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Thoughts on the Catalan Referendum

October 1st, 2017 No comments

This is mostly for my non-Spanish/Catalan friends.

(I wrote this yesterday night, so this doesn’t take into account what went on today in Catalonia, including physical repression of peaceful voters by the Spanish police. Those dreadful incidents deserve a separate post).

Since many of my friends and colleagues in the US have been wondering about what’s going on in Spain and Catalonia right now, I thought it might be a good idea to write a post about it. Understand that I’m a data scientist and a musician living in the US for the past 8 years, so it is likely that some historical / socio-economic facts are wrong. Thus, take all of this with a grain of salt (and let me know what parts I should update!).

Let’s start with a bit of context. Spain is a plurinational country that struggled with a conservative dictatorship for almost 40 years, until 1975. Franco (also known as El Caudillo, which is the spanish version of Der Führer) was a military dictator who ruled the country until he peacefully died on his deathbed. His political opponents, mostly dissidents and left-minded, progressive people, were brutally oppressed, and around 400,000, including the then-president of Catalonia, were murdered by the regime. Through violence, Franco imposed the idea of a “unified” Spain. Speaking Basque, Catalan, or Galician in public would result in jail or, in extreme cases, death.

After Franco died, the period known as The Transition started. Under the Constitution of 1978, Spain would no longer be a dictatorship but a constitutional monarchy, bringing back the Bourbon royal dynasty. For Catalonia, this meant going from a fascist dictatorship back to being ruled by the same family that had subjugated Catalans for almost 300 years. In 1714, the Bourbons had fought a war against Catalonia, won, and made Catalonia abolish their own constitutional liberties to become a region fully ruled by the Bourbons.

But I digress. The 1978 Constitution, which is the current supreme law of the Spanish Kingdom, was written by seven white males (one of them a member of the Franco regime, another one a worker for the communist party) within a unionist, centralized framework, leaving little room for potential disagreements between the central government and some of its smaller nationalities (e.g., its preamble reads: “indivisible unity of the Spanish Nation”). Catalonia, which was (and still is) one of the richest regions in Spain, became an Autonomous Region where speaking Catalan in public was no longer banned. The Catalan parliament was restored, and a newly democratically appointed Catalan president was chosen. Coming out of a lengthy dictatorship, most people were excited about this transition to democracy, with 90% of voters in Catalonia backing the new constitution. But this excitement didn’t last long.

Catalan people soon realized that their language and historical heritage were often challenged by the Spanish government. As opposed to other plurinational countries such as Canada, where one can communicate in both English or French to any government official, Spain treats Catalan as an unofficial language. Statutes of autonomy, which are regulations written by the autonomous regions that must comply with the constitution, can recognize any of these “minority” languages such as Catalan or Basque, but only within their autonomous regions. This becomes problematic in many situations, e.g., when interacting with the EU: none of these languages are official in the European parliament because of their lack of officiality within Spain.

As opposed to federal countries such as Germany, the central government of Spain can do as it pleases with Catalan taxes. It is of course fair to redistribute wealth across the whole country, especially to the poorest regions, but the tax management has not only made terrible investment decisions (e.g., empty airports, high speed train stops in the middle of nowhere, abandoned toll highways), but also actively opposed critical infrastructural projects in Catalonia that would ultimately benefit the whole Spanish territory (e.g., “El Corredor Mediterráneo,” a merchandise train that even the EU suggested should pass through Barcelona, instead of going through other non-Catalan regions as the Spanish government has proposed in several occasions).

Two non-mutually exclusive factors seem to drive these questionable decisions: i) the persistent desire of Spain to achieve a unified, centralist, radial country (à la France) by restricting certain liberties from its subnations; and ii) the established corruption that perpetually propels most Spanish and Catalan politicians.

After several years, and in order to address some of these concerns, in 2006 the Catalan people voted in a legal referendum for an update of their statute of autonomy. The new text openly declared Catalonia as a nation within Spain, plus it gave more autonomy to the Catalan people in judicial and fiscal terms. 73.9% of the people voted yes to the new statute (20% no).
Unfortunately, Spain rejected the new set of laws after the Catalans voted, since they declared them unconstitutional after a lengthy legal process that culminated in 2010.

