Farewell Spain? Catalan independence march sends shockwave

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

September 17, 2012 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On September 11, the Catalan National Day, politics in the Spanish state suffered a massive shock: up to 2 million people (more than 25% of the population of Catalonia) marched through the streets of Barcelona shouting one word, “independència”. It was a day when countless Catalans discovered that others felt the way they did—it’s time to drop Spain for a state of our own.

Who were they? And why is support for an independent Catalonia—from 1990 to 2008 as low as 15% of the population in some polls—now running at around 50%?

This was a very different Diada (Catalan National Day, remembering the 1714 fall of a besieged Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession). Besides the usual morning ceremonies involving cultural acts before political, business and social dignitaries, an evening march behind the banner “Catalonia, A New European State” was organised by two new nationalist networks, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI).

The signs that the march would be huge were clear before the day. Around 1200 coaches had to be booked to bring people to Barcelona from the regions and on one rail line special trains had to be limited because the system had run out of carriages.

Catalan politicians who don’t support independence—like Josep Duran Lleida, leader of the Catalan conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) fraction in the national Spanish parliament—decided at the last moment that they had to be seen at a demonstration opposed to their politics. Nine cabinet members of the CiU government in Catalonia said they would be attending “in a personal capacity”.

Key Catalan state institutions were directed to help organise and publicise the event. This was one protest that notorious police minister, Felip Puig, jailer of unionists and basher-in-chief of indignados, would actually help to build. It would also get live coverage on Catalan state TV’s Channel 3. When the day was over the Catalan police would be defending an attendance figure of 1.5 million (as against the 600,000 figure of the central Spanish government representative in Barcelona).

The Catalan government’s motive was to use the march as a demonstration of support for its proposed “fiscal pact” with the national government of the Popular Party’s (PP) Mariano Rajoy. Supported by all Catalan parliamentary parties with the exception of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) and the Popular Party of Catalonia (PPC), the fiscal pact would give the region similar financial powers to those enjoyed by the Basque Country (Euskadi) and Navarra—to levy taxes and then decide what proportion should be forwarded to the Spanish state.

This would enable Catalonia to reverse a situation where, according to Catalan government calculations, the region loses €16 billion a year to “Madrid” and the 16 other autonomous communities (states) into which Spain is divided.

On the day

Attendance on the day exceeded all expectations and planning capacity. This was the largest march in Catalan history—bigger than the 1977 march for Catalan autonomy, the 2000 march against the murder of PSC leader Ernest Lluch by Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) and the 2003 protests against the Iraq War. It was also bigger than the million-plus 2010 protest against the ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court that sections of the 2006 Catalan Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional.

Central Barcelona froze solid as a march supposed to take two-and-a-half hours to reach its destination outside parliament house lasted more than five hours. Such was the crush that the delegation that was to present the demands of the demonstration had to be whisked to parliament house ahead of the march to meet parliamentary representatives (and Channel 3’s program schedule). Mobile phone networks collapsed completely.

The demonstration was all Catalonia coming to town. Entire families, from faced-painted toddlers to grandparents waited patiently as “castlers” castled, folk bands played and “giants” moved among the crowd. When the march finally began families from towns and villages from the remote Pyrenees and with accents odd to Barcelona ears marched behind their placards: “Sant Pere de Riudebitlles says independence now!”; “Llambilles says: Premier Mas, lead or leave!”

There were delegations from the historic Catalan Lands beyond present-day Catalonia—Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the eastern, Catalan-speaking, strip of Aragon and the Rosellon area of France (annexed in 1659). Delegations from the Basque Country waved red, white and green national flags in solidarity.

Social sectors and institutions rushed to identify with the cause. The Barcelona Football Club announced on the day that the strip of its B team would henceforward be the yellow and red stripes of the senyera, the official flag. On the march there were “Police for Independence”, “Firefighters for Independence”, “Pensioners for Independence”, and “Teachers for Independence”.

The Barcelona Stock Exchange building, prime candidate for physical attack at any protest, draped itself in a protective five-story estelada (the Catalan independentist flag which, inspired by Cuba’s, adds a blue white-starred triangle to the stripes of the senyera).

