Why some Catalans want to break away from Spain

BARCELONA — With three weeks to go until a referendum called to dissolve a 500-year-old political union, neither the Spanish nor the Catalan governments are confronting head-on arguments about why Catalonia should secede from or remain in Spain.

Instead, they are focusing on whether the Catalans have the legal right to secede.

But that’s not the case in Barcelona, with many of those who took to the streets on Monday for the Diada, Catalonia’s national day, happy to talk about specific grievances that have pushed them toward independence. Organizers said 450,000 people had registered to take part in the Diada, and Barcelona police later tweeted that 1 million turned up.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, backed by a separatist majority in the regional assembly, has vowed to go ahead with the vote on October 1, which has been ruled illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. However, Puigdemont and his Cabinet aren’t (publicly at least) shouting about a future, independent Catalan state, rather focusing their campaign on allowing citizens to decide their own future, not being dictated to by Madrid.

Catalonia has 16 percent of the country’s population and generates 20 percent of its gross domestic product.

The Spanish government, meanwhile, is sticking to the legal arguments, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy saying he will do “whatever is needed” to prevent the vote taking place.

Spain faces one of its gravest political crises in decades. Many in the establishment wonder if the situation could lead to unrest in the streets and ask how Rajoy will be able to prevent the vote without using drastic measures — such as taking control of the regional government.

“I want a fair country, a more social and leftist country, and I believe the best way to achieve that is leaving Spain,” said Marc Becat, a 22-year-old who works in sales. “Spain has always looked to me … pretty conservative, not only at the political level but also in terms of thinking.”

A banner reading “Referendum is democracy” during the Catalan national day celebrations in Barcelona | EPA via ANC

A number of legal obstacles stand in the way of Becat’s wish coming true.

Judges are investigating Puigdemont and other officials on charges related to the organization of the referendum that may result in prison sentences. The public prosecutor has ordered the police to monitor activities connected to the vote — a print shop and a newsroom have been raided in the past few days, triggering public demonstrations. Hundreds of mayors in Catalonia have defied court orders and offered their support for the vote, although others, especially in the bigger cities, have refused to do so.

It’s the economy, stupid

Against this background of tension, however, there is little political debate about the reasons that led a significant number of Catalans — around 41 percent, according to the Catalan government-funded Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió (CEO) — to be willing to break away from Spain.

Research by the CEO shows the reasons to be manifold, with arguments including wanting increased autonomy (26 percent), the belief that Catalonia would improve if it struck out on its own (23 percent) and the desire for a new model for running a country (19 percent).

People wave “Estelades” (pro-independence flags) as they gather during a demonstration celebrating the Catalan national day on September 11, 2017 in Barcelona | Sandra Montanez/Getty Images

Catalan unionist forces, as well as the Spanish government, accuse the separatists of feeding the people with lies and a constant stream of distorted facts aimed at reinforcing a Catalan sense of victimization at the hands of Spaniards. They haven’t been able to fully combat those perceptions, real or imaginary, on the ground.

Towering above all else is the economy. Catalonia has 16 percent of the country’s population and generates 20 percent of its gross domestic product.

“All the money and all the taxes that flow to the Spanish government will stay in [an independent] Catalonia,” said Ana Martí Benavente, a 78-year-old Barcelona pensioner. “It’s like a son who wants to leave home but is the one bringing in the money. And of course the parents don’t want him to leave.”

“With the work in the industrial areas, the exports and the Catalans’ personality, we could build a country where people would live better than in Switzerland in some years,” said Gabriel Maestro, a 74-year-old engineer.

Other separatists point to cultural differences and perceived aggression from the central government.

“We believe we are different in Catalonia and we have rights that are being walked over,” said Mari Angels Cubillo, a 47-year-old housewife.

“Most families with Catalan roots have never felt Spanish,” added Roser Brustenga, a 62-year-old office worker, arguing that an independent Catalonia would preserve its own language and culture, which “the current government is trying to eliminate.”

“What we Catalans find surprising is how the international community doesn’t react to the fact that we’re being prevented from voting” — Marta Alsina, teacher

Language comes up again and again out on the streets. Most people in Catalonia can speak Catalan and Spanish, both official languages. Catalan is the main language in schools, but in recent years, courts have been telling Catalan schools to provide lessons in Spanish if students demand it. Secessionist supporters see that as an attack on a language in need of protection.

Many supporters of an independent Catalan state can even refer to specific quotes from Spanish officials that have offended them.

Marc Becat recalled the words of former Education Minister José Ignacio Wert, who in 2012 said his aim was to “españolizar [make more Spanish] Catalan children.”

Brustenga remembered a leaked conversation from 2016, in which an official in the anti-fraud bureau boasted to a Spanish minister that they had “destroyed [the Catalan] health system.”

