What South Sudan can teach Catalonia about creating a new country

Published by:


Supporters of Catalan independence wave separatist flags during a demonstration organized by the University of Barcelona in Barcelona on Sept. 28. (Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg News)

After a chaotic and at times violent referendum Sunday, the Catalan government announced that 90 percent of ballots cast had favored independence from Spain — even though the Spanish government in Madrid declared the vote illegal. But what comes next?

For Catalans hoping for independence, some clues could possibly be found in South Sudan. These clues may not necessarily be reassuring, however.

That’s because, although there are plenty of independence movements around the world — the same week as the vote in Catalonia, Iraqi Kurds held their own referendum on breaking away from Baghdad — not many such movements have been successful in recent years.

In fact, over the past quarter-century, only nine new countries have been created, adding to a total that now stands at nearly 200 worldwide. And the experiences of these countries produce some mixed lessons for others hoping to follow their path. Here’s the list:

  • South Sudan
    South Sudan declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after a violent war with the ethnically Arab north that lasted decades. Almost 99 percent of voters supported independence in a referendum, and the new country was swiftly recognized by the international community. The United States played a key role in South Sudan’s journey to statehood.
  • Kosovo
    Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008. The country had been administered by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia and forced then-President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his troops from the ethnically divided province.
  • Montenegro and Serbia
    The single nation of Serbia and Montenegro, formed after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, changed into the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, and finally into the two separate states of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.
    It was Montenegro that ultimately ended the relationship, with a referendum on May 21, 2006, when just over 55 percent voted to separate from Serbia. On June 3, Montenegro declared independence. A few days later, Serbia followed suit.
  • East Timor
    East Timor, now also known as Timor-Leste, achieved independence on May 20, 2002, but the country had effectively voted for independence years before, when a referendum delivered a vote that clearly rejected the proposed “special autonomy” within Indonesia. After that referendum, there was brutal violence in the region, with pro-Indonesian militias attacking Timorese, and a special U.N. force had to be deployed to the country.
  • Palau
    Palau, geographically part of the larger Micronesia island group in the western Pacific Ocean, is the least populated country on this list, with a little over 21,000 people living on about 250 islands. It became independent on Oct. 1, 1994, 15 years after it had decided against becoming part of Micronesia because of cultural and linguistic differences.
  • Eritrea
    The United Nations established Eritrea as an autonomous region within the Ethiopian federation in 1952. However, when Ethiopia, under Emperor Haile Selassie, annexed the region in 1962, it sparked a civil war that lasted 30 years. In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) ousted the Ethiopian forces, and on April 27, 1993, the country declared independence after a referendum.
  • The Czech Republic and Slovakia
    On Jan. 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was separated by parliament into two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. After the “Velvet Revolution” ended one-party Communist rule, it was the “Velvet Divorce.”
    Immediately after the split, there appeared to be some trepidation: The New York Times noted “wide regret” over the end of the nation that was formed after World War I. However, the contemporary view is that the split was a (relative) success: “The split was really smooth,” Slovakian journalist Pavol Mudry told the BBC in 2013.

So, what lessons can be learned? It’s clear that there has been no easy path to independence in recent years. Of the nine nations above, four were formed as a direct result of civil war. Five were the result of the collapse of communism in Europe — a unique historical watershed and one that produced all sorts of upheaval. A number remain troubled states: Eritrea has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa.”

Countries such as South Sudan and Kosovo had major international backers, notably the United States, in their bid for independence — something Catalonia does not have. Even then, their paths to independence have been rocky. Kosovo still lacks recognition from a number of states and has not applied for U.N. membership, while its economy remains underdeveloped. South Sudan is still beset by ethnic violence and famine.

Even clearly successful independence bids have their drawbacks. Montenegro has joined NATO and hopes to join the European Union, but a coup attempt occurred just last year, and there have been long-standing corruption allegations. More than two decades after independence, the Czech Republic officially created a new name, Czechia, after a bitter internal debate about its lack of international recognition. (The Washington Post’s style is still to write the formal long name, the Czech Republic.)

But it isn’t just Catalans who should study this recent history — Spanish leaders in Madrid should pay attention, too. In many of the above cases, it takes decades for the demand for independence to reach a tipping point. And as the still-lingering hopes of Scottish independence after a failed 2015 referendum have shown London, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very difficult to put it back in.

More on WorldViews

Liberland, a self-proclaimed country in Eastern Europe, hopes for recognition from Trump

Independence movements in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan face the point of no return

How Namibia responded to Trump inventing a country called ‘Nambia’

North Korea appears to have a new Internet connection — thanks to the help of a state-owned Russian firm

Published by:


Spectators listen to a broadcast from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on Sept. 22. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

A state-owned Russian telecommunications firm has given North Korea a new Internet connection, potentially increasing Pyongyang’s ability to stage cyberattacks and protect the embattled country’s online infrastructure.

The new connection was first spotted by Internet analysts at Oracle Dyn, who noted that a new connection for North Koreans provided by the Russian firm TransTeleCom appeared in Internet routing databases about 5:38 p.m. Pyongyang time Sunday.

The new connection appears to supplement a connection run by China Unicom that has operated since 2010. With two connections, experts argue, North Korean Internet users could expect a higher international bandwidth capacity as well as a greater ability to withstand attacks.

“In practical terms, [having multiple connections] will allow additional resiliency if one of those connections were to be rendered inactive for any number of reasons,” said Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at Oracle Dyn.

The new connection “will improve the resiliency of their network and increase their ability to conduct command and control over those activities,” Bryce Boland, cybersecurity firm FireEye’s chief technology office for the Asia-Pacific region, told Reuters.

