Pro-Spain Catalans push back on Barcelona secession protests

Catalans who want the region to remain part of Spain are increasingly frustrated with disruptions brought by a new wave of pro-independence protests.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Pro-Spain demonstrators participate in a protest organized by a unionist Catalan civil society group in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 27, 2019.

As a tour guide in one of Europe's top travel destinations, María José Martínez constantly takes busloads of tourists to an overlook in Barcelona to gaze upon one of Spain's most enchanting skylines.

But instead of being wowed by the Mediterranean blue and the sandcastle-like spires of Antoni Gaudí's La Sagrada Família basilica, recent clients have been unnerved by the sight of smoke rising from smoldering street barricades set aflame by Catalan separatists.

"My clients asked me, 'What is that huge column of smoke, María?'" Ms. Martínez said Friday recounting the moment from a few days before. "I said this is what the supposedly non-violent separatists are doing, burning the city."

Ms. Martínez is one of the roughly 50% of Catalonia's 7.5 million residents who polls and recent elections show are opposed to the wealthy region's separatist movement, which has provoked Spain's worst political crisis in decades. She and others say they are increasingly concerned with the violent turn that the separatist movement has taken after almost a decade of exclusively peaceful protests.

Barcelona and nearby towns were recently rocked by surprisingly violent riots that lasted for a week after a landmark Supreme Court decision on Oct. 14 that sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to prison for their role in a failed 2017 secession attempt. Many separatists considered the verdict unfair and have taken to the streets in protests that have been peaceful.

Some protests, however, have been followed by intense clashes with police. The street battles left over 500 people hurt, nearly half of them police, and have turned up the tension in Spain's restive northeast.

Many Spanish unionists are also fed up with what they consider the stifling social atmosphere in Catalonia, where separatists have the support of most public institutions, many elected officials in regional and town governments, and the public broadcast media.

Ms. Martínez and others who support Spanish unity say they often feel ignored or marginalized. Ms. Martínez says that she is considering leaving Barcelona altogether for southern Spain because her tour business is suffering cancellations by tourists scared off by the riots.

Other unionists are trying a different strategy: They are starting to push back.

The recent street violence spurred 80,000 unionists to fill a main Barcelona boulevard in their own protest Oct. 27.

While pro-secession parties and civil society groups have set aside their differences on social and economic issues and forged a common front, the unionist side has long been hobbled by divisions along classic left-right ideological lines. But the unionist protest was a rare event in which progressive and conservative politicians banded together at a rally for Spanish unity.

Jordi Salvadó, a law student, attended the unionist march. He is part of a student organization called S'Ha Acabat ("It's Over" in Catalan) which is challenging separatist activists at universities, where the focus has shifted as the streets have grown calmer.

Pro-secession student groups have marched and called strikes and sit-ins, pressuring several universities in Catalonia to cancel some classes and make attendance optional so students can join protests. Mr. Salvadó was part of a large group of students who have forced their way past lines of masked separatists who have barred the entrances to university buildings since the court verdict.

"What the universities have to do is stop giving them privileges," Mr. Salvadó said. "We don't think this is going to get better. [The separatists] must stop using force and respect the rights of those who think differently from them."

On the surface, Barcelona has mostly returned to normality, except for the occasional roadblock by small groups of separatists and the absence of trash containers in the city that were torched by protesters.

But the Catalan crisis is poised to be a decisive issue for Spain's national election on Nov. 10, where Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is trying to remain in power. He has refused to meet with Catalan chief Quim Torra, a fervent separatist, who Mr. Sánchez says has not been responsive enough to the concerns of his unionist citizens.

Mr. Torra and other separatist leaders are pledging to wage a non-violent civil disobedience campaign that to block roads and train lines in hopes of forcing the Spanish government to negotiate. Mr. Torra recently told The Associated Press that "If we don't sit down to talk, this won't stop" in reference to the protests.

And so while the riots have stopped for now, many fear that they could flare back up. That has left businesses worried about Barcelona losing its veneer as one of the world's most attractive cities.

Carlos Rivadulla, president of a pro-union business association, worries about the long-term cost of the separatist movement on Catalonia, one of Spain's traditional economic strongholds.

Over 1,000 Catalan companies, included Catalonia's two most important banks, registered their legal headquarters outside the region in 2017 at the height of the secession bid. Catalonia's economy grew slower than the average of Spain's other regions in 2018 and has fallen far behind the growth posted by Madrid.

"Mr. Torra is working against companies," Mr. Rivadulla said. "Spain is by far our most important client, and he is insulting them!"

He says Catalonia cannot afford to be caught in an "economic slow death" caused by violent protests, instability, and declining trade.

"All the indicators are deteriorating. We are shooting ourselves in the foot," he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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