Carles Puigdemont: The man who wants to break up Spain

Catalonia’s sacked President Carles Puigdemont has spearheaded the region’s peaceful drive for independence from Spain.

In defiance of the law and Spain’s constitution, he has pushed forward in the hope of international recognition.

But his zeal for secession has put him on a collision course with Madrid. It outlawed the independence referendum held in Catalonia on 1 October.

After imposing direct rule, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called a snap Catalan election. But the result on 21 December was bad news for Madrid. The separatists won a slim majority, even though a pro-unity party came top.

  • Madrid’s enforcer for Catalonia

    “It is time for the political recipe, which Rajoy failed at,” Mr Puigdemont said, calling again for negotiations with the Spanish leader. “He has only demonstrated a greater mobilisation of Catalans, greater votes.”

    His popularity cuts across class, coming as he does from comparatively modest origins, outside the Catalan elite which for years dominated the local centre-right alliance, Convergence and Union (now known as the Catalan European Democratic Party).

    “Mr Puigdemont has been absolutely key to bringing Catalonia to where we are now,” says Montse Daban, international chairperson of the Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots pro-independence movement.

    “He’s been an absolute and positive surprise for Catalan citizens, who were already supporting the independence process and saw with dismay that it was facing several burdens.”

    But in the eyes of Spain’s government, the Catalan leader has ruthlessly created a crisis, burning all the bridges in order to make a unilateral declaration of independence.

    “Democracy is not about voting – there are referenda in dictatorships too,” a Madrid government source told the BBC. “Only when you vote with guarantees according to the law is it a democracy.”

    • Reality Check: Would Catalonia be a viable country?

      The images of violence at the polling stations were “150% part of Puigdemont’s plan”, the source said.

      “It’s unfortunate because it was a trap. There’s no doubt it looks bad for the Spanish government.”

      New platform

      Mr Puigdemont talks the language of independence in a way his more cautious predecessor, Artur Mas, did not during the dry-run referendum of 2014, which was also banned by Madrid.

      Speaking to the BBC after the 1 October referendum, Mr Puigdemont said: “I think we’ve won the right to be heard, but what I find harder to understand is this indifference – or absolute lack of interest – in understanding what is happening here. They’ve never wanted to listen to us.

      “How can we explain to the world that Europe is a paradise of democracy if we hit old women and people who’ve done nothing wrong? This is not acceptable. We haven’t seen such a disproportionate and brutal use of force since the death of the dictator Franco.”

      He calls for mediation – something the Spanish government says is unacceptable.

      A Madrid source dismissed the idea, telling the BBC it would be “mediation between the Spanish government and part of the Spanish state”.

      From Brussels, Mr Puigdemont has watched as his Catalan allies back home have been placed in Spanish custody to face trial.

      He has been mocked by some for not going to Madrid along with them and placing himself in the hands of Spanish justice.

      One cartoon apparently being circulated on the Whatsapp messaging app shows him, with his distinctive mop of hair and glasses, hiding out in a box of Belgian chocolates.

      Skip Twitter post by @p_hansens

      Unsigned cartoon circulating on whatsApp : Where is #Puigdemont ? #Brussels #Catalonia pic.twitter.com/bzHE1eP0Bv

      — Pascal Hansens (@p_hansens) November 3, 2017

      Report

      End of Twitter post by @p_hansens

      But he has only followed the path taken by earlier Catalan leaders like Josep Tarradellas and Lluís Companys, seeking refuge abroad from a hostile Spanish state.

      Mr Puigdemont told Belgian TV he was not hiding from “real justice” but from the “clearly politicised” Spanish legal system.

      While European arrest warrants against him and his four colleagues were later withdrawn by a Spanish judge, he still faces possible charges of rebellion and sedition if he returns.

      Just by being in Brussels, the man from Girona is keeping the cause he holds so dear, Catalan independence, squarely on the doorstep of the European Union.

Catalonia crisis in 300 words

Catalonia’s drive for independence has plunged Spain into its biggest political crisis for 40 years.

On 21 December pro-independence parties won a narrow majority in a Catalan election that Spain had called in the hope of ending the crisis. So independence remains a possibility.