At the other end of the spectrum, the main union confederations, the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union of Labour (UGT), demanded “fewer cuts and more self-government”, while an anarchist collective carried a huge banner that read “Catalans, your main enemy is at home—CiU and La Caixa”, a reference to the country’s political and economic establishment (the Catalan La Caixa is one of Spain’s biggest banks).

However, the overwhelming message of the demonstration was for independence. Hardly any other slogan—certainly not for the fiscal pact—had a chance against the incessant chant of “in-de-pen-dèn-cia”. The only competitor was “Whoever doesn’t jump is a Spaniard!”—especially popular among the hundreds of thousands of young people present.

The feeling that it is high time to leave the suffocating Spanish State was overwhelming and reflected in placards in other languages, including Castilian (Spanish)—“Spain, your robbery is genocide”, “Your hatred is our good-bye”, “Farewell, Spain”, “Catalonia is not Spain” and “Yes we Cat!”.

The clear predominance of estelades over senyeres floating above the march reinforced the independence message. But what sort of independence? While the blue-triangled estelada predominated, the yellow-and-red esteldada—designed in the 1960s by the Socialist Party of National Liberation (PSAN) and variously interpreted as the flag of the entire Catalan Lands or as the symbol of an independent socialist Catalonia—was also massively present.

Then there was the singing—of the national anthem, "The reapers", and of classics of the Catalan protest movement against the Franco dictatorship, like "The stake" and "What do these people want?" Catalan singer-songwriter and composer of "The stake", national idol Lluis Llach, a former PSAN member, was among the lead marchers.

With half the demonstration still to enter Ciutadella Park in front of parliament, the final act of the day began. In 20 different languages non-Catalan residents of Catalonia expressed their support for the country’s right to self-determination. The most moving moment came when one speaker read (in Spanish translation) the "Ode to Spain" of Catalan poet Joan Maragall, a powerful denunciation of the slaughter of Catalan sailors in the 1898 Spanish-Cuban war and ending with the words “Spain, farewell!”.

The act concluded with a mass showing of green cards for independence, infusing a green tinge into the sea of yellow and red. When one Catalan hero, former Barcelona trainer Pep Guardiola, showed his green card by video link from New York, the park went beserk.

And all the time this was happening, separate demonstrations under the slogan “Neither Fiscal Pact Nor Social Pact” were organised in five major centres by various left and revolutionary independentist organisations. According to one of these, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), they drew between 25,000 and 30,000.


The huge protest happened because of the past three years of social aggression and maiming of Catalan national rights. Matters have reached this point because:

  • In 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court supported important aspects of the PP appeal against the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, passed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and ratified by referendum in Catalonia (albeit with a very high abstention rate of 51%). The message of that decision was that even the weak 2006 statute was too much for Spanish centralist forces.
  • Both the PSOE and the PP when in government nationally refused to agree to a serious reworking of the system for financing the autonomous communities. Catalonia has suffered under this arrangement with its per capita income dropping from fifth to ninth of the 17 autonomous communities after the share-out. When the post-2008 economic crisis arrived Catalonia, a centre of the real estate bubble, was among the hardest-hit of the autonomous communities.
  • Since the May 2011 elections to the autonomous communities and the return of the PP to government nationally, the Spanish-centralist war on Catalan culture and language has intensified, with the PP government of the Balearic Islands reintroducing Castilian as a language of school instruction on an equal footing with Catalan, the PP government in Aragon redefining the Catalan spoken in that community’s eastern strip as “Eastern Aragonese”, and the PPC launching a court case to have Castilian made an equal language of instruction with Catalan in Catalonia itself.
  • Since 2009 the intense rise in social struggle in Catalonia has fed into the rise of left nationalist forces, in particular the CUP, which had over 100 councillors elected in the May 2011 local government poll. Previously, Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI), a coalition of small nationalist groups, had won five seats in the 2010 elections to the 135-seat Catalan parliament. In March 2012, the 16th Congress of Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the major party within CiU, adopted the goal of forming a Catalan state.