This created a turning point in terms of the Catalan independentist movement: no matter how many times Catalans democratically requested a fairer system, the central government had the power to not only ignore them, but to declare these requests illegal based on the constitution. And Catalans cannot hope to change the constitution on their own, since they make up a small percentage of the overall Spanish population, and two thirds of the Spanish parliamentary seats are needed to amend the Constitution. Hence, the idea of becoming an independent state within the EU flourished among the Catalan people, and the independentist movement was no longer marginal.

Thus, a series of massive protests occurred during the national day of Catalonia. In 2010, between 1 to 1.5 million people took the streets of Barcelona to demand that Spain recognize Catalonia as a nation. Moreover, a series of non-legal, locally-organized self-determination “consultations” took place in numerous Catalan municipalities, and over 1 million people voted. In 2012, between 1.5 to 2 million people openly requested the independence of Catalonia during the national day, which became the largest protest in the history of the region. To put these numbers in context, the whole Catalan population is 7.5 million.

Throughout 2012 to 2014, Catalan politicians periodically asked the Spanish government for more autonomy for the Catalan region and even demanded a non-binding referendum for self-determination. But the central government denied every request, citing the constitution. After this back and forth, and after a new series of consultations not recognized by the central government, 2015 Catalan parliamentary elections resulted in a majority of seats going to parties that favored independence. Newly elected political leaders claimed that, no matter what the Spanish government ruled, a binding self-determination referendum would take place during their legislature.

And all of this brings us to the current situation: the vast majority of the Catalan people (estimated at 80%) want to vote in a legal self-determination referendum, but in order to do so, the Spanish constitution has to be amended, a virtually impossible feat when Catalans only make up 16% of the Spanish population and the majority of the Spanish politicians are against it. The current Catalan legislature has organized a unilateral referendum for TODAY, ignoring the Spanish constitution. Independence may be declared days later if that’s what the Catalans vote for.

Obviously, the Spanish government declares this referendum illegal based on the constitution. In the past few weeks, and in order to stop it, Spain has brought over 10k officials to the Catalan region, has imprisoned several politicians, has seized millions of ballots, and has sued hundreds of Catalan pro-referendum mayors. Nothing like this has happened since the end of the Franco regime. Meanwhile, there have been daily and peaceful major protests in Catalonia in favor of the referendum (I was there last week), and the whole goal has gradually shifted from demanding the independence to demanding the chance to cast a vote.

So, what do I think about all of this situation? My take is that the Spanish government could have easily stopped the independentist movement by saying something like “Catalan people, we want to work together towards a multinational country where each of its composing nations helps each other to become stronger and wealthier within the EU. We do love you, and we want to be a better ally. Still, if you guys want to leave, you are free to have a binding referendum, but we will campaign for us to stay together.” If this were true, the independentist vote would very likely lose. This shows how the Spanish government has been a major fuel for the independentists.

Given that the Catalan secessionist movement originates from the people and not their politicians, I believe the Spanish government is the one who should move next: many Spanish people in Madrid, Valencia, and other municipalities have taken the streets in favor of the Catalan vote, and it’s their representatives in the parliament who should now do something about it. Of course, it may be especially hard for the Spanish government to accept such a referendum when its legal system is based on an arguably outdated constitution written when a dictatorship regime was coming to an end. But I really don’t know what else they can do, except to use the force, which is what happened today, and which will surely backfire.

On the other hand, the way the Catalan government has organized this referendum is also questionable: it is not clear what the collateral consequences this may yield (if Catalonia becomes an independent state, whatever happens to the pensions, the public and private debts, the immigrants, the relation with Spain, the relation with the EU, etc. remains to be seen). It is not even clear what the minimum turnout needs to be, or what percentage is needed for proclaiming secession. In fact, could it be possible to declare the independence when only 50.1% of the votes say YES? I think these major matters of state require a larger majority to pass, otherwise the newly founded country might start off with profound instability within its people.

It is also sad to see how non-diverse the independentist movement is: it is hard to find a person of color in any of these protests (the only ones I saw last week were the ones selling beer), which makes the argument for the independence a bit harder to sell, especially when discussing this with leftists abroad who have fought for years towards racial and immigration justice. My rationale is that Spain (including Catalonia) has historically kicked out all non-white, non-christian people from its country (nobody expected the Inquisition!), resulting in a demographic that is sadly vastly white. This is gradually changing since the death of Franco, but yet many of the immigrants still don’t have the right to vote (disappointing) and/or do not partake into these matters because they do not feel included (even more disappointing and highly concerning). Spain (again, including Catalonia) is extremely immature in terms of racial justice and I hope this gets addressed asap.

