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‘We don’t know how good we have it here’: Many Catalans don’t want a break with Spain

Anti-separatist demonstrators march with a large banner that reads “Catalonia is Spain” during a rally against the Catalonian referendum in Barcelona on Sept. 30. (Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg News)

The shocking images of Spanish riot police using rubber batons to beat voters away from the ballot box were the most powerful impressions of the chaotic vote in the wannabe breakaway republic of Catalonia.

But just out of view of the camera lenses was the majority of Spanish citizens in this stylish, peaceful and prosperous region in the heart of Europe — those who did not vote in the disputed referendum for an independent Catalonia.

At least 6 in 10 registered voters stayed home, suggesting deep division and opposition to the split with Spain sought by the separatists. A protest march in favor of Spanish unity brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Barcelona on Sunday.

Who are they? What do they want?

Many here are now calling themselves “the silent majority.”

They range from old-school socialists to old-family capitalists, and they say the Catalan independence referendum was either a bad idea or just done so badly.

Catalan business leaders worry that it does not make sense, financially, to break from Spain. After a week of chaos, two Spanish banks — Banco Sabadell and Caixabank — announced plans to move their headquarters out of Catalonia to other cities in Spain.

A Spanish freelancer, who has lived in Barcelona for the past seven years, wondered aloud if she and her Scottish boyfriend belong in Catalonia anymore. “We’re open individuals, citizens of the world,” said Maribel Villalba. “We just want to live peacefully. You can’t put half the population against the other half.”

Though some defended and even applauded the harsh police tactics, many of the 58 percent who did not vote decried the use of truncheons and rubber bullets — but still say the referendum is invalid.

The regional president, Carles Puigdemont, declared — just as the first handful of votes were announced — that Catalonia had earned the “right to independence.”

The Catalan authorities say that more than 2 million people voted in the Oct. 1 independence referendum, with 90 percent casting a ballot for independence.

But the vote was marred by violence, low turnout and lack of traditional transparency.

Just 42 percent voted.

Activists, alongside Spanish journalists, pointed out that some people voted multiple times.

Spanish court opens sedition probe of Catalonia officials for independence bid

As the showdown between the secessionist leadership in Catalonia and the central government in Madrid hurtles onward, many who abstained from the vote say they have been muzzled or ignored.

“I will confess I feel a little afraid,” said Marta Gimenez, a recent law school graduate who works for a major Spanish bank.

“I’ve been called a fascist whore” on social media, she said.

During an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, she was wearing a T-shirt that read in English, “Afraid of Nothing!”

Gimenez belongs to the youth wing of the People’s Party, the conservative Christian democrats who are the governing power in the central government in Madrid.

“Of course I didn’t vote, because the vote was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court,” Gimenez said.

She said she wants to remain a part of Europe — and believes in a united Spain.

She said that the secessionists keep talking about how Catalonia is oppressed.

“Show me oppression,” Gimenez said, sipping a coffee and rolling her eyes. “We are the freest people in Europe.”

Semiautonomous Catalonia has a population of around 7 million, and the regional government controls the education system, health care, broadcast media and regional police — with its own parliament, language and culture.

Taxes, though, are sent to Madrid, then redistributed.

Catalonia poses a real crisis for both Spain and Europe

On Saturday, thousands dressed all in white took to the streets under a banner in Spanish and Catalan — Hablemos/Parlem — Let's talk. They eschewed the usual flag waving.

Though many who oppose the referendum were from the right, a lot of freethinking Catalans from the left were also against it.

Javier Mariscal, the designer who created the mascot Cobi for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, said he does not support a sovereign Catalan republic, although he said he understands the deep emotions left over from the Spanish Civil War and the motivations of those who want a break with Spain.

“All the corners of Spain are filled with very beautiful people, and we’ve had this great continuous relationship between us, with all the commercial, cultural, familial ties. Let’s keep it together,” Mariscal said.

“We don’t know how good we have it here. Let’s not blow it,” he said. “Spain works as a country and as an idea.”

While Mariscal is against Catalan independence, he said there should be a referendum — but a fair and open one.

He and others pointed out that in the weeks leading up to the controversial referendum there was no broad debate over what independence would mean.

“Where is the plan?” Mariscal asked. “Will we be part of Europe? How? How will the economy run? How about trade? Who controls our borders?”

Eduard De Vilar is an activist from the left who organized a campaign urging people to vote but to mark neither yes nor no on the ballot. Instead, he said, they should leave it blank — to indicate their support for democracy but also their opposition to the bungled referendum.

“This is a big, big decision, very important. So we want a legal proper referendum, not this quickie thing,” Vilar said.

Vilar worked as a pro-democracy activist in the Balkans in the 1990s. He is a proud Catalan but doesn’t like what he sees in the fierce nationalism of the region. “I’m afraid this will be the beginning of a kind of war. Not the Balkans. We are not militarized like there. But something I don’t like the feeling of either.”

The well-known Catalan film director Isabel Coixet, based in Barcelona, has been telling people for months that the referendum and the independence movement were getting this wrong.

“Half of the Catalans don’t want this,” she said in an interview.

“The international press has bought the Catalan politician’s narrative that’s been sold with a huge PR campaign and lots of money. And it seems that the rest of us don’t even exist. We are at least half of the Catalans, and we have no voice. No one is listening to us,” Coixet said.

Ignasi Guardans, a Catalan lawyer and former member of the European Parliament, said: “In any revolt, there are always some people who enjoy shouting and going into the street and demonstrating. And there are other people who just do not do that. And they are scared because the political and economic control of Catalonia is in the hands of the separatists, which doesn’t make them the majority — it makes them the people in control.”

He added: “So we find ourselves attacking the referendum as a farce and a way to impose a model in an undemocratic way — it’s a Venezuelan kind of putsch — but that doesn’t make us supportive of Spanish police beating children in the street. That was a ridiculous thing to do, and it puts us in a very complicated position.”

Pamela Rolfe in Madrid contributed to this report.

Read more

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With threats and taunts, Catalonia and Spain map out their next moves after chaotic vote

Spain’s Rajoy sets the stage for a bigger battle over Catalonia

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