Divided separatists remember quashed Catalan vote 1 year ago

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SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, Spain — Activists advocating for Catalonia’s secession from Spain blocked major highways, train lines and avenues across the northeastern region Monday, one year after a banned referendum crushed by police failed to deliver an independent state.

Student strikes, emotional speeches and mass demos were planned to commemorate the Oct. 1, 2017, vote that Spanish courts had deemed illegal and that caused the country’s gravest political crisis in decades.

The anniversary is being marked by a Catalan independence movement fractured over strategic differences and amid a timid dialogue with the central government, now in the hands of a vulnerable minority Socialist administration.

The day began with early protests called via online messaging apps by the Committees for the Defense of the Republic, or CDRs, local activist groups that emerged after an independence declaration, based on last year’s referendum’s results, was never implemented. Central authorities took control of Catalonia and a judicial investigation landed top separatist leaders in jail while others fled the country.

In Girona, north of Barcelona, hundreds of activists on Monday occupied the high-speed railway tracks, halting train traffic for more than two hours before they peacefully left the local station. Some protesters then moved to the local headquarters of the Spanish government’s delegation, demanding the removal of the national flag from the building.

The CDRs also shared photos and posts on social media showing road blockages in regional road and at several points along the AP-7 highway, the main artery running south-to-north through eastern Catalonia and leading to the French border.

Their presence also halted traffic in main arteries of Catalan cities like Lleida and Barcelona, the regional capital, where marches were planned at noon and a main demo scheduled in the evening.

Meanwhile, members of the regional government and other top authorities returned to Sant Julia de Ramis, the northern town that has become a symbolic place for Catalan separatists because one year ago police stormed into the local school to prevent people from voting.

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president at the time, had been scheduled to vote there but had to find an alternative polling station when anti-riot police broke the gates of the school to confiscate ballot boxes and used batons to disperse and injure voters refusing to leave.

The incidents were broadcast live and brought pressure onto the Spanish central government, at the time in the hands of conservatives. Separatists claimed a victory for independence in the vote despite its illegal nature, the police violence and the lack of standard oversight.

In a brief speech Monday, Catalonia’s current president, Quim Torra, called on supporters gathered outside of the Sant Julia de Ramis school to remember the lessons of the referendum and to press ahead with efforts to secede from Spain.

He spoke while some people held a banner behind him reading, in Catalan, “People demand, the government obeys,” a message that could be aimed at the Spanish government that says the country’s constitution doesn’t allow a referendum on a region’s secession, but also at regional separatist politicians who have been criticized for not delivering on the promise of independence.

Torra was hand-picked by Puigdemont from Belgium, where the separatist leader has been fighting against extradition and advocating for an independent Catalonia. On Monday, he released a video on Twitter calling on Catalans to remain united in persevering with the goal to break away from Spain.

“Let us not stray from the only possible way to live in a full democracy: the (Catalan) Republic and its international recognition”, Puigdemont said.

Torra has asked the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to authorize a binding vote on secession, and also to release the nine separatist leaders that are in pre-trial detention on rebellion and other charges.

Dialogue between the regional and national administrations has so far delivered some economic deals for funding the region but remains mired amid internal discord among separatists on the best strategy going forward and the weak parliamentary support for Sanchez’s government.

Polls and recent elections show that the region’s 7.5 million residents are roughly equally divided by the secession question.


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