The rise was also due to disillusionment with the tripartite coalition government of the PSC, Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens--United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), which had governed the region between 2003 and 2010. The tripartit introduced many reforms into Catalonia, especially in health, education, child care and training, but its budget increasingly depended on tax revenue generated by the soon-to-collapse real-estate bubble, with the deficit widening rapidly after 2009.

CiU opposition to the tripartit was mainly in a nationalist vein. That government’s shortcomings were supposedly due to the influence of the “Spanish” parties PSC and ICV (i.e., Catalan affiliates of all-Spanish organisations) and of the capitulation of the ERC to them. This despite CiU’s much worse record of dirty dealing with Madrid.

When CiU was returned to government in 2010 and began its program of cutbacks in health, education and welfare and tax breaks for the rich (agreed with the PPC), the only tactic left for deflecting rising popular anger was to blame Madrid and to try to spook the Rajoy government into accepting a new fiscal deal.

When Catalan premier Artur Mas was forced in late August into a humiliating application for a €5 billion loan from the new Spanish bailout fund, the pressure to blame Madrid just increased, especially as CiU had been falling in the polls because of its austerity attacks (from 38.4% at the 2010 Catalan elections to under 30%--the main winners have been ICV-EUiAand ERC).

Yet, while CiU is the main political expression of Catalan independence sentiment and is trying to manipulate it to its advantage, it would be a serious mistake to see it mainly as a product of that party’s electoral needs. The sentiment for independence has grown, especially among the younger generations, because increasing numbers simply see no alternative road out of the Spanish mess. The feeling is: “Let’s get our own house, then we can fix it up.”

This situation is also a reflection of the ambiguities and divisions over the right to national self-determination within the all-Spanish left beyond the PSOE, exclusively stressing the all-Spanish social struggle against the austerity of the Rajoy government. Eloquent has been the silence (to date) of the national United Left (IU) web site on the Barcelona demonstration.

Organising the movement

The new rise in pro-independence sentiment became increasingly organised from late 2009. In September that year the local council of Arenys de Munt, where left nationalism has been strong and where the CUP now holds the mayoralty, asked its citizens to vote on the question “Do you agree that the Catalan nation should take the form of constitutional state, independent, democratic and social, and integrated into the European Union?” 96% said yes. By December 169 of Catalunya’s 947 municipalities had organised similar consultations, with a similar result.

The initiative of Arenys de Munt lay at the beginning of the two forces that organised this year’s Diada protest—the ANC, founded in March this year and the AMI, founded in December 2011, to which a majority of local councils (532) are now affiliated. Their broad form has allowed Catalan nationalists of different backgrounds who had often been involved in bitter disputes in the past to collaborate on clear and concrete objectives, spreading the network of municipalities for independence and building the 2012 Diada as a step along the road to a national consultation on independence for Catalonia.

In March, the AMI executive adopted the goal of reaching a coverage of 60% of the Catalan population in the councils affiliated to it as the threshold for demanding a referendum of the Catalan government.

The AMC is the activist network of the movement, with 9000 members and 15,000 sympathisers recruited in half a year, now grouped in 300 local assemblies. According to ANC president Carme Forcadell, “The local assemblies are the important thing. They include party members, but what counts in working for independence.”

In June, the AMC and AMI came together to plan their “march to independence”, beginning with the Diada demonstration. A manifesto was agreed stating that if the CiU government called early elections with independence as the central issue and if the resulting parliament committed to a plebiscite on self-determination under international guarantees then the Mas government “could count on our unconditional support”.

In addition, “if the Catalan people vote in favour, or if the Spanish State prevents the free exercise of this right, the elected deputies would have to proclaim national independence and constitute the sovereign Catalan state.”

Clearly, the purpose of the statement was to reduce the Mas government’s wriggle room as much as possible.

Support for independence

The 532 councils affiliated to the AMI cover around 32% of the population of Catalonia (see http://www.municipisindependencia.cat/que-es-ami/implantacio). This reflects the fact that support for independence is strongest in the smaller towns and villages and is weakest in the biggest cities, especially Barcelona. Of the three other regional capitals, Tarragona, Lleida and Girona, only the last is affiliated to the AMI. No council in Catalonia´s most populous shire, the Barcelonés with a population of over two million, belongs to AMI.

