Tensions escalate in Spain as Catalan independence gains traction

Madrid's violent crackdown on independence voters fuels the secession movement, while pro-unity demonstrators flood the streets in opposition.
Demonstrators cram outside the National Police headquarters in Barcelona on Oct. 3, 2017, in protest of violence inflicted on Catalan voters two days earlier. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

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Violence and defiance are sweeping Catalonia, the autonomous region of Spain.

Protests have erupted since a Catalan independence vote on October 1, 2017, prompted an aggressive crackdown by national police.

Social media videos capture Spanish troops flooding the vote, confiscating ballot boxes and forcefully removing peaceful voters.

Gerry Hadden, a public radio correspondent in Barcelona, witnessed the violence firsthand while at his children's school, which was being used as a voting station. 

"About lunchtime, the national police showed up, broke the front door down, beat a bunch of people on the street who were trying to block them peacefully," Hadden tells The Current.

"It was complete chaos, and eventually, they got the ballot boxes and marched out again — leaving hundreds of people bewildered, shocked, some injured, and just at a loss for words."

Spanish Civil Guard officers remove demonstrators outside a polling station for the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, October 1, 2017. (Susan Vera/Reuters)

Marc Coll, a resident in Barcelona, had a similar experience while at his child's school.

"We just sat down in front of the door with hands up ... They surrounded us and then they took out the sticks and started hitting everyone and moving us out. And it was really scary."

But Hadden says this show of force only worked to fuel the independence movement.

"Spain's prime minister drove more people into the independence camp by being heavy handed with the police last Sunday," he tells guest host Laura Lynch.

"I'm looking for a complete separation," affirms Coll. "It's nothing to do with the Spaniards. It has to do with the central government. I think they've gone too far."

Secessionists are taking advantage of their momentum and preparing a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain which could be adopted in the next few days.

"The current leadership is hoping to use the pressure of this possible declaration as a bargaining tool, as leverage to get the central government of Spain to sit down and begin negotiating," explains Hadden. 

National police force their way through a crowd and into an independence polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Paul Freedman, a historian at Yale University, says Catalan's sense of independence has persisted since the Middle Ages.

"They have a different history, they have a different language … They were basically an independent principality," Freedman tells The Current

"Since the early 18th century, they've been a part of a more unified Spain, but they've had autonomous rights since the death of Franco. So they see themselves as a different nation, and I would say, above all, as a richer people."

David Jiménez Torres, a professor of history and literature at Camilo José Cela University, pushes back against the idea that Catalan people are unified in their posturing towards secession, but agrees wealth is relevant.

"Catalans are deeply divided over the question of independence, and the divisions run very deep along linguistic lines and also along class lines. All the data we have suggests that [secession] is supported by the upper classes and the upper middle classes, whereas the working class of Catalonia and the lower middle class do not."

As evidence of this divide, Jiménez Torres points to Catalonia's last regional elections, where the independence party won a majority of seats, but lost the popular vote.

"What we're talking about is a push for a unilateral secession … carried out by a government that has the support of 48 per cent of Catalans."

Pro-unity protesters wave Spanish flags in Barcelona on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Indeed, on October 8, hundreds of thousands of pro-unity demonstrators filled the streets of Barcelona to oppose separation, and protests are expected to continue.

"What people do in advanced democratic societies is work together and work through dialogue to try to reach compromises that are helpful for everyone," says Jiménez Torres.

"What they don't do is unilaterally decide they don't like the rules and they're just going to break away."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Samira Mohyeddin and Yamri Taddese.