In Spain, Catalans Are Divided Over Independence Vote As Referendum Approaches | KUOW News and Information

In Spain, Catalans Are Divided Over Independence Vote As Referendum Approaches

Sep 27, 2017

For 28 years, Joaquim Paladella has been mayor of his hometown of Batea, a pretty sandstone village of 2,000 people, nestled in vineyards west of Barcelona.

It's a place with more tractors than cars. There's so much farmwork, Batea has almost full employment. The jobless rate is 3 percent, one of the lowest in Spain.

Whenever there are elections for local, regional and national offices, Paladella sets up ballot boxes in the basement of the town hall. People line up outside.

But not this coming Sunday.

Paladella is one of about 200 mayors — out of more than 900 across Spain's northeast Catalonia region — who have refused to grant permission to hold an Oct. 1 independence referendum in municipal buildings.

The Spanish central government considers the vote unconstitutional and has ordered police to block voting. Separatists who rule the regional government vow to go ahead with the vote anyway — and declare independence from Spain within 48 hours, if the "yes" votes win.

Batea's mayor opposes the vote on different grounds. He says it's not a wise use of public funds. And he suggests — only half-joking — that if Catalonia becomes independent from Spain, he'll hold a referendum for Batea to leave Catalonia and join the neighboring Spanish region of Aragon.

"I just don't see how independence would help my village," Paladella says in an interview at his town hall office. "When Catalan regional leaders wave the separatist flag and lobby for independence, they're not doing the real work of government. I am a Catalan, but I'm deeply discontented with the direction my region is taking."

He takes NPR on a tour of Batea, stopping to visit the local nursing home, which has a long waiting list. The building has been expanded to house 30 more residents, but Paladella is waiting for the regional government to approve funding for people to get off the waiting list and move in. Because the government is preoccupied with the independence push, there's been no answer, Paladella says.

"It would be so much better to spend the money here," says Maria Pilar, a nurse. "Invest in expanding this facility rather than spending millions of euros on silly dreams of independence from Spain."

While a majority of Catalans say they would like the opportunity to vote on independence, opinion polls show they're roughly divided over whether to break away and form a new country. Support for staying in Spain had been growing in recent years, despite almost daily independence rallies in Barcelona, the Catalan capital.

"I would use the words demobilized majority, rather than a silent majority," says Catalan political scientist Berta Barbet. "Basically, they're not on the streets because they're defending the status quo. This referendum won't be recognized by those who have not voted. If the Catalan government decides to go ahead, even with low turnout, they know they'll have problems. That's not the way to properly legitimize your decisions."

Spain says it's illegal for Catalans to vote Sunday. Anti-independence parties are telling voters to stay home. For some, it's a dilemma: Vote in a referendum you don't believe in or skip it — and you're not represented.

In Batea's town hall lobby, there's an exhibit on local wines, and folk songs about wine play from speakers in the corner. This town has 28 wineries. Winemaking is the biggest local industry, contributing the most local jobs.

But Batea's wine industry could suffer if Catalonia gains independence from Spain. An independent Catalonia would likely be forced out of the European Union, at least temporarily. Trade barriers would go up.

"We don't know what will happen to commerce," says Joan Vaqué, who works at the family-owned La Fou winery. "We hear a lot about Brexit, how that change will affect British business. I don't want to risk the same thing here. For business owners, independence is a loaded issue."

As he arranges wine bottles on a shelf, Vaqué points to the label. In big letters, it says "Product of Spain."

"Evidently, that's something we'd have to change," he says, laughing.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For the past week, the streets of Barcelona have sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Chanting in Spanish).

SIEGEL: Separatists are rallying for independence from Spain. They plan to hold a secession vote this Sunday even though the Spanish government says that's illegal. Polls show the separatists don't have a clear majority among Catalans. Lauren Frayer went to visit one village in Catalonia where the mayor opposes independence. And he's not alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The village of Batea, nestled in vineyards west of Barcelona, has more tractors than cars. There's so much farm work, Batea has almost full employment, and it's bustling.

JOAQUIM PALADELLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Mayor Joaquim Paladella shows me where voting usually takes place in the town hall but not this coming Sunday. He refuses to allow Catalonia's independence vote to be held on public property.

PALADELLA: (Through interpreter) I don't see how independence would help my village. When our leaders wave the flag and lobby for independence, they're not doing the real work of government. I am a Catalan, but I'm deeply discontented with the direction my region is taking.

FRAYER: He takes me to the local nursing home, which has a long waiting list. Nurse Maria Pilar says she'd rather see the Catalan regional government expand this facility...

MARIA PILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: ...Than spend millions on what she calls silly dreams of independence from Spain. While a majority of Catalans would like to vote on the issue, polls show they're roughly divided over whether to break away and form a new country. Support for staying in Spain had been growing.

BERTA BARBET: I would use the words demobilized majority more than silent majority.

FRAYER: Political scientist Berta Barbet says defenders of the status quo often don't get their voices heard.

BARBET: This referendum won't be recognized by those that have not voted. And if the current government decides to go ahead even with low turnout, they know they'll have problems, like, because they - that's not the way to properly legitimize your decisions.

FRAYER: Spain says Catalans who vote Sunday are committing a crime. Anti-independence parties are telling voters to stay home. It's a dilemma. Vote in a referendum you don't believe in, or skip it, and you're not represented.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

FRAYER: Catalan folk songs about wine play in the lobby of Batea's town hall. There are 28 wineries here for 2,000 residents. It's an important industry which could suffer if Catalonia gets independence, is forced out of the European Union and faces trade barriers.

JOAN VAQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: That's why winemaker Joan Vaque will not vote Sunday, he says, showing me into his 18th century bodega.

VAQUE: (Through interpreter) We don't know what will happen to commerce. We hear a lot about Brexit, how that change will affect British business. I don't want to risk the same thing here. For business owners, independence is a loaded issue.

FRAYER: As he arranges wine bottles on a shelf, Vaque points to the label.

VAQUE: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: It says product of Spain in big letters. That's at least one thing that would have to change, he says, if his region of Catalonia wins independence. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Batea, Catalonia, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.