The year of not living dangerously

ETA's 2011 ceasefire was a historic marker for the 40-plus year struggle. As the group struggles for political legitimation, has Spain entered an era in which ETA and its sympathizers can pursue secessionist goals from within the boundaries of legality?

Off the chart unemployment is severely impacting everyone in Spain, but even so, one might spare a pang of special commiseration for the hundreds of armed and licensed bodyguards who found themselves abruptly out of work after the Basque separatist terror organization ETA announced the “definitive cessation of all armed activity” on 20 October 2011.

A year later, 2012 is wrapping without any more bloody surprises from the group that killed the last of its 857 victims in March 2010. But it is a tough deal for the bodyguards whose salaries had been mostly paid by an Interior Ministry hard-pressed to protect more than 200 business leaders, politicians, judges and educators deemed ETA priority targets.

Now people will tell you things are changing. Concrete obstacles no longer secure the approach to the Bilbao headquarters of the constitutionally compliant Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), and the roadside ritual in which drivers were pulled over and searched is becoming unusual. Does this mean that Spain has entered its post-terrorism era in which ETA and its sympathizers pursue their secessionist goals from within the boundaries of legality?

It’s a clear possibility.  ETA and company are repackaging but not altering their demands for an ethnically exclusionary, independent Basque homeland. What used to be termed an ‘armed struggle’ is an easier sell when rebranded as a ‘dream of self-determination’- and it appears to be paying off.  Basque voters elected a new regional parliament on October 21, one day after the truce anniversary. The coalition of secessionist parties and pro ETA diehards known as Bildu (“Gathering”) got 25% of the ballots as compared to the 34% that went to the PNV, which ruled the Basque Country alone or in coalition with the Socialists from 1980 to 2009, and will do so for the next four years – to the extent that Bildu allows it.

On the margin of the political process, ETA has not yet finished synchronizing with the larger Basque secessionist cause and occupying the space it needs to reconfigure as a legitimate political actor.  It expects to do so by the end of the first quarter of 2013. The time frame was set out in an internal briefing document seized last May when one of the group’s senior members was taken into custody.

In it, the ideologues rule out a return to violence. They want to integrate as a ‘current’ within the Basque National Liberation Movement (MNLV), a loose alliance which groups Catholic fundamentalists, Marxist labor unions and other elements that have only their nationalist extremism in common. Though the days of car bombs and bullets in the back of the neck may indeed be over, ETA is holding out for legitimization terms deemed unacceptable by the Spanish government, which insists that the group must disband, demobilize, and hand over its weapons. 

ETA has not commented on its arsenal, and no more than a single-digit handful of militants have made a public act of contrition. As for disbanding, the militants insist on retaining their established brand identity, so to speak. The prospect of immediate political power might lead them to offer the world a kinder, gentler ETA, but a world with no ETA in it does not appear to be on the table.  

In the video announcing the cease-fire, one hooded member challenged, “the governments of Spain and France to open a process of direct dialogue aimed at resolving the consequences of the conflict and moving beyond armed confrontation”.  In this context, ‘consequences’ is shorthand for the more than 720 individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes who are currently serving jail terms in either of the two counties (France is incarcerating around 120 of them).

In Spain, however Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has dismayed many Spaniards with his perceived willingness to cut ETA slack on the prisoners and hesitation to press for the extradition of around 750 of its members still residing outside the country, approximately half of whom are under indictment by Spanish courts. Dissent sharpened when Iosu Uribetxeberria, notorious convicted for three murders and the kidnap of a prison accountant who was buried alive for 532 days in a concrete crypt the size of a two parked cars, was set free in September on conditional release following a terminal diagnosis of cancer. Spanish law requires that inmates in the terminal stage of a medically verified and untreatable illness must not die behind bars. Spain’s high court upheld the release, but public opinion was incensed.

In the event, ETA is unlikely to play its hand until the new Basque government is up and running in February 2013. Bildu’s second-place showing will act as a force multiplier and will contribute to maintaining the government’s insistence and lie that the terrorists were ‘defeated’ by superior police work, international cooperation and a flood tide of revulsion against half a century of violence. 

As for those luckless bodyguards, the government has offered to re-train and hire a few hundred of them to perform guard and custodial duties at Spain’s jails and prisons, freeing up members of the security forces for other duties. Even this is something ETA sees as an opportunity to be leveraged. According to the Madrid daily newspaper ABC, the terrorists sent a message making it clear that “if we bring back the violence just once, without even killing anyone, the Basque and central governments will have to provide bodyguards for a lot of people, and that is going to cost plenty in times of austerity”.

About the author

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based journalist who writes about Spanish current affairs, books and the arts scene for a number of internet and print venues.

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