The head of one of Catalonia’s biggest pro-independence groups has urged the Spanish government to think about “future generations and not just parliamentary stability” as he and eight other separatist leaders were released from prison after being pardoned for their roles in the failed bid to secede almost four years ago.
Jordi Cuixart, the president of the influential grassroots association Òmnium Cultural, said he was pleased to be free after serving more than three and a half years of a nine-year sentence for sedition.
But he said he believed the Spanish government’s controversial and politically risky decision to grant the pardons had been brought about by external pressure rather than a sudden change of heart.
Political opponents of the Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, have accused him of selling out to the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party on whom his minority government depends for support in parliament. Cuixart, however, wants the central government to look beyond the next general election – due in 2023 – and to heed voices from Catalonia and beyond.
“I was sent to prison for defending the exercise of fundamental rights, and I think if the Spanish government has let us out, it was through necessity and not generosity,” he told the Guardian while on his way home to see his wife and children.
Cuixart, 46, is already appealing against his conviction at the European court of human rights. Along with fellow civil society leader Jordi Sànchez, Cuixart was found guilty of sedition by Spain’s supreme court. The pair were arrested two weeks after the illegal, unilateral referendum of 1 October 2017, and accused of orchestrating pro-independence protests that trapped national police inside a Barcelona building and destroyed their vehicles.
Sánchez has described the pardons as an act of clemency needed to help the country turn a page and enter an “era of dialogue and understanding”. But the move remains deeply divisive among voters, among Sánchez’s political rivals – and even among those who have received the pardons.
The separatist leaders have vowed to carry on pushing for regional independence and say a blanket amnesty would have been preferable to the individual pardons. They also insist that an officially agreed referendum remains the best way to settled the vexed Catalan question.
Cuixart says that dialogue remains essential: “Our politicians here and in Madrid need to talk – that’s why people voted for them.” He also acknowledges that Sánchez’s gestures to date suggest a far more conciliatory approach to Catalonia than that of his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy. But he brushes off suggestions that the Socialist-led government has a wholly new approach to the problem.
“Forgive me, but after spending three years in prison under Pedro Sánchez and one year there under Rajoy, Pedro Sánchez had enough time to fix this,” said Cuixart.
“It’s taken him three years – and that’s no small thing! OK, we’re out of prison and the tone from Pedro Sánchez is clearly not the one we heard from Mariano Rajoy … But we have to move from words to action.”
Like his fellow independence leaders, Cuixart points to a Scottish-style referendum as his greatest hope. “When Pedro Sánchez is David Cameron, maybe we’ll make some progress,” he said. “What Pedro Sánchez has to do is act bravely and not engage in short-term dodges. He has to think about future generations and not just about parliamentary stability over the next two years. I don’t want to presuppose that he won’t do that. We’re always open to dialogue.”
Although a majority of Catalans continue to oppose independence – the split is currently 48.7% against to 44.9% in favour, according to a recent poll – approximately 70% of people in Catalonia would like to see a referendum on the issue. Sánchez, however, has repeatedly ruled out a vote on secession, insisting that all negotiations must respect the law and the constitution.
“Those jailed were never punished for their ideas, but for their actions against democratic legality,” the prime minister said on Tuesday. “A strong democracy like Spain’s doesn’t ask anyone to abandon their ideas, but it does require them to exercise them within the limits of the law and with respect towards all Spaniards.”
Cuixart declined to say whether he endorsed the view recently expressed by another of those pardoned, the former Catalan regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras. At the beginning of June, Junqueras wrote an article recognising the mistakes the independence movement had made and suggesting that unilateral efforts to secure independence were now “neither viable nor desirable”.
“As part of Òmnium, I can’t say that I made a mistake by trying to pressure Catalan and Spanish politicians to let us vote,” said Cuixart. “I’ve pressured everyone by saying, ‘Please, we want to vote.’ That what Extinction Rebellion have done, that’s what gender equality campaigners have done. I’m an activist and the only way I have of getting people to listen to me is by pressuring politicians – peacefully and democratically.”
Asked whether he saw Catalan independence as a short-, medium- or long-term endeavour, Cuixart said the past four years had only reinforced his vision. “It’s a matter of exercising fundamental rights, which is what happened in Quebec, what’s happening in Scotland, and what happened in the UK with Brexit,” he said.
“It’s about listening to the voice of the people. Although it may seem that the Spanish government is refusing to budge, I think civil society will keep up the pressure so that this referendum happens sooner rather than later so that Catalonia can freely decide what its political future will be.”