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Peaceful marches, a general strike and violent unrest have convulsed Catalonia, in northeastern Spain, this week after a group of Catalan leaders received long prison sentences.
On Monday, Spain’s Supreme Court convicted 12 politicians and prominent activists for their part in a 2017 push to declare Catalonia an independent republic. Nine of the leaders, including the former vice president of the Catalan government, were sentenced to between nine and 13 years in prison for sedition. Four of them also were charged with misuse of public funds.
Yet while many Catalans are outraged at the central government in Madrid for the harsh crackdown on the independence movement, the huge demonstrations have obscured deep divisions in Catalan society.
In an official survey in July, more than 48% of respondents said they did not want Catalonia to become an independent state, compared with 44% in favor.
Just a 20-minute metro ride from the unrest downtown in Catalonia’s capital city of Barcelona, the working-class neighborhood of Nou Barris has a somewhat different mood. It has hardly any pro-independence flags hanging from balconies and few of its residents are seen wearing the yellow ribbon that supporters of the jailed leaders have pinned to their clothes.
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“Catalonia belongs to Spain,” says Sara Pérez, 62, sitting on a park bench in Nou Barris, waiting for her grandson to get out of boxing class. “I consider myself Catalan, although the way things are going, each day a little less.”
She says her neighborhood is full of people who agree with her, even though she tries to avoid the thorny subject of Catalan independence. You never know how people might react, she says.
“I’ve heard of families who have always gotten along but are now arguing over this,” Pérez says. “Some are in favor, others against it, and there’s conflict.”
Critics of the independence drive often point to Spain’s 1978 constitution, which says Spain is “indivisible” but it gives Catalonia some administrative and legal powers as an “autonomous community.”
Flanked by the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains, Catalonia has a population of about 7.5 million, the second largest in Spain, and a distinct language and cultural heritage. It contributes about a fifth of Spain’s gross domestic product, the biggest share. Its leaders have long sought greater autonomy for the community.
In October 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on whether to become an independent republic, but Spain banned it and deployed national police to prevent voting. Forty-three percent of voters turned up and chose independence by 90%. The Catalan parliament voted to declare independence.
These momentous events were a painful chapter for many Spaniards who reject Catalonia’s claim to sovereign statehood, but also for the many Catalans who watched Spanish authorities aggressively block voters, arrest the referendum organizers and ultimately take full control of the regional government.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and several others fled to Belgium to avoid arrest. Puigdemont faces possible extradition proceedings after Spain issued a European arrest warrant for him.
This week, Quim Torra, who became Catalonia’s president in May 2018, has taken a defiant stance after the court verdict: He is pushing for another independence referendum.
“If they convict us to 100 years for going to the polls for self-determination, then the response is clear: Self-determination should be put back on the ballot,” he said to Catalan parliament on Thursday.
Much of Catalonia is critical of both the Spanish and Catalan governments. Lola García, a 49-year-old taking an afternoon stroll with her daughter in Nou Barris, on the outskirts of Barcelona, says both sides are in desperate need of dialogue with each other, but neither is taking the first step.
“If the independence referendum would have been organized better, if they would have negotiated something with Madrid, I would have participated,” says García, who doesn’t support the independence movement. “We have the right to demand a vote on independence.”
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According to a poll in September, around 70% of respondents in Catalonia favored holding a referendum, as long as it’s carried out legally.
Sohail Jannessari, political science researcher at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, says rather than engaging in dialogue, Spain has historically suppressed independence movements — and that has made the movement’s supporters angrier.
“In essence, the whole process of the Catalan independence movement has been a massive mobilization to do civil disobedience against the Spanish state,” says Jannessari.
This week, many protesters were triggered by what they view as harsh sentences. For example, two of those convicted, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, the heads of grassroots groups that organized pro-independence protests, were sentenced to nine years in prison for sedition.
“It’s a very outdated crime to happen in a Western democracy in the 21stcentury,” Jannessari says. “Based on the interpretation of the Spanish law, yes, it’s illegal to hold a referendum on independence of a region. But they could’ve used other offenses to convict them.”