Catalonia Bans Bullfighting, but the Fight Isn't Over

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Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP

Animal-rights activists in Madrid celebrate the Catalan parliament's decision to ban bullfighting on July 28, 2010

It's been a long time coming, but on Wednesday, Catalonia took a historic step. With 68 votes in favor and 55 against, the Catalan parliament approved a measure that will make bullfighting illegal throughout the region.

The vote, which will make Catalonia the first region in mainland Spain to ban a tradition still referred to as the "national fiesta," was the result of a popular initiative, launched by an association called Prou! (Catalan for Enough!) and first admitted to parliament in November 2008. In addition to banning the centuries-old sport (or art, depending on your perspective), it provides for the indemnification of those businesses — the bullring impresarios and seamstresses who specialize in capes — whose financial well-being will suffer from the ban.

"There's a lot of satisfaction, a lot of euphoria here," says Prou! spokesman Eric Gallego, who was at the parliament for the vote. "Before, bulls were always an exception to Catalonia's animal-protection laws. At last they'll be protected by them."

Although two of the main political parties allowed their members to vote with their consciences rather than in a bloc, as they usually do, the decision broke down mostly along party lines. Both the center-right Popular Party (PP) and the Catalan Socialists largely opposed the measure, while the pro-autonomy parties Convergence I Unio, the Catalan Left and the Catalan Greens all supported it. That division has fed speculation that the ban was fueled by a nationalist agenda. The Barcelona newspaper El Periódico noted that the number of opposition votes had dropped since the last preliminary ballot on the ban, held in the parliament in December, while the nationalist component had grown, "especially after [Spain's] Constitutional Court voted against the Estatut" — a statute whose provision defining Catalonia as a nation was ruled unconstitutional by the court in June.

One parliamentary deputy, Alberto Rivera of the anti-nationalist party Ciutadans, accused his fellow lawmakers of hypocritical behavior. "If you really care about animal rights," he said sarcastically, "none of you will be eating foie gras from now on." Instead, he argued, proponents of the ban were motivated by the desire to "eliminate something that bothers them in the quest to construct an official Catalan identity."

Certainly the ban coincides with the Catalan sense of being distinct from the rest of Spain. "We're closer to the rest of Europe, and have always been more open, more cosmopolitan," said Prou!'s Gallego, when asked by TIME to explain why the anti-bullfighting movement is more powerful in Catalonia than elsewhere in the country. But the vote is hardly the work of a few ideologues. A 2006 survey showed that 71% of Catalans were opposed to bullfighting, and attendance at the northern region's few remaining bullrings has fallen precipitously in the past decade. Prior to the ban, Catalonia repeatedly attempted to limit bullfighting, passing a 2003 animal-rights law, for example, that prohibits children under 14 from attending a corrida. And 180,000 citizens signed the Prou! petition that initiated the July 28 vote.

For aficionados, however, the ban still comes as a blow. Luis Corrales, founder of the Barcelona-based Platform for the Defense of the Fiesta, spent the hours prior to the vote lobbying members of parliament and believed until the end that the prohibition wouldn't pass out of a respect for tradition and a desire to "preserve the freedoms of all citizens." His association conducted a study that found that the ban would cost the region €400 million ($520 million) in indemnities. "Given that we're in a terrible recession, why should the government be paying out that money?" he asked reporters prior to the vote.

The Platform for the Defense of the Fiesta intends to appeal the prohibition to Spain's Constitutional Court. But beyond Catalonia, the big question is what impact the ban will have on the rest of Spain. "Clearly this could have a negative impact on bullfighting throughout the country, by inspiring other similar initiatives," says Israel Vicente, director of Tauropress, a Madrid-based communications firm that specializes in promoting bullfighting. "But it could also provoke stronger attempts from parties like the PP to protect it. Before, the bulls were never politicized. Now we've opened Pandora's box."