HUNDREDS OF thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Barcelona on Sunday to call for Spain’s unity and protest the results of a vote endorsing independence for the wealthy Catalonia region.
Marchers, including some of the country’s most acclaimed artists and writers, waved Spanish and Catalan flags while carrying anti-secessionist banners that said “Together we are stronger.”
“We are peaceful citizens who believe in coexistence and freedom. We will show these minoritarian secessionists that Spain is a modern country,” Nobel Literature Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian writer who also holds Spanish citizenship, said in a speech at the end of the rally.
The country has been in a state of political upheaval since the northeast region held an independence referendum on Oct. 1 – despite a constitutional court banning the vote and the Spanish government dispatching thousands of national police officers to prevent ballots from being cast.
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Catalan officials said the vote was a clear message that the region wants to leave Spain. About 90% of the 2.3 million people who voted were in favor of separating from the country, the officials said.
Two days after the referendum, about 700,000 pro-independence protesters marched through Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital.
However, the rest of Spain strongly opposes any separation. Those in favor of a unified Spain have also dismissed the referendum’s results, noting that only 43% of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters participated.
Citizens from across Spain came by bus and train to attend Sunday’s rally. Barcelona’s police department estimated that 350,000 attended.
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“We feel both Catalan and Spanish,” Araceli Ponze, 72, said at the demonstration. “We are facing a tremendous unknown. We will see what happens this week but we have to speak out very loudly so they know what we want.”
The protest came a day after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said he may oust Catalonia’s government if it went forward with the secession.
Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions and its most popular tourist destination. It’s home to 7.5 million people and has its own language and distinct culture.
The divide has already taken a toll, with some businesses and banks opting to move out of the region.
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Other European Union countries have been anxiously watching how the unrest will play out. Officials in those countries fear that a pro-secessionist movement will spark similar separatist drives in parts of Italy and Belgium.
Carles Puigdemont, a Catalan leader who organized the referendum, could incite more discord on Tuesday when he is expected to address the region’s parliament and could declare independence.
During Sunday’s rally, protesters called for Puigdemont’s arrest and chanted, “Don’t be fooled, Catalonia is Spain.”
With News Wire Services
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