No regrets, says the Catalan ex-minister on the anniversary of the referendum

Five years after the failed secessionist push in Catalonia that landed him in prison, Oriol Junqueras remains convinced that defying Spain with a banned independence referendum was the right move.

But the region’s former deputy head says the separatist camp needs to rally more support if its dream of an independent Catalan state is to one day become a reality.

“We did what we had to do,” the politician-turned-professor said in an interview with AFP when asked about the failed attempt at secession, which came to a head in October 2017.

“I am deeply proud of everything we have done, our commitment to be able to call, organize and hold a referendum on self-determination,” added the 53-year-old.

Organized by the separatist government of Catalonia, the 1 October 2017 referendum took place despite being banned by the Spanish courts, but turned into chaos when the police stepped in to stop it, leading to violent confrontations.

Based on the results of that vote – which have never been independently confirmed – the Catalan parliament declared its independence on October 27.

The Spanish authorities responded by dismissing the Catalan government and bringing charges against the region’s leaders, who either fled abroad or, like Junqueras, were imprisoned.

– Decreasing Support –

Today, the separatist movement is deeply divided over the way forward, and Catalonia’s ruling pro-independence coalition is on the brink of collapse.

While Junqueras’ ERC party prefers dialogue with Madrid, its junior coalition partner, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s JxC has taken a more confrontational approach.

Despite passions for independence, the region itself also remains divided: just 41 percent favor separation, while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, according to the latest poll.

In an October 2017 poll, support for independence stood at 49 percent in Spain’s wealthy north-eastern region.

“What we have to do today is to be democratically stronger in the face of the ‘repressive’ Spanish state,” said Junqueras, a lifelong pro-independence supporter and father of two who also served as Catalonia’s economy minister.

The separatist camp’s “major mistake” in 2017 was that it didn’t “talk to more people, convince more people” to support the cause, he added.

The government of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last year pardoned Junqueras and eight other Catalan separatist leaders who were serving lengthy prison sentences for their roles in the ill-fated independence drive.

Junqueras was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2019, the longest sentence among the nine pardoned leaders. He spent over three years in prison before his pardon.

As a former vice president of Catalonia, Junqueras was convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds after the unauthorized 2017 referendum that led to Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

– ‘Made us stronger’ –

Puigdemont, who was the Catalan leader at the time of the referendum, avoided arrest by fleeing to Belgium after Catalonia’s short-lived declaration of independence.

“I was convinced that it was my duty to be as close as possible to my citizens, at the same time I fully understand that other people chose to go into exile,” Junqueras said.

“The fact that we were in prison only made us stronger in every way,” he added.

“It has also opened many doors in the international community that used to be more difficult to open, so the time in prison has been a very profitable investment in that sense too.”

As an example, he cited an August finding by the UN Human Rights Committee that concluded that Spain had violated the political rights of Catalan politicians, including Junqueras.

The committee found that Spain violated their rights when they were suspended from office before they were sentenced.