What is Catalonia?

Catalonia is a semi-autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years.

The wealthy region has about 7.5 million people, with their own language, parliament, flag and anthem. Catalonia also has its own police force and controls some of its public services.

Why the controversy?

Catalan nationalists have long complained that their region sends too much money to poorer parts of Spain, as taxes are controlled by Madrid.

They also say Spain’s changes to their autonomous status in 2010 undermined Catalan identity.

In a referendum on 1 October, declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, about 90% of Catalan voters backed independence. But turnout was only 43%.

There were clashes when Spanish national police tried to prevent people voting.

The ruling separatists in the Catalan parliament then declared independence on 27 October.

Angered by that, Madrid imposed direct rule by invoking Article 155 of the constitution – a first for Spain.

The Spanish government sacked the Catalan leaders, dissolved parliament and called a snap regional election on 21 December.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium but is wanted in Spain accused of rebellion, as are four who fled with him. Two of his ex-ministers are in prison in Spain.

Why does the crisis matter?

Thousands of businesses have scaled down their operations in Catalonia.

The crisis is being watched nervously by other European states with strong nationalist movements.

@media only screen and (min-width: 1px) { .ns_datapic_stat–catalonia-stats-ws-languages .ns_outer_wrapper { background-image: none; } .ns_datapic_stat–catalonia-stats-ws-languages .ns_outer_wrapper .ns_inner_wrapper { max-width: 100%; padding: 0; }}@media only screen and (min-width: 480px) { .ns_datapic_stat–catalonia-stats-ws-languages .ns_outer_wrapper .ns_inner_wrapper { max-width: 43%; padding: 0.5em; } .ns_datapic_stat–catalonia-stats-ws-languages .ns_outer_wrapper { background-image: url(https://news.files.bbci.co.uk/vj/live/idt-images/data_pic-catalonia_stats/sagfam_ym961.jpg); }}.ie8 .ns_datapic_stat–catalonia-stats-ws-languages .ns_outer_wrapper .ns_inner_wrapper { max-width: 43%; padding: 0.5em; }.ie8 .ns_datapic_stat–catalonia-stats-ws-languages .ns_outer_wrapper { background-image: url(https://news.files.bbci.co.uk/vj/live/idt-images/data_pic-catalonia_stats/sagfam_ym961.jpg); }

Catalonia in numbers

Farthest monster black hole found

Astronomers have discovered the most distant “supermassive” black hole known to science.

The matter-munching sinkhole is a whopping 13 billion light-years away, so far that we see it as it was a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang.

But at about 800 million times the mass of our Sun, it managed to grow to a surprisingly large size in just a short time after the origin of the Universe.

The find is described in the journal Nature.

The newly discovered black hole is busily devouring material at the centre of a galaxy – marking it out as a so-called quasar.

Matter, such as gas, falling onto the black hole will form an ultra-hot mass of material orbiting around it known as an accretion disk.

“Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early Universe,” said co-author Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

This quasar is interesting because it comes from a time when the Universe was just 5% of its current age.

At this time, the cosmos was beginning to emerge from a period known as the dark ages – just before the first stars appeared.

“Gathering all this mass in under 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth,” said co-author Eduardo Bañados, from the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The quasar’s distance is described by a property called its redshift – a measurement of how much the wavelength of its light is stretched by the expansion of the Universe before reaching Earth.

The newly discovered black hole has a redshift of 7.54. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object.

Prior to this discovery, the record-holder for the furthest known quasar existed when the Universe was about 800 million years old.

“Despite extensive searches, it took more than half a decade to catch a glimpse of something this far back in the history of the Universe,” said Dr Bañados.

The discovery of a massive black hole so early on may provide key clues on conditions that abounded when the Universe was young.

“This finding shows that a process obviously existed in the early Universe to make this monster,” Dr Bañados explained.

“What that process is? Well, that will keep theorists very busy.”

The unexpected discovery is based on data amassed from observatories around the world. This includes data from the Gemini North observatory on Hawaii’s Maunakea volcano and a Nasa space telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (Wise).