Catalan Leader Says Region Has Earned Independence, but Calls for Talks With Madrid – New York Times

BARCELONA, Spain — The leader of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, said on Tuesday evening that his region had earned the right to independence from Spain, but he immediately suspended the process to allow for talks with the central government in Madrid.

In a long-awaited speech to the regional Parliament in Barcelona, Mr. Puigdemont said that the Catalan people had offered a “mandate” for independence, but he left open the door to negotiations and reiterated a call for mediation.

The speech appeared to constitute a tight balancing act, defying Madrid’s denunciations of the region’s independence referendum as illegal and invalid, while stopping short of offering an immediate and outright declaration of independence. Mr. Puigdemont also was trying to placate several factions within his unwieldy alliance of separatist lawmakers, who control a majority of the seats in the Catalan Parliament after winning 48 percent of the votes in 2015.

The carefully worded speech, however, confused some lawmakers, and as it ended, Mr. Puigdemont did not receive any applause from the far-left secessionist lawmakers whose support has been a key to keeping the independence movement on course.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain has rejected any dialogue with Catalan separatists unless they abandon plans for secession, and Mr. Puigdemont and his allies could in theory be arrested for sedition, and the Catalan Parliament disbanded.

Mr. Puigdemont, however, left open the possibility for dialogue, while defending the decision to hold the referendum backing independence.

“We are here because on Sunday, Oct. 1, Catalonia held a referendum and did so in extreme conditions,” he said. “There were violent police attacks against voters who were just waiting to deposit their ballot paper. More than 800 people were treated by medical services and the world saw it.”

He added: “The Spanish state didn’t just want to confiscate ballot boxes and ballot papers. The main goal was to scare the people and force them to stay at home. But despite all these efforts, more than 2.2 million people voted because they overcame fear.”

Mr. Puigdemont said that the region had asked 18 times for permission to hold a vote on autonomy. “All we wanted was a Scottish-style referendum where both sides were able to put their views forward,” he said. “We were denied, time and time again.”

Switching from Catalan to Spanish, he added: “We are not criminals, madmen or coup plotters — just ordinary people who simply want to vote. We have nothing against the Spaniards.”

Hard-line separatists had hoped Mr. Puigdemont (pronounced POOTCH-da-mon) would follow through on the results of the highly disputed referendum. To pressure Mr. Puigdemont into sticking to his promise, the main separatist associations had called for a citizens’ rally near the Parliament building to push the Catalan political leadership to stick to the independence pledge.

Lawmakers from Mr. Puigdemont’s conservative party, however, were wary about further escalating tensions with Madrid, especially after several prominent companies announced plans to move their headquarters from Catalonia because of legal uncertainties of a secession.

The careful distinctions Mr. Puigdemont was trying to draw — “I assume the mandate of the people for Catalonia to become an independent state in the shape of a republic,” he said, before adding that “I ask Parliament to suspend the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we can undertake a dialogue” — left some Catalans confused.

Miquel Iceta, the leader of the Catalan branch of the Socialist party, expressed bemusement at the “complex” wording used by Mr. Puigdemont.

“Let’s see if I’ve understood this well,” Mr. Iceta told Mr. Puigdemont during the parliamentary session. “You’re taking on a mandate that I’m questioning and at the same time you’re proposing to suspend a declaration that hasn’t been made.”

Mr. Iceta also poured cold water on the idea that an illegal referendum approved by two-fifths of the Catalan electorate gave Mr. Puigdemont the right to declare independence in the name of the Catalan people. “A minority cannot impose itself on a majority,” Mr. Iceta said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Juan Ignacio Zoido, the Spanish interior minister, urged Mr. Puigdemont to “take a step back,” saying the Catalan leader had no choice but to respect the Constitution. “Outside the law,” Mr. Zoido said, “there is no possible dialogue and only confrontation, which we have advised against since the very first minute.”

Mr. Zoido told reporters that the Spanish police were prepared to intervene if street protests intensified in Catalonia, which concerns some Catalan officials. A police crackdown on the day of the referendum left hundreds injured, according to the Catalan authorities, and many in the region fear that an independence declaration could trigger another harsh response.

At the Catalan Parliament, nervous politicians and a number of journalists counted down the hours before Mr. Puigdemont’s announcement. The Catalan police sealed off the surrounding area on Tuesday in expectation of unrest, and visitors to the building were required to pass through several layers of additional security.

