BARCELONA, Spain — It was a declaration of independence — but it came with an asterisk.
Defying the central government in Madrid and much of the international community, Catalan separatists on Tuesday signed a document announcing their intention to secede from Spain. But Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said he would not exercise the mandate right away, proposing a waiting period of “a few weeks” to see if an amicable divorce with Madrid can be worked out.
But there was little sign that Mr. Puigdemont’s move, building on a landslide pro-independence vote in a disputed Oct. 1 referendum, had managed to soothe angry federal officials. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called an emergency Cabinet meeting for Wednesday with no sign that Madrid was willing to discuss letting the country’s richest region break away.
Mr. Puigdemont “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go,” Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told reporters in Madrid after the delay was announced.
With some Catalonian independence activists grumbling about Mr. Puigdemont’s surprise move, the Catalan leader asked the regional parliament in Barcelona to “suspend the effects of the independence declaration to commence a dialogue, not only for reducing tension but for reaching an accord on a solution to go forward with the demands of the Catalan people.”
“We have to listen to the voices that have asked us to give a chance for dialogue with the Spanish state,” Mr. Puigdemont said.
The announcement was the climax of a building political crisis for Catalonia and Spain. Some say it was the biggest constitutional crisis in the country since an abortive military coup in 1981. It was also a day of high drama on the streets of this city.
Thousands of Catalans gathered in front of the parliament building in Barcelona to support the independence speech drafted by Mr. Puigdemont and his separatist coalition, including far-left parties such as the Republican Catalan Left (ERC) and CUP. Critics say their policy proposals, such as banning the teaching of Spanish, smack of ethnic cleansing.
“Free Catalonia; the world is watching,” the youthful crowd shouted as Mr. Puigdemont prepared to speak.
CUP lawmaker Anna Gabriel told the Catalonian assembly that there should be hard deadline for negotiations with Spain and a clear determination to declare independence if the talks fail.
“The declaration of independence hasn’t arrived like we wanted,” she said. “We can’t remain silent after its suspension. We have lost an opportunity.”
A serious showdown is expected if the Catalan government follows through with moves such as the takeover of the local court system just as Spanish authorities move to place all the region’s finances, police, infrastructure and key administrative bodies under central control.
In a precautionary measure, Spain’s national police took over custody of Barcelona’s Palace of Justice on Tuesday and replaced the Catalonian police force known as the Mossos d’Esquadra, who were ushered away from the premises.
In a televised address last week, Spain’s King Felipe called the heads of Catalonia’s government virtual outlaws and said Catalan governing institutions were broken.
Catalan’s police chief, Jose Luis Trapero, is under an official investigation for using the force as an “enforcement arm” of the independence movement and failing to close polling stations for the referendum, according to a report by Spain’s Guardia Civil gendarmerie leaked to the press Tuesday. The report also accused the Catalan police of acting like part of an organized crime syndicate by using their counterintelligence capabilities to protect independence leaders.
The Spanish Defense Ministry recently blocked the acquisition of a military-type arsenal by Catalan police, who ordered 850 high-powered automatic rifles and over 5 million rounds of ammunition last year. Annual Catalonian weapon procurements had never before exceeded 50 pistols and rifles, according to Spanish military sources.
Spain’s major European allies, including France, Germany and Britain, have firmly backed Mr. Rajoy in opposing the breakup of the country. President Trump expressed his opposition to Catalonian independence when Mr. Rajoy visited Washington last month.
Spanish press outlets reported Tuesday that Mr. Puigdemont, just before he was scheduled to make his speech, received a personal call from EU President Donald Tusk urging him not to violate the Spanish Constitution.
The main opposition Socialist Party has also closed ranks with Mr. Rajoy in opposing any concessions to Catalan separatists.
But the central government’s unity and support could erode if a drawn-out civil conflict degenerates into endemic violence or bloodshed. Mr. Puigdemont’s gambit Tuesday also could present a problem if the Catalonians appear ready to talk while Spanish authorities refuse to negotiate.
“Rajoy is painfully aware of this, which is why he has hesitated to impose direct rule” as many of his supporters and former prime ministers have been advising him to do, according a senior member of his governing conservative Popular Party.
Despite the overwhelming vote in favor of independence, Catalonia residents remains highly divided over the prospect. Many are unsure what it would mean, and many of those opposing independence boycotted the vote.
“There is a lack of information from the [regional government]. We have no real idea whether independence will work or can be made to work,” said Barcelona taxi driver Eva Paricio, who said she refrained from voting in the referendum.
But she acknowledged that many Catalonians felt they were attacked by the central government’s harsh attempt to suppress the vote.
“If Rajoy said that the vote didn’t matter, why didn’t he just let it take place?” she asked.
Some moderate Catalan nationalists seemed to be having second thoughts about supporting Mr. Puigdemont’s independence bid. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau supported the referendum but called Tuesday for “building bridges instead of knocking them down.”
She and other traditional regional leaders were undoubtedly impressed by a massive demonstration against independence led by a growing movement of flag-waving Spanish unionists who filled Catalonia’s streets Sunday to oppose independence plans.
“We don’t want walls from either Trump or Puigdemont,” said one Catalan protesting Tuesday behind a symbolic wall erected on the street with cardboard blocks by a group called Zero Cuts, which fears that reduced revenue from Catalonia would lead to a decline in social spending.
An exodus of major Catalan companies, including two of Spain’s largest banks and the sparkling wine producer Freixenet, has accelerated in recent days. Mr. Puigdemont said in his speech that independence would not affect the Catalan economy.
But the president of Freixenet told CNN that Catalonia’s independence would be a disaster.
A defensive-sounding Mr. Puigdemont tried to sell his political straddle while defending his region’s right to determine its own political future.
“We are not criminals, we are not crazy, we are not pulling off a coup, we are not out of our minds,” he said. “We are normal people who want to vote.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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