Tens of thousands of Catalans poured into Barcelona on Tuesday demanding a split from the rest of crisis-hit Spain and control of their own economy.
A thousand buses from across the northeastern Spanish region carried supporters of Catalan independence to Barcelona for a march on the region's national day, or Diada, organisers said.
They rallied for the demonstration under the slogan: "Catalonia, a new European state."
Fiercely proud of their distinct language and culture, Catalans increasingly feel they are getting a raw deal from Madrid.
Last month, the region reached out for a 5.0-billion-euro ($6.3-billion) central government rescue so as to make repayments on its 40-billion-euro debt, equal to a fifth of its total output.
But the Catalan government, led by regional president Artur Mas and his pro-autonomy Convergence and Union alliance, says the region is just asking for its own money back.
Catalonia, which accounts for one-fifth of the Spanish economy, says it pays the central government far more in taxes than it receives in return: a deficit of seven to eight billion euros a year.
In Barcelona's Plaza de Catalunya, which was dressed in red and yellow striped Catalan flags, protesters gathered for the evening march.
"The crisis gives us more reasons for independence," said 24-year-old lawyer Mar Tarres.
"There is a feeling that we have more cuts here because we are paying for the others," she said, citing the example of Castellon airport, which was built in neighbouring Valencia during a boom but now has no commercial flights.
Euralia Gili, a 68-year-old pensioner whose bicycle was draped in the region's flag, said Catalans felt they were living in a "colony".
Catalonia's regional president wants a new "fiscal pact" to allow the region to raise and spend its own taxes, rather than relying on the central government.
The northern Basque Country region already enjoys those rights, and its debt has a higher credit rating than the rest of the country.
"There is no battle more pressing, no challenge more important than attaining fiscal sovereignty for our country. And never more so than this very moment," Mas said on the eve of the march.
He said he could not join the march himself because of his "institutional" role representing all Catalans.
"Nevertheless, even being absent, I want you to know that your demands are my own, your voice is my own and your desires my own," Mas said.
"Because in the end, whether demanding the fiscal pact, our own state, the respect we deserve as a pacific and democratic nation, or simply to be treated with dignity, all these voices want the same thing: more justice and liberty for Catalonia."
A survey taken in July and published in Barcelona-based La Vanguardia on Sunday showed 51.1 percent of people in Catalonia in favour of independence, compared to just 36 percent in 2001.
But nationwide, 77 percent of Spaniards are against Catalan independence, and 86 percent think Madrid should control Catalonia's accounts if it extends a rescue to the region, said a survey Monday in right-wing daily La Razon.
Emotions are heightened by a deepening Spanish recession that has left one in four workers jobless and led Madrid to pursue deep austerity cuts including cuts to health and education in the regions.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party government insist that fiscal autonomy for Catalonia will do nothing to resolve the economic crisis.
The only path, Rajoy says, is to slash the public deficit for the central government and in the regions, on which Madrid has imposed a deficit limit equal to 1.5 percent of economic output this year.
Catalonia posted a deficit of 3.9 percent of its output last year, contributing to the nation's overall deficit of 8.9 percent -- a figure that alarmed world financial markets.
"Catalonia has very serious problems, the first is unemployment, deficit and debt problems, and those problems it shares with the whole of Spain and many regions," Rajoy said in a television interview on Monday.
"What we don't need now is a dispute or polemics," he said.
© 2012 AFP
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