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Today in Breakaway Republics: Catalans Seek Independence From a Crumbling Spain

A million and a half people formed a human chain across Catalunya today to call for the region's break from a crippled country.
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A few hours ago, about a million and a half people formed a human chain across 250 miles of northeastern Spain. That region, Catalunya, has asked Spanish leadership in the capital Madrid for the right to hold an independence referendum a la Quebec's failed vote, or Scotland's upcoming one. Madrid hasn't responded. Today's human chain was an effort to draw some publicity to the Catalan cause. Coincidentally, the demonstration passed right in front of my apartment in Barcelona, so I went downstairs to see what all the fuss was about. Demonstrations are famously difficult to estimate, but a million and a half people would make today's event a candidate for the largest demonstration to occur anywhere on Earth this year.

They certainly couldn't have asked for a better week to pull the stunt. A growing Keystone Kops veneer has steadily thickened over the central government in Madrid, on the heels of a financial scandal involving the ruling party's former treasurer, followed by the sudden decision to pick a fight with England over the tiny territory of Gibralter. Mix into that a ham-fisted response to a terrifying train accident a month ago, and add that to a whipsawed economy, a 30 percent unemployment rate, and an ongoing soap opera involving a member of the monarchy's apparent abuse of position (being an actual monarch didn't provide sufficient latitude?). Today, a pipe burst in the capital building, causing the Parliament roof to leak. All this adds up to a country where everything feels out of control, and even the smallest official mistake takes on the weight of metaphor.

The demonstration also comes just a few days after officials of the monarchy, Madrid's mayor's office, and the national government returned from a failed bid to win the right to host the 2020 Olympics. (Tokyo won.) A dignified defeat turned into a national circus almost immediately, in which videos surfaced of Madrid's reps making fools of themselves in various ways, the most viral of which was a recording of Madrid's mayor, Ana Botella, reading a speech to the International Olympic Committee in the cadence of Mister Rodgers. Her invitation to the world to share "a relaxing cup of cafe con leche in the Plaza Mayor" has become Spain's version of George W. Bush's "Brownie, yer doin' a heck of a job," and the remixes are into the dozens by now. Here's Botella backed by a Snoop Dogg beat:

Into this Ianucci-esque comedy, the Catalans lined up this morning with a list of gloriously boring complaints about taxes and education policy, the inevitable thugs under impressive control (generally Black Block types and football hooligans), and an item by their local leadership on the opinion pages of the New York Times. A half-block from my house, everyone seemed in a fine mood, cheery, free of bile.

"We're paying a lot of money to the central government, and they give us very little back," said Nuria Janer, a nurse in a public hospital, with a grin and a resigned shrug. She was with three other public employees. "To change things you need to change the Constitution, the rules of the game," said one, Imma Pico, who works in the state government's economic policy office. "You have to change the rules of the game or what we're doing is illegal. You reach a limit."

If that limit's been reached, the Catalans should have Madrid over a barrel. After five years as an economic mess, Spain's crisis has reached its farce stage. Shortly after today's protest, a gang of masked men waving fringe rightist banners broke into the Catalan government's offices in Madrid and beat up people attending an event marking today's Catalan holiday. A few bloody noses and twisted arms, nothing terrible. But they got in and out somehow, in a building in the capital, on a day when tensions would naturally be higher. It all looked very bad. Meanwhile, off in the northeast, eight million people in one of the country's key economic zones just demonstrated a pretty good flair for organization, and some very clear grievances, and not a single such incident occurred.

When have eight million people had this good a card to play? If Catalunya goes, Spain crashes. Catalunya is Spain's California.

If Spain goes, Europe's recovery loses its fourth-largest economy. Europe crashes. If Europe crashes, the U.S. loses a massive trading partner. And so on.

That's, potentially, the gun held to the head of a Madrid government in chaos. A tiny community celebrates September 11th as its Independence Day because it's the day they lost their independence in an 18th-century war, which seems like bleak humor, but plays here more as refused surrender. That community knows it has its finger on the first domino. In return for not toppling it, they only want one thing, which sounds suspiciously like what most people want: an up or down vote on self-rule.

Will that vote, which they want next year, actually happen? Would they tip that domino if it doesn't? No one's sure. Madrid still hasn't answered Barcelona's request. And a long history between the two regions hangs heavily over the whole affair. Madrid typically wins any dust-ups, which come every century or two, and generally end in tragedy. The September 11th date came from Barcelona's fall, effectively ending the War of the Spanish Succession, and not in the local's favor. The Spanish Civil War also didn't go their way. Now a Depression-level economic collapse, fumbled badly by the Spanish government in Madrid, is pressing the city. Other than the occasional soccer game, Catalunya has never won these wars, and a natural pessimism hangs over this newest argument.

This week one gets the sense that history may be lining up in their favor. "There are small communities, small towns that have already stopped paying taxes," said Pico, the economics department employee. "They're small gestures. But they're rising incrementally."

Does that matter? As a practical concern, probably not. As revolutions go, the whole thing is remarkably well-mannered and calm. But the calm can distract from recognizing the clear fact that they drew a line today, literally arm in arm. Another cheap metaphor. That's the currency here these days, and you pay attention.