On Saturday, The Washington Post reported that a U.S. Cyber Command operation had targeted hackers at North Korea’s military spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. The U.S. operation used what is known as a denial-of-service attack, choking off access to the Internet for North Korean users. It ended Saturday, shortly before North Korea’s new Internet connection went online.

Here’s what you need to know about what cyberweapons are and when they have been used in the past. (Dani Player,Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Martyn Williams, an expert on North Korean technology who first reported on the new connection at the website 38 North, wrote that “relying on one Internet provider has always left North Korea in a precarious situation.” In 2014, after a cyberattack on Sony Pictures that was widely attributed to North Korea, the country suddenly lost its connection to the Internet in what many suspected was U.S. retaliation.

TransTeleCom is part of Russian Railways, a huge state-owned infrastructure and transport company formerly headed by Vladimir Yakunin, a U.S.-censured former KGB agent considered a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Yakunin was reportedly ousted in 2015, the organization still has deep ties to the president, experts say.

“This means that the opening of the connection has Russian government backing behind it,” said Andrei Soldatov, co-author of the book “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.”

TransTeleCom did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman for the company told the Financial Times that it has a long relationship with Pyongyang and has “historically had a backbone network interface with North Korea under an agreement with Korea Posts and Telecommunications Corp. struck in 2009.”

Madory said it was not clear to him exactly how TransTeleCom built the infrastructure needed for the new network. If it needed to lay fiber optic lines, it would likely have taken “days or weeks,” Madory said, though that installation time may have been shorter if there was existing infrastructure that could have been reused.

U.S. officials say that as China has increased economic pressure on North Korea in line with U.N. sanctions, Russian entrepreneurs have stepped into the gap, quietly undermining sanctions with illicit trade and smuggling. In an email, Kent Boydston of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said it was unclear if the new network broke any sanctions.

“Telecommunications haven’t been specifically targeted by U.N. Security Council resolutions, although it’s hard to see how this wouldn’t violate UNSCR 2375’s proscription of joint ventures with the North Korean government,” Boydston wrote, referring to the strict sanctions imposed in September by the United Nations.

The new network was an “example of Russia stepping in once North Korea feels pressure,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official.

More on WorldViews

Why haven’t sanctions on North Korea worked? Two very different theories.

YouTube has shut down more North Korean channels — and researchers are livid

The messy data behind China’s growing trade with North Korea

Spain’s Rajoy sets the stage for a bigger battle over Catalonia

Published by:

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

On Sunday, Catalonia’s controversial independence referendum was marred by violence as national police clashed with voters defending their polling stations. In Barcelona, security forces sent by Madrid fired rubber bullets and used truncheons to break up protesters blocking their path, the vast majority of whom did not fight back. The brutality on show, while somewhat effective in disrupting the referendum, turned into a public relations disaster for Madrid and may deepen Spain’s own political polarization.

As the sun set on an ugly day, local officials said almost 900 people were injured in clashes across the region, while officials in Madrid said at least a dozen police officers had been hurt. Spanish authorities managed to shut down hundreds of polling stations, but hundreds more remained open and many people still managed to cast ballots. Catalan officials declared victory over the Spanish state, but it wasn’t clear how many votes were counted — and results almost surely did not include anti-secession Catalans who avoided voting altogether.

“The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees,” wrote my colleague William Booth, who was on the ground in Catalonia. “Thousands of parents and their children were deployed to occupy hundreds of polling stations before the vote to keep them from being locked down by National Police and Guardia Civil militia officers.”

But Madrid had little interest in any exercise of Catalan self-determination. In a speech  Sunday evening, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pinned the blame for what happened on Catalan secessionists, who engineered the confrontation by staging what Madrid deems an illegal vote. “Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia,” Rajoy declared. “The rule of law remains in force with all its strength.”

But although Rajoy thwarted the immediate prospect of independence, he — not his Catalan opponents — looks like the day’s big loser. His government took a heavy-handed line with Catalonia’s secessionists in the buildup to the vote, and Rajoy is being slammed by opponents both inside Catalonia and elsewhere for making a mess of the proceedings.

“Rajoy faces an extraordinarily difficult task. He is adamant that it is his government’s fundamental duty to uphold the law and preserve the integrity of the Spanish state,” wrote Tony Barber of the Financial Times. “Yet the police’s use on Sunday of batons and rubber bullets to disrupt the referendum risks deepening the confrontation and putting off the moment when Madrid and the Catalonian authorities sit down to find a way out of the impasse.”

Critics say Rajoy’s own right-wing nationalist politics made it impossible to deal with Catalan secessionists, a coalition of pro-independence factions who came to power in 2015 regional elections and swiftly signaled their intent to stage the referendum. From the outset, Rajoy treated their aspirations as both illegal and intolerable.

The irony, as myriad analysts have noted, is that separatist feeling in the region had been on the wane in recent years. Although a clear majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people believe in their right to hold a vote, recent polling said that under 50 percent were actually in favor of independence. In an interview with me earlier this year, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont said Catalonia simply wanted the same right of self-determination as that enjoyed by Scotland — which voted against independence from Britain in 2014.

“The Scottish way is the way we want to follow,” he said in March.

But the chaos on Sunday has presented a dramatic new moment of rupture. “The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans’ desire to vote … but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today,” Puigdemont told reporters on Sunday. Later that evening, he insisted that, on a “day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic.”