This geographical spread of support for independence correlates closely to the power base of CiU, whose mayors and councilors enjoy a clear majority on AMI leadership bodies. Only one town of more than 50,000 not governed by CiU (Cerdanyola de Vallés where the PSC rules in alliance with ICV) belongs to the AMI.

Yet, despite this CiU organisational predominance a June poll by the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies stated that 70% of independence supporters described themselves as left or centre left.

The reality behind the statistics is that the Catalan nationalist movement is a socially very mixed movement, stronger among small business and the middle classes, but with real support among workers, students and people on welfare. Independence is certainly not the preferred road of Catalan big capital, which actually favours the CiU trying to increase its weight within all-Spanish politics (by demanding positions in the national cabinet, for example). The Catalan 1%, working feverishly behind the scenes, prays for some fiscal pact deal that leaves its access to Spanish markets and collaboration with Spanish capital as undisturbed as possible.

The working class in Catalonia is split. Support is lowest among immigrants from the rest of Spain, concentrated since the 1960s in heavy industry and construction. A March 2010 TV3 survey showed support for Catalan independence at 19% among residents of Catalonia born elsewhere in Spain, an attitude often driven by a healthy hatred of the Catalan employing class.

In the same survey support for independence from immigrants from “the rest of the world” stood at 40%.

This reality is reflected in the spread of support among voters for the parliamentary parties. In June, a poll by the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies showed that support for independence was a majority among ERC voters (95.7%), CiU voters (64.5%), and ICV-EUiA voters (53.2%). But only 29% of PSC and 8% of PPC voters supported independence.


The outpouring on September 11 took place with polls showing around 50% prepared to vote for independence, 20% against, and 30% undecided or not voting. It is the background to an event that has forced all political forces in Spain and Catalonia into a rapid rebooting of positions.

Mas had no choice but quickly to place himself at the head of the movement. After meeting ANC leaders on Friday, September 14, he told Spanish commercial radio that, even if a fiscal pact was achieved, Catalonia would still be walking the pathway to independence if its people so desired.

No end of manoeuvring can be expected from Mas, Duran Lleida and other CiU politicins, who have spent a lifetime doing deals with the Spanish right in all its forms, usually along the lines of crumbs for Catalonia in return for their support for regressive social and anti-worker policy nationally.

The most recent example was CiU enthusiastic support for the Rajoy government’s “labour reform”, the most brutal attack on worker and union rights since the end of the Franco dictatorship. Mas and Co. have also boastfully taken the lead in implementing austerity. In this, as in so much, the line is that Catalonia just so much more efficient than the rest. “We are the Germans of Spain”, was one of Mas’s more recent pearls.

But September 11 and the huge boost it has given to independence sentiment has sharply narrowed Mas’s room for manoeuvre for the time being. Also, within CiU the pressure is on the Catalan premier to stay true to the independence cause, especially from the Pujol dynasty of father Jordi (premier of Catalonia from 1980 to 2003) and son Oriel (CiU president, presently being investigated for involvement in a party funding scandal).

In the next session of the Catalan parliament Mas will face calls from ERC and SI to organise a referendum on independence (illegal under the Spanish constitution), as all nationalist forces engage in the race for the independence vote. Against Mas’ preference for terms like “autonomous Catalan state structures” ERC parliamentarians like Alfred Bosch joke “Come on Artur, it’s not hard to say—in-de-pen-den-ci-a.”

The nationalist movement is already implementing its next tactic, led again by Arenys de Munt, of declaring its municipalities zones liberated from the application of the Spanish constitution.

The reaction from the Spanish right has been according to the old scripts. PPC president Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, hitherto loyal ally of Mas on austerity and social policy, is now describing the premier as “Catalonia’s Ibarretxe”, a reference to the former Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) premier of Euskadi, whose 2005 and 2008 attempts to organise referenda in that region were voted down in the Spanish parliament and then outlawed by the Constitutional Court.

