BARCELONA, Spain — As the last customers finished their drinks at sidewalk cafes one warm October night, three silver-haired activists armed with a long-handled broom and a bucket quietly plastered posters on a nearby wall: “Hola nou pais” — “Hello new country.”
That birth was exactly what they and many others were celebrating in Catalonia, a prosperous northeastern region whose lawmakers voted in favor of independence from Spain on Friday. The Spanish government was aghast, quickly triggering unprecedented constitutional measures to fire the regional government and take direct control of many of Catalonia’s affairs in order to thwart secession.
Some separatist-minded Catalans have vowed to carry out a wave of civil disobedience in response to the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, saying they refuse to recognize Madrid’s authority. A few days before the vote, Catalonia’s now-sacked foreign affairs minister, Raul Romeva, said he believed the region’s civil servants — who number about 200,000 — would continue following orders from “the elected and legitimate institutions” rather than from Madrid.
“Receive direct orders from Madrid? No,” said Miguel Gonzalez Ibanez, general secretary of the teachers federation of the General Confederation of Workers, or CGT, of Catalonia.
However, he noted the union objected to aspects of both the Spanish and Catalan education laws. “Besides not accepting the consequences of Article 155, we will continue to prioritize the defense of public education,” he said.
Monday, the first working day since Madrid imposed the new measures, passed smoothly.
“We haven’t really witnessed any difference in regards to our normal workday in our work as teachers,” he said.
Secession is not a simple process. A highly disputed referendum Oct. 1 was declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court and boycotted by Catalans who want to stay a part of Spain. It also was marred by violence when national police clashed with people determined to vote.
The desire for independence is far from unanimous in Catalonia, which saw hundreds of thousands fill the streets Sunday in favor of remaining in Spain.
Exactly how Madrid imposes its authority on the region, and how independence-minded Catalan leaders and their supporters react, will be critical to how the drama plays out.
Since democracy was restored in Spain after dictator Gen. Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia has run its own local institutions, including public media, schools, police, firefighters and health facilities.
Among the first to hint that Madrid’s takeover wouldn’t go smoothly were Barcelona’s firefighters. Even before Article 155 was invoked, they issued a statement describing the central government’s threats to do so as “the most serious attack suffered by Catalonia since 1939,” the start of Franco’s dictatorship.
“We do not recognize any other authority than our President, our Government and our Parliament,” the statement said. “We will only obey the Catalan legality, which has all our legitimacy.”
What this might translate into, however, is unclear. It is hardly likely that firefighters would refuse to extinguish blazes because of a political disagreement over who runs the fire department.
Marc Ferrer, a 43-year-old firefighter and spokesman for the Fire Brigade for Independence platform, said resistance would take a more symbolic form, with local services playing a “cat-and-mouse” game with Madrid.
“Even they don’t know how to apply Article 155,” he said. He refused to say what plans were being made for disobedience, citing security reasons.
“We are not going to do anything, we have never done anything, that puts people at risk,” he stressed, adding that disobedience could mean refusing to display an official flag on the fire station or a Spanish insignia on firetrucks
“The response from the Spanish state — the only thing they understand — is repression. For us, it’s passive resistance and disobedience,” Ferrer said. “Now we will have to obey the minister. We won’t do it, because we are convinced that our cause is just and noble.”
But it is unclear how many civil servants would be willing to participate in general insubordination, particularly if they risk being fired. One of the major civil servants’ unions, the CSIF, rejected Romeva’s call for civil disobedience as “irresponsible.”
The union “considers that the vast majority of public employees in Catalonia will be on the side of the law,” it said in a statement days before Article 155 was applied.
Civil servants said Monday that their first workday after the article’s application was generally unremarkable, if a bit uneasy for some.
“The day was very normal, there were no problems,” said Joan Maria Santis, the public sector coordinator of the Catalan branch of the Comisiones Obreras, or Workers’ Commissions, one of the largest trade unions.
Santis, who works for the Catalan government, said that with Madrid having called early regional elections for Dec. 21, there was not enough time for authorities to apply any changes under Article 155 that would be problematic.
“Even though the state government has applied this intervention — which we think is crazy, but even though they have done it, they cannot give orders that would compromise the current legality,” he said.
His union has not called for civil disobedience, and did not intend to, he noted. “Civil servants aren’t here to serve one government or another, but (to serve) the citizens.”
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been at pains to point out he isn’t seeking to abolish Catalonia’s self-governance, but rather to secure it by removing regional officials who have gone rogue and broken the law by declaring a new country. He has called a regional election for Dec. 21.
One of the most critical reactions could be from the region’s police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, who had been seen by some as being too passive in not intervening to halt the Oct. 1 vote.
Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido sent an open letter Sunday to the police, calling for cooperation and unity.
“We are in a new era. And in this new scenario the Mossos d’Esquadra will once again be the police of all Catalans,” he wrote.
Initial indications pointed to a relatively smooth transition of power.
Valentin Anadon, spokesman for the main regional police union, FEPOL, which represents about 60 percent of the 17,000 members, was critical of Article 155 but said the police would always uphold the law.
Speaking before Madrid invoked the constitutional powers, Anadon hoped intervention into regional police would be “the least-invasive possible.”
But the idea that police might disobey orders wasn’t something he saw happening.
“The police are there to comply with the laws. Disobedience might be an option for a politician … but this is something that the members of the police have no room for maneuver in,” he said.
“We are here to comply with the laws, period. The police of Catalonia must be the police of all Catalans,” Anadon said.
Aritz Parra, Alex Oller, Nadine Achoui-Lesage and Nebi Qena in Barcelona contributed to this report.