Amid calls for independence, Catalonians for a unified Spain struggle to be heard
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Close to a million people took to the streets of Barcelona on Monday to rally for independence on Catalonia’s national day. But those who wish to remain part of Spain say that expressing their views has become increasingly difficult.
On the day following Catalonia’s national holiday (La Diada Nacional de Catalunya or “La Diada”), most of the red-and-yellow flags had disappeared along with the ubiquitous “Si” signs calling for Catalonians to vote for independence from Spain in a controversial October 1 referendum. In their place, once again, were the thousands of foreign tourists who usually flood Barcelona, the Catalan capital.
"This is the real face of Barcelona and Catalonia – its openness to the world," says José Bou Vila, who thinks of himself as Spanish despite the fact that his family has lived in Catalonia for several generations.
"Can you imagine this multicultural city, the largest cruise port in Europe and the rest of the region, cut off from the world with closed borders?"
An ‘illegal’ referendum
Vila, a business owner, called the possibility of independence "inconceivable". He rejects the idea that Catalonia will ever leave the Spanish or EU markets, or ditch the euro to return to the Catalan currency, the peseta.
"They are wrong," he says of the independence activists. "They refuse to see that Catalonia’s public services are now supported significantly by Madrid."
He said he will refuse to vote – even to check “No” – in the October referendum, which has been invalidated by Spain's Constitutional Court.
"I will not participate in an illegal act," he says.
Francesca*, 34, a waitress at a restaurant in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, does not seek independence for her region either. "Together, we are stronger and more effective," says the Barcelona native, who also refuses to take part in the upcoming vote.
"I am not going to endorse an undemocratic election," she adds, although she does not feel free to express her views around customers.
Only one political colour
Miriam Tey, vice-president of the Catalan Civil Society (SCC) association, which aims to ensure cohesion between the Catalans and the rest of Spain, is not surprised by Francesca’s restraint.
"Today, only one political colour is seen in the region," she laments, citing the local media as an example.
In the aftermath of La Diada, Catalan dailies such as El Periodico and La Vanguardia ran headlines proclaiming, "The ‘Yes’ has shown its muscle" and "The ‘Yes’ takes to the street". In contrast, Spain’s largest daily El Pais, which is openly opposed to the referendum and based in Madrid, opted for: "The Day of Disobedience."
While these Barcelona papers are independent of the Catalan leadership, Tey says other local media – "which receive subsidies from the nationalist government" and are disseminated regionally as well as throughout the EU – actively push what she called their "independence propaganda".
As a result, those in the “No” camp – despite being more numerous than those seeking independence – have struggled to make their voices heard.
According to the latest poll from the Catalan Government Institute in July, 41.1 percent of Catalans support independence while 49.4 percent are against it. In the last referendum on independence in 2015, 47.47 percent of voters in Barcelona voted in favour of secession from Spain.
Just weeks before the October 1 vote, Vila remains convinced that participation in the referendum will be low, citing the turnout at this week’s independence rally.
According to the SCC association, 225,000 people took part in the demonstration, whereas local media put the figure higher at 800,000. Nevertheless, Vila says, "this represents between 4 and 13 percent of the 6 million Catalan voters – nothing at all”.
For many Catalonians, to be openly against independence risks alienating friends and family.
"Today, every family is fighting and tearing itself apart," Tey says. "Everyone has a relative who does not agree with their views."
Francesca said she herself is angry with her cousin and several friends over the independence referendum. But although she may regret that she can no longer engage in friendly debate on the issue, she notes that they, at least, can state their views openly.
"I do not feel free to express my opinions in public," she says.
"If the ‘Yes’ vote prevails, I will no longer belong here and I will leave Catalonia."
* Name has been changed
This article has been translated from the original in French.