Rajoy probably has little time for Puigdemont’s proclamation. The prime minister built his political reputation in the mid-2000s by fiercely opposing a Catalan charter for greater autonomy, which a Socialist government in Madrid at the time had agreed to and was later ratified by a referendum in Catalonia. In 2010, a Spanish constitutional court struck down a series of key provisions in that charter, based on an appeal filed by Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party. That, in turn, kicked off Catalan rumblings toward independence.

But Rajoy is also on rocky ground in Madrid, where he presides over a fragile, minority government in parliament.

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the left-wing Podemos party, tweeted against the “repressive strategy” of Rajoy and his allies, warning that it has “deteriorated democracy and coexistence [in Spain] to unprecedented limits.” Pedro Sánchez of the center-left Socialists called for political negotiations and seemed to blame Rajoy for not seeking talks earlier, saying that “doing nothing is the worst way of solving any problem.”

“The Spanish government would have been more likely to achieve its goals of national unity by allowing a vote in Catalonia in which it demanded that more options appeared on the ballot,” wrote Nafees Hamid and Clara Pretus, two academics who studied voter attitudes in the region. “Such options would have included the choice of remaining an autonomous community but with greater sovereignty, or becoming a federal state.”

Now, though, the political conversation is far more polarized. A tense standoff is in the cards in the coming weeks, with the possibility of further protests and mass strikes rocking Catalonia. Rajoy will have to own the crisis, and his opponents already have one idea of how he should do so.

“He is a coward who does not live up to his state responsibilities,” said Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor. “As a result, he must resign.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

Man who stabbed officer, struck four pedestrians had Islamic State flag, Canadian police say

Published by:

Canadian police said they were investigating violent attacks in Edmonton on Saturday, Sept. 30 as “acts of terrorism” after a man hit a police officer with a car and stabbed him and then later struck four pedestrians while driving a second vehicle. (Reuters)

Canadian police say a man driving a white car struck a police officer and stabbed him multiple times outside a football stadium Saturday.

Hours later, police say, the same man — this time driving a U-Haul truck — was pulled over a few miles away, drove off and struck four pedestrians.

The related attacks on Saturday night in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada, are being investigated as an act of terrorism, Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht said during a news conference early Sunday. He said an Islamic State flag was found in the passenger seat of the white Chevrolet Malibu the suspect was driving that night.

The suspect, a 30-year-old Edmonton man who has not been named, has been arrested. Knecht said the man acted alone, but investigators were not ruling out the possibility that others may be involved. The officer’s injuries were not critical, Knecht said, adding that he does not have any information about the other victims’ conditions.

The attacks began just after 8 p.m. during a football game at the Commonwealth Stadium. The officer was standing behind barricades and directing traffic outside the venue when the man rammed his Malibu into the barricades and struck the officer, sending him flying 15 feet away, Edmonton police said.

The man then got out of his car, “viciously” stabbed the officer with a knife and ran away, police said.

Less than four hours later, just before midnight, a U-Haul truck was pulled over about four miles away. An officer recognized that the driver’s name was similar to that of the registered owner of the Chevrolet Malibu, police said. The man immediately drove away, leading officers on a chase toward downtown Edmonton as he deliberately hit pedestrians on the way, police said.

The chase ended after the truck flipped over and landed on its side.

A witness, Austin Elgie, a manager of a bar in the downtown area, said the van “peeled” into an alley where people were smoking and struck a customer.

“There were like 10 cop cars following him . . . It was crazy,” Elgie told the Associated Press. “It just came around the corner, ripping. I thought at first he was pulling over for the cops coming by, but he was clearly the one they were chasing.”

Another witness, Pat Hannigan, told reporters that he watched officers pull out a man from the windshield of the wrecked van, the Associated Press reported.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the attacks a “senseless act of violence.”

“Police officers put themselves at great personal risk every single day on our behalf, and this attack is a stark reminder of the sacrifices they make for the public good,” Trudeau said in a statement Sunday. “While the investigation continues, early reports indicate that this is another example of the hate that we must remain ever vigilant against . . . We cannot — and will not — let violent extremism take root in our communities.”

Investigators have not released any more information about the suspect. Knecht told reporters that police did not have any forewarning of the attacks.

He said Edmonton police are working with Canada’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams and other agencies.

The Canadian government does not track the number of terrorist incidents, though the country has a long history of such attacks. A research group has documented more than 1,400 terrorist attacks in Canada from 1960 to 2015.

Earlier this year, authorities charged a Canadian man with murder and attempted murder with a firearm after a deadly attack on a suburban Quebec City mosque. The January shooting rampage, which was called an act of terrorism, left six people dead and several wounded.

The attack is thought to be the first mass shooting at a mosque in North America.

In 2016, Canadian police killed a man who was planning to bomb an urban center during rush hour. Police, who were tipped off by U.S. authorities, caught the would-be suicide bomber as he was getting into a taxi carrying a backpack. The man detonated the bomb inside the taxi before police shot him.

In 2014, a gunman killed an honor guard soldier and opened fire inside the Parliament building in Ottawa. Days earlier, a “radicalized” Canadian convert to Islam struck two members of the Canadian military in a Quebec parking lot, killing one of them.

— Avi Selk, Carol Morello and Mark Berman contributed to this report.

READ MORE:

Trump once again rushes to use an overseas terrorist attack as leverage on Twitter

Vehicles as weapons of terror: U.S. cities on alert as attacks hit the West

Canadian man charged in Michigan airport stabbing attack; FBI investigating as act of terrorism

All the theories about what’s happening to the diplomats in Cuba

Published by:


A man wearing a T-shirt with a U.S. flag design walks along a street of Havana. (Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

It’s a mystery out of a John le Carré novel: For the past several months, U.S. diplomats in Cuba have suffered unexplainable symptoms, from hearing loss and vertigo to nausea and concussions. Some say they’re struggling to concentrate and recall even common words.

