Independence question looms ahead of Catalan president’s speech
iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — The region of Catalonia in northern Spain braced for a momentous climax to its bid for self-rule today, as Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was set to give a speech to the regional parliament in which he could declare independence.
The session follows an Oct. 1 referendum in which voters in Catalonia overwhelmingly called for independence. That vote, which Spain’s government in Madrid has rejected as illegal, was marred by violence as hundreds of people were injured in clashes with Spanish police.
A spokesperson for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Monday that Puigdemont, who was scheduled to speak this evening, could be jailed if he declares independence.
The area around parliament in the regional capital, Barcelona, was blocked off to the public today after hundreds of thousands of people attended protests over the past week for and against independence. As Puigdemont arrived this evening, he glanced toward the sky as a Spanish helicopter flew overhead.
“We don’t know what to expect,” Salvador Illa Roca, secretary of the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, which opposes independence, told ABC News. “We are asking for respect of the law.”
Puidgemont has several options.
He could declare independence outright today. Or he could say, as he said the night of the referendum, that Catalonia has “won the right to become an independent state,” but delay a formal declaration for several months, giving time for negotiations with Spain, mediation by the European Union, and preparations within Catalonia.
Or he could call for new, local parliamentary elections, to ratify the results of the referendum and go forward with a united front in the parliament here. That route is rife with risk, however; he could lose support if elections were to take place.
Joan Maria Picqué, a spokesman for the Catalan government, dismissed concerns about the risks inherent in a declaration of independence.
“George Washington was probably asked the same kinds of questions,” Picqué told ABC News. “This is our time. It’s 1775 for us. And we are going to get to 1776.”
The forces at work are complex, ranging from the loss of trust and faith in Madrid’s elites after the financial crisis to Rajoy’s hardline stance and bitter policy battles over taxes, budgets, and local control.
In Catalonia, which has its own language, history, and culture, Catalans who support breaking away from Spain often speak of maintaining their dignity. Spain’s central government has sometimes suppressed that language and culture. Many Catalans believe Madrid has never truly respected them as equals.
Puigdemont has found himself under tremendous pressure.
The government of Spain has threatened to seize control of his government if he does make the declaration. This move, allowed by the Spanish constitution and dubbed by some as the “nuclear option,” would likely lead to the arrest of top officials, seizure of the parliament and other institutions, and could trigger violence.
Businesses in Catalonia, which contributes one-fifth of the country’s GDP and is its richest region, have pushed back against the independence bid. Big banks have already moved their legal headquarters out of the region, and foreign investors are threatening to pull out.
Meanwhile, much of the infrastructure in Catalonia — power, transportation, and communications — is in the hands of Spanish companies.
A spokesperson for the Spanish interior ministry told ABC News that members of the national police force remained in Catalonia. “We are ready to intervene in case of big protests,” the spokesperson said.
Nuria Trapero, a 24-year-old waitress in Barcelona, told ABC News that Catalans had spoken when they voted for independence and that the Spanish authorities should respect their wishes.
“I am preparing myself to go back in the streets,” Trapero said. “We will see after the parliament session.”
Jaume Verdaguer, a 37-year-old unemployed man in Barcelona, told ABC News he was “neutral” — but said that “we all hope secretly we will win independence.”
“It’s an important for us, as if it’s not today, we will have to wait again another generation,” he added. “Thirty or fmore years.”
Ben Gittleson contributed reporting to this article.
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