Catalonia Is Ready To Break Away From Spain For Good — Here’s What’s Going On

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A referendum on independence for the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan, Cataluña in Castellano) turned violent on Oct. 1, when Spanish police injured hundreds of people in an attempt to stop the vote. The referendum proceeded despite the violence, now, the regional president is saying the region will secede from Spain in the coming days. But why does Catalonia want independence?

Spain's national government says that the Catalan independence vote is illegal, as the country's constitution doesn't allow for self determination. But Spain's 40-year-old democracy is still a tenderfoot next to the deep-seated desire for Catalonian independence. In fact, the push for independence is a story a few hundred years in the making.

Why do they want independence?

The long and short of it is that many Catalans don't feel Spanish. The local language is Catalan, not Spanish. Their culture is not Spanish—with distinctive holidays, food, music, and traditions unique to the region—and their history is distinct from Spain's, stretching back to the Middle Ages.

But it's not just cultural: Catalonia wants to break from Spain is because many in the region believe they give more than they receive, economically speaking. For years, Catalonia has been a major contributor to the Spanish economy, which was ravaged in the global financial crash of 2008, according to CNBC. That's also partially why Spain is so hesitant to let the region become independent, as it would be a serious blow to the Spanish economy. According to CNN Money, Spain stands to lose about 20 percent of its economy if Catalonia splits.

Is this the first time Catalonia has called for independence?

Not even close. The history of Catalonia is basically hundreds of years of a distinctive culture trying to break away from a country that many see as colonizers.

While Spain's constitution — which deemed the referendum illegal — has only been in place since 1978, Catalan separatist movements have surged semi-regularly since the crowns of Aragón and Castilla united in the 15th century.

Hundreds of years in the making.

According to the BBC, the region now known as Catalonia — which includes the economically powerful, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona — willingly became part of the Crown of Aragón in the 12th century. At the time, Catalonia was allowed to keep its own rights and parliament as part of the dynasty.

It wasn't until the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castilla (yes, the same crown that funded Christopher Columbus) in the mid-15th century that what is modern Spain started to take shape, and Catalonia's discontents were laid bare.

The marriage of Aragón to Castilla essentially marked the end of economic and political independence for Catalonia, and after years of economic decline, Catalonia rebelled in what is called the Reapers' War from 1640 to 1659. They broke from Spain under the protection of France, but that ended with the Treaty of Westphalia.

Catalonia also made several attempts to broker more power and political independence throughout the 18th century—all of which were crushed by Spain. In fact, in 1716, after the War of Spanish Succession, Catalonia's government was completely dissolved, and Spain attempted to crush their culture, banning Catalan and closing many of their universities.

And more recently?

In the late 19th century, Catalonia started to experience economic development, which led to a resurgence in the use of Catalan language and a concerted effort to strengthen Catalan culture—which led to "a resurgence of separatist sentiment," per CNN.

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The first half of the 20th century is a story of alternating steps forward and crushing blows for Catalan independence: starting with gaining limited self-governance in 1913, followed swiftly by suppression under Spanish Prime Minister Miguel Primo de Rivera in the 1920s. Shortly after that in 1931, Spain became a republic, and Catalonia created a regional government, enjoying more autonomy. But after the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, fascist dictator Francisco Franco once more viciously suppressed Catalonian culture.

After Franco died in 1975 and Spain became a democracy in 1977, Catalonia became an autonomous community, enjoying some economic and political independence. But the desire for true independence never went away. In 2014, the region held a non-binding vote on independence, in which 80 percent voted to leave Spain.

And in 2015, separatist parties won the majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, according to CNBC — though they still only won approximately 48 percent of the vote, hardly a mandate.

In short: while what is now modern Spain wrested independence from Catalonia centuries ago, the region has never lost its desire for independence.

What's going on now?

According to The Guardian, more than 90 percent of the 2.26 million people who voted in the referendum on Oct. 1 chose independence. Eight percent voted "no" and the rest were blank or void. That sends the Spanish government a pretty clear message: the overwhelming majority of Catalans want to be independent from Spain.

The violence — which began when Spanish police attempted to prevent the Oct. 1 vote — led to almost 900 injuries. Many businesses and individuals joined a general boycott on Oct. 3, protesting the violence.

Tensions remain high while both Catalonia's regional government and Spain's national government figure out next steps.

What's going to happen next?

In an interview with the BBC, Catalonia's Regional President Carles Puigdemont said the region will make moves in a matter of days, implying that the region would in fact secede. He added that there was no communication with the national government in Madrid, and his own.

On the national level, King Felipe VI said Catalonia's government and its voters operated "outside the law." He additionally called for "unity," which left some worried that he may try to interfere with separation.

If Spain did try to interfere, Puigdemont said it would be "an error which changes everything." With the extreme violence from Spanish police during the vote, it's unsettling to think about the consequences of a federal body refusing to accept the region's decision to become independent.