Catalonia's long struggle with independence

Barcelona: Josep Sabate woke at 5am last Sunday and went to school with his mother.

Sabate is 33 years old - they weren't there to learn, but to defend the school in his village of Roquetes against attempts to stop the Catalan independence referendum.

"There were several hundred of us," he says. "When we went to vote it was really awesome to know that we were all one, a pinya."

Pinyas are the hundreds-strong base of the human towers, or castells, that are traditionally built in festivals in Catalonia.

Those in the pinya must not only be strong enough to bear the weight of the layers above them, but they also act as a safety net, catching those above them if the castell falls.

Building a castell isn't easy. But more often people get hurt when pulling it apart.

If Catalonia declares independence from Spain next week - as its leaders say it will, after 2 million people voted in favour last Sunday - it will not be the first time. And it has never ended well.

In 1641, the Catalans had had enough of economic mismanagement and corruption in the country's capital. The first Catalan Republic was proclaimed. King Philip IV sent an army to quash the revolt, so Catalonia turned to France for help, but after famine and plague swept the region, it returned to Spain.

In 1934, Catalonia's president Lluis Companys proclaimed the Catalan State as part of a left-wing insurrection. It was quickly crushed. Most of the new government's members were jailed and Companys was executed in 1940.

Spain has not yet said how it will respond to a declaration of independence if it comes next week. But there have been reports of the country's defence ministry sending convoys to set up new barracks for police on Barcelona's fringes.

Spain's Constitutional Court has ordered the suspension of the Monday session of the regional parliament, which was expected to make the independence declaration.

And Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to abandon the plans for the declaration "to avoid greater evils" - a barely veiled threat.

Catalonia is already an "autonomous community" under Spain's 1978 constitution, which restored democracy after Francisco Franco's death.

It has its own executive and parliament, and in 2006 won greater powers over taxation and nation status. However much of that statute of autonomy was struck down as unconstitutional by a court decision in 2010. The country's constitution asserts the "indissoluble unity" of Spain, and any referendum to the contrary is not just toothless, it's illegal.

The conservative Rajoy has taken a similarly inflexible stance. His view, backed by the court's, is that the referendum is not worthy of the name - and he says police acted on Sunday in just defence of Spanish democracy.

After voting, Josep headed into Barcelona. He is a member of the national secretariat of the National Catalan Assembly, an organisation campaigning for Catalan independence.

On the train into Barcelona he got a call from a friend back in Roquetes.

"He told me how the police were arriving, how they were breaking the windows, how they came to look for the ballot boxes," he says.

He saw photos. "To see the police beating up an entire village is very affecting. I - well - I cried."

He felt worry, then rage, but then, he says, he was moved by the people's resistance.

"Even when they hit us we stayed silent, seated and didn't move an inch and didn't reciprocate their violence.

"I don't want to be part of a state that comes to your village and attacks you, I can't be part of that state any more."

Catalan health authorities reported more than 800 people were injured when police stormed polling stations around Catalonia last weekend, dragging people out of voting queues, beating them with truncheons, even shooting them with rubber projectiles.

Spain's interior ministry disputed the Catalan figures, saying the real number of injuries was just four. They said 431 members of state security forces - police and civil guards - were injured by bruises, scratches, kicks and bites from would-be voters.

An international parliamentary delegation later expressed its "abhorrence" at the violence of the Spanish state. Amnesty International said it had "directly confirmed on the ground that members of the [Spanish police] and Civil Guard officers used excessive and disproportionate force against demonstrators who were passively resisting in the streets and at the entrances to polling stations".

"It was a trap," says one Catalan who supports union with Spain. He says the separatists had predicted that their victory would be the images of police suppressing the vote. "They had more cameras than the Olympic games and the Spanish government fell into it."

Tunku Varadarajan, former Madrid bureau chief for The Times of London, agrees. In an editorial for Politico after the referendum, he wrote that the separatists had created a "political mise-en-scene".

Despite the police action, the vote went ahead. Some polling places used stunts to hide their ballot boxes: in one photo, which went viral on Twitter, polling officials cheekily played a game of dominos as nonplussed riot police stood behind their shields.

In another village, people sang in a church to disguise the vote count.

On the streets of Barcelona, as Sunday night wore on, impromptu street parties formed around polling stations.

And then, around 11pm, the crowd erupted. Vote counters emerged with ballot boxes aloft like trophies. And then came the booth's official result: more than 4000 'yes', less than 400 'no'.

A ballot box is taken from a school in Girona assigned to be a  polling station by the Catalan government.

A ballot box is taken from a school in Girona assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government. Photo: AP

It was a microcosm of the vote as a whole - more than 90 per cent of ballots were cast for independence. But unionists scorned the result. Most of those against independence had decided not to vote, so as not to legitimise the referendum. Just over 40 per cent of the region's registered voters had taken part. Opinion polls have in recent years shown a region split down the middle.

This division is relatively new. A decade ago, the independence movement was a very small minority.

Then came the 2010 decision of Spain's Constitutional Court, cutting back Catalan language status, powers on immigration and taxes and the right to call referendums.

The next day a million Catalans took to the streets and put a new fire under the independence movement.

Catalonian national day, 2013. Since 2010, support for independence has grown significantly.

Catalonian national day, 2013. Since 2010, support for independence has grown significantly. Photo: New York Times

This is the standard narrative, but it is not undisputed. Others take a more pragmatic view, citing the global financial crisis and Europe's persisting economic malaise afterwards as a major factor in the new push for secession. Independence supporters claim the Spanish state takes far more in taxes than it repays in benefits and investment.

Joan Llorach is the co-author of an unlikely bestseller, titled "The accounts and the tall tales of independence" (it sounds much better in Spanish: Las cuentas y los cuentos). The book takes apart some of the economic claims of Catalan separatists - including the myth of the big fiscal deficit.

Llorach says independence for Catalonia has been sold on the back of an economic fantasy that bears no relation to the present and certainly will not represent its future.

"It would be a phenomenal self-inflicted limitation of opportunity, like Brexit," he says.

His co-author, well-known Socialist Party politician Josep Borrell, has publicly compared one of the most prominent pro-independence politicians, historian Oriol Junqueras, to Britain's Nigel Farage.

Oriol Junqueras, third right, has been compared by opponents of independence to Britain's Nigel Farage.

Catalan politician Oriol Junqueras, second from left, has been compared by opponents of independence to Britain's Nigel Farage. Photo: Bloomberg

Last year Borrell called the separatist movement "a mirror of Brexit" and said Junqueras and Farage had "deceived their fellow citizens", one with false economic data to sell the benefits of independence, and the other defending Brexit with arguments that had been proven untrue.

"We live in a post-fact democracy," Borrell complained.

Llorach says the Spanish government may have successfully prevented independence now, but the support may continue to grow.

This makes him unhappy. He - a Catalan born and bred - sees independence as a "move against the progress of humanity".

He sees a reversal of the recent trend to international friendship, of bonds that cross borders. The divisions that have grown in Spain, and particularly in Catalonia, are breaking his heart, he says.

Irene Guszman, 15, wearing a Spanish flag on her shoulders and Mariona Esteve, 14, with an 'estelada' or independence flag, in Barcelona on October 3.

Irene Guszman, 15, wearing a Spanish flag on her shoulders and Mariona Esteve, 14, with an 'estelada' or independence flag, in Barcelona on October 3. Photo: AP

"In every family there is a major split. And we don't have an end date, because the Spanish government is never going to have a referendum."

Josep Sabate, though, is inspired and excited by the prospect of independence. He thinks Madrid held back progress and progressive politics in Catalonia. He doesn't necessarily want border posts to spring up overnight. He pictures a few years in which the divorce is settled, hopefully mediated by disinterested internationals (some have suggested Kofi Annan, or Barack Obama).

If Spain acts unilaterally, he predicts Catalonia will "mobilise in the street".

"If [Spain] use force it can't last forever," he says. "They can't take control of territory on a permanent basis if that's their strategy."

There is increasing pressure on Rajoy to open dialogue with Catalonia, and perhaps bring some concessions to the table. It's not his style, though. He is not a natural charmer or conciliator.

The weeks to come will tell whether Catalan is making, or merely repeating, history.

Additional reporting by Scott Arthurson

This story Catalonia's long struggle with independence first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.