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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 12:39 AM

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Spain crisis fuels Catalan separatist sentiment

Three weeks after a massive Catalan separatist march in Barcelona - the biggest since the 1970s - the independence flags still flutter from balconies across Spain's second largest city.

Associated Press

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BARCELONA, Spain —

Three weeks after a massive Catalan separatist march in Barcelona - the biggest since the 1970s - the independence flags still flutter from balconies across Spain's second largest city.

Spain's crushing recession has had this divisive consequence: soaring popular sentiment in Catalonia that the affluent region would be better off as separate nation.

On Thursday, regional lawmakers voted to hold a referendum for Catalonia's seven million citizens to decide whether they want to break away from Spain. The Spanish government says that the referendum would be unconstitutional. And it's unclear if the "Yes" vote would win - even in these restless times.

But it looks more likely than ever that Catalonia may ask to go its own way.

"I have a big Catalan flag on the balcony. I put it up a week before the demonstration on Sept. 11 and it is still hanging there," said Gemma Mondon, 46, a mother of two. "I think we would be better off if we can manage our money. I think we would do much better."

Catalonia, a northeastern region that is historically one of Spain's wealthiest and most industrialized, has always harbored a strong nationalist streak. Separatism is especially entrenched in the rural towns and villages outside its more cosmopolitan capital Barcelona, where people switch between speaking Spanish and Catalan with ease and at times without even noticing.

In the peaceful transition from the Franco dictatorship to prosperous democracy, Catalans were content just to recover the freedom to openly speak, teach and publish in their own Catalan language, a right denied under Franco for over 30 years.

But now, generations-old grievances for more self-government and recognition of their culture are rising to the surface as the economic downturn bites.

Many Catalans feel their quest for a sense for nationhood has been frustrated by the intransigence of the central government in Madrid. The most recent of these clashes came in 2010 when Spain's Constitutional Court weakened the Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, a sweeping package of laws that devolved more power to the region and would have recognized Catalonia as a nation, albeit one within Spain.

Spain's slump, which has led to a spike in unemployment and harsh austerity cuts, has proven to be the tipping point for many Catalans who used to be against or ambivalent about seeking their own state.

Mondon, who works for a family run real estate management firm, said that just over a year ago she voted "No" in a nonbinding referendum organized by pro-independence groups. Now, she says she has changed her mind.

"I always felt Spanish and Catalan and I never had the urge to be independent. A year ago I just wanted to be left alone to speak my language and raise my children in a Catalan school," said Mondon. "My attitude was `don't bother me,' but now that has changed."

Catalonia will go to the polls on Nov. 25, with regional president Artur Mas' center-right nationalist party Convergencia i Unio expected to increase its hold of the regional parliament. Mas has said he will hold a referendum on Catalonia's self-determination, whether the Spanish government permits it or not. The date has yet to be set.

"If the Spanish government authorizes (the referendum), more the better," said Mas. "If the Spanish government turns its back on us and doesn't authorize a referendum or another type of vote, well, we will do it anyway."

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists the country's constitution doesn't allow a region to secede on its own, and experts say it would be virtually impossible for Catalan separatists to get it changed. Spain's Basque region, the other part of the country with a strong separatist movement, tried to get such a move approved in Parliament in 2005 but failed.

"It's not a scenario planned by the constitution," said Francisco Perez-Latre, a communications professor at the University of Navarra who has closely monitored the Catalan independence movement for years.

The new political uncertainty about the economically important region and major tourism destination is unsettling for investors already worried about Rajoy's ability to keep his country's shaky economy afloat, and within the euro currency club.

There are also doubts about how well-equipped Catalonia would be to go it alone.

Catalonia, sitting on its own mountain of debt, has in fact asked Spain for a (EURO)5.9 billion bailout. But many Catalans argue that the region is only heavily indebted because it has to pay more than its fair due in taxes compared to services and funding it gets in return. Spain's other better-off regions also give more than they receive. Rajoy, however, has emboldened Catalan separatists by flatly rejecting demands for more power in levying tax revenues and deciding how it is spent, privileges granted to two other Spanish regions: the Basque Country and Navarra.

Rajoy's stance has combined with Spain's gloomy prospects to push Catalans who never wanted to break away from Spain before to conclude that the country itself is a failure.

"I put the Catalan flag on my balcony for the first time. Normally, I have been very discreet with my political ideas. But I think now I have to go a step further," said architect Albert Estanyol, 48, whose mother came from southern Spain. "Before, when asked about independence, I would say `Why?' Now, I say, `Why not?'"

Catalonia has over 800,000 unemployed, almost 22 percent of its population. That's slightly lower than Spain's national jobless rate, but the back-to-back recessions have been particularly hard on young workers in Catalonia. Since 2007, over 100,000 Catalans under 25 have lost their jobs, and the unemployment rate for workers under 25 has skyrocketed to over 50 percent, close to the national level for the same age bracket.

"I have looked for work. Since I was 18 I have had six or seven jobs, they have all been unstable, poorly paid, like filling in for two weeks at IKEA. They have had nothing to do with what I studied," said Roger Cervino, a 23-year-old who holds a degree in history.

"The economic situation is bad and one of the solutions to ending the crisis is secession. It would be complicated, but Catalonia has the capacity to reach full employment," he said. "What stops it is Spain, and above all the Spanish government, which has been a disaster."

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Alan Clendenning contributed from Madrid.

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