BARCELONA — Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart are not well-known names in Europe, or even in Spain. But the two wield extraordinary influence in the tense drama now unfolding in restive Catalonia. Because in a few short hours, through their organizations and networks, with a tweet or a text, the activist duo can put 100,000 people on the street.
It was this remarkable ability to stage some of the largest peaceful demonstrations in Europe — and the power of their message promoting a democratic and independent Catalonia — that steered the two toward an almost inevitable collision with the central government in Madrid.
Sánchez and Cuixart, who both espouse nonviolence, are now sitting in jail cells at the Soto del Real prison in Madrid, held in preventive detention, without bail, on charges of sedition against the state, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
They were arrested Monday as part of a government crackdown that seeks to stifle the secessionist movement in Catalonia.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has called the independence movement and its leaders reckless, even dangerous, rebels. Their chaotic independence referendum earlier this month was deemed illegal by Rajoy and constitutional judges. Riot police were ordered to stop it, producing wild scenes — beamed around the world — of officers whipping citizens with rubber batons and dragging them away from ballot boxes.
The Spanish news media outside Catalonia has generally viewed the pair as skilled troublemakers, misguided at best, but worthy of respect because of their clout.
Cuixart, 42, is a dashing figure who favors black leather jackets. A high school dropout, he is a self-made man who founded a successful business that exports packaging machinery. He leads the Catalan group Omnium Cultural, which backed the independence referendum.
Sánchez, 53, looks like the rumpled university professor he is. He teaches at the University of Barcelona and is president of
the Catalan National Assembly, which is not an elected body but a pro-independence group that boasts about 80,000 members.
Sánchez is seen as especially effective. He is “a professional agitator, a gladiator who doesn’t rest,” Spain’s El Mundo newspaper said. “He has been insisting on Catalan independence for three years, from the political arena and from the streets, which is the place he feels most at home.”
Compared with Sánchez and Cuixart, regional politicians in Catalonia are amateurs at the art and science of mass mobilizations, according to the Spanish news media.
The two — alongside unions, student groups and an alphabet soup of Catalan political parties and civic organizations — have been instrumental in producing vast crowds of demonstrators, who have turned out by the hundreds of thousands with flags and banners, chanting “The streets are ours!” and “Let us vote!”
Their wives told The Washington Post that they had not been allowed to visit their husbands in prison but that they had spoken with them by telephone.
The two men are housed in separate wings of the prison, so their communication with each other is limited. One of their associates joked that Sánchez and Cuixart are allowed to see each other in the prison chapel, “so they have become more devout.”
Their wives say that the two men remain strong but that sedition is a serious charge at such a highly politicized moment. They worry that their husbands are being held hostage.
Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, who is pushing for independence, calls the two “political prisoners.”
He said their incarceration “is the shame of Europe.”
“The lawyers cannot say how long, but they tell me, get ready, this could take time,” said Susanna Barreda Cortiella, the wife of Jordi Sánchez.
Barreda said her husband can be stubborn. When he commits to something, "he goes all the way," she said. "He never backs down."
She recalled that as a young man, he refused compulsory military service. When offered alternatives to avoid punishment, he declined, Barreda said. She said he burns with a passion for an independent Catalonia.
“They went after them first, because it’s easier to arrest two civil society leaders than to jail elected officials or the chief of police,” Barreda said.
The showdown in Catalonia edged toward constitutional crisis this week, following the central government’s announcement Thursday that it would move quickly to assert control of the autonomous region after its president refused to end his push for independence.
Rajoy, the prime minister, will convene an emergency cabinet meeting Saturday to begin the unprecedented process of invoking Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 constitution, which would allow Madrid to seize control of the autonomous government in Catalonia, including its finances, public media and police.
The sedition charges against the two men arise from a Sept. 20 demonstration outside the Barcelona offices of the regional vice president and the Economic Ministry. Members of Spain’s Civil Guard police entered the building, arrested 14 employees and minor officials, and seized documents that authorities say were to be used to stage the illegal referendum.
A demonstration quickly grew to many thousands and lasted for hours.According to witnesses and video, the protesters effectively blocked the Civil Guard officers, clad in riot gear, from leaving the building. The demonstration was peaceful, until some in the crowd began to cover the Civil Guard vehicles with pro-democracy stickers, then spray-painted them, finally smashing the windows and filling the interiors with trash
At one point, Sánchez and Cuixart jumped on the roof of one of the cars and addressed the crowd, eventually urging them to leave the area peacefully.
The leaders pride themselves on organizing mass protests that proceed down Barcelona's elegant streets without incident, their progress coordinated with regional police.
“So now my husband is in jail, and I feel sad for him,” said Txell Bonet, Cuixart’s wife.
“You might think my situation and my daily life is difficult,” said Bonet, the mother of a 6-month-old. “But I don’t feel that. I feel when they arrest Jordi, the government is attacking everybody. This is an injustice we are all suffering.”
When people tell her how sorry they are, she said, she thinks, “Just wait. They can come for you, too.”
The arrest of the two secessionists may give Spain a black eye in Europe, but so far the European leadership has backed Madrid, decrying the police violence but also insisting that the referendum was illegal and remains an internal affair.
Pro-independence activists, overall, seem anxious about what happens next. But they think they will ultimately prevail.
“We have a big problem. Spain has a huge problem,” Oriol Junqueras, vice president of the Catalan regional government, told The Post. He said the arrest of the two activists only stokes anger and bolsters the case for independence.
“Of course, they are political prisoners,” he said. “They’ve been jailed because of their acts in front of this very building where we are sitting, where they told the people to go home in peace.”
Junqueras said the two have been scrupulous and relentless in their message of nonviolence.
“At the end, officials like me don’t matter so much,” he said. “What matters is what the people want. The people here will decide.”
Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report.