Ambassador, Catalan premier’s speeches canceled at US event after tensions rise

A disagreement over the existence or otherwise of “political prisoners” in Spain ahead of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival saw a walkout at a Wednesday speech and jeers and chants

Quim Torra in Washington DC on Wednesday.
Quim Torra in Washington DC on Wednesday.Catalonia America Council

Tensions over the Catalan separatist drive have spilled over into a major international event taking place this week in Washington DC.

Among the figures from Spain in the United States this week for the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, where Catalonia is one of the guest cultures this year, is Catalan premier Quim Torra, who is a hardline supporter of independence for the northeastern Spanish region. The politician used the opportunity to deliver a speech on Wednesday that made claims about “political prisoners” and “repression” in Spain.

The incident has underscored the political fracture in Spain

Torra made these assertions at a private event at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, ahead of the Folklife Festival inauguration on Thursday. He was alluding to the Catalan politicians who have been in preventive custody since late last year while they are investigated by the Spanish courts for their role in the unilateral declaration of independence. Other Catalan politicians, such as ousted premier Carles Puigdemont, have fled the country to evade being tried by the courts for rebellion, and in some cases are fighting extradition to Spain.

Torra was followed on the podium at the same event by Pedro Morenés, the Spanish ambassador to the US, who refuted Torra’s claims and argued that non-nationalist Catalans are being harassed in the region. Torra, along with a delegation of 80 to 100 supporters, walked out of the room in protest.

The tension was such that Folklife Festival organizers decided to cancel Morenés’ and Torra’s Thursday speeches for the event’s official opening.

Organizers even considered axing all speeches altogether

Sources at the Catalan government said that organizers even considered axing all speeches altogether, including those from the representatives of Armenia, the other guest culture at the festival.

The incident has underscored the political fracture that persists in Spain in the wake of the Catalan independence drive, which reached its peak last year with the unilateral declaration of independence on October 27.

On Thursday, festival director Michael Atwood Mason avoided any mention of the political tensions in Spain, and instead highlighted the event’s goal of bringing people together through culture. After two Armenian musical numbers, the Catalonia delegation brought in an ensemble called Sons Essencials, which played a sardana – a song used for traditional circle dances – entitled Nosaltres decidim (We decide). The lyrics of the song asked for “freedom.”

After these inaugural acts, Torra told the media that he had walked out on Wednesday because he felt insulted by the Spanish ambassador’s speech, which he described as “absolutely intolerable and offensive.”

English version by Susana Urra.


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