In the summer of 2013, the independence process's momentum was very strong and people were keen to participate. On July 19th, the ANC announced La Via Catalana cap a la Independència or The Catalan Way towards Independence, the follow-up to the previous year's historic Diada, which would be even more impressive and ambitious.
The ANC's aim was to draw parallels between the Baltic states' successful push for independence from the USSR in 1991 and Catalonia's attempts to gain independence from Spain. In 1989, two million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians had formed a human chain called the Baltic Way, linking the capitals of the three countries, and had successfully made the world aware of their situation. On September 11th 2013, Catalonia hoped to do the same.
The Catalan Way would stretch 400 kilometres along the Catalan coastline from Pertús in French Catalonia to Alcanar on the border with Valencia following the line of the old Roman road, the Via Augusta, which had originally run down as far as Cádiz. As a warm up to the big event, on July 29th, Òmnium Cultural organised the Concert for Freedom at FC Barcelona's Camp Nou, which was attended by 90,000 people.
On July 4th, the ANC opened a registration website for The Catalan Way, in which the route was divided into 778 sections of about 500 metres each. The idea was to ensure that participants were evenly spread along the trajectory. 22,000 people registered in the first 24 hours and more than 78,000 in the first week. Three weeks before the event 350,000 people had registered and were distributed fairly evenly across all the sections of the 400 km route with the exception of the southern section in the province of Tarragona close to the Ebro Delta. That was when my partner Marta and I decided to register in the southern Catalan town of Reus.
Throughout the summer various practice runs were completed in a number of different Catalan towns, and the time the big day came, more than 116 Catalan Ways had been held in major cities around the world "to support the democratic independence process of Catalonia".
In the days before the event, the positions of the various Catalan political parties also became very clear. Convergència, Esquerra Republicana and the CUP all supported the Via Catalana whilst PSC, Partido Popular and Ciutadans all opposed it. Unió decided not to participate officially, although some important party members were involved personally, and the party leadership asked the ANC to remove all references to independence and make it just about the Right to Decide. Iniciativa, for their part, along with Procés Constituent and other left wing groups, decided not to participate in the main event but rather to form a circle round the La Caixa bank building on Diagonal, as a protest against capitalism.
Both the Catalan unionist group Moviment Civic 12-O and the Spanish right wing party UPyD call on the government to ban the Catalan Way describing it as "an insurrectional action with a violent purpose" and claiming that it would "affect public order and be dangerous for people". PSC leader, Pere Navarro, demanded that the ANC pay for any costs the human chain generated, provoking an a sharp response from Carme Forcadell, asked "Do we have to pay to hold demonstrations in a democratic country?" The day before the Diada, José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, said the Via Catalana "wasn't going anywhere" and warned that the Spanish government would never agree to a binding self-determination consultation in Catalonia.
The transcendence of the event also provoked tensions amongst the pro-independence camp. Artur Mas declared that if the Spanish government blocked a legal consultation on Catalan self-determination or a unilateral consultation based on Catalan laws, the Catalan government would have to concentrate on holding plebiscitary elections in 2016. Carme Forcadell responded with "this indefinition has to stop and we can't put up with this until 2016", Oriol Junqueras said "We have to decide our future in 2014" and the CUP stated that "the government takes a step backward from calling the consultation". The following day Artur Mas said "the consultation will be held whatever happens. There is not a single millimetre of going backwards or braking the process".
In the end, everything went as planned. In total, over 1.6 million people participated and the organisation mobilised 1,500 coaches and 30,000 volunteers and 20 helicopters and planes. Church bells chimed across Catalonia and everyone held hands at exactly 17.14 pm, in commemoration of the year that the country was annexed by the Castilian King Felipe V. The human chain linked the 400-kilometre length of Catalonia from north to south. As we held hands, 800 volunteer photographers took shots of all of us, whichever would later be joined together to form a giant gigaphoto of the event.
It was the same everywhere I'm sure. We hugged and embraced and at 6 pm everyone burst into a rousing version of the Catalan national anthem, Els Segadors, before going off with our new friends for something to eat and drink. As with all the pro-independence events, an atmosphere of friendly good humour prevailed without a single violent or unpleasant incident being reported throughout the day.
In Madrid, however, a group of 15 people carrying Francoist Spanish flags and Falange and Alianza Nacional banners burst into the Llibreria Blanquerna bookshop, where Catalans were celebrating the Diada. They attacked some of the 60 people present, including deputy for CiU in Congress Josep Sánchez i Llibre, broke up furniture whilst shouting "No nos engaña, Cataluña es España" (You can't fool us, Catalonia is Spain). One person suffered a nervous attack and Spanish police arrested 12 people, who were all members of La Falange and Alianza Nacional, but as far as I know nobody was ever prosecuted.
As far as international press coverage was concerned, the Catalan Way had the desired effect. Over a thousand accredited journalists covered the event and on the evening of September 11th most international news programmes led with the Catalan Way. "Catalonia, a great human chain for independence," said Libération, "The Catalans defy Madrid, said Le Figaro, "The Catalans put pressure on Madrid with a human chain," said Reuters), and "The Catalans mark independence day with a massive human chain" said the BBC, whilst The Guardian published a collection of photos taken by participants.
Meanwhile in Madrid, El Mundo described the event as "a great act of fanatical nationalism" that "uses totalitarian methods" and El Pais asked Artur Mas not to make the mistake of "confusing the massive attendance on the demonstration with the majority of Catalan citizens". The ABC headline claimed "It's out of their hands" and La Razón said that it was a "Via Catalana going nowhere".
The following day the ANC called on the Catalan government to set the question and date for the referendum, which "has to be answered Yes or No" and government spokesman Francesc Homs replied saying "before the end of the year, there has to be a date and a question". Soraya Saenz de Santamaría, spokesperson for the Spanish government, countered by saying that the government would have to "listen to all Spaniards" including "those who came out and the silent majority who didn't", who also "have a right that their freedoms and opinions" are taken into consideration.
The spokespersons of the European Commission showed "a great respect" for the Via Catalana and were "aware of its importance" although they also recognised that the EU "cannot interfere" in the internal issues of member states. Valdis Dombrovskis and Algirdas Butkevicius, the leaders of Latvia and Lithuania, were the first European leaders to express their support for the Via Catalana, stating that all countries had the right to self-determination.