Sanchez-Camacho wrote in the September 12 La Razón: “Without doubt a large number of people took part in yesterday’s demonstration, but it is equally certain that a much larger number of Catalans did not and do not share the separatist goal…We cannot allow the CiU government to convince anyone that independentism is a majority option…We do not want the radicalisation of these last days to lead us to social, economic and institutional breakdown.”

Dolores de Cospedal, The PP’s national secretary general and premier of Castilla-La Mancha, paints Catalan independence as a road out of the euro and the European Union and into an irrelevance. The hint is that the Catalans should not be allowed to wreck their future and that of Spain.

Provocative Madrid PP premier Esperanza Aguirre has given a speech in which she stated that the Catalans and Basques were obviously unhappy with Sapin’s system of autonomous communities, in her mind an argument in for a return to a more centralised and “efficient” Spanish state structure. What Aguirre thinks should “be done about” the Basques and Catalans was left unsaid.

Spanish centralism’s other political voices, the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) and, within Catalonia, Citizens (Cs) have gone out of their way in boosting the politics of fear—an independent Catalonia would make its non-Catalan residents second-class citizens and victims of Catalan chauvinist discrimination.

For the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (PSOE) and its affiliate the PSC (whose leadership did not take part in the march but whose “Catalanist” minority did) the answer is assertion of a “new federalism” against the centralising tendencies of Rajoy and Co.

At the same time the Spanish centralism of the PSOE mainstream—which only grudgingly accepted Zapatero’s Statute of Autonomy deal with the tripartit in 2006—has been on display in a stream of speeches and articles about national independence being a “nineteenth century concept” and stressing the supposed high cost to an independent Catalunya of accessing water and energy.

The problem for the PSOE—indeed for all all-Spanish political forces—is that after 30 years of life within Spain, the federalist alternative in Catalonia has exhausted practically all attraction, especially among young people. Brought up within the half-way Catalan institutions allowed under the system of autonomous communities, their instincts lead them to prefer an independent Catalonia under CiU than more decades of pseudo-negotiations and low-intensity warfare with Spain.

Reconstituting Spain?

At its 6th national congress in May the Catalan affiliate of IU, EUiA, adopted a perspective of refounding the left in Catalonia on the basis of the struggle for social and environmental justice and Catalonia’s right to self-determination. The EUiA resolution envisages the broadest possible front of independentists, autonomists and federalists, linking social and national struggles together in a bloc to make the exercise of Catalonia’s right to self-determination politically unstoppable.

After September 11, EuiA said: “The days of betting on an obsolete institutional framework into which Catalonia doesn’t fit are long past. EuiA puts its money on the development of a plurinational federalism where the right to decide is recognised ... one in which the Spanish state meets the challenge of understanding and listening to the national sentiment of the peoples that make it up.”

But maybe the outraged national sentiment of Catalonia today makes even this progressive position obsolete. There is a very slim chance that this might change after the October 21 elections in Galicia and the Basque Country, where the left Basque nationalists of EH Bildu have a good chance of emerging as the leading party and the new Galician formation ANOVA (“the Galician Syriza”) could make a strong showing. More likely, however, is that reactions from Madrid to such an advance for left nationalism would only strengthen the Catalan desire to close the door on Spain.

The original Comintern perspective for Spain and Portugal was of a socialist confederation of Iberia, a perspective that still makes a lot of sense. However, in today’s world, in which support for the socialist alternative is much weaker and important parts of the Spanish left still don’t really embrace the right of self-determination, the path to such a future more feasibly lies through an independent and socially progressive Catalonia and Euskadi leading the way in the demolition of the Spanish “prison of nations”.

The situation is challenging for EUiA. Already the United Left in the Basque Country (Esker Batua) has fragmented and will probably lose parliamentary representation. Sections of the EUiA base are suspicious and fearful of right-wing Catalan nationalism, did not attend the September 11 demonstration, and also point out—correctly—that having Catalonia as a new state in Europe will by itself solve little or nothing of the country’s social, economic and environmental problems.

