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Scots have kilts, what do Catalans have?

Fiona Ortiz
Thursday, 7 Nov 2013 | 2:00 AM ET

MADRID, Nov 6 (Reuters) - When Catalonia's local language was reintroduced in the northern Spanish region's schools three decades ago, Nati Grabiel was on the frontlines of the effort, training teachers to educate in the Catalan tongue.

Today, the 72-year-old retired schoolteacher is on another crusade: trying to convince the world that Catalonia should break away from Spain. She and five other pro-independence senior citizens are travelling to the United States early next year to shoot a film that explains Catalan culture and history.

"There is no going back. No, no, no," says the dynamic, white-haired Grabiel.

Grabiel's cinematic adventure is one of many marketing efforts, including movies, books and web projects, to promote a growing movement to make the region of 7.5 million people - 16 percent of Spain's total - an independent state.

Around half its residents would choose independence in a yes-no breakaway referendum, according to polls, and they are pushing for a vote similar to the one Scotland will hold next year on leaving the United Kingdom.

The central government has resisted the move, saying a referendum would be unconstitutional.

Most Spaniards struggle to understand the campaign for independence, since Catalonia has significant self-governing powers and last year received a financial rescue of billions of euros from Madrid. But many Catalans feel they would not have needed a bailout if their taxes weren't partly used to support poorer regions.

Catalonia's drive for more control over taxes and public spending has gained force in the last two years as all of Spain has undergone painful austerity measures to cut a dangerously high public deficit. Tensions between the region, which makes up a fifth of the Spanish economy, and Madrid over budget and other issues have raised the prospects of a break-up.

In hopeful anticipation, Catalans are trying to get their voices heard worldwide. Magazine editor Claudia Pujol recently raised more than 150,000 euros in an on-line campaign to produce a book of photos and English-language essays "Catalonia Calling". She says the book will be mailed to 10,000 world figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, former footballer Pele and Hollywood star Nicole Kidman.

"Everyone knows Scotland - the kilt, the whisky. But they don't know much about Catalonia, so we want to make it an international 'brand' and publicise our struggle to become an independent state," says Ferran Civit, one of the leaders of the Catalonia National Assembly.

His group, an independent civic organisation, has organised mass demonstrations for independence, including a human chain formed on Catalan national day Sept. 11, when hundreds of thousands of people held hands across the entire region.

CULTURAL, DIPLOMATIC DRIVE

Though Catalonia is one of Spain's most prosperous regions, with major banks and industry and the vibrant art and tourist city of Barcelona, resentment over perceived cultural and economic discrimination has grown over the past few years.

Public use of the Catalan language was widely banned under dictator Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, and education had to be in Castilian Spanish. Since Spain returned to democracy, Catalonia has implemented a Catalan-dominated curriculum.

Catalans like Grabiel have chafed at what they see as central government attempts to water down their Catalan education model by increasing daily class hours in Castilian.

"I want people to understand it's not all in our heads. They took away our language and culture. It's been centuries of hardship," she says.

The new marketing efforts are, therefore, aimed at celebrating and promoting Catalan culture and history beyond Spain as a way of putting pressure on Madrid, promoters say. Some books and films celebrate famous Catalans such as Antoni Gaudi, the sardana folk dance and food customs such as squeezing raw tomato on bread; others have a more political focus, such as two recent English-language essay collections "What's up with Catalonia" and "What Catalans Want", aimed at explaining the independence drive to outsiders.

Some saw Catalonia's 2011 ban on bullfighting as part of a drive to emphasise its distinction from the rest of the country.

There is also an official diplomatic drive underway via Catalonia's mini-embassies in New York, Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin, which together have a 3 million euro budget. The region's publicly funded Public Diplomacy Council, or Diplocat, is organising seminars around Europe.

Catalan President Artur Mas, who only recently embraced the cause of full independence, has also stepped up diplomacy in Europe. He has hired British consultancy Independent Diplomat as an advisor to help convince European Union members to put pressure on Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to change his mind and allow a referendum.

European Union officials have poured cold water on Catalonia's aspirations, saying the Spanish region, like Scotland, would have to reapply to enter the EU. Spanish opposition to such an application would be a major hurdle.

"It's an uphill struggle; at a diplomatic level they've received a lot of rebuffs," said Richard Gillespie, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, who attended a recent debate in London organised by Diplocat.

BIG EXPECTATIONS

Mas has signalled that if Spain's Constitutional Court blocks a referendum for the independence of Catalonia, he would call early regional elections as a proxy for a secession vote.

But with polls showing Mas would lose the regional election to a radical pro-independence party, political analysts say he may try instead to strike a deal with Rajoy to abandon secession in exchange for greater tax freedoms for Catalonia.

Politicians from the left and right, along with nervous business leaders, have all pushed Rajoy to somehow engage with Mas. Spain's premier has been cautious, not wanting to open the door to demands from Spain's other 16 regions.

A middle road could be the solution. An October telephone poll of 1,000 adult Catalans, conducted by Metroscopia, showed that given three options, 40 percent would vote to remain Spanish with enhanced self-rule, 31 percent would choose independence, and 17 percent would prefer no change.

Committed secessionists like Grabiel, however, say they would accept nothing less than a referendum.

"We never got this far before. We've finally stood up for ourselves."

(Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Will Waterman)