Catalans deeply divided a year after independence referendum

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Catalans deeply divided a year after independence referendum
A man holds an 'Estelada' flag on October 1, 2017. Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP

For Jaume Casamitjana, last year's banned independence referendum in Catalonia marked a watershed in his feelings about Spain, while for Alexandra Lopez-Liz, it pushed her to take a stand against the separatist movement.


A year after the contested October 1, 2017 referendum, disagreements over separatism have deepened in the wealthy northwestern region of Spain, which is home to some 7.5 million people and has its own distinct language.
Far from uniting the community, it has polarised opinion, leaving deep divisions over the region's fate. 
The tiny village of Sant Julia de Ramis -- which was prevented from participating in the referendum after dozens of riot police smashed their way into its polling station to seize voting material just before it opened -- plans to mark the anniversary of the vote on Monday.
"For many, it was a point of no return regarding Spain," said Casamitjana, who lives in this town of 3,500 people in the province of Girona, where support for independence runs highest.
"They wanted to scare us but it backfired. Before this town was very divided, now it is more united and convinced than ever," the 58-year-old said. 
A civil servant, Casamitjana was in charge of the polling station at a sports centre on the village square, where one of the referendum ballot boxes now stands inside a glass cabinet, like a trophy.
Ahead of the anniversary, he is working with other villagers to decorate the square -- which has been renamed "October 1 Plaza" -- with red, yellow and blue Catalan separatist flags, as well as banners and portraits of separatist leaders on trial over the secession attempt.
'We feel deceived'
There were many people working at the polling station on that day, and when the riot police turned up, they hid ballot boxes or shielded them with their bodies. Most of those who voted cast their ballots for independence. 
The regional Catalan government had promised to declare independence within 48 hours of the vote if the "yes" side won. When it finally did vote to declare independence on October 27, Madrid swiftly sacked the Catalan government, prompting several key figures to flee abroad, including deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont. Others were jailed.
"People are very angry, we feel deceived," said Casamitjana, explaining how the referendum has polarised opinion all around. 
Some of those previously considered more "moderate" separatists now tell him that the jailed separatist leaders should remain behind bars because they are "traitors" to the cause -- for not making good on their independence bid. 
'Before and after'
Puigdemont's successor, Quim Torra, is scheduled to attend the ceremony in Sant Julia de Ramis.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who ousted conservative Mariano Rajoy in June, has proposed drafting a new autonomy statute for Catalonia which could be put to a vote. But Torra wants to start taking steps to implement independence.
"A year ago we could have negotiated a solution, not now. October 1 marked a before and after," said 54-year-old plumber Santi Anglada.
With Catalans evenly split on the issue of independence, the referendum also marked a turning point for others who had, for the most part, watched passively as the independence movement grew.
Among them was Lopez-Liz who watched as dozens of people protected a polling station in a well-off Barcelona neighbourhood.
"It's a huge shame that we got to this point," she told AFP at the time.
The threat of secession from Spain had in October sent half of the population out into the streets of Barcelona to protest.
'Awakened the beast'
A month after the referendum, Lopez-Liz got together with others who had long stood on the sidelines to form an association that opposes independence called "Aixeca't Levantate" -- which means "Stand Up". 
"We were ignored for a long time, now we want them to realise that we are here and we are not afraid," said Lopez-Liz.
She has kept busy since the referendum, removing Catalan separatist symbols on public buildings and churches and speaking out against alleged separatist "indoctrination" in schools.
"We are focused on action and we are not going to stop. Each symbol they put up, we take down," she said.
The group, which has around 500 members, also fights against laws that give priority to the use of the Catalan language in schools and the public administration.
"For a long time, we accepted teaching in Catalan, positive discrimination for Catalan culture. But they have vilified us so much that they have awakened the beast," said Pedro Gomez, a 52-year-old Barcelona editor.
"Before people tolerated it, but that's over. I could speak Catalan but I don't feel like it," he told AFP. 
"If you don't like it, you can lump it."
By AFP's Daniel Bosque


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