Equally strange: While some victims said they felt vibrations or heard loud noises audible only in parts of a room, others experienced nothing.

So far, 21 Americans have reported symptoms, and Canadian diplomats are suffering as well. It’s gotten so bad that the United States decided this week to yank all nonessential personnel from its Havana embassy. Americans are being warned against visiting the country for their own safety until investigators can figure out what’s going on.

What is going on? For months, experts have struggled to explain what kind of weapon could cause such a wide variety of symptoms. Investigators on the scene have uncovered few clues. In the absence of hard proof, there are lots and lots of theories. Here are some of the main ones:

The perpetrators are using sound as a weapon 

The sonic attack theory is a popular one, especially because some of the diplomats are reporting hearing loss, sounds and vibrations.

It is possible to use sound waves to cause problems. Ultrasonic frequencies, which are high-pitched, can be harnessed and directed. As Tim Leighton, professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at the University of Southampton, told the Guardian: “If you want to produce a tight beam of energy that you can point at someone, ultrasound is the one to go for.” Studies have shown prolonged exposure to ultrasonic sound can result in hearing loss and human tissue damage.

It’s also not hard, professors say, to build a device that emits this kind of noise. “You can buy transducers on the Internet that emit these frequencies,” Robin Cleveland, a professor of engineering science at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. “Anybody with a bit of engineering background could put one together.” It would take a device about a size of a matchbox to produce noise that could, at close range, induce feelings of anxiety or difficulty concentrating.

High frequency sound doesn’t travel well through any kind of barrier, like a wall or even a curtain. It’s even hard for it to pass through human skin. To create a sound that could travel through windows, you’d need something more like the size of a suitcase. To affect people 150 feet away, the device would have to be the size of a car.

Scientists are also skeptical about ultrasonic sound’s potential to cause permanent brain damage. (According to U.S. officials, some Cuban diplomats had been diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury.) “That’s a little harder for me to believe,” Cleveland told the Guardian. “The sound would have to enter the brain tissue itself, but if you’ve ever had an ultrasound scan you’ll know they put gel on. If there’s even a tiny bit of air between the sound and your body it doesn’t get through.”

In short: Weaponizing sound is a glamorous theory, but experts said they don’t think that’s what’s going here. “It sounds very appealing and interesting, but I find it hard to believe that there actually is such a device,” hearing expert John Oghalai, who chairs the Caruso Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Southern California, told the Verge.

Okay. So, maybe it’s an electromagnetic device?

Maybe!

The case for: Electromagnetic waves can be easily directed, like a laser. They can also travel through walls and could plausibly be concealed from afar. (In the 1960s, the Soviet Union bombarded the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with microwaves; it’s not clear why or whether that had any impact.) Electromagnetic pulses, when sent out in short, intense blasts, can also cause people to “hear” clicking sounds.

Electromagnetic waves usually cause physical damage by heating body tissue. The diplomats haven’t reported burning sensations.

So maybe it’s a poisoning? Could it be a chemical weapon?

Yes. There are several chemicals that can cause hearing damage, including mercury and lead, along with some industrial solvents.

What about the other symptoms?

Writing in USA Today, Director of Medicine at the American Council on Science and Health Jamie Wells and microbiologist Alex Berezow explain it’s possible, particularly “if the diplomats share meals together, it is a distinct possibility that somebody poisoned their food.”

“Does chemical poisoning explain all the known symptoms, even for those victims who heard noises in the middle of the night?” they write. “Possibly. Chemical solvents can cause nerve damage, which can manifest in different ways. With auditory nerve damage, some people might experience ringing (tinnitus), and others might find certain noise frequencies excruciatingly intolerable while others barely notice.”

Or maybe the diplomats just got sick?

Respiratory and ear infections can sometimes cause hearing loss. One inner-ear inflammation called labyrinthitis can lead to vertigo, hearing loss, bad balance, nausea and ringing in the ears — all symptoms the diplomats experienced. Of course, the victims have been tested for the obvious diseases, but maybe they’re suffering some kind of new or mutated illness doctors don’t know to look for yet.

One reason to be skeptical: Though American diplomats work closely with Cuban staff at the embassy, only Americans got sick. If the victims were suffering from a contagious disease, you’d expect it to have spread more widely.

Is Cuba to blame? 

We don’t know for sure, obviously.

Experts say the Cuban government has been working closely with the United States to figure out what’s going on. The Cuban president met with the top U.S. envoy in the country to express his grave concern and confusion about what’s going on. Cuban officials even let the FBI come down to Havana to investigate, an extraordinary level of access. (Also, Cuba has no obvious beef with Canada.)

Some U.S. officials are still skeptical. Investigators have begun to wonder whether this is the work of a rogue faction of Cuba’s security forces. Or maybe it’s another country, like Russia or North Korea. Perhaps Moscow is trying to drive a wedge between communist Cuba and the West? (As the AP reports, “Russia also has advanced, hard-to-detect weaponry that much of the world lacks and might not even know about.”)

Or, most unsatisfying: Maybe it’s no one at all? It’s possible the diplomats were exposed accidentally to the chemical that’s now wreaking havoc. Or maybe the culprit is testing out some new surveillance system that’s gone awry?

No one knows for sure. Unlike the best spy capers, we’re so far stuck without a satisfying ending.

