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Spain at an Impasse over Catalan Independence

Elia Gran Oct 12

Catalonia’s independence referendum and the police violence that confronted it has called into question the future of the Spanish nation. Catalan leaders signed a declaration of Independence on Tuesday, but suspended its implementation to allow for talks with Spain’s central Government. On Wednesday, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of the right-wing People’s Party, gave the Catalans five days to withdraw the declaration under threat of imposing federal rule on the autonomous region.

Catalans have long maintained a separate identity, unique to the broader Spanish nation and many in the region have grown increasingly frustrated with budgetary restraints imposed on local municipalities by the federal government. More than 2.2 million Catalans stepped into voting booths across the region’s 948 municipalities on Oct. 1, casting ballots on the question of whether to remain part of Spain. It was well known in advance that the central government in Madrid was not going to allow the referendum, organized by the Catalan government, to proceed without a show of force.

Prime Minister Rajoy declared the referendum unconstitutional. Officials with the Interior Ministry began preparing to stop the vote weeks in advance. They took down web pages that informed Catalans where to find polling stations and threatened to arrest local mayors who lent resources to the referendum. Three boats appeared just off the coast of Catalonia, two near Barcelona and another in Tarragon to the south, lodging thousands of federal police prepared to deploy on Oct. 1.  

Armor-clad police swinging clubs at civilians waving Catalan flags — even striking uninformed firemen and the elderly — recalled memories of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

As prepared as the police force was to halt the referendum, so too were Catalans determined to vote. The night before the vote took place, parents and their children occupied schools where many of the polling stations were established. On the day of, Catalans hid ballot boxes or gave police fake ones. In some instances, they set up blockades to prevent federal authorities from gaining access to polling sites. Images of armor-clad police swinging clubs at civilians waving Catalan flags — even striking uninformed firemen and the elderly — recalled memories of the Francisco Franco dictatorship to many in Catalonia, as they circulated on the news and through social media.

Over 900 people were injured in clashes with the police. Yet, almost half of the Catalan population was able to cast a ballot and 90 percent of those who took part voted in favor of independence.

Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, herself ambivalent over the referendum, condemned the violence, describing the Prime Minister as a coward. Rajoy, backed by the social-democratic and liberal members of parliament, said the use of force as necessary to maintain order and rule of law.

Two days after the referendum, a general strike was called by Catalonian unions protesting the police violence, that nearly ground commerce to a halt in the region. Spanish king, Felipe VI, appeared on television, calling the Catalan people disloyal to the state and accusing them of flaunting democratic principles. The next day the president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, called for the region’s self-determination and for a dialog to begin between his administration and the central government.

The following weekend, tens of thousands gathered in town centers across Spain. Dressed in white, they rallied under the banner “let’s talk.”

“We mustn’t resign ourselves to polarization, bellicose language and the competitive logic that only seeks the defeat of the adversary,” said Colau, who participated in the demonstration.  

The rally in white was followed the next day by a mass demonstration in Barcelona in favor of Spanish unity. The Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), a pro-Spanish association which organized the gathering, called for Catalans to be sensible.

“The nationalism here is ethnic, not civic; it’s linguistic, cultural, tribal, sentimental and romantic,” SCC President Álex Ramos told the British Observer.  “It’s not like the French revolution, demanding equality and liberty for all. Deep down these nationalists think they’re different from others and, ultimately, better than them.” A number of participants in the demonstration were observed performing fascist salutations.

Spain currently remains at an impasse. After signing a declaration of independence on Tuesday, President Puigdemont said was “suspending the effects” of the declaration to allow for dialogue with the federal government, which he called for the international community to help facilitate. Meanwhile, if Prime Minister Rajoy’s ultimatum goes unheeded and the declaration is not withdrawn, Catalonia risks losing its autonomy under article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a development that will likely intensify tensions on the streets of Barcelona.

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Photo: Thousands protest in Barcelona against the police violence that surrounded the Catalonia Independence Referendum. Credit: Adolfo Lujan.