Pro-Catalan independence flags “Estelades” at Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia in September 11 | Alberto Estevez/EFE

Others are angry about the conservative government of Rajoy’s Popular Party.

“It’s the Popular Party above all things, I hate them, that’s it,” said Alex Fores, a 21-year-old engineering student. “They’re very right-wing and obviously if you look at what people vote here [in Catalonia] it’s a completely different ideology.” Catalonia is ruled by a pro-independence coalition led by one center-right party and one center-left one.

While many demonstrators on Monday seemed convinced that they will be able to cast a vote on October 1, they were aware that it hangs in the balance.

“What we Catalans find surprising is how the international community doesn’t react to the fact that we’re being prevented from voting,” said Marta Alsina, a 46-year-old teacher.

“I’m hopeful that things will change from October 2, even if the referendum doesn’t take place,” said Josep Maria Alventosa, a 70-year-old architect.

A protester with a painted “Estelada,” a pro-independence flag, in Barcelona | Lluis Gené/AFP via Getty Images


Senate Russia investigators weigh issuing interim report

Richard Burr (right) and and Mark Warner are pictured here. | Getty Images

The fact that Chairman Sen. Richard Burr (right) and Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner are discussing an interim report suggests their investigation could continue well into 2018 and maybe beyond. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

The leaders of the Senate panel investigating Russia’s election meddling are discussing whether to release an interim report that would focus on how to protect future U.S. elections ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have had at least one meeting on the matter and plan to continue discussing it, Burr told POLITICO.

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“That’s one of the considerations that we have,” Burr said. “The vice chairman and I, we’ve had a preliminary meeting, but we haven’t firmed anything up.”

Warner said the interim report would address election security — meaning it likely would not provide a firm answer to the question of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow in its effort to use propaganda and hacked materials to sway the election toward President Donald Trump.

“I think it’s very important that we put out something about the importance of protecting our electoral systems before 2018,” Warner said. “How we get out that information is something we’re still working through.”

Warner added that he was concerned that an interim report could slow down work on other aspects of the investigation being conducted by the intelligence panel, which has been interviewing high-profile members of the Trump campaign about their communication with people with ties to the Kremlin.

“I also want to make sure that we keep our progress,” Warner said, noting that an interim report could eat up significant energy because of the process of “getting it approved and declassified.”

The fact that Burr and Warner are discussing an interim report suggests their investigation could continue well into 2018 and maybe beyond. Burr has previously said his “aspirational” goal is to wrap up the entire investigation this year.

A parallel Justice Department investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller does not face any official deadlines, though it could present a political test if it continues during the campaign season.

If Mueller’s team goes public with findings or indictments before the entire probe is finished, they could risk being blamed for affecting the midterm elections, just as FBI Director James Comey faced criticism for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign.

But it also cuts the other way: Silence from the special counsel could be interpreted as exoneration for the Trump campaign.

Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.


Pelosi not endorsing Sanders’ single-payer bill

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is pictured. | AP Photo

Pelosi says that while she has long supported the idea the bill captures, “Right now I’m protecting the Affordable Care Act.” | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to back a single-payer health care bill drafted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) , saying she is instead focused on efforts to shield Obamacare from Republican attempts to rescind it.

“Right now, I’m protecting the Affordable Care Act,” Pelosi told a small group of reporters in her Capitol office Tuesday. “None of these other things … can really prevail unless we have the Affordable Care Act.”

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The House’s top Democrat said she would review the legislation, which Sanders is rolling out to much fanfare on Wednesday.

The single-payer bill has quickly attracted support from a flock of Democratic senators in the mix for the 2020 presidential race, suggesting that it is rapidly becoming a litmus test among the liberal grass roots.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have all said they will co-sponsor the legislation. But the popularity of Sanders’ bill is quickly spreading to other senators not necessarily eyeing a presidential run, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

But Pelosi disputed the notion that backing single-payer — a policy move enthusiastically embraced by the liberal grassroots yet politically unfeasible in the short term — was becoming a litmus test among the left.

“I don’t think it’s a litmus test,” Pelosi told reporters. “I think to support the idea that .. it captures is that we want to have everybody, as many people as possible, everybody, covered. And I think that is something that we all embrace.”


GOP lawmaker pushes gun silencer bill

Rep. Jeff Duncan is pictured. | Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Duncan’s bill, gun control groups argue, is one of the top legislative goals for the powerful National Rifle Association and is opposed by many police organizations. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) is renewing his controversial push to make it easier to buy gun silencers, a debate that had been postponed following the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) in June.

Duncan included the silencer provision in a broader bill, the “Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act,” or SHARE Act. There are several gun-related items in the package, which is being marked up by the Natural Resources Committee this week.

