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

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.

Joan Vaqué (right) and Andres Luchan (left) work at the La Fou winery in Batea. Vaqué says he is worried an independent Catalonia could face trade barriers if it is forced out of the European Union.
/ Lauren Frayer for NPR
Lauren Frayer for NPR
Joan Vaqué (right) and Andres Luchan (left) work at the La Fou winery in Batea. Vaqué says he is worried an independent Catalonia could face trade barriers if it is forced out of the European Union.

"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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.