BARCELONA — Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart are not well-known names in Europe, or even in Spain. But the two wield extraordinary influence in the tense drama now unfolding in restive Catalonia. Because in a few short hours, through their organizations and networks, with a tweet or a text, the activist duo can put 100,000 people on the street.
It was this remarkable ability to stage some of the largest peaceful demonstrations in Europe — and the power of their message promoting a democratic and independent Catalonia — that steered the two toward an almost inevitable collision with the central government in Madrid.
Sánchez and Cuixart, who both espouse nonviolence, are now sitting in jail cells at the Soto del Real prison in Madrid, held in preventive detention, without bail, on charges of sedition against the state, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
They were arrested Monday as part of a government crackdown that seeks to stifle the secessionist movement in Catalonia.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has called the independence movement and its leaders reckless, even dangerous, rebels. Their chaotic independence referendum earlier this month was deemed illegal by Rajoy and constitutional judges. Riot police were ordered to stop it, producing wild scenes — beamed around the world — of officers whipping citizens with rubber batons and dragging them away from ballot boxes.
Lawmakers hold up posters reading: “Free Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart,” leaders of the Catalan independence movement, during a parliamentary session at the Spanish parliament in Madrid, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Francisco Seco/AP)
[Chaotic referendum in Catalonia produces landslide for secession]
The Spanish news media outside Catalonia has generally viewed the pair as skilled troublemakers, misguided at best, but worthy of respect because of their clout.
Cuixart, 42, is a dashing figure who favors black leather jackets. A high school dropout, he is a self-made man who founded a successful business that exports packaging machinery. He leads the Catalan group Omnium Cultural, which backed the independence referendum.
Sánchez, 53, looks like the rumpled university professor he is. He teaches at the University of Barcelona and is president of
the Catalan National Assembly, which is not an elected body but a pro-independence group that boasts about 80,000 members.
Sánchez is seen as especially effective. He is “a professional agitator, a gladiator who doesn’t rest,” Spain’s El Mundo newspaper said. “He has been insisting on Catalan independence for three years, from the political arena and from the streets, which is the place he feels most at home.”
Compared with Sánchez and Cuixart, regional politicians in Catalonia are amateurs at the art and science of mass mobilizations, according to the Spanish news media.
The two — alongside unions, student groups and an alphabet soup of Catalan political parties and civic organizations — have been instrumental in producing vast crowds of demonstrators, who have turned out by the hundreds of thousands with flags and banners, chanting “The streets are ours!” and “Let us vote!”