Thousands of people protest with Catalonian and Spanish flags against the independence movement and the regional government's speraratist plans, in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 8, 2017. (Nicolas Carvalho Ochoa/dpa/Abaca Press/TNS)

Catalonia’s regional leader stops short of declaring independence from Spain

BARCELONA, Spain — Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday called for a temporary suspension of Catalonia’s independence referendum result, even while making clear his belief that the region is on the road to secession from Spain.

The stance appeared to open a window to mediation, though it may not satisfy either the Spanish central government, which has called the independence bid illegal, or secessionists.

“Let’s be calm,” Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president, told regional lawmakers. “We’re not going to destabilize things. We defend dialogue. … We’re always willing to talk.”

But, he added that “the relationship between Spain and Catalonia has not been working for many years. … I want to follow the people’s will to become an independent state.”

Puigdemont said results of an Oct. 1 independence referendum prove Catalonia has “the right to become independent.” But he requested the regional parliament suspend any declaration of independence to begin dialogue.

“The ballots have said ‘yes’ to independence and that’s what I am committed to follow,” he told lawmakers. Directing his comments to Spain’s government, Puigdemont said: “Please listen. The government of Catalonia is reaching out its hand and asking for dialogue. We hope this can be solved easily and peacefully.”

Concluding his remarks to a standing ovation, the Catalan leader declared: “We want to be faithful to our long history.” Cheers went up across a crowd assembled outside parliament, which is surrounded by one of Barcelona’s tourist sites, the Parc de la Ciutadella. People, some draped in Catalan flags, watched the 40-minute speech on huge screens.

The Catalonia confrontation, Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, pits breakaway-minded leaders in the country’s richest region against the Madrid government, which has warned of harsh but unspecified measures if the independence bid goes forward.

The European Union, already embroiled in a messy divorce from Britain, has watched the unfolding drama with apprehension. The bloc is reluctant to meddle in internal affairs of its member states, and few EU governments have any interest in encouraging secessionists in other countries, lest that be seen as an open invitation to breakaway movements within their own borders.

The issue has enormous emotional and political resonance in Spain, which spent years confronting a sometimes-bloody Basque separatist movement and views the Catalonia independence bid as something approaching an existential crisis.

Within Catalonia, there’s been polarization as well. Pro-unity protesters turned out by the hundreds of thousands over the weekend.

“I’ve lived through a dictatorship and then democracy, which is waning these days,” said Antonio Pruna, 62, who drove his tractor Tuesday from Mataro, a coastal city north of Barcelona. “We’ll continue to struggle for our country. Until the last moment, until we sort this out, I will stay parked here.”

Several police helicopters hovered overhead as thousands of people gathered to watch Puigdemont’s speech.

“I’ll be really happy if tonight everything is finished. But I don’t think it’ll happen,” said Juana Gareta, 18, a college freshman studying political science in Barcelona. “I think whatever happens tonight is a really important step toward our final objective — to be free from Spain.”

Spain’s modern democracy began in the late 1970s. Catalonia, a region of about 7.5 million residents, has its own language and culture that were repressed during the nearly 40-year dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who died in 1975.

In a referendum this month on Catalan independence, about 90 percent of the nearly 2.3 million votes cast were in favor, and about 8 percent were against, according to the Catalan regional government.
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