Catalonia independence vote: What you need to know

Published by:

Parents and their children have occupied school buildings serving as polling stations in Catalonia ahead of Sunday’s planned independence referendum for the region to secede from Spain. (Raul Gallego Abellan/The Washington Post)

When Catalans go to the polls on Sunday, they’ll find just one question on the ballot: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

How did we get here, what’s at stake and what could happen next?

Why do Catalonians want independence?

For “independistas,” the fight for freedom has been a three-century project, one that can be traced back to 1714, when Philip V of Spain captured Barcelona. (Even today, pro-independence Catalonians insult Spanish loyalists by calling them “botiflers,” or allies of Philip V.)

Since then, Catalonian nationalists have consistently pursued some degree of autonomy from Spain. By 1932, the region’s leaders had declared a Catalan Republic, and the Spanish government agreed on a state of autonomy.

But when Francisco Franco came to power in 1939, those gains were lost. Franco systematically repressed all efforts toward Catalan nationalism. Under his dictatorship, the New York Times writes, “the government tried to stamp out all Catalan institutions and the language, and thousands of people were executed in purges. Virtually no Catalan family emerged from that period unscarred.”

After Franco died, the fight for independence started again in earnest. In 2006, Spain granted Catalonia “nation” status and taxation power. But Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down this ruling in 2010, arguing that while Catalans were a “nationality,” Catalonia was not a “nation.” More than 1 million Catalonians protested the finding, to no avail.

Today, Catalonia enjoys a broader degree of financial control over its regional finances than most other parts of Spain. But that isn’t enough for many residents. As the Times article explains: “Many Catalans have grown to adulthood believing that they were, simply, not Spanish.”

There’s another issue too — Catalonia is the richest region in Spain, and the most highly industrialized too. It houses many of Spain’s metalworking, food-processing, pharmaceutical and chemical industries. It also boasts a booming tourism industry, thanks to popular spots like Barcelona. The region makes up about 16 percent of Spain’s population and accounts for 20 percent of the Spanish national economy.

Catalans often complain that they contribute more in taxes to the Spanish government than they get back. In 2014, Catalonia paid about $11.8 billion more to Spain’s tax authorities than they got back. But as the BBC explains, “the complexity of budget transfers makes it hard to judge exactly how much more Catalans contribute in taxes than they get back from investment in services such as schools and hospitals.”

How has Spain responded?

Aggressively.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has condemned the vote as illegal. “I say this both calmly and firmly: There will be no referendum, it won’t happen,” he said. He and others have argued that the vote would undermine the rule of law, and that it could set a dangerous precedent.


A group of Castellers form a human tower called a “Castell” during a demonstration on Catalan National Day in Barcelona. Demonstrators from across the region, some urging full independence, others calling for more autonomy from Madrid, marched on Tuesday under the slogan “Catalonia, a new European state.” (Gustau Nacarino/Reuters)

Rajoy has sent thousands of troops in to stop it from happening. (They are living, at the moment, in cruise ships off the Catalan coast.) Spanish police have seized millions of ballot forms and arrested more than a dozen pro-independence officials. Websites informing Catalans about the election have been shuttered.

Catalonia’s own police force has been ordered to follow the lead of Spain’s paramilitary Civil Guard, and to help stop the vote from taking place. They’ve been told to clear out all polling stations by 6 a.m. Sunday, and to confiscate ballot boxes. (It’s not clear whether, or how, they will abide.)

Critics of Rajoy say that his argue that his inflexibility has made the situation worse. “His brand of Spanish nationalism is eerily close to that of erstwhile dictator Francisco Franco, a die-hard centralist for whom the unity and cultural homogeneity of Spain was sacred,” wrote academics Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín.

What do Catalans want? 

There’s not a lot of good polling. But the surveys that do exist suggest the region is divided. One of the most recent opinion polls, from July, suggests that Catalans are about evenly split on the question of independence. Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they were in favor; 49 percent said they were opposed.

There are some other clues too. In 2014, Catalan leaders held an independence referendum that they framed as an “informal” survey of the region’s mood. About one-third of registered voters participated; 80 percent of those voters expressed a desire for independence. Catalonia’s separatist parties were supported by about 48 percent of Catalans in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Parties loyal to Spain garnered about 40 percent of the vote.

But Spanish loyalists are boycotting Sunday’s election. So on Sunday, most voters will almost certainly support independence, even if turnout is low.

How do “no” voters explain their vote? 

“No” voters, especially those who’ve moved from other parts of Spain, worry that Catalonia’s economy will suffer if the region breaks away from Spain. It would be nearly impossible for a newly independent Catalonia to join the E.U. and the World Trade Organization, which would raise the cost of exports and imports. Jobs would likely be lost.

They’re concerned, also, that Catalonia could become less accepting of those who’ve migrated to the region. One no voter, a transplant who’s lived in Catalonia since 1979, said he worries that the region’s nationalism could become a kind of racism. “They have created a monster of illusion and excitement,” Gabriel Zafra, who runs an association of migrants from Extremadura, told the New York Times. “They have promised them the land of Narnia. They have promised them a Catalonia full of flowers, where happy people go to church on Sunday. That is a lie.”

“I don’t want to compare it to Serbia,” he said. “But if this continues, I might have to.”

As the Associated Press explains, “no” voters, who feel both Catalan and Spanish, see themselves as the “silent majority.” Speaking out, they say, comes with social isolation, stigma and very occasional verbal and physical violence.

Can Spain actually stop the vote from happening? 

