BARCELONA, Spain — Catalan separatist took to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday in the first of a series of mass mobilizations demanding independence from Spain and the release of several high-profile secessionists from jail.
The traditional Sept. 11 march marking the ‘Diada,’ when the Catalan capital fell during the Spanish War of Succession in 1714, has drawn hundreds of thousands of secession supporters in recent years.
It comes nearly one year after an illegal referendum on secession held by Catalan authorities led to an ineffective independence declaration that received no international recognition. Catalan separatist leaders and activists who pushed it, defying Spain’s constitutional protection of territorial integrity, are either awaiting trial in prison or fled the country.
Quim Torra, the Catalan regional president, said Tuesday that while maintaining his pledge to see through the breakaway bid, his immediate focus was on putting pressure on the courts ahead of the trials of the separatist movement’s jailed leaders.
Torra’s goal is to rev up support for public showings of strength on Oct. 1, the anniversary of the referendum that was met by a police crackdown, the failed declaration of independence last Oct. 27, and the imminent start of the trials.
“In the coming weeks we are going to put all out efforts into denouncing” the situation of the jailed separatists, Torra said. “If the prisoners are not absolved, my government and the Catalan Parliament will take necessary action.”
Torra said that he would not go as far as throwing open the cells of the secessionists, who are being held in Catalan prisons run by his administration.
Some within the secessionist movement want Torra’s government to immediately try again to unilaterally break with Spain.
“We have come here today to demand once again freedom for Catalonia,” said 57-year-old Lourdes Casajus, who came from her home Vic, a town in the Catalan heartland, to join the separatist rally. “Last Oct. 1 we voted in a referendum and the majority for independence wasn’t respected. This Sept. 11 we demand that all the politicians, both from there and ours here, respect the people’s will.”
Torra, who came to power after secessionist parties won a regional election, has met with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and is planning a second meeting, in what is considered a thawing of relations between Madrid and Barcelona. Torra wants Spain’s new centre-left national government to agree to a binding independence referendum, while Sanchez will only offer a vote on increasing northeastern Catalonia’s already considerable degree of self-rule.
Polls and official election results indicate that roughly half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents are against severing century-old ties with the rest of Spain. Catalans have family in other parts of Spain, share in its cultural traditions and speak Spanish along with Catalan.
Those Catalans against secession decry what they consider the monopolization of the Diada, or ‘Catalonia Day,’ by separatists. Grassroots separatist groups in recent years have organized the massive rallies, including chartering buses to bring people into Barcelona from small towns.
Non-separatists often say they no longer feel welcome at the event, which they say has ceased to be a celebration of Catalan identity and become a political rally.
Ines Arrimadas, the regional leader of the pro-Spain Citizens party, criticized recent statements by Torra that the Diada was exclusively for those in favour of secession.
“Today we give voice to the millions of Catalans who will stay at home,” Arrimadas said. “We are standing up to say that union is stronger than disunion. Torra and those with him want to silence one half of Catalonia.”
There are also those who feel that the tensions that have arisen because of the secession question are taking an ugly toll on families and friendships.
“I am in the middle,” 53-year-old cafe owner Nelida Adell said. “I have more affinities with the separatists but I also have family ties in the rest of Spain. So I don’t want a radical break. I would like tensions to decrease. I fear things could get out of hand.”
Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press