Hundreds of thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona on Tuesday in an unprecedented show of mass support for autonomy from Madrid, blaming Spain’s economic crisis for dragging their wealthy region down.
Surging unemployment and financial disarray have stoked a fever of separatism in Catalonia, a comparatively prosperous part of Spain, whose leaders say their wealth is being sucked dry by the central government.
Crowds waved red and yellow striped Catalan flags — one of the oldest still in use in Europe — and sang the Catalan anthem on a national day marking the conquest of Catalonia by Spanish King Philip V in 1714 after a 13-month siege of Barcelona.
The central government said the crowd was 600,000 strong. Catalan police gave figures as high as 1.5 million.
Marchers said the sheer size of the crowd — swollen with people from around the region who descended on its capital in bright sunshine — would at last make Madrid hear their message.
“This is a blow for the government. People like me came from everywhere. I don’t think they were expecting something as big,” said 53-year-old Teresa Cabanes, who traveled from Santa Coloma de Gramanet, on the outskirts of Barcelona, to march. “We feel that the central government is fooling with us. We Catalans are giving away a lot of money to Spain.”
The huge volume of people overwhelmed the mobile phone network, which shut down for hours under the strain. Marchers who had attended Catalan national day rallies for decades, including others that attracted hundreds of thousands, said it was the biggest they could recall.
The march ended after nightfall without any incident and no people were arrested, police said.
The show of anger and ethnic pride will play into the hands of regional authorities, who are trying to force the central government to yield control over taxes raised in Catalonia.
Catalans speak a language similar to, but distinct from, the Castilian Spanish spoken in the rest of Spain. The region accounts for 15 percent of Spain’s population, but 20 percent of its economy.
With Spain’s economy in free fall due to the eurozone debt crisis, Catalans complain of paying billions of euros more in taxes than they receive back from Madrid, even as their regional government has been forced to fire workers and cut services.
The region’s president, Artur Mas, has suggested he could seek independence if he is not given more control over tax raised from Catalonia.
“If we cannot reach a financial agreement, the road to freedom for Catalonia is open,” he said on Tuesday.
Mas did not attend the march, but said he backed it in spirit.
The annual Diada holiday is typically commemorated with a fiesta in the Catalan capital, with song, dance and a floral offerings to Rafael Casanova, a hero of the siege, but the outpouring on Tuesday was a sign that the economic crisis has transformed issues of cultural identity into a mainstream political movement bent on autonomy.
A poll by the regional government in July showed for the first time that more than half of Catalonia’s population favors independence.
For Mas and his nationalist Convergence and Union party, that translates into demands for control over taxes.
When Spain returned to democracy in the mid-1970s, regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country saw a vibrant resurgence of their culture and languages that had been crushed during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.