Spain's Catalonia punishes pro-referendum leader

Associated Press Modified: November 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm •  Published: November 25, 2012
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A rising tide of Catalan separatist sentiment was spurred when Rajoy failed to agree to Mas' proposals to lighten Catalonia's tax load and 1.5 million people turned out in Barcelona on Sept. 11 for the largest nationalist rally in the region since the 1970s.

These growing economic concerns have combined with a longstanding nationalist streak in Catalonia, which has its own cultural traditions that were harshly repressed by the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco from the end of Spain's Civil War in 1939, to Franco's death in 1975.

One of the most potent symbols of the divisions distancing Catalonia and the country's capital city can be seen in the bitter rivalry between the Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer clubs.

In recent years grassroots groups have held unofficial referendums on independence in towns throughout the region, while some small villages have gone to the extreme of declaring themselves "free Catalan territories."

Catalans are viewed by most Spaniards as thrifty, hardworking people, and most — not least many Catalans — have been shocked by how their regional debt has swelled to €42 billion ($54.4 billion) of the staggering €140 billion debt ascribed to all of Spain's regional governments.

The economic crisis has highlighted the high cost of running Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions alongside a central government. The Catalan government has had to ask for a €5 billion ($6.5 million) bailout from Spain like other indebted regions.

Mas' government counters that each year it contributes €16 billion ($21 billion) more than it gets back from Spain. It also complains that important infrastructure projects needed to revive Spain's sick economy are being left unfunded.

Even so, many people feel they are both Catalan and Spanish, and are wary of the idea of trying to divide the country.

"We are not separatists, we want to remain part of Spain," said retired industrial designer Francisco Palau, 69, who emerged from a polling station alongside his wife. "We defend current plurality," he said, adding that setting up a new state and government "would be very expensive."

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Harold Heckle reported from Madrid.