Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has betrayed the hopes of the movement for independence from Spain by saying that “dialogue” must come first.
He told a session of the Catalan parliament on Tuesday night that he would “suspend the effect of the independence declaration” in “a gesture of responsibility in favour of dialogue.”
Outside the park that contains the parliament building, where thousands of demonstrators were watching the speech on big screens, many responded with anger and disbelief.
David Karvala, a member of Marx21, was in Barcelona as Puigdemont made his speech. He told Socialist Worker, "About 30,000 people were following events on the screen. Puigdemont announced independence and there was a massive cheer.
"People couldn't really believe it, some people were crying. Just seconds later, he announced he was suspending it. The feeling in the street was disappointment. People felt betrayed.
"It felt like what they'd fought for was going to be given into dialogue led by the EU that smashed Greece, that lets people die in the Mediterranean."
Before the referendum—held on 1 October in defiance of repression by Spanish cops—Puigdemont had vowed to declare independence within 48 hours of a yes vote.
Some 90 percent voted for independence. But Puigdemont did nothing until Tuesday, 48 hours and one week later.
By then he only said, “The voting said yes to independence and this is the way I’m going to follow”—eventually. First, “We have to start a dialogue because otherwise it wouldn't be possible to reach our goal.”
But the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy and his Tory PP party has shown no interest in dialogue, responding only with repression and blackmail.
David said, "The Spanish government doesn't want to negotiate. On Tuesday a Tory party spokesperson came on TV saying there is nothing to negotiate. They are still in denial saying there was no referendum."
Puigdemont urged politicians and the media to “calm” and "de-escalate" the bitter row rather than ratcheting it up. He called on businesses moving their legal headquarters from Catalonia to return.
His climbdown only hands the initiative back to Rajoy.
As David put it, "Some say it's an intelligent tactic by Puigdemont to put the PP in a bad light. Or that we need to go ahead with independence but with more support from Europe. It's a very risky option.
You can't treat those people who have been part of the popular mobilisation in Catalonia like pieces in a game of chess. These are people who have struggled, not just people to be moved around and held back when it's convenient for high-level politics."
Members of the pro-independence anti-capitalist party CUP who were watching the speech shouted, “Shame on you”. They warned Puigdemont’s party—whose government CUP props up, that “It’s the end of our patience”.
Others were more positive, telling reporters they hadn’t expect Puigdemont to risk a unilateral declaration of independence yet. One man told the Euronews channel it felt like “The first day without the king of Spain.”
The fight for independence clearly isn’t over, but Puigdemont’s speech is a major setback.
Senior European Union (EU) politicians may have helped broker the backsliding.
Puigdemont’s speech was delayed for over an hour for meetings and discussions reported to have included European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Earlier European Council president Donald Tusk made a speech “as someone who understands and feels the arguments and emotions of all sides”, urging Puigdemont to prioritise dialogue.
But these are false friends. The European Commission has already firmly expressed its support for Rajoy and insisted that the Catalan standoff is “an internal matter for Spain”.
The position has been echoed by top ministers of many EU member states, most vocally France.
Bogged down in Brexit, they cannot afford another blow to the European order—and in some cases fear fuelling the hopes of independence movements in their own states.
As well as many Catalan independence flags and a few red flags, the demonstration included many banners of local defence committees. These were set up to make sure the referendum went ahead, then mobilise for the general strike against its repression.
Puigdemont’s backsliding means the onus is more than ever on the movement those banners represent to deliver democracy and independence.
"If Catalonia really moves towards independence, the Spanish state will try and attack us," said David. "If the rulers of Catalonia do a deal with the rulers of Spain we'll also need support and solidarity.
Please organise yourselves. Set up united solidarity campaigns with Catalonia. Mobilise in support of democratic rights in Catalonia and against repression. If they smash us, they can smash you tomorrow. Everybody has a stake in this."