MADRID – The accidental death of a fighter jet pilot on Thursday cast a grim shadow on Spain’s national holiday, which was already tense amid the northeastern region of Catalonia’s ongoing bid for independence.
Captain Borja Aybar of the Spanish air force lost his life when his Eurofighter Typhoon crashed on its way back to the Los Llanos air base in the central province of Albacete after taking part in the traditional Oct. 12 military parade in Madrid.
The accident took place at 12:09 am local time, “during the approach maneuver before landing,” according to a defense ministry statement.
Aybar’s tragic death marred a national holiday that this year put a special emphasis on Spain’s unity, in the wake of rising tensions in Catalonia over the region’s prospective independence from the rest of the country.
On Tuesday, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said a referendum had given validity to his government’s bid for unilateral independence but asked the Catalan parliament to suspend the secession to allow time for dialogue with Madrid.
The referendum took place on Oct. 1, despite having been deemed illegal by the central government and the judiciary, with numerous human rights groups criticizing the police’s attempts to enforce a court order banning the vote by allegedly using excessive force.
Human Rights Watch said on Thursday an investigation into the actions of Spanish police to impede the vote showed that they had engaged in excessive violence when confronting demonstrators.
The colorful parade was presided over by King Felipe VI, who was accompanied by his wife, Queen Letizia, and their two daughters, Princesses Leonor and Sofia.
Many attendees among the crowd waved Spanish flags and chanted “Long live the Crown!” and “Long live Spain!”
Also present was Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, along with the majority of his cabinet, as well as the mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, and the regional president of Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes.
Members of the national police and the Civil Guard (a semi-military force tasked with police duties) took part in the parade for the first time. They were loudly cheered and applauded for their work in Catalonia, where some 10,000 officers from across the country had been sent to close down polling stations, seize ballot boxes and remove protesters who attempted to block them.
To celebrate the day, the defense ministry organized more than 120 events in Spain’s major cities under the new slogan “Proud to be Spaniards.”
Oct. 12 – previously known as the “Day of Hispanicity” or “Day of the Race” – celebrates the date of Christopher Columbus’ first landing on American soil in 1492 AD.
Although Columbus is widely believed to have hailed from the city of Genoa, in present-day Italy, his expedition – theoretically designed to probe an alternative trade route to the Indies – was funded by Queen Isabella I of Castile.
Columbus remains a controversial figure to this day, as he is often seen by modern historians as a greedy and ambitious mass murderer with an insatiable lust for gold.
The traditional Western depiction of Columbus is quite different: he has mainly been hailed as a daring adventurer and cunning explorer who brought Christian civilization to the pagans inhabiting the New World.
In any event, the arrival of Columbus’ three ships – the Pinta, the Niña and the Santa Maria – on Caribbean shores forever changed world history.
The new lands were brought under the dominion of Castile and many indigenous people were either enslaved or exterminated through Spanish steel and smallpox.
For this reason, Oct. 12 is commemorated in several Latin American countries as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” or “Native American Day.”