Despite the Spanish government’s best efforts, voting will likely take place, at least in some places. Parents are camped out at schools to ensure that they can be opened for voting. (“We will stay until Sunday,” one woman told the New York Times. “On Sunday, we will resist entirely.”) An app has been devised to help voters find polling stations.

But as the BBC writes, “it is hard to see Sunday’s vote as being free or fair.”

Where does Europe stand?

European officials have expressed firm, though muted, support for Spain’s central government. A European Union official said Friday that people should respect the constitution and rule of law in their countries.  But E.U. officials also say that they won’t mediate the clash between Spain and Catalonia, calling it an internal matter. It has galvanized secession-leaning politicians across Europe too.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, which itself has questioned leaving the United Kingdom, offered her quiet support of the independence effort. And politicians in Belgium’s Flanders region, who themselves have called for secession, sympathize with Catalans and wonder if their region might be next. “There is already a dynamic (toward independence around Europe). You only have to look at Scotland. It’s an evolution that no European government can avoid,” Jan Peumans, speaker of Belgium’s Flanders regional parliament, told the Associated Press.

In Italy, the far-right Northern League, which wants more autonomy for Italy’s north, spoke out against the arrest of Catalan leaders. 

Farmers brought their tractors to the streets of Barcelona Sept. 29 to protest the Spanish government declaring Catalonia’s referendum illegal. (Raul Gallego Abellan/The Washington Post)

What happens next?

Of course, no matter what happens Sunday, Catalonia is a long way away from independence. Spain won’t recognize the result of the referendum or any independence vote in the regional parliament. Spain is already bracing for major protests, and months of messiness.

Leaders in Madrid have said that they’d support constitutional reforms that grant Catalonia more money and greater financial autonomy if Catalonian leaders cancel their vote. The vote will go on, but perhaps Catalonian leaders would be willing to negotiate these things afterward.

With passions high, though, the moment for compromise may well have passed.

Mexico’s president faces an earthquake of his own when he asks citizens for disaster assistance

Published by:


Rescuers try to recover victims from a building that collapsed during the recent 7.1-magnitude earthquake in Mexico City. More than a week after the quake, teams were still searching for survivors. (Pedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY — The late-night tweet from the Mexican president’s office went out as an ordinary appeal for assistance in a time of crisis.

“Mexico still needs you,” read the Wednesday night tweet. “Help with tents, tarps and blankets for families displaced by the #earthquakes. #FuerzaMéxico.”

But the appeal fell flat. It also hit a sore spot for many Mexicans, who hold their politicians and elites in low esteem and were already seething over a series of corruption scandals consuming the country in the months preceding the twin earthquakes striking in September.

Mexicans on social media raged against the tweet, along with their perceptions of opulence, insensitivity and corruption in politics and public service.

“Urgently needed, cans of honesty and sacks of dignity for the collection center in Los Pinos” — the president’s office. “Don’t bring anymore cynicism or shamelessness. There’s already an excess,” tweeted Gerardo Esquivel, an economist at the Colegio de México.

“This is a government lacking credibility, lacking legitimacy with a very bad image due to scandals and all this fuels the negative reaction,” he told The Washington Post.

The magnitude-7.1 earthquake that rocked central Mexico on Sept. 19 and magnitude-8.1 earthquake hitting the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca 12 days earlier have claimed more than 400 lives and damaged more than 155,000 buildings.

As Mexicans remove the rubble and mourn the dead, many are asking tough questions about corruption — both the cases of alleged graft in the construction of buildings collapsing in the quakes and the politicians now pleading with the country to help out in a time of crisis.

“It’s not wrong for the government to ask for help. But for THIS government, it’s certainly rich,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, in Mexico City. “They are very good, very efficient — not only at diverting resources, but also shrugging it off once their schemes are exposed.”

The earthquakes were preceded by a string of corruption scandals such as one involving 11 federal ministries and agencies signing agreements with public universities for services worth $422 million — of which $187 million went into shell companies, according to anti-graft group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI) and online news organization Animal Politico.

Almost immediately after the earthquake, a social media campaign emerged pressuring political parties to give up part of the 6.8 billion pesos ($370 million) in public money allotted them each year. (Some of the parties complied, causing uncomfortable questions about whether they might make up for the donated cash by turning to dodgy sources — such as drug cartels — in the 2018 presidential campaign.)

Some even suggested the government go after the raft of state governors who have been accused of graft and fund earthquake relief by recovering what was misappropriated. Others demanded the political class take a pay cut rather than ask the country to dig deeper.

The furor comes at a time when many Mexicans, acting on their own, have already given generously, organized relief efforts and pitched in to remove rubble and rescue those buried under collapsed buildings.

“In our imagination, the government has a lot of money and all of it is mismanaged,” said Manuel Molano, deputy director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank. “We’re suspicious because they give us reason to become suspicious.”

President Enrique Peña Nieto has an approval rating wallowing in the teens, the product of corruption and conflict-of-interest scandals, an underperforming economy and insecurity hitting levels not seen in 20 years.

The president’s office pointed to a survey from the newspaper El Financiero showing the federal government receiving a 50 percent approval rating for the earthquake response. Members of the army and navy — who have dug through rubble and taken relief to remote areas — received 81 percent approval.

“The federal response to the earthquakes has been, is and will continue to be vigorous … as is deserved by the thousands of people affected by this disaster,” the president’s office said in a statement. “More than 90,000 federal employees are participating directly in the rescue efforts” in areas like security, providing food and medical help and working on reconstruction.

Still, politicians including Peña Nieto have been jeered as they visit hard-hit areas. “Grab a shovel!” someone shouted as the president toured one site. No high-level politicians have been seen getting their hands dirty or hauling away rubble.

