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Voters in Spain's northern region of Catalonia go to the polls Sunday in a parliamentary election that is shaping up as an unofficial referendum on secession. The current Catalan president has pledged to pursue a move toward independence if re-elected.
The region, which holds 8 million people, is the country's industrial engine. Catalans are resentful that their taxes are being siphoned off for poorer regions. The prospect of secession is opposed both by the Madrid government and the European Union.
'We Are Not Spaniards'
The prosperous town of Vic is the heartland of Catalan patriotism. The central square is festooned with red and yellow Catalan flags, symbols of independence aspirations.
Local bookstore owner Jordi Anglada says there's a new wave of historical novels about three centuries of Catalan heroism against Spanish domination. The title of one book is Either Free or Dead.
The Catalan language re-emerged from suppression only after the end of the Franco dictatorship 37 years ago. It has since displaced Spanish as the official language in schools and public offices.
The economic crisis has reawakened old resentments.
"We are not Spaniards — we have a different culture, different language, different attitude" says lung surgeon Christian Domingo. "We are different people."
Like many Catalans, Domingo says his region is being exploited.
"The Spanish government comes here, invests 10 percent and gets 100 percent," he says. "And this is what you do with colonies."
A Renewed Wave Of Support
The pro-independence tide turned two months ago, when huge numbers of people took to the streets of Barcelona on Catalan National Day. The leader of the regional government, Artur Mas, a center-right politician — who has long been criticized for financial mismanagement — seized the moment.
He wrapped himself in the Catalan flag and called early elections. On posters, Mas presented himself as Moses guiding his people toward a new, independent promised land.
Even along the elegant streets of cosmopolitan Barcelona, flags are everywhere. Election excitement has replaced economic gloom.
In the Placa del Rei, surrounded by Gothic palaces, several hundred young people are joyfully square-dancing to the tune of traditional Catalan songs.
Schoolteacher Laura Torra, 30, doesn't want to dwell on her wage cuts. She's here to celebrate her Catalan identity and culture. She's keenly aware how Catalan language and traditions were repressed under Franco.
"Catalan, it was not allowed to [be spoken] in the streets, Catalan families [had] to talk Catalan in secret because, if not, it was punished," she says.
Deeper Economic Troubles
There are numerous pro-independence parties on both the left and right. The dream of secession has become a panacea for the region's economic ills, ignored by politicians and the media.
No one seems to notice the many homeless people who sleep at night on the floor of ATM enclosures, or the sporadic demonstrations by the growing number of jobless. Political analyst Lluis Foix says too many people are being blinded by the Catalan flag.
"The flag, in many cases, is trying to hide corruption, for instance, how employment is not rising, how education is worsening," he says. "It explains why many young people are leaving for other countries of Europe or of the world."
Catalan leader Mas has vowed that, if returned to power, he'll call a referendum on independence. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warns that would violate the constitution, and members of his center-right party say the army could be used to protect Spanish sovereignty.
Statements like that fuel Catalan patriotism. At Mas' closing rally, tens of thousands of his followers filled a large stadium. They shouted in unison, "Independence now!"
Whatever the outcome of Sunday's election, the secessionist genie is out of the bottle.
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