’s entry into the WTO, thinking two decades ago that a large middle class would be generated that would demand political rights in favor of a democracy?
— It was an open situation. I don’t believe in historical determinism. The opening of Nixon and Kissinger was very important and the evolution of China after Tiananamen began to be positive. What has happened is that everything has gone wrong. The arrival of Xi Jinping coincides with the rise of all populisms. There is a theory that indicates that what happens now is the result of a strategy. If there was or not, that does not imply that it went ahead. China does not want to show its nails and has decided to wait. Chinese leaders are highly politically competent. What has also happened is that there have been coincidences. China’s operation in Hong Kong occurs over the course of Brexit. I don’t know if it would have been the same with a stronger UK. We will see, in any case, the attitude of China with Taiwan, which may be the next cause for global concern.