Spain's Catalonia gripped by general strike

A man with an esteleda, a Catalonia independence flag, walks along a pedestrian crossing before the "Yes" vote closing campaign in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. Catalonia's planned referendum on secession is due be held Sunday by the pro-independence Catalan government but Spain's government calls the vote illegal, since it violates the constitution, and the country's Constitutional Court has ordered it suspended. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Barcelona, Spain • Trade unions in Catalonia led a general strike Tuesday that closed down businesses and blocked highways to protest violence by Spain’s national police during the region’s chaotic independence vote.

Huge crowds poured through the streets of Barcelona in the latest act of defiance against the central government and its rejection of Sunday’s referendum that backed Catalonia’s long-held ambitions for autonomy.

Some marches were led by firefighters in their orange jackets and yellow helmets, others were guided by leftist theater troupes and joined by families with children in strollers.

Protesters — some riding in farm tractors — shut down major highways, including a long tunnel the crosses from northeast Spain into France. Schools, universities, offices, small businesses and bars across the region of 7 million people were closed.

In the morning, smaller groups of young people marched in their neighborhoods, with mimes heckling drivers and blocking tourist buses, urging them to join the strike.

Most shops and cafes had pulled their metal shutters down, but many resisted and reopened after the marchers passed.

Activists broke into an open bakery and grabbed bread. Several surrounded a deliveryman with a handcart loaded milk cartoons. He told them in tough Spanish - not in the region’s Catalan language — that he could care less about their strike and for them to get out of his way or else.

When marchers tried to force a pharmacy to close its doors, Gregoria Pena, a retired banker, came to their aid.

“Leave them alone!” he shouted.

Pena, who opposed Sunday’s referendum, said he thought Catalans were being manipulated — “brainwashed” — by hardcore secessionists.

But after more than 2 million Catalans voted overwhelmingly Sunday in a chaotic, violent referendum to declare independence from Spain, many are asking: “Now what?”

The European Union saw the referendum as a violation of the Spanish constitution and privately worried about other secessionist movements in Europe.

The lopsided vote Sunday is sure to be vigorously challenged in the Spanish courts, which declared the vote illegal before it was held. The central government in Madrid has described the referendum and its results as illegitimate.

There was no sign of contrition from Madrid that its national police and Guardia Civil militia had gone too far in trying to stop the vote, despite scenes of officers clad in riot gear firing rubber bullets, whipping people at polling stations with rubber batons and dragging some, including women, away by their hair.

Just the opposite: Spanish authorities generally commended the police. The Spanish foreign minister conceded Monday that some of the violence looked “unpleasant,” but the response by riot police was “proportionate,” he said.

According to the Catalan government, which announced the results early Monday, 90 percent of the voters chose independence. But turnout was low — 42 percent. More than 2.2 million people were reported to have cast ballots, Catalan authorities said, out of 5.3 million registered voters.

Many Catalans who opposed independence had said they would not vote in the referendum, which they denounced as a sham.

Spanish Justice Minister Rafael Catalá warned Monday that any declaration of independence could cause the central government to invoke Article 155 of the country’s constitution, which allows Madrid to intervene in the running of an autonomous region.

“If somebody tries to declare the independence of part of the territory — something that cannot be done — we will have to do everything possible to apply the law,” Catalá said.

Catalonia, which has its own language and culture, already enjoys broad autonomy, with its own parliament and police, as well as control over education, health care and the media.

Carles Puigdemont, the regional president and a leading secessionist, said that Catalonia had won “the right to independence.” He called on Europe to support the region’s split from Spain and “not look the other way.”

But European leaders were keeping their distance.

In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated that Catalan autonomy “is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.” Sunday’s vote “was not legal,” he said Monday.

He suggested that any territory leaving Spain “would find itself outside of the European Union.”

In a news conference Monday, the Catalan president appealed for support from Europe.

“This is not a domestic issue,” Puigdemont said. “The need for mediation is evident.”

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, an Italian, said that the body would hold an emergency debate Wednesday on “the rule of law and fundamental rights in Spain in light of the events in Catalonia.”

The vote left the region and nation deeply divided.

In Barcelona, thousands took to the streets in another huge demonstration Monday — this one not to support the vote or independence but to condemn the actions of the police in seeking to suppress the referendum.

The Catalan protesters marched in silence, many with pieces of tape over their mouths.

“Independent of the fact that nobody liked the images we saw yesterday, it isn’t going to change the European Union’s position or that of any democratic country,” said Juan Carlos Martinez Lazaro, a professor at IE Business School in Madrid.

He called the Catalan referendum a kind of coup d’état.

To demonstrate the plebiscite’s apparent loose controls, Spanish TV featured a report showing how an anti-independence activist was able to vote at four polling stations.

Puigdemont’s rushed assertion Sunday night that he would seek independence - before the results were even announced - was met with ridicule by some outside the region.

Another point repeated in the Madrid news media was that few voices in Catalonia publicly supported the no vote, allegedly because of bullying by independence backers who appropriated the public discourse.

In fact, the fragmentation of Catalan society and the “silent majority” are big themes in Madrid.

The two sides could not even agree on facts. Catalan officials said 319 of about 2,300 polling stations were shuttered by police; Spain’s Interior Ministry said 92 stations were closed.

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