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Catalonia Marks National Day With Rally For Independence From Spain


This is what it sounded like in Barcelona today.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, demonstrators who want their region of Spain, Catalonia, to be independent. They want a referendum to go forward on October 1. Catalan leaders insist it will happen even though the Spanish government condemns the vote as illegal. Reporter Lauren Frayer is in Barcelona and joins us now. Hi, Lauren.


SHAPIRO: Describe that scene for us - hundreds of thousands of people. We heard them shouting independence.

FRAYER: Right. You can probably still hear the helicopters overhead behind me. It's a sea of Catalan separatist flags. You heard that chanting. People have been breaking out into song as well, the Catalan national anthem. Separatists actually hung a sign across the main Bank of Spain building here, renaming it the Bank of Catalonia. That's probably going to be taken down by the end of the day. Today is a day off work for Catalonia's national day, but it's turned into this absolutely massive separatist rally.

SHAPIRO: The last time Barcelona was in the news was when it was hit by a terrorist attack a few weeks ago. Are concerns about that affecting the demonstrations at all today?

FRAYER: That's right. The demonstrators are actually on the exact same street where ISIS killed people last month. Separatist flags are surrounding a memorial still on the ground with flowers. There's a huge police presence. But the mood has been festive, and there's been no disruption, no security incidents.

SHAPIRO: Why do Catalans want independence from Spain? And why does this seem to be coming to a head now?

FRAYER: So Catalans have their own language, their own culture which were repressed under a dictator here through the 1970s. But more recently, Catalonia has become the richest part of Spain. It's got the most tourists, the most tourist revenue. Spain has just come out of this punishing economic recession, and many Catalans think, you know, they'd be better off without having their taxes subsidize poorer parts of Spain. Here's a Josep Carreras. He's an independence activist that I met in the crowd.

JOSEP CARRERAS: I think that we could do better, much better, if we would be a country and we could administrate our own resources. So I'm again demonstrating for our right to decide because the Spanish government doesn't allow us to do that.

FRAYER: And he says, you know, the more Spain blocks moves toward independence, the more he actually wants it.

SHAPIRO: Is this vote likely to happen? Is it possible that this region could break away from Spain?

FRAYER: Well, Spain says absolutely not. It's unconstitutional. The Spanish Constitution guarantees the unity of the country, so it's illegal for any region to break away or even vote on the issue. The country's highest court has suspended plans for this October 1 vote. Prosecutors are preparing charges against every single Catalan government minister. And over the weekend, Spanish civil guards raided printing offices to try to seize ballots. So they're trying to physically halt the voting.

And many Catalans say that's kind of a horrible image in a democracy. It makes them all the more determined to vote and have a say in their future. If they do hold this referendum - which they say they will do - and the yes votes win, leaders vow to declare independence from Spain possibly the very next day on October 2. That's not likely to be recognized, certainly not by Spain nor by any other European Union country. And so the standoff is really likely to keep going, to continue.

SHAPIRO: That's Lauren Frayer speaking with us from Barcelona. Thanks, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.