“They’ve been missing in action,” says Gerardo Priego Tapía, a former lawmaker with the opposition National Action Party. “The only thing it reflects is that they live on a different planet from most Mexicans.”

Stories surfaced of some politicians seeking to politically profit from the disasters or put their propaganda on relief supplies, prompting some Mexicans print acerbic messages with felt pens on their donations.

“We saw citizens helping, rescuing [people] — along with public forces — coordinating, buying, giving shelter, reporting, informing [but also] hiding their donations from governments so that they didn’t steal them,” said José Merino, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “It’s hard to find the space to give [the government] credit.”

Businesses have stepped forward, too, promising to match donations toward earthquake reconstruction, but some Mexicans suggested the political and business class start paying their fair share of taxes, instead — and that state governments, which prefer to pawn off politically unpopular tasks like tax collection on the federal government, start collecting funds on the local level.

The hard-hit state of Morelos, to the south of Mexico City, scrapped its vehicle tax several years ago, prompting wealthy residents of the capital to register their luxury cars there — including Attorney General Raúl Cervantes, who put Morelos plates on his Ferrari, according to MCCI and the newspaper Reforma. Cervantes’s legal representatives have said that his actions were legal and that he had a residence in Morelos.

In Indonesia, the ‘fake news’ that fueled a Cold War massacre is still potent five decades later

Published by:


Members of the youth wing of the Indonesian Communist Party are taken to prison in Jakarta on Oct. 30, 1965. Historians estimate that beginning in 1965, between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were killed in Gen. Suharto’s bloody rise to power, the worst mass slaughter in Southeast Asia’s modern history after the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia. (AP Photo)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Early on the morning of Oct. 1, 1965, members of Indonesia’s armed forces kidnapped and killed six high-ranking generals in Jakarta. To this day, it’s not entirely clear who was involved in planning the operation or what the “30th September Movement” hoped to achieve.

But the military’s swift reaction and the mass killings that followed have entered history as one of the Cold War’s darkest chapters. Gen. Suharto, then the head of the army’s strategic reserve command and relying on support from the CIA, accused the powerful Communist Party of orchestrating a coup attempt and took over as the military’s de facto leader. Over the next few months, his forces oversaw the systematic execution of at least 500,000 Indonesians, and historians say they may have killed up to 1 million. The massacre decimated the world’s third-largest Communist Party (behind those of the Soviet Union and China), and untold numbers were tortured and killed simply for allegedly associating with communists.

The military dictatorship that formed afterward, led by Suharto, made wildly inaccurate anti-communist propaganda a cornerstone of its legitimacy and ruled Indonesia with U.S.  support until 1998.

More than 50 years after the events of 1965 — and as documents continue to emerge pointing to Washington’s support for the killings — the topic is still an inflammatory one in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Recently, conservative and Islamist activists, armed with Suharto’s version of events, have sought to suppress investigations into the events of 1965 and have used the communist boogeyman to attack moderate President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

“There are two tools that cynical operators can use for political gain in Indonesia — religion and communism,” said Baskara T. Wardaya, a professor at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta who studies the role of the Cold War in Indonesian history. “And the myth of an ever-present, dangerous communist threat was created by Suharto in October 1965. It was ingrained into the minds of the people.”

In 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was a legal party of unarmed civilians operating in the open, not a rebel or clandestine organization. Even if the party’s high command did know about or helped form the 30th September Movement, there is no evidence that any rank-and-file members had knowledge of its plans.

But simply for their political beliefs, they were subjected to mass slaughter. Across the country, one by one, Indonesians were shot, stabbed, decapitated or thrown off cliffs into rivers to be washed into the ocean. The carnage was mostly over by the end of 1965, but violence and discrimination continued for decades. Relatives of victims or accused communists were banned from participating in many facets of public life.

A member of the U.S. Embassy staff in Jakarta later admitted that he had handed over a list of communists — compiled by U.S. officials — to Indonesian authorities as the massacre was underway.

“It really was a big help to the army,” Robert J. Martens, a former member of the embassy’s political section, told The Washington Post in 1990. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad.”

The National Declassification Center recently processed thousands of the Jakarta embassy’s files from this period and is working with Brad Simpson, a historian at the University of Connecticut, and the National Security Archive to digitize them and make them public.

In an email Friday, Simpson said preliminary work indicated that the documents should “confirm in additional detail that US officials were aware of the Army-led mass-killings of alleged PKI supporters and members and actively encouraged them” and could be released later this year. He added of the officials, “They knew the Army was carrying out a campaign of extermination against overwhelmingly unarmed civilians who were unaware of and had no involvement in the September 30th Movement.”

But Indonesia still suffers from “dangerous anti-communist paranoia,” in the words of a recent Human Rights Watch publication. The organization was condemning an attack on the offices of the Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta earlier in September.

The institute had planned to host a small conference about the events of 1965, but conservatives circulated social-media messages falsely alleging that the event was actually a meeting to revive the PKI, which is still illegal. Demonstrations on Sept. 16 forced the cancellation of the planned talk. When supporters of the groups involved returned to the building the next day for a cultural event, they were trapped inside by an “anti-communist” mob until early the next morning.

Participants, including students and young human rights activists, told stories of their panic that night as they heard the group outside shout repeatedly “Kill PKI!” and “Allahu akbar!” Witnesses said many of the demonstrators belonged to the same Islamist groups that led a successful campaign for the imprisonment of a former governor of Jakarta, a Christian of Chinese descent, on charges of committing blasphemy against Islam.

