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James Skinner on ETA

‘On February 23rd, 1981, an unknown Lieutenant Colonel of the Guardia Civil (Spanish Civil Guards) broke into the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, and held its members hostage for almost twenty-four hours. His aim was to discredit the transitional government, established after the death of General Franco by inciting the army into a new military takeover. Thanks to the immediate appearance on television of the recently crowned King Juan Carlos - unfairly dubbed by the international media as ‘El Breve’ (the Brief) - who appealed for calm and a return to barracks of all armed forces, the uprising failed.

Since that infamous historical event, Spain’s embryonic democracy has gone from strength to strength. A fresh constitution formulated in 1978 converted the country into a constitutional monarchy, separating the state and the dominant Catholic Church and allowing the formation of 17 autonomous communities. In 1982, the once outlawed Socialist Party (PSOE) won the national elections with a clear majority. A new era of labour and social reforms unknown for over forty years as well as international acceptance and recognition paved the way for a ‘born again’ European power. In that same year Spain joined NATO and four years later was accepted as a full member of the European Common Market. The culmination came in 1992 with the staggering successes of EXPO ’92 in Seville and the staging of the Olympic games in Barcelona. But not all Spaniards accepted the post-Franco statutory reforms.

Ever since the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the establishment of Franco’s dictatorship, one of the government’s aims was to quash any ideas of regional independence, especially emanating from the Basque and Catalonia regions. Brutal repression, including the prohibited use of their languages, more or less continued throughout the forty years of the regime. It was reasonable to expect a backlash to these measures with the formation of clandestine nationalist movements. Although Catalonia’s underground organisations such as Terra Lliure – dissolved in 1991 – never caused any real harm, the Basque region was another matter. In 1959, the military arm of the Basque National Party (PNV) vowed armed warfare against the State. Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, better known as ETA was formed.

They began their campaigns with public sabotage, but by the end of the 1960’s had moved on to assassinations. Most of their finances were derived through robberies, kidnappings and ‘revolutionary taxes’ extorted from Basque businessmen. They managed to maintain considerable sympathy both in and out of the Basque region as they were seen as freedom fighters against an obsolescent fascist regime. Their ultimate achievement was the ‘blowing up’ of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s supposed successor in December of 1973. However, after the death of Franco, in 1975, and the establishment of a democratic state, the escalation of violence by ETA in the following decades multiplied tenfold. Why?

The answer lies in the fundamental ideology of self-determination by the Basque people. Ever since 1894, when the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was formed, their goal to become an independent nation has never ceased. Although the PNV has now become a moderate political party, adopting non-violent policies, ETA refused to renounce its armed struggle for freedom. It therefore formed its own separatist party, Herri Batasuna, ironically accepted as a legal party within the Spanish constitution, and vowed to continue the fight against the Spanish state.

The Basques are not the only sector of Spain seeking independence. In July 1998, four nationalist parties, the BNG (Galicia, northwest Spain), the PNV (Basque country) CIU and CDC (Catalonia) signed an agreement to combat the bipartisan political situation governing Spain. Their objectives were simple: survival of nationalism, auto-government according to the will of their citizens (regional), implementation of their language above Castilian, and, low and behold, the fight against terrorism. The peculiarity of this alliance was that their different ideologies were placed on the backburner. The BNG, for example is a Marxist left wing organisation whilst the CIU is of right wing tendencies. ETA ignored them all. The killings continued.

By now, and despite their obvious differences, both major parties in Spain, the PSOE (socialists), lead by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the PP (conservatives) by Jose Maria Aznar, were becoming increasingly anxious to curtail the violence in the Basque region. Basque regional elections were due in June this year and both parties were using the continuing violence and insecurity as their key weapon to win the same. To their surprise, the PNV won with an overwhelming majority and Juan Jose Ibarretxe was once again instated as President of the Basque Region. The political mood, however, began to change. For the first time, the central government of Spain, as well as the main socialist opposition party recognised the need for new, open and unbiased dialogue with the Basque nationalists. Meanwhile, the new president of the Basque country announced that the fight against terrorism was the main priority above the self-government of the region.

In the meantime, three events – yet again – shook the nation. On July 15th, ETA carried out two simultaneous assassinations. Mikel Uribe, a police chief was gunned down in Leaburu (Guipuzcoa) whilst Jose Javier Mugica, a town councillor of the small village of Leiza (Navarra) was blown to bits by a car bomb. The population had barely recovered from these murders when a week later, a young twenty-year old nursery school teacher, member of ETA, accidentally killed herself whilst preparing a home made bomb in Torrevieja (Alicante). Explosives were later found in Malaga airport. Alarm bells began to ring in all quarters as ETA’s campaign had apparently spread to the heart of the Spanish tourist area. The time had come for an urgent meeting between Ibarretxe and Aznar.

On July 30th, both leaders met at the Presidential Palace of the Moncloa in Madrid. The outcome was obvious. Although Ibarretxe urged for further autonomy - transfer of Social Security finances and labour control - and Aznar countered with rhetoric statements – the Spanish constitution is paramount – the leaders achieved an historic agreement. They pledged mutual cooperation to combat ETA’s terrorism. It remains to be seen whether ETA takes the hint. But what does all this mean to the rest of Europe?

Could we be facing yet another Yugoslavia style problem? Although ETA’s violence is nowhere near as fierce as that suffered in the 1990’s by the Balkan states, could Spain be moving towards an eventual break-up into a series of separate states? ETA may eventually lose its battle for total independence of the Basque region through the use of force, but democratic moves by the non-violent nationalists (PNV) may eventually reach this goal. If this occurs, its only a matter of time before Catalonia, Galicia and possibly Valencia jump on the band wagon and seek their own freedom from Madrid. The European Union would have no other alternative but to accept the new nations and their languages as well as an increase in European parliamentary representation. There is, however one shadow looming above this whole scenario.
The new Basque nation in years to come, could have as its President an ex militant of ETA with blood on his hands. Milosovich or Pinochet all over again? Who knows.’

© James Skinner 2001
*Editor's note:
On August 5th as a warning signal to Madrid thousands marched in support of ETA, reflecting a tacit acceptance of the violence. Released Basque seperatists talk of imposing the Basque language in all schools and excluding the language of Madrid. The same influences are at work in the Basque region of France. The concept of getting to them young, whilst in school, seperating a population by language, is a successful political ploy and one can look to the region from Bayonne to Bilbao becoming unstable and violent with mass refugee movements in the coming years.

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