Next: Free Catalonia?

Over one and a half million Catalans on Sept. 11 celebrated their Diada Nacional—the national day marking the 1714 Siege of Barcelona—by forming a human chain stretching 400 kilometers across the territory, from Tarragona in the south to El Pertús on the border with France. The chain, dubbed the "Via Catalana," was the climax of days of demonstrations calling for independence from Spain, and was inspired by the 1989 Baltic Way chain across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that launched the drive for independence from the USSR.

Catalonia's long-simmering separatist movement has dramatically gained ground in recent months in response to Spain's ongoing economic crisis and corruption scandals under the right-wing Popular Party (PP) that rules in Madrid. In response to the groundswell, Catalonia's president, Artur Mas of the center-left Catalan Democratic Convergence (CDC), issued a formal request to Madrid to hold a referendum on whether the industrialized northeastern region should secede from Spain—which was rejected by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy just three days after the Sept. 11 mobilization.

Next year will mark exactly three centuries since the events commemorated by the Diada Nacional—when Catalans resisted being absorbed into Spain at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). (When the new Bourbon regime, backed by France, gained power in Madrid, Catalonia broke away under an Austrian duke loyal to the old Habsburg dynasty, backed by Britain. Barcelona was besieged by Bourbon troops, and when Britain failed in its pledge to defend the city, it fell on Sept. 11, 1714, marking the end of a short-lived independent Catalonia.) Mas had pledged to call the officially non-binding referendum or "consultation" in 2014, on the 300th anniversary—which is also the year Scotland is to vote on independence from the United Kingdom.

The more intransigently separatist Esquerra Republicana, or Catalan Republican Left (ERC), is calling on the CDC to join in a "frente soberanista," or pro-sovereignty front, that would push for independence in defiance of Madrid's veto. (La Vanguardia, Barcelona, Sept. 18;, Sept. 16; Al Jazeera, Sept. 15; The Economist, Sept. 14; EITB, Sept. 4)

The independence push around the Diada has coincided with another historically charged controversy—concerning revelations that Madrid's official delegate to the Catalan regional government, María de los Llanos de Luna, had participated in a ceremony held at a barracks of Spain's paramilitary Civil Guards in honor of the Blue Division, a group of "volunteers" dispatched by fascist dictator Gen. Francisco Franco to fight for the Nazis in World War II. The commemoration was attended by surviving veterans of the division, who are still organized in a Brotherhood of Combatants of the Blue Division. The central government has rejected demands from the ERC that Llanos de Luna be removed from her post, with the PP's parliamentary bloc voting down a measure to censure her. (Mas Mundo, Sept. 19; El Periódico, Barcelona, Sept. 18)

The legacy of the 1936-9 Spanish Civil War is increasingly contentious in contemporary Spanish politics. Franco, who emerged victorious from the war and ruled until his death in 1975, revoked Catalonia's autonomy and effectively banned its language. An autonomous Catalan regional government was restored with the transition to democracy after Franco's death—along with celebration of the Diada. Moves towards greater autonomy for Catalonia have sparked a backlash that has seen the re-emergence of Franco-era fascist organizations like the Falange (a name also emulated by Greek neo-fascists). One measure for greater Catalan authonomy (not even secession!) in 2006 led a top army general to warn of a new civil war in Spain. The right-wing opposition bitterly protested the passage of an "Historical Memory Law" on the Spanish Civil War under then-Socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero in 2007. At the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2009, Catalan activists joined with Tamils, Quechua, Palestinians and others in a forum on the "Collective Rights" of stateless peoples

Talk of a new Spanish civil war may seem alarmist, but—at least—if the consultation goes ahead next year in defiance of Madrid, Catalonia risks joining the world's "phantom republics."

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