Leaving these aspects aside, the idea of getting the independence from Spain would result in a republic that no longer has to pay tributes to a king whose father was appointed by Franco. Moreover, managing a much smaller region such as Catalonia, seems way easier than managing the whole Spanish area that has proven to be really hard to administer, especially because of the government’s insistence in achieving a centralized, radial state that keeps relegating to the side the identities of its non-Spanish peoples (and whose constitution is rooted in an old conservative regime). Catalonia as a new state within the EU makes perfect sense: its size and GDP are similar to other state members, and would put Catalan as an official language in its parliament (as long as Catalonia enters the EU, which is uncertain at the moment). In general, this all seems quite reasonable, and that is why I voted yes to the independence. I am perfectly aware that this will not fix the major problems that Catalonia is facing (e.g., corruption, lack of jobs, racism, immigration), but I think it would be a small step towards the right direction. I also believe that Spain without Catalonia would face new challenges that might need important structural changes that, if done correctly, might yield a more prosperous and less conservative Spain.

To conclude, given the state of things, and despite the controversies from both sides, the best thing that Catalan people can do is vote. The right of self-determination should be universal. Today’s election will likely be the only chance (at least for a while) to accurately assess what Catalans want for their future. Many things can happen, including Spain further boycotting the referendum. However, if Catalans are allowed to vote peacefully and independence wins, it will provide a first-ever opportunity for a new country to originate without a bellicose conflict and by the will of its people. On the other hand, if people choose to remain within Spain, the independence movement will likely become a marginal one, at least for a while.

Categories: politics Tags:

Nutshell by Alice in Chains

July 8th, 2017 No comments

So, I got myself an electric violin and it’s pretty sweet! Here my first cover with it, Nutshell by Alice In Chains:

Categories: covers, music Tags:

Show Me How To Live (Audioslave Acoustic Cover)

June 7th, 2017 No comments

Aw, one the best singers since the beginning of the humans left us a few weeks ago. Here’s a little attempt to pay tribute to Chris Cornell, The Titan.

Categories: covers, vídeos Tags:

Deep XOR

February 26th, 2017 No comments

Since deep learning is so hot nowadays, I put together a notebook with a little exercise I undertook to have a better understanding of how neural networks work: modeling a XOR gate using a feedforward network with a single hidden layer. I named it Deep XOR.

diagram_sm

The derivation of all necessary equations and their implementation in numpy are included. Hopefully it may help other practitioners too.

Categories: machine learning Tags:

2016

December 31st, 2016 No comments

Years are starting to pass by at high speeds. Not light speed, not hyperloop speed, but maybe high-speed-trains speed. My first year in Oakland is waiving goodbye, and while crazy shit has happened in the world this year, I certainly can’t complain of who and what is around me. I feel extremely privileged and thankful for having had the opportunity to be on this fast-paced ride that only stops once. Let’s keep moving.

List of things that gave meaning to this little (highly probably simulated) life:

  • Cover of Time Travelers by Riverside
  • Performance with Los Pandejos at the Pandora Music Analyst Fest
  • I join Arkaen, a new metal band from Concord that will save the world
  • My music structure analysis algorithms make it to the new Harmonix Music VR game by the developers of Rock Band
  • First time skiing in Tahoe like a real white male in his 30s who works in tech
  • Dagstuhl Seminar in Germany
  • Nathalie studies in Oxford and I visit her and it is more magical than Hogwarts
  • Trip to Barcelona to do some tourism
  • La Bossa d’Urina Aznar Spring World Tour 2016
  • Organized the BISH Bash at Pandora (Los Pandejos also play there)
  • Mom visits the Bay Area!
  • I start, finish, and get obsessed with Infinite Jest
  • Freak Kitchen features the cover I made a few years ago in their page
  • Pliny The Elder becomes my favorite beer
  • Jordan Rudess invites me to his backstage room to talk and play with some of his newest toys
  • We record our first demo with Arkaen
  • James Hetfield suddenly shows up in a Corrosion of Conformity show and reminds me how awesome the Bay Area is
  • Cover of England by The National (for Natis)
  • One of my dreams come true: cover of The Beginning and The End by Anathema WITH JORDAN RUDESS
  • Cover of Anna Molly by Incubus with some of the titans of Sargon
  • Cover of The Last Goodbye (The Hobbit) with the titans Andy Feehan et al.
  • ICML in NYC: organized the Music Discovery Workshop
  • Cover of Mother by Pink Floyd with the titan Alek Darson
  • I buy a second-hand Mesa/Boogie Mark-III
  • Nat comes back from Oxford and is ready to take over Berkeley
  • Another Winter in Lima
  • First time surfing (in Miraflores!)
  • ISMIR in NYC: presented this paper and organized the JAM session.
  • Cover of the Dragon Ball intro with The Only Deer Alive
  • First Arkaen show
  • Sister visits me in Oakland
  • I give a long talk at the Stanford Biostat Seminar about deep learning and music
  • Los Pandejos Show @ Pandora Performs (The Fillmore)
  • Cover of The Pretender by Foo Fighters with the titans Alek Darson et al.
  • Post-Trump election anti-depression concert by Los Pandejos
  • Thanksgiving in Miami with Natis’ family, sister, mom, and Eliseu (first intra family encounters are a success!)
  • I give a talk at the Seminar of Music Knowledge Extraction using Machine Learning at UPF, Barcelona
  • NIPS in Barcelona
  • Another dream comes true this year: Venga Monjas Videoclip for La Bossa d’Urina (EPIC)
  • La Bossa d’Urina La Vida Secreta d’en Follet Tortuga Winter World Tour 2016 (most extensive World Tour we’ve made so far)
  • Natis is among the top two students in her Torts class, because she is the titanest (congrats!)
  • Christmas and New Years Eve in Barcelona

Happy 2017 titanics!

Categories: ollas Tags:

New Official Video for Es Tarde by La Bossa d’Urina

December 24th, 2016 No comments

The titans of Venga Monjas, our long-term idols, made the new video of La Bossa d’Urina and it is the most perfect video on Earth and probably all our Milky Way. Here you have it:

Categories: la bossa d'urina, music, vídeos Tags:

La Bossa d’Urina’s Upcoming World Tour

November 30th, 2016 No comments

We did it. We managed to squeeze 7 shows in 21 days all around the world. More specifically, eastern Catalonia.

This time the tour is named after our lifetime hero: Master Roshi (aka Follet Tortuga in Catalan), who wrote the Pillars Of The Earth, saved the world several times, and I’m sure he will save it again during the Trumpocalypse.

Here you have the dates with the locations, see you there, brave titans:
tbu-gira2016-2-follettortuga-dates

Categories: music Tags:

Dragon Ball – Bola de Drac – Cover with The Only Deer Alive

September 30th, 2016 No comments

Here it is titanics. The song we grew up with. The song that made us humans. The song that made us wanna search for Dragon Balls instead of fucking Pokémons. Here it is for you, titans, in all it’s glory (in Japanese, Polish, or Catalan).

Guitars, Bass, Drums, Keyboards, Mixing, and Everything Else: The Only Deer Alive. WHAT A TITAN, RIGHT?

Categories: covers, vídeos Tags:

Teaming up with Alek Darson for Pink Floyd cover

July 15th, 2016 No comments

Oh, titanics. The day has come I teamed up with one of the greatest (if not The Greatest) guitarist I’ve ever performed with: Alek Darson. Given the interesting times we live in, we found it appropriate to cover this magnificent classic by Pink Floyd. Hope you enjoy it as much as we did making it!

Also: more covers with Alek to come. YES. Alright!

Categories: covers, vídeos Tags:

Anna Molly – Cover with 3/4 of Sargon

June 24th, 2016 No comments

The legend was true: Sargon (or rather, 3/4 of it) is back! Now that the EU got smaller, we decided to reunite for this silly cover of Anna Molly, by Incubus. If you look carefully, you will suddenly see some younger versions of ourselves. They’re not our children, it’s just high quality photoshop skills. Enjoy!

Categories: covers, vídeos Tags: