Catalonia Nears Autonomy From Spain

Jose Lopez, 52, a news vendor in Barcelona, says Spain is moving toward a U.S.-style system
Jose Lopez, 52, a news vendor in Barcelona, says Spain is moving toward a U.S.-style system "where a person is a citizen of a state and of the country, too." (By John Ward Anderson -- The Washington Post)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 28, 2006

BARCELONA -- They have their own language, their own culture, and a history of rebellion going back more than 500 years. They have had periods of semi-independence punctuated by brutal government crackdowns. They have a vibrant economy that is the envy of their country. And they're determined to become their own nation.

It is a picture that fits any number of armed separatist movements around the world. Here, it describes a peaceful drive for more autonomy in the Spanish region of Catalonia, and it is nearing success with the backing of the country's Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Opponents say the plan for more self-rule is a Trojan horse, paving the way for full independence, striking at the foundation of Spain's 28-year-old democracy and threatening to break up the country. Francesc Vendrell, a spokesman in Catalonia for the opposition Popular Party, calls it unconstitutional. "If the current proposal is approved," he said, the effect would be to give the Basque region "a basis for independence."

But supporters say the legislation could achieve just the opposite by giving the Basque separatist group ETA, which Spain and the United States label a terrorist organization, a peaceful alternative to its bloody 45-year-old campaign for independence of Basque areas west of here. More than 800 people have died in that violence.

"The move for independence will grow if the Catalan statute is not approved," said Pasqual Maragall, president of Catalonia, a region of about 7 million people centered around the cosmopolitan Mediterranean city of Barcelona. "It's a cautious, ambitious, but very clever and acceptable approach to the Basque question," Spain's most intractable problem.

Conservative and nationalist opposition to the plan, which analysts predict parliament will pass in modified form in a few months, has been intense. A countrywide boycott was launched against Catalan goods, particularly its famous Cava sparkling wine, and the Popular Party accused Zapatero's government of fomenting the Balkanization of Spain.

Lt. Gen. Jose Mena Aguado was fired as head of land forces earlier this month after warning of "serious consequences" if the law were passed. He also cited a clause in the constitution permitting the armed forces to intervene to guarantee the unity and sovereignty of Spain. Army Maj. Tomas Torres Peral later criticized the firing in a newspaper opinion piece, asking, "Can one, must one, be neutral when it comes to defending the constitution?"

The remarks, which recalled Gen. Francisco Franco's four decades of military dictatorship , stunned Spaniards across the political spectrum, and underscored how polarizing the issue has become.

"In the long run, if this goes forward, we will have a war among us," said Antonio Valor, 67, a retired auto worker who moved to Barcelona when he was 23. "Spain is only one nation with one flag, and that's how to avoid a civil war."

The autonomy bid has transfixed Spain ever since the Catalonian parliament voted overwhelmingly to become a "nation" -- but still remain a part of the country -- last September, and then forwarded the proposal to the Spanish parliament in Madrid.

Zapatero's two-year-old government embraced the concept but insisted on changes that were still being negotiated. Polls predict easy passage.

Jose Luiz Perez, an economic consultant in Madrid, said Zapatero's minority government relied in parliament on small regional parties that wanted the measure. So "his hands are tied" on this issue, Perez said. "It's for survival."

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