Pro-independence Catalans marshal ‘human chain’
Independence-seeking Catalans marshalled their forces on Wednesday for a 400-kilometre (250-mile) human chain in a bold push to break from Spain despite fierce opposition from Madrid.
Demonstrators in yellow t-shirts bearing the slogan “Catalan Way Towards Independence” prepared for the chain, which organisers said would unite hundreds of thousands of people.
It will stretch across 86 cities, towns and villages along the coast of the northeastern region on the Mediterranean, passing landmarks such as the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona and the city’s Camp Nou football stadium.
The action marks Catalonia’s national day, or Diada, which recalls the final defeat of local troops by Spanish king Philip V’s forces in 1714.
“It’s going to be a historic day,” said Carme Forcadell, the president of the Catalan National Assembly, the grassroots group organising the human chain. She predicted over 400,000 people would take part.
Rain showers were forecast in the region and it was unclear in the morning how many would turn out.
Groups of participants set off by road from Barcelona in the drizzle, honking their car horns as they headed to join the chain in various parts of the region.
Cars and buildings were hung with pro-independence flags — yellow and red stripes with a white star on a blue background.
Participants were to link arms at 1714 hours (1514 GMT), a reference to the year 1714, which for many Catalonian nationalists marked the beginning of three centuries of oppression by the Spanish state.
“It was about time we did something like this,” said Joan Sabate, 81, who was planning to join in the chain in central Barcelona.
“I never thought I’d see independence in my lifetime, but now I am hopeful and I think I will.”
Up the coast north of Barcelona in the village of Arenys de Munt, shops along the high street were packed with independence flags and t-shirts bearing the slogan “We are a nation.”
“This is a very important step to gain independence for Catalonia. I hope we will get it in just a few years,” said Albert Sole, 14, going out for the event with his parents, sister, grandparents and other friends and relatives.
Late on Tuesday hundreds of people also held a torchlit march through central Barcelona, singing the Catalan official anthem.
The protest is an attempt to emulate the 1989 Baltic Way chain that called for the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Hundreds of thousands of people joined in a huge national day rally in Barcelona last year as Catalonian separatist stirrings were stoked by the cuts to health and education services.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s right-leaning government refuses to countenance a breakup of Spain, and has vowed to block a referendum on self-rule that Catalonian regional president Artur Mas has promised for 2014.
A referendum would be a “unilateral declaration of independence that would have serious consequences for Spain and also for Catalonia” which would have to “bid farewell to the European Union”, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Tuesday.
Mas hit back, saying Catalonians “must be consulted next year on their political future” an vowing to use all “legal and democratic means” to that end. As usual, he avoided using the word “independence”.
The Catalonian government wants Spain to follow the example of Britain, which has allowed a referendum on Scottish independence to take place next year.
Proud of their Catalan language and culture, which was repressed under the Francisco Franco dictatorship, many of the 7.5 million people in debt-laden Catalonia resent seeing their taxes redistributed to other parts of Spain.
Suffering in Spain’s recession, Catalonia has a jobless rate of 23.85 percent — lower than the national average of 26.26 percent but still painfully high — and a public debt of 50.9 billion euros ($67 billion).
It has had to ask Madrid for 9.07 billion euros from a fund to help debt-laden regions.
Mas, while he supports the protest, said he would not join in himself as he is the political leader of all people in Catalonia, including those who want to remain part of Spain.