- - Tuesday, November 7, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain — Independence was supposed to bring freedom and self-determination for Catalans, but the chaotic events of the past month have meant only repression and discrimination for a Barcelona schoolteacher who said she is wary of giving her name for fear of losing her job.

“You are treated like a second-class citizen if you are not Catalan,” said Mari Carmen, who was born in Catalonia of Castilian parents. Despite raising a family in Barcelona, Ms. Carmen said, she is called “xarnega” (an unflattering term for an outsider) at the school where she has worked for 13 years. She sees little possibility for promotion or a raise because she speaks Spanish rather than Catalonian and because she has not allied to the independence cause.

The day after the Oct. 1 independence referendum — which Spanish police tried to block by closing polling stations — the teacher was ordered along with the rest of the staff and schoolchildren to join a pro-independence march organized by the school principal.

She recalls being pressured by the school’s director of studies to show emotion while the doorman taunted her about her Castilian roots. She also drew frowns from the other faculty for failing to cheer when the school principal said Catalans should be prepared to starve to achieve independence.

Years of propaganda and relentless campaigning by secessionist politicians who have controlled the regional government in Spain’s wealthy northeastern corner have generated ethnic resentment and mutual suspicions that are tearing away at Catalonia’s social fiber, according to local citizens from all walks of life who spoke to The Washington Times.

The polarization is even felt within families, according to an actor who worked for the Catalan culture department and said his three daughters no longer speak to him because of his opposition to independence.

“I almost came to blows with a son-in-law who came over to insult me for tweeting that a lot of secessionism arguments are based on lies,” said the actor, who, like many others interviewed here, did not want his full name used in a newspaper article.

The story is not uncommon, said Ruth Baron, a supermarket cashier. She said the Generalitat, the Catalan regional government, has been generating such hatred “for too long. It’s becoming like Germany of the 1930s. I can no longer maintain an objective normal conversation with a lot of my friends.”

The Spanish central government imposed direct rule on Catalonia and arrested several leaders last week after the regional parliament declared independence. The situation was only exacerbated Friday when a Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant for former members of the Catalan Cabinet, including ousted separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who said he was prepared to run for his old job even while battling extradition after fleeing to Belgium, where he is fighting Spain’s attempts to extradite him.

A defiant Mr. Puigdemont on Tuesday vowed to keep up the independence fight and urged the European Union to speak out over the jailing of Catalan officials by Madrid. He spoke at a campaign-style rally in Belgium’s capital attended by around 200 mayors from Catalonia who greeted the deposed president with chants of “President” and “Freedom,” The Associated Press reported.

“We will never renounce this ideal of a country, of this notion of democracy,” Mr. Puigdemont told the gathering, held at a central Brussels art museum.

Belgian authorities are still weighing Spain’s request to send him home. Spanish central authorities are now in direct control of the northeastern region, where the early election next month is shaping into a tight race between separatist and pro-union forces.

Backfiring

Many fear that Madrid’s heavy-handedness could backfire.

“Every time a politician opens his mouth is like a bomb going off,” said Carlos, who runs a small hotel in the center of Barcelona and blames the growing tension for an exodus of investment that could cause irreparable economic damage to the once-booming economy.

“Repression by Madrid will make those who are for independence even more convinced in their idea,” he said.

Seeing Spanish national police beating Catalan voters on the day of the independence referendum pushed him toward siding with the secessionists, Carlos said.

Inez, a science researcher at a major laboratory in Catalonia, does not think regional elections set by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for Dec. 21 are likely to make a difference.

“There is more street mobilization by the pro-Spain unionists,” said Inez, who voted for the center-right Cuidadanos party in the last elections and participated in a pro-unity rally last week that drew 300,000 people.

“But it does not necessarily translate into more votes for the Spanish parties,” she said. “Eighty percent of my friends support independence. I try not to talk politics with them,” she said.

Catalonia’s independence activists have long been accused of pushing their cause despite deep ambivalence in the region over whether to split with Spain, but a major poll taken late last month showed that pro- and anti-independence sentiment is essentially even in the region despite events of the past month.

The poll, published in the anti-independence newspaper El Mundo, found support for pro-independence parties in Catalonia at 43.4 percent compared with 42.5 percent for parties backing secession, making Mr. Rajoy’s plans for another vote next month a roll of the dice.

Unionists have become more vocal in Catalonia since the central government started reinforcing police presence in the region.

“Thank God more police are here,” said a woman named Susan, who works in the administrative staff of a major Catalan energy company that is receiving threats since transferring its headquarters out of Catalonia after the October referendum.

“A lot of separatists keep calling to insult me and other company workers, saying that they are going to kill us or burn down our branch.”

This also causes problems for Lourdes Branco, who owns a small bar and restaurant near apartments where Spanish federal gendarmes are being lodged.

“I’ve had several clients pressuring me to stop serving the Guardia Civil,” she said. “My own lawyer refuses to come here anymore.”

Ms. Branco said the wives of some of the Spanish gendarmes come to her in tears over the way they are treated by locals.

“I never knew that there were so many secessionists in Catalonia or that they hated us so much,” one of the federal policemen said over a glass of wine. “They try to keep us up all night by shouting insults and banging pots outside our building.”

Ritual evening pot-bangings intensified throughout Catalonia on Thursday following the arrests of Regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras and another eight ministers charged with sedition and conspiracy by the central government, which jailed two independence leaders the previous week.

“We are indignant,” said Roser Texido, a lawyer joining protesters gathering outside the Catalan parliament when news of the arrests went viral. “We feel as if were under a dictatorship,” she said. “It’s as if they were locking all of us up.”

“We have been struggling for seven years for our Catalan republic,” said Albert Toa, a hotel worker and gastronomy student waving a Catalan flag. “We feel impotent.”

Mr. Toa recalls the fear he felt on the day of the independence referendum, when news of police raids on polling stations spread as he was lining up to vote. “I was sure my polling place was next,” he said.

He feels he is honoring the memory of his grandfather, who fought alongside thousands of Catalans in the bloody struggle against the Franco dictatorship, which repressed Catalan identity and banned the Catalan language for decades in the past century.

A school principal in the crowd said the central government has been pressuring Catalan schools to reduce the number of hours to teach children the local language.

“We just got a note the other day asking us to report how many subjects are taught in Catalan. We replied that all except Spanish are taught in our native tongue,” she said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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