Catalonia declared independence from Spain on Oct. 27. (The Washington Post)

When the time comes to write the history of breakaway nations, Catalonia will have an unusual trajectory: On Friday, leaders triumphantly declared independence. On Tuesday, they emerged in at least temporary self-imposed exile.

Independence advocates ruefully acknowledged that Catalonia had failed to seize the political steering wheel from Spanish leaders in Madrid, and many looked back at a whirlwind October to ask whether different tactics could have achieved better results.

The month began with violence, as Spanish riot police wielding truncheons cracked down on an Oct. 1 Catalan independence referendum that Madrid declared illegitimate. It ended with former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont addressing a packed room of jostling journalists in Brussels.

“We are facing a state that only understands the reason of force,” Puigdemont said, explaining his decision to flee his nascent nation even as he declared himself the “legitimate president” of Catalonia. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy stripped him and other Catalan officials of their posts after invoking extraordinary constitutional powers Friday. Puigdemont said new regional elections on Dec. 21 would deliver a decisive result against unionist backers of Madrid, even if it meant working, for now, within Spain’s system.

Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont spoke in Brussels just days after Madrid quashed his deceleration of independence. (Reuters)

If he and his colleagues had remained in Catalonia, Puigdemont said, “I am convinced, according to the information that I have, that there would have been a violent reaction.” He spoke alongside several of his top former ministers, who he said agreed with him Friday night to leave Catalonia.

Some activists questioned Puigdemont’s decision to flee to Belgium with about half his government in tow, setting up a government in exile as other allies faced rebellion and sedition charges back in Spain. But others praised him for a strategic retreat that allows him to keep fighting for Catalonia in the heart of the European Union.

“Puigdemont is doing exactly what he needs to do,” said Liz Castro, a member of the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-
independence activist group. “War pretty much sounds like the other option. This is better.”

For Puigdemont, a pensive former journalist who has devoted his life to Catalan independence, October was a challenging month even as he moved to realize his dream, allies said. He struggled to hold together his unruly coalition, whose members ranged from anti-capitalist anarchists to pro-business conservatives and agreed only on the notion that Catalonia should be free.

All were horrified by the police violence that accompanied the referendum, consisting mostly of beatings that left hundreds of people battered and bruised. Some of them wanted to push as fast as possible toward independence. But others were spooked as some of Catalonia’s biggest companies moved their headquarters outside the region, hammering the economy.

At one point, Puigdemont declared independence only to suspend it in the same speech, leading supporters and opponents scratching their heads about what had happened. Behind the scenes, he was pushing national authorities to let him rerun a referendum with national approval, allies said.

As late as Thursday, he was poised to call new regional elections to defuse the crisis. But amid splits in his coalition, he instead asked the Catalan Parliament to vote whether to declare independence. Its decision — following a bitter walkout by pro-union forces — set off the takeover by Madrid, as Spain’s Senate invoked a never-before-used clause of the constitution to allow Rajoy to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

Instead of rallying Catalan supporters over the weekend, Puigdemont kept a low profile in his home town of Girona. By Monday, he was gone, escaping by car to Marseille and then flying to Brussels.

“It was a big mistake on the part of the Spanish government to use violence to prevent the referendum,” said Salvador Illa, secretary of the pro-union Catalan Socialist Party. “But it was a big mistake to declare independence.”

Rajoy’s allies in Madrid offered no apologies for their tough approach to the separatists.

“In a modern democracy, there’s room for all of us. What we were seeing is that we didn’t all fit,” said José Ramón García Hernández, executive secretary of international relations for Rajoy’s center-right Popular Party.

“I have no problem that there are pro-independence lawmakers,” he said. “All I want is that they comply with the law the same way we all do.”

Now, crestfallen pro-independence forces say they need to find a way to retake the initiative.

“The situation is bad; we know that,” said Mireia Vehí, a member of the Catalan Parliament from the far-left, pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party. We have declared a republic, but in reality, we don’t have the power, because leaders didn’t prepare it.”

She said her party wants Puigdemont and other top leaders to exercise their authority more actively. 

“We’re saying, ‘Come on, make politics, act as the legitimate government you are,’ ” she said.

Puigdemont said Tuesday that he plans to push Catalonia’s case inside the European Union and across the world in a bid to breathe life into the still-struggling independence movement. He said he was not applying for political asylum in Belgium, at least not now.

The Catalan leaders’ plans beyond that remained unclear. Belgium’s Flemish nationalists, who belong to the ruling coalition, are among the few political groups in Europe that have shown sympathy to the Catalan cause. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, a member of a French-speaking pro-unity party, offered far cooler words Tuesday.

“The Belgian government did not take any steps to encourage Mr. Puigdemont to travel to Belgium,” Michel said in a statement. “Mr. Puigdemont has the same rights and duties as any European citizen, no more and no less.”

A challenge could come as soon as Thursday if Puigdemont and others fail to appear in Spanish court as scheduled and Spanish authorities issue international arrest warrants for them. In that case, they would face up to 30 years in prison if Belgium decided to hand them over. If Belgium did not, it would risk a rift with Madrid, a close ally.

For now, some pro-independence leaders believe that the Dec. 21 Catalan elections can offer another shot at freedom.

“These elections are a good chance to turn them into a plebiscite that will be watched by the whole world,” said Alfred Bosch, leader of the Barcelona branch of the Republican Left party, which was a coalition partner alongside Puigdemont. “It might seem that you’re accepting [the Spanish authorities’] game, but let’s face it, they control the game.”

He said pro-independence forces can succeed only if they remain strategic about which battles they fight.

“You have a new republic,” he said. “You have to nourish it. It’s so fragile. Let’s protect it.”

Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Braden Phillips in Barcelona contributed to this report.