Catalan leaders removed, Spain asserts control over breakaway region

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The Madrid government sacked Catalonia’s president and dismissed its parliament, hours after the region declared itself an independent nation in Spain’s gravest political crisis since the return of democracy four decades ago. (Reuters)

Spain on Saturday began to assert control over Catalonia, sacking the region’s president, his ministers, diplomats, police chiefs and transferring all authority to the central government in Madrid.

But it was an open question who was really in charge of the breakaway “Republic of Catalonia” in the hours after a divided Catalan parliament declared independence.

Catalonia’s secessionist president did not appear in public, but issued a prerecorded call for citizens to mount “a democratic opposition” to the takeover.

Barcelona, the capital of the newly declared republic, was placid — a bit dull — as if the population had taken a deep breath and was wondering what comes next.

After being granted unprecedented powers by the Spanish Senate, the central government, in the early morning hours Saturday, published lists of Catalan officials, alongside their advisers, who were being fired.

The chief of the Catalan regional police, Josep Lluís Trapero, who is being investigated by Spanish prosecutors for defying legal orders, was officially dismissed.

In all, more than 140 Catalans were advised they no longer held positions of power.

The Catalan parliament was dissolved by order of Spain, and new elections were scheduled for Dec. 21 in the well-to-do region of northeast Spain, riven by emotional divisions between pro-independence sentiment and those who want to remain in Spain.

Catalonia’s separatist politicians mostly stayed out of sight on Saturday, declining requests for media interviews and avoiding public appearances. 

Phone calls and emails to Catalan officials went unanswered or were off the record. 

One exception was a bland 3-minute statement by the ousted president, Carles Puigdemont, which aired on the region’s public broadcaster but recorded earlier. 

Puigdement said the people should continue to defend their new republic peacefully and “with a sense of civic responsibility.” He decried Spain’s takeover and called it “a premeditated attack on the majority will of Catalans.”

But he offered nothing about what comes next.

The night before, Puigdemont tweeted: “Catalonia is and will be a land of freedom. At the service of people. In the difficult moments and at the moments of celebration. Now more than ever.”

After a night when half the region partied and the other half closed its shutters, people in the street were as divided as ever, between supporters of independence, opponents who view secession as a historic blunder and the many in the middle who aren’t really sure. 

Even among those who felt pride and joy upon hearing a new republic declared, there was a deeper sense that Catalonia was not really a sovereign state; far from it.

Many expressed anxiety.  

Joaquim Bayo, 87, a retired salesman, said he had already heard nervous jokes about when Spain will send tanks into the Barcelona streets.

“Look, we’re not revolutionaries. We will have to wait. So, they announced a new republic. Good! If you look at history, we had one republic that lasted three years, one that lasted three days. Let’s see how long this one lasts.”

Bayo said, “Catalans don’t have the tools or the strength to pull this off. The bigger and stronger always wins.”

“I saw this during Franco’s time, and I will see it again,” he said, referring to the 40-year dictatorship, that began during Spanish civil war and did not end until his death in 1975.

Jose Zaragoza, 54, a business man, said, “Today I woke up very happy, the first day of the republic, which was chosen in a legal way, by politicians chosen in legal way, backed by a legal referendum.”

He said he was surprised to see the Spanish flag flying over Catalan government offices.

Javier del Valle, 33, a computer engineer, said, “a lot of my family, who don’t believe in independence for Catalonia, think this is all a lot of nonsense. My work mates who are pro-independence, I don’t think they see Catalonia as new nation, but view the declaration as a symbolic gesture and part of a strategy to achieve a political goal.”

Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau Ballano, sought the middle ground but still spoke in blunt language.

In a lengthy Facebook post late Friday night, under the title “not in my name,” Colau said she was disgusted to see the Spanish prime minister applauded for declaring the takeover of Catalonia.

“Were they applauding his failure?” she wrote. “Those who have been incapable of proposing a single solution, incapable of listening or of governing for all, have enacted a coup against democracy today with the annihilation of Catalan self-government.”

But at the same time, the Barcelona mayor said the pro-independence parties in Catalonia were “advancing at a kamikaze pace, after their mistaken reading of the results of the Catalan elections. Their speed has been the result of partisan interests, a headlong dash that has been consummated today with a Declaration of Independence in the name of Catalonia that doesn’t have the support of a majority of Catalans.”

In a Europe where change once took place at a glacial pace, the events in Catalonia were the latest surprise for a continent rocked by division and upset, populism and nationalism.

The no-nonsense announcement of the get-tough measures against Catalonia came just hours after its Parliament declared independence and the streets of Barcelona filled with people celebrating, swilling cans of beer and sparkling wine, waving Catalan flags and greeting each other in partial amazement.

The news on Friday came fast and furious.

Two historic and opposing votes — one for independence, one to restore constitutional rule — came in dueling sessions of parliaments in Barcelona and Madrid.

The central government easily won permission from the Senate to take control of Catalonia. Meanwhile, secessionists in Catalonia faced bitter recriminations from Catalan foes who called the move for nationhood a coup and a historic blunder, a month after a referendum that backed a split from Spain.

The widening impasse has left scant middle ground in Spain for compromise and has spilled over to the European Union, whose leaders fear another internal crisis after major upheavals such as Britain’s vote to exit the bloc and the financial meltdown in Greece.

After the day’s votes, the Trump administration came down on the side of Madrid. “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain, and the United States supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united,” the State Department said in a statement.

More than 2 million people cast ballots for independence, though the turnout for the referendum was around 43 percent of eligible voters, according to a count by the separatists.

During the referendum, Spanish national police and Civil Guard paramilitary officers used harsh tactics, in some cases beating voters with rubber batons and dragging people away from the ballot boxes.

Pamela Rolfe in Madrid and Raul Gallego Abellan in Barcelona contributed to this report.





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