One year after vote, Catalan separatists demand action

On Oct. 1, hundreds of Catalan activists blocked roads, occupied railway tracks, and protested outside of the Spanish delegation's local headquarters. The activists continue to demand independence from Spain one year after a divisive referendum vote took place.

Jon Nazca/Reuters
People hold up Catalan separatist flags during ceremonies marking the first anniversary of Catalonia's banned independence referendum in Girona, Spain, on Oct. 1, 2018.

Pro-secession activists in Catalonia blocked major highways, train lines, and avenues across the northeastern region Oct. 1 on the anniversary of a banned referendum that was crushed by police and failed to deliver independence from Spain.

Student strikes, emotional speeches, and mass demonstrations were planned to commemorate the Oct. 1, 2017, vote that Spanish courts had deemed illegal and that caused the country's gravest political crisis in decades.

The anniversary is being marked by a fractured Catalan independence movement and amid a timid dialogue with the central government, now in the hands of a minority Socialist administration.

The day began with early protests called via online messaging apps by the Committees for the Defense of the Republic, or CDRs. They are local activist groups that emerged after last year's independence declaration, based on the referendum's results, was never implemented. Central authorities took control of Catalonia and a judicial investigation landed top separatist leaders in jail while others fled the country.

In Girona, north of Barcelona, hundreds of activists Oct. 1 occupied high-speed railway tracks, halting train traffic for more than two hours before they peacefully left the local station. Some protesters then moved to the local headquarters of the Spanish government's delegation, demanding the removal of the national flag from the building.

The CDRs also shared photos and posts on social media showing road blockages on regional roads and at several points along the AP-7 highway, the main north-south artery running through eastern Catalonia and leading to the French border.

Their presence also disturbed traffic on the main roads of Catalan cities like Lleida and Barcelona, the regional capital, where marches were planned throughout the day.

Maria Vila, a protester who was placing "Republic under construction" stickers in Barcelona's main thoroughfare, said she wanted to highlight last year's violence and demand more progress on secession.

"The Catalan government has not done much and we are determined to make the Catalan Republic happen, in any way we can, even if it is by holding another referendum, a legal one," she told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, members of the regional government and other top authorities returned to Sant Julia de Ramis, the northern town that has become a symbolic place for Catalan separatists because one year ago police stormed into the local school to prevent people from voting.

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's president at the time, had been scheduled to vote there but had to find an alternative polling station when anti-riot police broke the gates of the school to confiscate ballot boxes and used batons to disperse and injure voters refusing to leave.

The incidents were broadcast live and brought pressure on the Spanish central government, at the time in the hands of conservatives. Separatists claimed a victory for independence in the vote despite its illegal nature, the police violence, and a lack of oversight.

In a brief speech Oct. 1, Catalonia's current president, Quim Torra, called on supporters gathered outside of the Sant Julia de Ramis school to remember the lessons of the referendum and to press ahead with efforts to secede from Spain.

He spoke while some people held a banner behind him reading, in Catalan, "People demand, the government obeys," a message that could be aimed at the Spanish government that says the country's constitution doesn't allow a referendum on a region's secession, but also at regional separatist politicians who have been criticized for not delivering on the promise of independence.

Mr. Torra was hand-picked by Mr. Puigdemont from Belgium, where the separatist leader successfully fought off extradition and has been advocating for an independent Catalonia. On Oct. 1, he released a video on Twitter calling on Catalans to remain united in persevering with the goal of breaking away from Spain.

"Let us not stray from the only possible way to live in a full democracy: the [Catalan] Republic and its international recognition," Puigdemont said.

Torra has asked the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to authorize a binding vote on secession, and also to release the nine separatist leaders that are in pre-trial detention on rebellion and other charges.

Dialogue between the regional and national administrations has so far delivered some economic deals for funding the region but remains mired amid internal discord among separatists on the best strategy going forward and the weak parliamentary support for Mr. Sanchez's government.

The spokeswoman of his new center-left government on Oct. 1 called last year's police violence "a mistake" and blamed it for damaging the country's reputation internationally. But Isabel Celaa also said the vote didn't succeed: "There is nothing to celebrate" on Oct. 1, she told Cadena Ser radio.

Polls and recent elections show that the region's 7.5 million residents are roughly equally divided by the secession question.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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