MÉRIDA, Spain—As the wealthy, northern Catalonia region holds a symbolic vote on independence on Sunday, Spain’s slow-paced, deep south is deeply worried.
For decades, less-developed regions in southern Spain have been subsidized by taxes transferred from more dynamic, industrial economies such as Catalonia.
But with Europe’s economic slump now in its sixth year, cash-strapped Catalans are bridling at the outflow of funds, which they feel are too often squandered by southern politicians. They are going ahead with the vote in defiance of an injunction by Spain’s constitutional court and separatist leaders say a strong “yes” showing will bolster their cause.
People in places like Mérida, capital of the Extremadura region, are watching with a mix of anxiety and indignation.
“If California decided it wanted to leave the U.S. because it was tired of paying taxes, how do you think the people in Alabama would feel?” asked Juan Rodríguez Plaza, a spokesman for the Extremadura government.
Extremadura’s per capita income is about 60% of Catalonia’s and its 28% unemployment rate more than eight points higher. Lacking the startup accelerators or luxury hotels of Barcelona, Mérida has relied on its famous Roman ruins as an economic meal ticket, along with transfers channeled through Spain’s central government.
Extremadura’s leader, José Antonio Monago, of the conservative Popular Party, has made a name for himself by lobbing verbal mortar shells toward Catalonia. He sarcastically said that if Catalans want more money they should look in Andorra, a tax haven where the former leader of Catalonia’s governing coalition recently acknowledged holding an undeclared bank account.
He also suggested that if Catalonia really wanted a referendum on independence, then all of Spain should be allowed to vote. “We’re just passive spectators,” Mr. Monago complained.
A spokesman for the Catalan government said it doesn’t pay attention to Mr. Monago because “he isn’t very serious.”
The Spanish online news-site Público reported this month that, in 2009 and 2010, while he was serving as a senator, he made 32 trips to the Canary Islands at public expense to visit his lover. At a news conference Friday, Mr. Monago said he couldn’t recall the exact number of trips, but said they were related to official business. The political opposition is calling for an investigation.
Catalans answer criticism over their push for independence by pulling out their spread sheets. Catalonia’s net transfer to the rest of Spain amounts to 8% of regional gross domestic product, according to Catalan government calculations. Put another way, 43 cents of every euro paid in taxes never comes back.
“The regional trains were breaking down around Barcelona, and people looked at the numbers and finally said enough,” said Catalan economist Miquel Puig Raposo, who favors independence.
The central government says that by its calculations, Catalonia’s burden is less onerous than Barcelona claims, and that the region has benefited from being a part of Spain, especially during the economic crisis.
Two other wealthy, northern regions, the Basque Country and Navarre, have special fiscal arrangements to collect their own taxes. Consequently they don’t end up making large net transfers the way Catalonia does, economists say.
Making it more galling for Catalans are the publicly funded white elephants that litter the landscape in southern Spain, including a €70 million ($87 million) bridge leading to a cow path and an abandoned €1 billion airport, both in the Castilla-La Mancha region.
A couple of years ago, when Mr. Monago was trying to persuade authorities to build a high-speed rail line to Extremadura, the mayor of Barcelona, Xavier Trias, called the notion “a disaster.” Mr. Trias made an analogy: “You’re helping a brother, passing along a little each month, and then he buys the latest model Audi.”
Mr. Monago, using a Catalan vulgarity, challenged Mr. Trias to “say it to my face.”
The revenue-sharing debate has played into long-standing regional stereotypes.
‘We’re just passive spectators.’
In a classic 1996 study by Spanish social psychologist José Luis Sangrador García, a non-Catalan, participants were asked to select the adjective they associated with residents of various regions. Catalans were most often described as tacaño, or stingy.
The same survey found that Catalans were liked less than residents of any of Spain’s 17 regions, rating a 4.8 on a scale of 10. People from Extremadura fared better, with 6.4.
Even residents of the Basque Country, home to the ETA separatist group that at the time was waging a deadly terror campaign, got 5.8. Mr. Sangrador said he doesn’t think the result would be very different today.
Critics say Catalans’ pride in their success sometimes crosses the line into condescension. In 2011, Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, a leader of Catalonia’s governing coalition, raised hackles in southern Spain when he criticized a central government assistance plan for rural workers there.
“Our small farmers can’t harvest fruit because there is no money, while in other parts of Spain, with what we make, they receive [government assistance] so they can spend all day in the town bar,” he said.
While few would defend the insult, the southern economies are heavily dependent on the state, economists say. The share of the workforce employed by the public sector in Extremadura is the highest in Spain—nearly 30%, twice the level of Catalonia.
The lack of private-sector dynamism has historically led to northward migration, especially during the 1960s. Mr. Monago often claims to have more relatives in Catalonia than Extremadura.
“It was our people who built the Catalan economy working for big industrial groups that didn’t pay them much,” said Francisco Fernández, who owns a food shop near Mérida’s main plaza. “The result today is I have fewer potential customers.”
Extremadura has 1.1 million inhabitants, fewer than it had in 1960; Catalonia has 7.6 million. One Socialist politician from Extremadura went so far as to say that if Catalonia secedes, it should give back 150,000 Extremadura migrants.
Many of those migrants have no interest in going back. “The saying is that the cow goes to where there is grass to graze on,” said Eduardo Reyes, who heads a pro-independence group called Súmate that is oriented toward non-Catalan speakers and migrants.
His parents moved to Catalonia from another southern region, Andalusia. He said Andalusia still has some quasi-feudal characteristics, with huge tracts of land dominated by politically influential or titled families.
His group got into a dust-up with Mr. Monago when the regional leader said Súmate members were victims of Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which hostages become sympathetic to their kidnappers.
“They are living in the past in the south,” said Mr. Reyes. “I’m fighting for Catalonia because it is the land that provided opportunity for me and my family.”
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