Catalonia's voters ready to distance selves from Spain
Associated Press
Jun. 17, 2006

Daniel Woolls
BARCELONA, Spain - Spain abounds in humorous stereotypes: party-loving southerners, street-smart Madrid people and dour, workaholic Catalans. Here, the joke goes, a man asking an attractive female passerby for the time actually wants to know.

But things get serious Sunday when semiautonomous Catalonia votes in a referendum offering it even greater autonomy. It is something conservatives fear will gravely wound the Spanish state.

The motion, which polls predict will pass easily, includes giving wealthy Catalonia many new rights, including a bigger share of the taxes it collects. Most symbolic, perhaps, is the recognition, in a roundabout way, that Catalonia is a "nation." The conservatives worry that with the Basque country already autonomous, giving Catalonia new rights will encourage others to demand the same, putting Spain as they know it on a slippery slope.

"It's the beginning of the end of the state Spaniards drew up in 1978," says opposition leader Mariano Rajoy referring to the year Spain passed a post-dictatorship constitution that sought to strike a balance between a strong central government and more powers for the regions.

But Jordi Xucla, a Catalan lawmaker who helped shepherd the blueprint through that legislature in arduous talks with the government, says the change is overdue.

"Catalonia is a nation without a state in this old and complex Europe, with more than 1,000 years of history and a clear calling for self-government,"
he said.

Spain's population of 44 million is a patchwork of peoples with diverse cultures, languages and customs, and in the 30 years since the demise of Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship and its ethos of a strong, unified state, power has been steadily devolving to its regions.

Catalonia, whose name may derive from "land of castles," was once under Muslim Moorish rule, followed by the Germanic Franks, then became sovereign and powerful enough to rule Sicily, Sardinia and even parts of Greece. It has been part of what is now Spain since 1714.

Catalonia is the homeland of one of the world's most celebrated painters, the late Salvador Dali. It also accounts for nearly 20 percent of the national economy.

And for all its nationalist stirrings, it's a melting pot. It is home to about a third of all Spain's foreign immigrants, and political scientist Joan Botella reckons more than half of its population of 6 million are descendants of job-seeking migrants who came there from elsewhere in Spain in the boom that followed the ruinous 1936-39 civil war.

The mix is as strong as ever these days. The Andalusian south is felt in the Catalan radio stations that play nothing but flamenco music and in the songs of Miguel Poveda, whose lyrics are in Catalan, a completely different language from Spanish, but whose style is pure flamenco.

Barcelona taxi driver Jesus Gutierrez, a 50-year-old native of Andalusia, has lived there for 30 years and still doesn't speak Catalan.

He resents any suggestion that he should. "I am in Spain," he insists.

He complains that a generation ago public-school children in Catalonia were educated in Spanish; now it's all Catalan.

Indeed, language was a key sticking point in negotiations for the new estatut, or statute.

A clause that sought to oblige judges and prosecutors to show an "adequate"
knowledge of Catalan was finally watered down to giving preferential promotion to Catalan-speaking judicial officials.