ETA and the Basque labyrinth

Guy Hedgecoe
20 August 2009

Much has changed in Spain's Basque Country over the three and a half decades since dictator Francisco Franco died in November 1975. The huge, titanium-plated Guggenheim museum on the banks of the river Nervión in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, is perhaps the most obvious symbol of modernity in this industrialised northern region. But there are plenty of other developments that are important to the Basque people, not least the fact that their culture and language no longer face the senseless repression of the Franco years. 

Guy Hedgecoe is editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and has reported on Spain for France 24 and Al-Jazeera. He previously covered the Andean region, and founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin

Also by Guy Hedgecoe in openDemocracy:

"Losing Ecuador" (26 April 2005)

"Ecuador's energy-fuelled politics" (28 June 2006)

"Ecuador's election surprise" (17 October 2006)

"Ecuador: protest and power" (28 November 2006)

"Ecuador's politics of expectation" (1 February 2006)

"Ecuador's hyper-political wave" (30 September 2008)

"Rafael Correa: an Ecuadorian journey" (29 April 2009)

When Patxi López was sworn in as the Basque lehendakari, or regional premier, in May 2009, change was more than one of his main pledges: it was an inevitability. As a Socialist, he had in the elections to the Basque parliament on 1 March 2009 broken twenty-nine years of uninterrupted rule by the centre-right Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV), making him the region's first non-nationalist leader in the democratic era. 

"I feel I have the mandate to lead a change", López had said after the regional elections gave him enough votes to form a governing coalition with conservatives. 

But some things in the Basque Country never seem to change. Soon after López was instated, it emerged that the authorities had thwarted a plan by the separatist group ETA to plant a bomb at the regional assembly, which was to be detonated as politicians of all stripes debated prior to the investiture. 

Then on 19 June, ETA struck more effectively, killing police-inspector Eduardo Puelles with a car-bomb in the Basque city of Bilbao. This, it soon emerged, was merely the beginning of ETA's annual "summer campaign", usually a string of bomb-attacks, often in tourist resorts, which usually harm no one but raise the international profile of the organisation during the news-devoid holiday season. This year, however, there was a more ferocious tone to the attacks.

On 29 July a car parked opposite a Civil Guard barrack in Burgos in northern Spain detonated, blasting the façade of the building clean off. Inside, dozens of civil guards had been sleeping with their wives and children. Miraculously, no one was badly injured, although the government declared that "a massacre" had been planned. The next day, an ETA car bomb in Palmanova, Mallorca, killed two young civil guards just down the road from where the royal family were spending their holiday; a week later four small devices exploded in tourist areas of Mallorca's capital, Palma. On that occasion, nobody was hurt.  

It is probably no coincidence that the Burgos and Palmanova bombings were carried out during the week marking the fiftieth anniversary of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom), which was founded during the dark days of the Franco era. It was not until 1968 that the organisation started killing, but in the years since, ETA's list of victims has grown - sometimes steadily, sometimes in bloody spurts - to over 800. But after 2000, when it killed twenty-three, the death-toll dropped steeply.

The group remained active and perpetrated intermittent attacks, but (by design or inadvertence) carried out no killings at all between May 2003 and December 2006. It called a ceasefire with effect from 24 March 2006 and a stuttering peace process was bravely led by prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero; both were effectively ended by a massive bomb in a car-park at Madrid's Barajas airport on 30 December 2006, which killed two Ecuadorian workers sleeping in their car (see Diego Muro, "ETA's farewell to peace", 18 January 2007).

The end of illusion 

Those recent figures reflect the official line of the government and security forces: that ETA is on its knees. Indeed, police infiltration and increased cooperation with authorities in France -the southwest of that country has traditionally been a haven for ETA members - have led to a seemingly endless series of arrests and weapons seizures since 2004. Since early 2008 alone four successive senior leaders of the organisation have been arrested and imprisoned. 

These local gains by the authorities in Spain, where the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers Party / PSOE) government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been in power since March 2004, occurred in an international context that appeared certain to accelerate the end of ETA. The more hardline Basque nationalists closely followed the progress of Irish Republicans, making the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its ensuing success in laying the ground for lasting peace in Northern Ireland look like a powerful omen for the conflict across the Bay of Biscay. 

Also on the ETA movement and Spain's politics in openDemocracy:

Richard Torné, "Spain's 3/11: democracy after atrocity" (12 March 2003)

Diego Muro, "ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end?" (16 March 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida" (18 March 2004)

Nelcya Delanoe, "Morocco and Spain: united by tragedy?" (25 March 2004)

Mariano Aguirre, "Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

Diego Muro, "A Basque peace opportunity" (23 March 2006)

Diego Muro, "ETA's farewell to peace" (18 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Eternal Euskadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Justice in Madrid: the '11-M' verdict" (5 November 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (11 March 2008)

Sebastian Balfour, "The governance of Spain: between rock and hard place" (2 April 2008)

A more destructive sign that Basque separatist violence was obsolete came on 11 March 2004. When bombs ripped through commuter-trains in Madrid that morning, killing 191 people and injuring over 1,800, some initial suspicion fell on ETA itself; and though the atrocities were quickly revealed to have been the work of an al-Qaida-inspired cell, it was apparent that the actions of terrorists who were part of a global movement exposed both the catastrophic logic of ETA's methods and the mismatch between its cause and the methods of its pursuit (see Diego Muro, "ETA after Madrid: the beginning of the end?", 16 March 2004).

