Catalan President Puigdemont has 'independence at his core'

The man who wants to break away from Spain
The man who wants to break away from Spain

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(CNN)He's either a freedom fighter, the defender of the Catalan voice or the disloyal radical risking it all to break Spain apart. It depends on how you view the crisis that's spilled onto the streets of Barcelona as Catalonia pushes to break away from Madrid.

Those who know him best believe one thing is certain about Catalan President Carles Puigdemont -- he's always believed in independence.
"Carles Puigdemont has independence at his core," said Jami Matamala, one of Puigdemont's closest friends. "This is not something he's improvised. It's something he knows very well. It's a part of who he is."
    Carles Puigdemont (L) and friend Jami Matamala pictured in 2016.
    Matamala and his wife were godparents at Puigdemont's wedding, a Catholic tradition. They're also close to the Puigdemonts' two children.
    "He's a person who has always had strong convictions," said Matamala.
    At 54 years old, Puigdemont's convictions reflect the first Catalan generation to emerge out of the shadow of dictatorship. Francisco Franco ruled over Spain from 1939 until he died in 1975. Franco banned the Catalan language and cracked down on Catalan traditions and culture. His death ushered in a new era of democracy and Spain split into 17 autonomous regions, including Catalonia.
    But Matamala said the scars of dictatorship remain; for him the police crackdown on last Sunday's referendum serves as a brutal reminder of the past.
    "We thought Franquismo was over," said Matamala. "That we were living a full democracy. But what happened these days shows us that democracy in this country is not reliable."

    Catalan is a 'feeling'

    Puigdemont grew up in Amer, a sleepy village not far from the town of Girona. It was founded in 949 AD during what nationalists maintain was one of the only periods Catalonia was independent.
    Centuries later, the area remains fiercely pro-independence, with the highest referendum turnout. Ninety percent voted to leave. Multicolored "Si" flags still hang from the balconies in a show of Catalan pride. The village is tiny; so tiny we bumped into Puigdemont's 28-year-old cousin in the main square. Joan Molins Puigdemont explained what it means to be Catalan.
    "It's a feeling" he said. "It's really hard to express in words. We're different from Spanish people. We respect them but we have a lot of traditions, a lot of culture, and that's why we feel so proud." Carles Puigdemont is a reflection of that pride, he said.
    At the back of the main square is the Puigdemont family bakery, which is known for its delicious sweets and pastries. The Puigdemonts still live upstairs. They've declined all media requests, but inside the shop is a sign of their support. Near the baked goods and magazines is a photo from last Sunday's crackdown: An older woman, hands up, faces down the national police.
    As a kid, Puigdemont was loyal, cosmopolitan, and fiercely intelligent, according to friends. He had a keen interest in the outside world. Friends also describe growing up frustrated with how the Spanish government treated Catalan officials. The call to independence was always there.
    Puigdemont, front left, sits with students in Geneva during an international conference in 1982.
    An old photo taken in 1982 shows 20-year-old Puigdemont and a group of exchange students in Geneva during an international conference. According to his friend Vador Clarà, Piugdemont decided to walk around the city carrying the separatist 'estelada' flag that a tailor from his hometown had sewn. Many asked him where he was from; some confused the flag with the Cuban flag.

    'A very interesting character'

    When he was 18, Puigdemont left Amer for the nearby town of Girona.
    He became a journalist and businessman but soon entered local politics. According to friends he was not a natural politician but has evolved rapidly. He became the town's mayor in 2011 and the Catalan president in 2016.
    Journalist Antoni Puigverd said he doesn't share Puigdemont's views on independence. Nonetheless they're longtime friends.
    How Catalonia's independence crisis unfolded
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    Puidgemont never had "personal ambition" for politics, said Puigverd. He became the politician he is today through circumstance, and lacks a personal thirst for power.
    "This shows us a very interesting character," Puigverd said. "Because this is a character with huge national Catalan ambition but without personal ambition. It is very strange to find a character like this ... He's a very surprising candidate for the Spanish government because they cannot attack his career, because he already knows he's sacrificing his career."
    Matamala takes it a step further. He said Puigdemont is not only willing to sacrifice his own career for the cause, but also his personal freedom. He knows he could be arrested.
    "We've talked about this," said Matamala. "He is very conscious it is possible. Therefore, he also has a plan in case it happens. Carles Puigdemont always has things planned and it's difficult for him to leave loose ends."
    According to friends, Puigdemont's plan does not include violence nor does he have the stomach to see Catalonia's economy destroyed. They insist the violent crackdown on referendum voters was a shock.
    Puigdemont could declare independence on Tuesday. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said he could invoke emergency powers over Catalonia in response. Many fear more violence.
    Although Puigdemont has some far-left extremists in his inner circle, Puigverd believes he will work to deescalate the situation, even if it means backing off independence -- for now.
    "Puigdemont won't take people to the butcher," said Puigverd. "The Spanish Government knows this, and this is why they are stretching the situation to the max ... It's an open wound and we need to get the inflammation down. And I know Puigdemont will try to treat the wound with anti-inflammatories."
    There's going to be a transition period where things calm down "after the situation reaches the limit," he added.
    Correction: A photo caption in this story has been updated to accurately reflect the year the photo was taken.