A year later, Catalonia’s secession vote scars region, Spain

Catalan police officers cordon off the street to stop pro independence demonstrators on their way to meet demonstrations by members and supporters of National Police and Guardia Civil, as coloured powder is seen thrown by protesters, in Barcelona on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

MADRID (AP) — A secession vote in Spain’s Catalonia region that took place amid police violence one year ago not only posed a traumatic challenge to Spanish democracy, but nearly tore apart Barcelona resident Teresa Reyes’ family.

In the weeks before the unauthorized referendum that asked Catalan voters if they wanted to break away from Spain, pro-unity Reyes was unable to keep politics out of her interactions with her pro-independence son and other people she held most dear.

“We were in two irreconcilable frames of mind,” the 65-year-old matriarch said, recalling Oct. 1, 2017 — when the vote that Spanish courts had banned was held — as “the worst day in my life.”

Reyes says love won out over ideological differences with her son. But a year on, she keeps her contacts with fervent separatists outside of the family to a minimum.

The charged events of last fall, when years of tension and the unsettled independence question came to a head, echo in the lives of most of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents. They are heard in timid efforts to rebuild relationships at home, seen on streets still clad in political symbols and felt in the scars the breakaway attempt left on Spain’s four-decade old democracy.

On Saturday, clashes between far-left separatists and Catalan police in central Barcelona left 24 people injured and led to six arrests, although such episodes are an exception in a city that has hosted huge and largely peaceful rallies. Separatists have called to flood the streets again on Monday to mark last year’s referendum.

Even as the push for independence continues to shape national politics, Catalonia has remained part of Spain, much to the dismay of one side and comfort of the other. A judicial investigation led to the imprisonment of some separatist leaders, while others fled Spain to avoid arrest in self-imposed exile.

But for some Catalans, the foundation for the promised republic was laid with the referendum. From a base near Brussels, the region’s ex-president turned the Spanish Supreme Court’s prosecution of him into a platform for his self-determination campaign; so far, Carles Puigdemont has fought off extradition from Belgium and Germany.

Marti Puig, 32, a teacher in Catalonia, was clubbed and bruised when he and other willing voters formed a human chain to protect a school in a northern town where Puigdemont was expected to cast his ballot. Police officers forcefully stormed the facilities to crush the vote.

That violence, and Puig’s resentment toward separatist politicians who weren’t able to deliver on their promises, have not dimmed his resolve.

“Many of us thought there was a solid strategy” last year, Puig said, expressing the disappointment of many secession supporters. “We still want this independence and will continue to work toward it.”

Support for seceding remains high in Catalonia, despite — or because of — last year’s drive and setbacks.

According to a July survey by the official Catalan polling institute, 46.7 percent of Catalans support independence and 44.9 percent oppose it, rates more or less consistent with those in other recent years.

But the “unionists” who hung Spanish national flags from balconies to oppose the referendum have emerged as a strong voice in the Catalan debate. A center-right party that was started in Catalonia to oppose nationalism received more votes than any other party in the election Spain’s prime minister called after dissolving Puigdemont’s government.

The December election in Catalonia and a no-confidence vote in the national parliament brought in main new main players. Quim Torra became Catalonia’s president in a government heavily influenced by his predecessor. Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez inherited the Catalan crisis from ousted Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and leads a vulnerable minority government.

An August meeting between Torra and Sanchez was viewed as a start in repairing the damage. Since then, gestures from both sides signaled a desire for agreement; a recent deal secured the central government’s commitment to make more than $1.6 billion in overdue payments to the region.

But politicians haven’t given up confrontational postures in public, and observers fear the hesitant steps toward reconciliation could derail over two issues: the status of imprisoned separatist leaders and the still-unresolved matter of the region’s future, with or without Spain.

“The music and the rhetoric are very different,” Andrew Dowling, a Catalan history expert at Cardiff University in Wales, said. “But there can’t be any real political dialogue until the question of prisoners is addressed, because that’s the big political wound for Catalan society.”

Torra has urged the Spanish prosecutor’s office to ensure the release of nine politicians and activists. Sanchez had them transferred to prisons in Catalonia, but has said he can’t meddle in the legal case.

On the issue of secession, Torra and Sanchez have agreed it needs to be settled with a vote. Separatists want another independence referendum, this time a valid one sanctioned by the state.

Sanchez’s Socialists instead proposed a national vote on a new set of self-government rules for Catalonia and offered to amend Spain’s Constitution to establish a federal state that would look more like the system in Germany.

However, given Sanchez’s weak parliamentary support, observers think he is in no position to offer or deliver on the terms of future negotiations. The Socialist proposals also would be too far from independence to satisfy most separatists.

The independence movement itself is divided. Some want to further challenge the status quo, even push for a unilateral breakaway. The so-called pragmatists — led from prison by Catalonia’s former vice president — want to widen support for secession in the region before making another push.

“The independence movement suffered a big defeat last autumn, and it still doesn’t know how to come out of it,” Cardiff University’s Dowling said. “If there are new elections in Spain and Sanchez manages to widen his support, then that will be the opportunity to really begin to address the Catalan issue.”


Renata Brito and Joseph Wilson in Barcelona contributed to this report.

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