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Duncan argues that silencers are used by hunters and target shooters to limit potential hearing loss from gunfire. Duncan introduced a stand-alone silencer bill, dubbed the “Hearing Protection Act,” in January. That legislation currently has 160 co-sponsors, including several Democrats.

But gun control groups argue that Duncan’s bill is one of the top legislative goals for the powerful National Rifle Association and is opposed by many police organizations. There is also very little chance Duncan’s bill would be able to pass the Senate due to Democratic opposition.

“NRA leadership and their friends in Congress have gone behind closed doors to try to prop up lagging gun sales by making it easy for anyone to buy a silencer without a background check,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. “This sham bill is a giveaway to the gun lobby, which cannot be allowed to use Congress to put profits ahead of public safety.”

House GOP leaders have not committed to a floor vote on the measure, though a Republican leadership aide said it could come up later this month or in early October.

Duncan did not respond to a request for an interview.

The original hearing for the SHARE Act in June was canceled following the attack on Scalise and other GOP lawmakers in Alexandria, Va.

Under the 1934 National Firearms Act, silencers — also known as suppressors — are treated similarly to machine guns or explosives. The waiting time to purchase such devices is far longer than for handguns or other weapons, as much as nine months or more. Buyers must submit fingerprints and a photograph in order to purchase a silencer, and federal law enforcement agencies keep a record of who buys the devices. There is also a $200 transfer tax on silencers.

Duncan’s proposal would eliminate those requirements, as well as refunding the $200 transfer tax to anyone who has purchased a silencer since October 2015.


N.H. official rejects calls to quit Trump voter fraud panel

Bill Gardner is pictured here. | AP

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (left) watches as then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump fills out his papers to be on the nation’s earliest presidential primary ballot on Nov. 4, 2015. | Jim Cole/AP

MANCHESTER, N.H. — A New Hampshire official who has overseen the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primaries for four decades has firmly rejected calls from Democratic activists that he step down from his position as a member of President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission.

Speaking at the outset of the controversial panel’s first meeting outside Washington, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he’s determined to remain part of the group examining evidence of illegal voting and threats to the election process.

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“New Hampshire people are not accustomed to walking away or stepping down from their civic duty and I will not either,” said Gardner, a Democrat who has served as the state’s top election official since 1976.

Critics have slammed the commission as a transparent effort to justify Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that millions of people voted illegally in last year’s presidential race and as an attempt to suppress minority voting.

However, Gardner painted a starkly different picture of the panel’s purposes, insisting that it’s a legitimate response to public concern about fraud and tampering. He also suggested critics are distorting the commission’s purpose for partisan reasons.

“In order to ‘live free’ we must have a stable election process to keep the confidence of our citizens. This in a nutshell is why this commission was established,” Gardner said. “It has faced continual opposition since its inception, although our work is only really beginning today. … The specter of extreme political partisanship already threatens our ability to reach consensus.”

Gardner has been reelected by state lawmakers to two-year terms consecutively for more than 40 years. But that goodwill could be souring.

The entire New Hampshire congressional delegation — all Democrats — and top state leaders have called on Gardner to resign from the commission on the heels of commission vice chair and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s claims that voter fraud in New Hampshire tipped the scales to Democrat Maggie Hassan in the 2016 US Senate race.

Gardner faces reelection in 2019.

About 150 protesters chanted outside as the commission’s meeting got underway at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester. Cries of “Shame!” and “It’s a sham!” rang out as panel members and VIP’s arrived for the session.

Many of the activists opposing the meeting complained about Gardner’s involvement and argued he’d done too little to rebut recent claims by Kobach that thousands of ballots may have been cast illegally in New Hampshire last year by residents of other states.

“He’s had 40-plus years of dedicated public service. By participating in this commission, he’s throwing his whole history of service down the tubes,” said Ken Roos, 63, a state worker from Concord.

Despite the raucous atmosphere outside, the early hours of the commission meeting Tuesday proceeded without disruption. Several dozen members of the public who registered in advance, including some harsh critics of the panel, were permitted to attend the session.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has been critical of Kobach’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and of states providing voter data to the panel, saying in June that New Hampshire “should lose their status as first in the nation Primary if it shares that data. Ditto Iowa for first Caucus,” he tweeted.

Dean doubled down on Monday, blasting New Hampshire as ‘a state with voter suppression [that] ought not to be honored by the Democratic Party by having the first-in-the-nation primary, period,’ in an interview with the Daily Beast. His complaints focused not only on Gardner’s involvement with the Trump commission, but also a new New Hampshire state law imposing stricter voting requirements.

The state’s Supreme Court temporarily blocked the criminal penalties in that law Tuesday.