On the other hand, if EUiA loses the connection and hearing it has among the younger generation of Catalans who yearn for independence it would lose its own future.

To end on a lighter note, some issues that before September 11 were the stuff of conversation in bars have become more pressing:

  1. Would an independent Catalonia have an army? Artur Mas, knowing the intense anti-war and anti-militarist sentiment of the Catalans, has already said no.
  2. How would an independent Catalonia “enter Europe”? An EU spokesperson said it would first have to “leave” and then ask for permission to join the European Union. Two days later a correction was issued: Catalonia could enter Europe if Spain and Catalonia agreed that it could.
  3. In an independent Catalonia in what football league would Barcelona play? Would games against the beloved enemy Real Madrid come to an end? Would fans just have to get used to the best club in the world thrashing Sabadell 8-1 in a new Catalan League? Barcelona Football Club president Sandro Rosell has rushed to assure the nation that he was “sure” that Barcelona would continue to play in the Spanish league—like Monaco in the French league.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012, issue of Green Left Weekly.]

Appendix: Catalan nationalist organisations

Parliamentary parties

Convergence and Union (CiU). The ruling right-nationalist party in Catalonia, composed of the majority Democratic Convergence for Catalonia (CDC) and the Christian democrat Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC).

Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Founded in 1931 through the fusion of Catalan State (leader Francesc Maciá), the Catalan Republican Party (leader Lluis Companys) and other smaller forces. Maciá was the elected as the first leader of a Catalan state on the basis of the 1932 Statute of Autonomy, negotiated with the Spanish parliament. On Maciá’s death in 1933, Companys replaced him, to be executed at the end of the Spanish Civil War by the Francoists.

Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI).Formed to promote the immediate move to Catalan independence. SI is a seven-party coaltion made up of Solidarity for Independence, the Catalan Republican Party, The Greens-Green Alternative, the Socialist Party of National Liberation, Catalonia Nation Independence, Action Catalonia and the Catalan Sovereignty Bloc.

Left nationalists

Forward—Socialist Organisation of National Liberation (Endavant-OSAN).Founded in 2000. Endavant’s goals are independence and socialism, with the fight conducted against national, social and patriarchal oppression. Slogan: “Without economic sovereignty there is no true independence”:

Movement for the Defence of the Land (MDT). Pan-Catalanist revolutionary independence movement with long history going back to PSAN.

Maulets. Youth movement associated with MDT. “Maulets” was a satirical name given to the supporters of Archduke Charles, ally of Catalonia in the War of the Spanish Succession.Coordinating Committee of Youth Assemblies of the Independentist Left(CAJEI). Coordinating body of local collectives of revolutionary independentist youth.

Arran. New (2012) organisation of revolutionary Catalanist youth, fusion of Maulets, CAJEI and local groups.

Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). The electoral voice of revolutionary Catalan independentism. Supported by above organisations. A municipally based network made up of local assemblies.

Right nationalists

Platform for Catalonia (PxC). Xenophobic, islamophobic and racist, with neo-Nazi elements. Has 60 councillors and a recent poll in La Razón shows it entering the Catalan parliament.

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Submitted by Xavier (not verified) on Tue, 09/18/2012 - 20:55


Platform for Catalonia (PxC) is not a Catalan nationalist party, but a Spanish one. They are unionists, agains Catalonia's independence.

Submitted by Josep (not verified) on Wed, 09/19/2012 - 07:58


As a Catalan residing in the UK, and knowing something about the subject, I have been dismayed by the sketchy, ill-informed and often biased (usually in favour of Spanish nationalism) coverage of this issue in the British corporate or "quality" media. This report puts to shame anything I've read there. It is a truly comprehensive and balanced account, and I want to congratulate Dick Nichols and Links for it. Outstanding.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/20/2012 - 09:35


I agree with both comments so far. This is an excellent description of the situation in Catalonia---except for the major error that PxC is not (and certainly does not claim to be) a Catalan nationalist party. A cursory look at the Wikipedia entry of Josep Anglada (PxC's leader) clarifies things http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josep_Anglada