“We were the victims of a hoax,” said Citra Referandum, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Institute, using a Bahasa Indonesia term sometimes translated as “fake news.” She said, “Our event on September 17th was only about supporting democracy in Indonesia.”

The anti-communists remain active. On Friday, a few thousand protesters gathered in Jakarta to warn the country about the alleged dangers of a PKI resurgence in the government. Many analysts think this line of attack may be used against Widodo in next year’s election.

“Many powerful people are invested in maintaining the false narrative put forward by the propaganda and brainwashing under Suharto, because they don’t want to see themselves or their predecessors turned from heroes into villains,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, after Friday’s protest. “And even though communism is practically nonexistent here, the fears they created can still be used against Jokowi. He’s Javanese [Indonesia’s largest ethnic group] and Muslim, so they can’t attack him for his race or religion. So they try to attack him for being a communist.”

Read more:

It wasn’t just the Armenians: The other 20th century massacres we ignore

Why banning ‘extremist groups’ is dangerous for Indonesia

Catalan farmers drive hundreds of tractors through Barcelona in support of independence vote

Published by:

Farmers brought their tractors to the streets of Barcelona Sept. 29 to protest the Spanish government declaring Catalonia’s referendum illegal. (Raul Gallego Abellan/The Washington Post)

BARCELONA — It for sure wasn’t the usual parade, but at midday Friday, hundreds of Catalan farmers rumbled down the elegant boulevards of this lovely city on their tractors, and parked their idling machines around the headquarters of the federal government.

Farmers in Catalonia are no strangers to protest. When they’re unhappy with agricultural policy, they’re likely to dump a load of rotten vegetables or fresh manure at the doors of bureaucrats. But no one has seen anything like this.

The farmers came out to demand the right to vote in Sunday’s controversial referendum, which seeks to ask citizens of Catalonia whether they want to break from Spain and declare themselves an independent nation of 7 million.

Catalan leaders vow to press ahead with the vote in rebellion against the central government in Madrid, and the Constitutional Court, which has declared the referendum illegal and the results, whatever they could be, illegitimate. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has moved thousands of national police and Guardia Civil militia into Catalonia to stop the plebiscite.

The farmers weren’t having it.

“Look at what just happened in Kurdistan. In this dangerous place, next to Iraq and Syria, and with these crazy men from Islamic State, they could stage a referendum and we can’t?” said Francesc Bancells, a wheat farmer.

The farmers were mounted on tractors, some washed, others still dusty from the fields. They were almost all men, their forearms sunburned, many in jeans shorts.

Dalmacio Ramon Bo, who grows tomatoes, was philosophical. Asked why he wanted to vote for independence, he answered, “Look, the politicians will keep stealing from us, that’s a given, but maybe our own politicians will steal a little less.”

Ramon, who said he is the 10th generation to work his land,  said the farmers planned to circle the polling places in their towns and villages with the tractors Sunday to keep the national police from shutting down the vote.

“But we have to be very careful, very polite, very peaceful,” he said. “We don’t want to blow this chance.”

The Catalan police stopped the tractors before they reached the federal government offices. The farmers shut down their machines, honked their horns, drank  cold beers and waved at the crowds that had gathered to welcome them.

One of the neighbors shouted down from his balcony, “Long live Spain!” He is one of the many who do not want to separate from Spain. Surveys taken in the summer showed the population split on the question of independence, though more told pollsters they wanted to stay in Spain than leave.

It is possible that sentiment has shifted in the past two weeks, as the central government has arrested a dozen Catalan officials, threatened pro-independence mayors with arrest, shut down websites, restricted airspace and confiscated more than 13 million ballots and other paperwork printed to support the referendum.

“All this repression, the central government didn’t do itself any favors. More people support independence now than did two weeks ago,” said David Badia, who farms flowers. “They screwed themselves.”

His friend, Francesc Ribas, who grows tomatoes, sat on his tractor and nodded his head. Asked whether an independence vote would hurt farmers, he said, “maybe at first, but not for long.”

Ribas said he would drive his tractor out to protect the polling station at a school in his village.

“If the police come for me, I will act like you handle a bull. You raise your hands in the air and then lay down and the bull will run right by you.”

Ferrari to make changes after engine failures

Published by:

MILAN (Reuters) – Ferrari will make changes to improve the quality of components after both of the Formula One team’s cars suffered engine failures in Malaysia at the weekend, chairman Sergio Marchionne said on Monday.

Title contender Sebastian Vettel lined up in last place after problems in qualifying while team mate Kimi Raikkonen was set to be on the front row of the grid but was ruled out before the start.

The problems came after both Ferrari drivers had collided and retired at the start of the Singapore Grand Prix two weeks earlier.

”The fact that yesterday both the Ferraris could have beaten everybody is undisputed,“ Marchionne told reporters on the sidelines of an event in Rovereto, northern Italy. ”It was also the case in Singapore.

“Without external factors, those cars would have been first and second. And that’s very positive.”

Marchionne said the current team was still comparatively young and finding its way, after a restructuring last year, even if Ferrari had been around for 70 years. And components needed to be better.

“We are addressing the entire chain to impose different standards,” he said.

“It’s one thing breaking an engine on the (test) bench at home but it really looks bad when you have to be pushed off the grid (before the formation lap) from second place, it’s enough to make you pull your hair out.”

Dutch 20-year-old Max Verstappen won in Malaysia for Red Bull while Lewis Hamilton finished second for Mercedes to increase his championship lead over Vettel to 34 points with five races remaining.

Hamilton won in Singapore.

Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ken Ferris

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.