Spanish cabinet meeting stirs up dissent in Catalonia

Pro-independence Catalan demonstrators took to the streets Dec. 21 to protest against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's decision to host a weekly cabinet meeting in Barcelona, bringing hundreds of anti-riot officers from the national police force with him. 

Santi Palacios/AP
A pro-independence protestor wears a Catalan flag in Barcelona, Spain, on Dec. 21. Protestors are demonstrating against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's decision to hold a cabinet meeting in Barcelona this week.

Thousands of pro-independence protesters angry about Spain's Cabinet holding a meeting in Catalonia blocked roads across the region Friday and clashed with anti-riot police in its capital.

Grassroots separatist groups and unions called the protests to show their disgust at Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's decision to lead his weekly Cabinet meeting in Barcelona.

The Catalan regional government, formed by a coalition of pro-secession parties, is also supporting peaceful protests despite an agreement with central authorities to find a way out of the political crisis that has festered since Catalonia's failed secession attempt last year.

After their encounter on Thursday, the second since both took power earlier this year, Prime Minister Sanchez and Catalan President Quim Torra issued a joint statement calling for dialogue to settle the conflict over the future of the northeastern region.

That outcome was beyond the low expectations that had been placed before the talks, when disagreement over their scope and format kept officials negotiating until the very last minute. Sanchez, who inherited the Catalan crisis when he toppled his conservative predecessor in June, made mending relations with the prosperous region one of his priorities.

But despite the progress, distrust prevailed. Security in the prosperous northeastern region, normally in the hands of the Catalan police, was reinforced with hundreds of anti-riot officers sent by Spain's national police forces for Friday's ministers' meeting.

"It is a provocation," said Oriol Benet, a pharmacist who joined others marching near the headquarters of the National Police in Barcelona.

Spanish television broadcast live Sanchez' walk from his hotel to the 14th-century Gothic palace in downtown Barcelona. It was an attempt to display a sense of everydayness and normalcy but instead showed the prime minister walking through empty streets heavily guarded by police.

Meters away a crowd of mostly young protesters jeered "Go away! Go away!" Police charged to keep them at bay when they moved trash containers and tried to break the double security cordon shielding the meeting's venue. Larger clashes erupted around midday.

The regional Mossos d'Esquadra police force said that one of four protesters arrested for public order offenses carried material to manufacture Molotov cocktails.

In the northern province of Girona, a main highway was blocked with tires and barricades, and at least a dozen more roads saw disruptions according to the regional transit authorities.

Carrying a banner calling for the release of nine jailed Catalan politicians and activists who face a rebellion trial, Carme Almarza said she didn't trust the politicians' agreement. "Not until I see the prisoners freed," the social worker said.

"Any chance to talk is good," said Carlos Castilla, watching from a distance how protesters launched smoke bombs. "It is clear the status quo doesn't work, they agreed on that. I think the answer is more self-government and that Catalonia manages its own finances."

Sanchez, who has been harshly criticized by the right-wing opposition for his meeting with Mr. Torra, has presented the meeting in Barcelona as "a way of showing affection to Catalonia."

The cabinet is expected to rename the Barcelona airport in honor of Josep Tarradellas, who headed the Catalan government in exile during Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship, and raised the country's monthly minimum wage from 736 to 900 euros ($1,019).

Sanchez, whose minority government controls only a quarter of the national parliament, hopes that the plan's social spending will make it difficult for Catalan separatist parties to reject his 2019 budget in a vote scheduled for January.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Aritz Parra reported from Madrid.

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