Inside the building, lawmakers from opposing factions passed one another without making eye contact. As officials from Mr. Rajoy’s party marched past the door of Mr. Puigdemont’s party, one muttered angrily about the “madness” of those who had voted for independence.

Breezing down the same corridor, Mr. Puigdemont’s allies appeared buoyant. “This is historic for not only the pro-independence movement but also all people who love this country,” Marta Pascal, a lawmaker, said as she moved between meetings.

Any declaration of independence would force Mr. Rajoy to make a difficult decision of his own. The prime minister has taken a hard line against the separatists, but strong reprisals against Mr. Puigdemont could galvanize the independence movement, particularly after the police crackdown on the day of the referendum.

Mr. Rajoy, who has asked to appear before the Spanish Parliament on Wednesday, has a battery of emergency measures that he could use to stop Catalan secessionism in its tracks.

The Spanish Constitution allows Mr. Rajoy to suspend the regional Parliament and to take full administrative control over Catalonia, including the leadership of its autonomous police force and its public broadcaster.

Spain’s public prosecutors could also open criminal proceedings against Mr. Puigdemont and his government. On Monday, Pablo Casado, the spokesman for Mr. Rajoy’s governing party, warned that Mr. Puigdemont could be imprisoned for insurrection.

Inés Arrimadas, the leader of the Catalan branch of the Ciudadanos party, which is fiercely opposed to secession, called on Tuesday for Mr. Puigdemont to convene new Catalan elections rather than risk escalating tensions by promising an independence that he cannot enforce.

“Today Catalonia’s citizenship is split right down the middle,” Ms. Arrimadas told La Sexta. “Part of it is excited about something that won’t happen — and that will provoke frustration.”

The crowd outside the parliament stood in anxious silence waiting for Mr. Puigdemont to say the magic words that would declare their independence from Spain.

He didn’t.

A palpable disappointment rippled through the crowd, replete with whistles of displeasure and sighs of disappointment, when Mr. Puigdemont spoke of dialogue instead of immediate independence.

“I’m so disappointed,” said Jordi Valls, 54, who sat on a bench with his head down and a folded independence flag on his lap after the speech. “ I thought today he would declare independence, and tomorrow we would be independent, that we would have a new country and that other countries would start recognizing us.”

He said he had a bad feeling the moment he saw some radical allies of Mr. Puigdemont enter the chamber separately, but that the long speech gave him moments of hope. But ultimately he said international pressure got to his leader. “They pressured him.”

As the thousands of supporters of independence, wrapped in their movement’s flags and frustratedly kicking empty beer, made for the exits, some older supporters held onto a shred of optimism.

Pedro Castelló, 77, from Lleida, in the far corner of Catalonia, said he also was disappointed but expressed faith in the government that truly believed in independence. “Because what they think is best is best.” Still, he warned, “This is the last try.”

In Sant Jaume Square in Barcelona, a line of television cameras pointed at the facade of the headquarters of the Catalonian regional government, which for now still flies both the Catalan and national flags.

Tourists wandered around snapping pictures, and a teacher shushed a class trip of French students.

Soledad Martínez, a 35-year-old doctoral student who had just moved back to Barcelona from Britain, said that while the city seemed normal on the surface, people’s conversations were full of doubt and anxiety about their immediate future.

“It’s kind of a schizophrenic moment,” she said, adding that a palpable rage imbued the city’s streets. “Something big might happen.”

She said her boyfriend’s boss had given his employees the option of going home early to avoid any potential violence, and she said that she was obsessively checking her phone for updates from Spanish news outlets.

As a man next to her set up a sign urging the politicians to talk the problem out, Ms. Martínez explained that she did not support the independence movement but understood the frustrations that had given rise to it.

Mostly she expressed bewilderment at how the situation had reached such a dangerous point. “I’m angry,” she said. “Why did they put us in this position?”

Looking around her, she again noted that things seemed so normal. “I think always the day before the war it is like this,” she said.

Inside a cloister lined with lime trees at Barcelona University, students discussed the day’s events, sitting under stickers that read “Independence, Yes” and an orange real estate sign advertising “Dictatorship for rent by the Spanish government.”

Sandra Anglés, 33, said she was “scared” and criticized Spain’s “fascist government.” Her friend Maria Cuevas Barba, 31, was also critical of the Spanish government and said it was important not to sit on the sidelines of history.

She said she had voted for independence and participated in a general strike, and she planned to demonstrate Tuesday afternoon in front of the Catalan Parliament.

“We have to be part of this,” she said.

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