BARCELONA, Spain — Hundreds of thousands of Catalans took over the center of Barcelona on Monday to mark their national day and raise the pressure on the Spanish government in Madrid before an independence referendum planned for Oct. 1.
The referendum has been declared illegal by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and suspended by the Spanish judiciary as a violation of Spain’s constitution. But separatist leaders in the Catalan regional government have vowed to go ahead with it, even if they risk prosecution for civil disobedience.Continue reading the main story
Since 2012, the Diada, or Catalan national day, has been turned into the annual show of force of independence-minded Catalans.
On Monday, the protesters filled two streets of Barcelona to form a “plus” sign, representing citizens joining forces. Some demonstrators said the cross symbolized the mark they will put on their ballots in favor of independence, assuming the referendum goes ahead.
The national day marks a historic defeat for Catalans, the 1714 capture of Barcelona by the troops of Philip V of Spain. “Philip V repressed Catalonia, and three centuries later here we are, getting denied the right to vote in the Spain of Philip VI,” said Oriol Cabré, a retired industrial engineer, referring to the current king.Continue reading the main story
Many demonstrators insisted that they would also step up their protests if the result of the vote did not then become binding — as their separatist leaders have promised it would be.Continue reading the main story
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“Civil disobedience is sadly sometimes the only way,” said Manel Angurem, an international trade consultant who drove for about an hour with his wife and three children to Barcelona to attend the demonstration. “If it weren’t for civil disobedience in the United States, black people wouldn’t have managed to get a seat on the same bus as white people.”
Still, as in previous years, Monday’s protest was a festive and peaceful occasion, with some participants even forming the traditional Catalan castells, or human towers.Continue reading the main story
Catalans feel strongly about their distinct language, history and culture. But such feelings have become entwined in recent years with other issues, including how much tax revenue Catalonia should redistribute to poorer parts of Spain.
In addition to history, many of the participants cited pocketbook issues in wanting independence, after a financial crisis that helped fuel separatism in Catalonia.
“If we look after our own wealth rather than hand it over to Madrid, I’m sure independence will also bring us better economic conditions,” said Laura Solsona, who has a beauty salon in the town of Sabadell and had painted “Yes” on her forehead and a Catalan flag on her cheek.
Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Catalonia, assured the region’s voters that the independence referendum would take place, despite efforts by the Madrid government and Spanish courts to block it.
Catalan citizens “will vote, as they have always done in complete normality,” Mr. Puigdemont said. A referendum, he argued, would not escalate the secessionist conflict because “the ballot boxes don’t divide, they unite.”Continue reading the main story
The demonstrators held a minute’s silence in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks last month in Catalonia that killed 16 people, most of them mowed down by a van driver on Barcelona’s most famous promenade. Few in the crowds on Monday seemed concerned about security.
“We’ve always shown respect, and we now hope that we can convince others to respect our right to vote and become another normal European state,” said Jesús Ribera, a trade union official, who had a sticker on his sleeve showing Catalonia as a future member state of the European Union.
“I can assure you that all the people here today will be standing in front of the polling stations on Oct. 1, even if they are kept closed and Madrid also manages to seize the ballot papers and boxes.”Continue reading the main story
As the political clock ticks toward the Oct. 1 deadline for the referendum, the tension between Madrid and Barcelona is rising. Prime Minister Rajoy is even weighing whether to take emergency measures to stop the vote, a step many fear would deepen the standoff.
Even the crowd estimates were disputed on Monday. Local police put the number at about one million, while representatives from the central government in Barcelona estimated it at between 300,000 and 350,000.