Many within ETA appear to have digested these developments and understood the hopelessness of seeking independence for the four Spanish and three French provinces that nationalists see as part of the historic Basque homeland. Txema Matanzas, a senior figure among the more than 700 ETA members languishing in prison, illustrated the deep division within the organisation recently by making an explicit plea to its active members to give up the armed struggle. "The time has come to pull down the blinds", he wrote in a document intercepted by police. 

Many in the movement are deaf to such pleas. ETA continues to kill. The Guardia Civil  (Civil Guard) remains a favourite target, just as it was during the Franco era, when it was a genuine force of repression. The militant group's rhetoric seems barely to have changed either. "We meet Spain's imposition through weapons with weapons", it said in a recent statement in which it justified the continued use of violence. 

Spain's interior minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, part of the Zapatero government that was first elected three days after the 11-M bombs and re-elected (albeit with a smaller majority) in March 2008, has cast ETA's current generation of activists as a crazed band of criminals; and indeed their zeal is reminiscent of Sabino Arana, the father of modern Basque nationalism whose extremism (and indeed racism) mainstream nationalists now distance themselves from. But the more recent killings have undermined somewhat the notion that the terrorist group is about to collapse altogether. 

The political trigger  

Most polls carried out in the last several years suggest that around 30% of Basques want independence. But while support for achieving that aim through violence has dwindled overall, a recent poll showed that 15% of young teenagers in the Basque Country identify with ETA. Whenever the group's top leaders are arrested, another, younger militant steps up to fill the void. Posters on the walls of official buildings across Spain and the south of France have photographs of a seemingly endless supply of men and women - many of them in their 20s - wanted for terrorist offences (see Fred Halliday, "Eternal Euskadi, enduring ETA", 3 August 2007).  

Most Spaniards regard the behaviour of ETA and its supporters as utterly irrational for citizens of such a wealthy region, one moreover which was granted extensive autonomy in 1980, as the country's much trumpeted transition to democracy was being completed. The Spanish Basque region has more than its unique language to distinguish it: it has its own education system, police force and parliament, as well as taxation powers. Surely ETA, which was born in great part in response to the aggressive anti-nationalism of the Franco regime, under which speaking the Basque language was a punishable offence, can see the benefits? 

Unfortunately, ETA and its allies see a darker side to Spain's new democracy. They point to police brutality and the torture of suspects. Most damningly, they recall the dirty war of the 1980s, when senior members of Felipe González's Socialist government oversaw a death-squad (the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación / GAL) which pursued ETA suspects and in the process extra-judicially killed both terrorists and innocent people (twenty-eight in total between 1983-87). 

This repression, they argue, continues to the present day through the muzzling of ETA's political voice. Controversial legislation approved by the main parties in Madrid in 2003 illegalised Batasuna, the political wing of the terrorist group, which had regularly held a 15% share of the vote in the region. Then in 2009, for the first time ever, all Basque parties which were deemed to have any links with ETA were banned by the courts from running in the regional elections. This laid the foundations for the Socialists' unseating of the PNV nationalists, who had always relied on the support of smaller, more radical parties to form a government. 

For establishment politicians in the Basque Country and elsewhere in Spain, the banning from the ballot of radical separatists (known collectively as the izquierda abertzale, literally the "patriotic left") and the unseating of the moderate nationalists from power are groundbreaking and welcome developments that bolster the country's democracy. However, they are also loaded with risks. 

A bumpy ride 

For one thing, the new lehendakari Patxi López faces an extremely bumpy ride. The PNV, furious that it was unable to form a governing coalition after the March election despite having won more votes than the Socialists, has sourly claimed that the central administration in Madrid will in fact govern the Basque Country "by remote control". Aside from inevitable resistance from political rivals, even López's allies could be problematic. The conservative Partido Popular - with which he has embarked on a governing partnership - may have backed his instatement, but on a national level it is almost permanently at loggerheads with the Socialists over a range of issues, ranging from abortion to the historical memory of the civil-war period. Their regional marriage of convenience is certain to be tense (see Sebastian Balfour, "The governance of Spain: between rock and hard place", 2 April 2008). 

López has opened his term in strident fashion, having pro-ETA banners and posters torn down in towns, and marches and gatherings supporting the organisation broken up. "I'll be a leader who will face up to ETA day after day", he has said. "I will work tirelessly to ensure the freedom of Basques." 

It's true that the vast majority of Basques abhor the use of violence. But the izquierda abertzale - a sizeable minority - believes that López represents anything but freedom, in a region where its supporters are prohibited from expressing themselves politically. This logic would dictate that violence is the only language now available to the radicals. The arrests may continue, but so will ETA's recruitment of students, artists, teachers and office-workers to carry out further bombings. 

The government and the Partido Popular insist that the only way to bring about the end of ETA now is through continued police and judicial pressure. ETA's breaking of the 2006 peace process badly burned Zapatero, who was labelled as "weak on terror" by the political right; any further attempts at negotiation in the foreseeable future by either a Socialist or a Partido Popular administration are seen as politically too risky and probably doomed, given the apparent lack of unity and clear leadership within the terrorist group. ETA, meanwhile, finds itself in the dead-end of its own violence, its only realistic aim now being to remind Spaniards that it still exists.   

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