BARCELONA — It for sure wasn’t the usual parade, but at midday Friday, hundreds of Catalan farmers rumbled down the elegant boulevards of this lovely city on their tractors, and parked their idling machines around the headquarters of the federal government.
Farmers in Catalonia are no strangers to protest. When they’re unhappy with agricultural policy, they’re likely to dump a load of rotten vegetables or fresh manure at the doors of bureaucrats. But no one has seen anything like this.
The farmers came out to demand the right to vote in Sunday’s controversial referendum, which seeks to ask citizens of Catalonia whether they want to break from Spain and declare themselves an independent nation of 7 million.
Catalan leaders vow to press ahead with the vote in rebellion against the central government in Madrid, and the Constitutional Court, which has declared the referendum illegal and the results, whatever they could be, illegitimate. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has moved thousands of national police and Guardia Civil militia into Catalonia to stop the plebiscite.
The farmers weren’t having it.
“Look at what just happened in Kurdistan. In this dangerous place, next to Iraq and Syria, and with these crazy men from Islamic State, they could stage a referendum and we can’t?” said Francesc Bancells, a wheat farmer.
The farmers were mounted on tractors, some washed, others still dusty from the fields. They were almost all men, their forearms sunburned, many in jeans shorts.
Dalmacio Ramon Bo, who grows tomatoes, was philosophical. Asked why he wanted to vote for independence, he answered, “Look, the politicians will keep stealing from us, that’s a given, but maybe our own politicians will steal a little less.”
Ramon, who said he is the 10th generation to work his land, said the farmers planned to circle the polling places in their towns and villages with the tractors Sunday to keep the national police from shutting down the vote.
“But we have to be very careful, very polite, very peaceful,” he said. “We don’t want to blow this chance.”
The Catalan police stopped the tractors before they reached the federal government offices. The farmers shut down their machines, honked their horns, drank cold beers and waved at the crowds that had gathered to welcome them.
One of the neighbors shouted down from his balcony, “Long live Spain!” He is one of the many who do not want to separate from Spain. Surveys taken in the summer showed the population split on the question of independence, though more told pollsters they wanted to stay in Spain than leave.
It is possible that sentiment has shifted in the past two weeks, as the central government has arrested a dozen Catalan officials, threatened pro-independence mayors with arrest, shut down websites, restricted airspace and confiscated more than 13 million ballots and other paperwork printed to support the referendum.
“All this repression, the central government didn’t do itself any favors. More people support independence now than did two weeks ago,” said David Badia, who farms flowers. “They screwed themselves.”
His friend, Francesc Ribas, who grows tomatoes, sat on his tractor and nodded his head. Asked whether an independence vote would hurt farmers, he said, “maybe at first, but not for long.”
Ribas said he would drive his tractor out to protect the polling station at a school in his village.
“If the police come for me, I will act like you handle a bull. You raise your hands in the air and then lay down and the bull will run right by you.”