BARCELONA — Here in Spain’s second-largest city, long a magnet for American tourists, life on the surface appears as festive as ever, from the beach terraces laden with pitchers of sangria to the crowds browsing the kiosks on the pedestrian median of La Rambla, which almost immediately returned to normal after last month’s terror attack. But the tension brewing just below the surface of Catalonia, the wealthy northeast region of 7.5 million of which Barcelona is capital, burst into the open Wednesday morning with a series of raids by national police on the regional ministry of finance, leading to at least a dozen arrests of senior officials, followed by hours of flag-waving marches and demonstrations.
At issue is a wave of Catalan nationalism culminating in a referendum on secession, scheduled for October 1. The regional government has said that if the vote passes, it is prepared to declare its independence within 48 hours. The Spanish government in Madrid, headed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has declared the referendum illegal and unconstitutional — and is doing everything it can to prevent it. “The vote,” Rajoy vows, “will never take place.”
Regional unrest is not new to Spain. The Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (or ETA, the acronym for Basque Homeland and Liberty), the militant arm of the Basque separatist movement in Spain’s north, has fought for independence with terror bombings that have killed hundreds. But the Catalan situation is unprecedented, in part because it appears to have significant support from outside the country, notably from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been promoting the cause of Catalan independence with a series of incendiary tweets and posts.
Assange is widely suspected of fronting for Russia, which as part of its campaign to destabilize Western democracies has supported secessionist movements from Scotland to Texas. Barcelona and the surrounding resort towns along the Costa Brava are favorite vacation and second-home spots for wealthy Russians, including alleged mafia heads reportedly linked to the Kremlin. Some of them are facing criminal charges by the national government — charges that might not survive a transition to a new, Russia-friendly Catalan national government. “The situation is confusing and highly combustible,” says one longtime resident who declined to be quoted by name, given the intensity of feeling on the issue.