Thousands in Barcelona rally against independence for Catalonia

 Thousands in Barcelona rally against independence for Catalonia

Nationalist activists march with Catalan, Spanish and European Union flags during a mass rally against Catalonia's declaration of independence, in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017.BARCELONA, Spain — Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who want Catalonia to remain part of Spain poured into the streets of Barcelona Sunday, a sharp rebuke to secessionists who two days earlier declared independence.

Spain's central government, calling the independence drive illegal and unconstitutional, has fired Catalonia's secessionist leaders, dissolved its Parliament and called new elections to take place in December.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked a constitutional provision known as Article 155 that gives the central government the authority to strip a region of its autonomous powers in the event of a grave breach of law.

In the heart of the Catalan capital, marchers flooded an elegant main boulevard and spilled into side streets around it, waving the Spanish national flag and singing Spanish folk songs. Many described feelings of fear and anxiety over the independence declaration, and spoke of their powerful ties to the region and to Spain as a whole.

In the crowd, schoolteacher Balbina Garcia de Polavieja, pregnant with her second child, said she embraced both identities.

"We have been in this country for hundreds of years," said Garcia de Polavieja, who is Madrid-born but a six-year resident of Catalonia. "To be Spanish is to share a history."

Municipal police quoted by the Catalan public broadcaster put the turnout at 300,000.

The march came on the eve of the first full business day since the independence vote. The region's ousted president, Carles Puigdemont, could face arrest, especially if he attempts to discharge any official duties, and some civil servants have threatened to ignore directives from Madrid.

The pro-unity rally contrasted with a night of wild rejoicing by independence supporters after Friday's vote by lawmakers to break away from Spain. At Sunday's march, speaker after speaker insisted that the parliamentary vote for independence had not reflected the will of the people.

Teresa Freixes, a Spanish jurist who teaches constitutional law at the University of Barcelona, called the anti-independence camp a "silent majority," drawing cheers from the crowd.

"We want to defend our values," she said. "How can you proclaim a republic against the will of the majority? They want to rob us of this Catalonia that belongs to all of us."

Voters in an Oct. 1 referendum overwhelmingly approved independence, but turnout was less than half the electorate after the central government declared the vote illegal and urged people to stay home from the polls.

Opinion polls have pointed to a roughly equal split between pro- and anti-secessionists in the region, and a new survey published Sunday in a Spanish newspaper gave the anti-independence side a tiny edge heading into parliamentary elections that are just six weeks away.

But the survey, conducted by the polling agency Sigma Dos and published in the conservative newspaper El Mundo, said the two sides were separated by less than 2 percentage points, within the margin of error.

Puigdemont Saturday appealed for resistance to Spain's direct rule using democratic means. It was not clear whether he envisioned separatists contesting the Dec. 21 elections.

Spain's foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, told the Associated Press Sunday that Puigdemont himself could "theoretically" run in parliamentary elections — if he isn't in jail by then.

Although some pro-independence politicians have urged a boycott, Puigdemont's deposed vice president, Oriol Junqueras, said secessionists should consider participating, even if they did not accept Spain's right to call the new elections. Junqueras wrote an open letter that was published Sunday in the Catalan newspaper El Punt-Avui.

Pro-unity politicians promised to vigorously contest the vote.

"We Catalans are going to the polls," anti-independence politician Xavier Garcia Albiol, of the conservative People's Party, said in an interview broadcast on TV3.

"If Puigedemont wants to be independent, it will have to pass with a greater majority," Albiol added, referring to the outcome of the disputed referendum.

Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain's economy, and there is widespread anxiety about financial fallout from a continued independence push. Hundreds of corporations have moved or plan to move their headquarters out of Barcelona, worried about potential unrest and the fact that an independent Catalonia would need to apply separately for European Union membership, a process that could take years.

Sunday's rally was organized by a group called Societat Civil Catalan, whose leader, Alex Ramos, said pro-unity forces had not awakened early enough to the prospect of a direct and damaging confrontation between separatist leaders and the central government.

"We have organized ourselves late," he said. "But we are here to show that there is a majority of Catalans who are no longer silent."

Protesters Sunday spoke of painful family rifts created by Spain's greatest constitutional crisis in decades.

Estrella Garcia said her husband supports Catalonian independence, while she supports Spanish unity. The difference in ideology has hampered their relationship, she said, to the point where she often walks out of the room when he watches Catalan public television, which she perceives as biased.

"It's very sad," she said. "We fight and don't speak."

By: Los Angeles Times

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