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A "diplomatic" incident between Catalonia and Spain in Washington DC on Wednesday evening has led the organisers of the US capital's Smithsonian Folklife Festival to drop planned speeches by Catalan president, Quim Torra, and Spanish ambassador to the US, Pedro Morenés, from Thursday's official opening of the summer festival, at which the culture of Catalonia is being given a special focus.

The controversy blew up on Wednesday evening at a private reception for festival participants when, during a speech by Spanish ambassador Morenés, most of the Catalan delegation, led by president Torra, walked out in protest. The diametrically-opposed content of speeches made to the reception by Torra and by Spanish ambassador Morenés, along with the political tension which had built up in the dinner venue, prompted the entire Catalan delegation to walk out on the ambassador during the diplomat’s discourse, with some calling for freedom for Catalonia's "political prisoners" as they left the hall.

Outside, the president accused Morenés of delivering a speech that was "offensive" to him and "to the country" as the ambassador had "called him a liar and questioned the existence of political prisoners”. This had followed Torra's own speech, in which one of the subjects mentioned was, precisely, the situation of those independence movement leaders who have been jailed by Spain or fled the country to avoid jail.

According to the Catalan News Agency, after the presentation by Armenia, the other invited nation at this year’s festival, it was the turn of Catalonia's delegation. In president Torra's brief speech, the leader included an explanation of Catalonia’s current political situation, speaking of the "repression" being experienced, with leaders who are "political prisoners or in exile”. His address, strongly applauded by the members of the Catalan groups and entities participating in the festival, ended with the spontaneous singing of the national anthem Els Segadors by the Catalans present. 

Labelled as a "liar"

Immediately afterwards, the Spanish ambassador began his own discourse, and whistling and heckling began to be heard when Morenés started refuting the arguments given by Torra. But the situation became unsustainable when, in the words of the Catalan president, Morenés accused Torra of "being a liar" while giving a denial that anyone was in prison in Spain for political reasons. It was then that the Catalan representatives participating in the festival began booing loudly and chanting "freedom for the political prisoners" over the final part of Morenés's speech. 

At this point, president Torra and the entire Catalan delegation decided to leave the event in protest at what they were hearing. The ambassador, for his part, said his goodbyes to the organizers after his speech and left the Smithsonian Institute's African History Museum – venue for the event, which had been closed to the press. 

Outside the building, Torra met with the Catalan delegation who had walked out, and was received with chants of "president, president" and "freedom for the political prisoners”. The Catalan cultural group participant, appalled by Morenés's speech, mounted an improvised castell or human tower as well as performing traditional Catalan dances and songs in the presence of Torra. Shortly afterwards, the president returned to the reception to say goodbye to the organizers, explain the reasons for what had happened, and finally he left the event.


Afterwards, Torra told Catalan News his version of what had happened and, after admitting that he had spoken of "political prisoners" in his address, he affirmed that the ambassador had made "an insulting speech”. “It was offensive for me, because he called me a liar, and for the country, because he questioned the existence of the political prisoners and said that we were doing things we shouldn't be doing," he commented.

This had seemed "intolerable" to Torra and for this reason he had decided to leave the reception. “The Spanish state has made a huge mistake today, a tough day for Catalans with the Supreme Court's ruling," he added, putting the ambassador's words in the context of Wednesday's confirmation by a Spanish judge that the imprisoned Catalan independence leaders are to be tried for rebellion, on charges relating to the independence process and last year’s referendum. 

For this reason, Torra called on “the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez to explain whether the ambassador's speech came from Madrid and if he, along with the foreign minister and the [governing] PSOE party are in agreement with the six-page discourse, which had been written in advance, calling us liars and continuing to distort the story of what is happening in Catalonia”. “I demand the immediate resignation of the ambassador, because the level of insult which we have reached mustn’t be tolerated and I would like the Spanish government to make its protest public," he concluded, calling for a rapid intervention by the Spanish PM and his executive.

President Torra, who was on the third day of an official visit to the United States, had earlier denounced efforts by Spanish diplomats to prevent him from talking freely about the Catalan political situation in his address for the Smithsonian festival.

Sources in the Catalan government say they are fully in agreement with the festival organisers' decision to cancel Thursday's official speeches in an effort to lower the temperature. As a consequence, neither Torra, nor Morenés - and nor the leaders of the Armenian delegation - will speak at the festival opening.