Lawmakers in Catalonia banned bullfighting Wednesday, making it Spain's first major region to ax the cultural icon of sword-wielding matadors and half-ton beasts and delighting activists bent on extending the ban to Madrid.
After impassioned debate that pitted animal rights against a pillar of Spanish tradition, cheers broke out in the local 135-seat legislature when the speaker announced the ban had passed 68-to-55 with nine abstentions. It will take effect in 2012 in the northeastern coastal region whose capital is Barcelona.
"We are euphoric with the banning of bullfighting in Catalonia. It's the beginning of the end," said Nacho Paunero, president of the animal rights group Refuge, which has collected 50,000 signatures in a bid to force a similar vote in the Madrid regional parliament. "We want debate in Madrid now."
Catalonia is a powerful, wealthy area with its own language and culture and a large degree of self-rule, and many in Spain have seen the pressure here for a bullfighting ban as a further bid by Catalonia to stand out from the rest of the country.
The practical effect of the ban will be limited: Catalonia has only one functioning bullring, in Barcelona, while another disused one is being turned into a shopping mall. It stages 15 fights a year which are rarely sold out, out of a nationwide total of roughly 1,000 bouts per season.
Still, bullfighting buffs and Spanish conservatives have taken the drama centering on the 'fiesta nacional' very seriously, seeing a stinging anti-Spanish rebuke in the grass roots, anti-bullfighting drive which started in the region last year.
But Joan Puigcercos, a lawmaker from a Catalan pro-independence party, insisted this was not about politics or national identity but rather "the suffering of the animal. That is the question, nothing more."
He said that even though attendance at bullfights is on the decline in Spain it would be morally wrong to sit back and just let the Spanish national pastime die a natural death.
However, the Catalan regional president, Jose Montilla, said Catalonia should have done just that — let social customs evolve to the point where bullfighting would vanish on its own, rather than legislate an end to it and deny people's right to choose whether to go the ring.
"I voted against the ban because I believe in freedom," Montilla said.
The result energized animal rights groups bent on seeking bans in other regions of Spain or abroad.
"The suffering of animals in the Catalan bullrings has been abolished once and for all. It has created a precedent we hope will be replicated by other democratic Parliaments internationally, in those regions and countries where such cruel bullfights are still allowed," said Leonardo Anselmi of PROU, the animal rights groups whose signature-collecting campaign late last year forced Catalonia's Parliament to debate and vote. Bullfighting is also popular in Mexico, parts of South America, southern France and Portugal.
Victoriano del Rio, a Madrid-area bull breeder whose family has been in the business since the late 18th century, called the ban a pointless act by "mediocre" politicians who want to attract attention. He predicted the ban would not damage bullfighting and could even backfire, causing aficionados to embrace it even more.
"The fiesta carries inside it something very important," he said, "and will withstand these ups and downs."
He added: "Banning things makes people want them more."
The center-right Popular Party, which is fervent about the idea of Spain as a unified country run from Madrid — and also supports bullfighting — said it will fight back against the ban here.
It will press both chambers of the Spanish Parliament to pass a law giving bullfighting a protected status that will bar regions from outlawing it, said Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, president of the party's Catalan branch.
In the Madrid region, the Refuge group recently presented more than 50,000 signatures as part of a petition to force a similar debate and vote. However, there they face a tougher battle because the Madrid regional parliament is controlled by conservatives who have declared bullfighting to be part of Madrid's cultural heritage.
The first Spanish region to outlaw bullfighting was the Canary Islands, in 1991. But fights were never that popular there and when the ban took effect there had not been a bullfight for seven years. That makes the Catalonia vote a much more potent case, even if bullfighting is not as popular there as it is in Madrid or down south in Andalusia.
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