Europe, Headlines | Analysis

SPAIN: Basque Country Weighs Referendum and ETA Bullets

Analysis by Miren Gutiérrez*

ROME, Aug 13 2003 (IPS) - In its battle based on a mix of secular nationalism and Marxism, the Basque terrorist group ETA has murdered nearly 1,000 people. Those who criticise ETA or refuse to pay its "revolutionary tax" face harassment, kidnap or even death.

The campaign of terror ETA is waging for the independence of seven Basque provinces (the three comprising the autonomous Spanish region of the Basque Country, Navarra, and three French provinces) intensifies during the European summer months, shifting to Spain’s tourist destinations.

In July, ETA (Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna – "Basque Fatherland and Freedom" in the Basque language) planted a car-bomb at the airport in Santander, a tourist destination on the Bay of Biscay in the north. No one was injured.

The group also detonated two bombs last month in the popular Mediterranean coastal cities of Alicante and Benidorm, injuring a dozen people. ETA had planned similar attacks in the Andalusian resort city of Málaga.

Last year’s tourist season terror campaign included a car-bomb in Alicante that killed a six-year-old girl and a man, 57, and injured 34 others. Several car-bombs were detonated in Marbella, Fuengirola and Málaga, in the south, and in Zaragoza and Santander, in the north.

The ETA militants continue their campaign even though the Basque Country enjoys a great deal of autonomy – politically and economically – more in some respects than that of the states of Germany or the United States.

The Basques have their own police force, collect their own taxes and pay for central government services. They freely speak and teach in the Basque language, Euskera. They have their own parliament and prime minister and control the autonomous region’s education policy, judiciary and health services.

The extremist organisation presses on despite the fact that, after the Sep. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, the hardline approach of "repression first" has gained momentum inside and outside Spain, that dozens of ETA commando units have been dismantled, and that the group’s long-time leader Iñaki de Rentería has been captured.

ETA is on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist organisations, alongside the likes of the Palestinian Hamas and the Al-Qaeda network. ETA’s bank accounts in foreign countries have been frozen.

What keeps this Basque terrorist organisation alive in circumstances that are apparently so hostile?

A group of leftist students, dissatisfied with the moderate stance of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), founded ETA in 1959, in the middle of the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).

Their first militant action was an unsuccessful bomb attack in 1961 against a military train carrying war veterans.

The police responded with a generalised crackdown on Basque activists. Many Basques went into exile, while others joined the armed struggle for independence. The death and the brutality of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) apparently had not yet ended.

And then, in 1971, ETA orchestrated a bomb explosion that killed Luis Carrero Blanco, who had been fingered as Franco’s successor. Many – Basques and Spaniards alike – breathed a sigh of relief.

In those years, agents of the Franco regime were torturing thousands of leftist nationalists, explains Joseba Zulaika, an expert at the U.S. University of Nevada.

"But once (violence) is inside the body, it is there to stay. (ETA supporters) are incapable of criticising it because it represents the Basque military response to Spanish fascism, even 28 years after Franco’s death," says Zulaika.

ETA is suffering "Franco nostalgia", he adds. It is the only way to explain why "the number of assassinations has increased exponentially since the transition to democracy in Spain" nearly three decades ago.

"There exists no real conflict between Spain and the Basque Country," says Jaime Mayor Oreja, who heads Spain’s anti-terrorist policy as Interior minister of the José María Aznar government. "Rather, it is a clash among Basques arising from their different interpretations of history."

The "dirty war" that began in the 1970s during the democratic transition, with operations by the Basque-Spanish Battalions and Triple A (which was transformed in the 1980s into the Anti-Terrorist Liberation Groups, GAL), is another historic reason for the terror that has reigned in the Basque Country.

The Battalions killed 29 people, the GAL 28 more, and many of the victims had nothing to do with ETA.

For most people, however, the passage of time has left behind the main political causes associated with ETA.

Today, "ETA hides behind the banner of the independence struggle," without an ideology and without real principles, says Manuel Huertas, secretary-general of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa.

"It is nothing more than a mafia organisation," according to Huertas, who is a marked man, included on ETA’s list of targets.

A series of internal divisions and deaths has distilled into what ETA is today: an organisation that has gone from killing police and members of the armed forces to murdering civilians, including Basques. This phenomenon has been dubbed "the socialisation of suffering".

ETA’s focus now seems to be to press different sectors of society to force the government to negotiate. But not in just any manner. "Gudariak dira, ez terroristak!" (They are warriors, not terrorists!) shouts graffiti painted on a wall in Zarautz, a Basque beach town.

Those who support ETA distinguish between killing specific individuals – even if there is "collateral damage", meaning non-targets are hurt – and indiscriminate massacres. This is why they reject comparisons between ETA actions and the suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, in which some 3,000 people died.

ETA says its attacks are acts of war, while the Al Qaeda attacks against the United States on Sep. 11, 2001, were terrorism. Even when ETA plants a bomb in a public space – like the one that killed 21 people in a supermarket in 1987 – the group claims that it always alerts the authorities ahead of time to allow an evacuation. So if people die, they say, it is the police’s fault.

The foundations of ETA support are found in the youths of "kale borroka" (street violence), who never experienced the repression of the Franco dictatorship and are distancing themselves from the group’s founders and ideological leaders, who were born shortly after the Franco victory in the civil war.

The authorities estimate that ETA has some 200 active members, organised into commando units, and another 2,500 supporters, who provide food and refuge and sustain its infrastructure.

ETA actions are financed through contributions from backers, extortion, kidnap and armed attacks.

ETA’s political arm generally wins 15 percent of the vote in Basque elections, but Euskal Herritarrok lost 50 percent of its electoral support in 2001. The party divided, and then Batasuna (meaning "united" in the Basque language) emerged.

But in an order issued by judge Baltasar Garzón earlier this year, Batasuna was banned, categorised as part of the ETA terrorist network.

Despite the Basque parliament’s rejection of the judge’s order, the groups heir to Batasuna were not allowed to participate in the May 25 municipal elections. Xavier Arzálluz, leader of the autonomous region’s governing party, PNV, complained, "There was not universal suffrage" in those elections.

And ETA continues to wield disproportionate influence over Spanish politics.

After each assassination, hundreds of thousands of people in the Basque Country and the rest of Spain take to the streets in protest. The "Basque issue" is today the most important in Spanish politics, admits President Aznar.

Spain’s major parties – Aznar’s conservative Popular Party (PP) and the socialist PSOE – refuse to negotiate with ETA unless the group renounces violence. The members of the two parties, sharply divided in other regions, feel a certain kinship in the Basque Country, where ETA threatens all.

Both defend the Spanish constitution, which proclaims the indivisibility of the state. In 1978, the vast majority of Spaniards approved the post-dictatorship constitution, but only 30 percent of Basques supported it.

But in the latest "Euskobarómetro" survey, conducted by the University of the Basque Country in May, 35 percent of voters said they support federalism, 32 percent were content with the current level of autonomy, and 30 percent said they want Basque independence.

The nationalism question has redefined the political configuration of parties in Basque Country to the point that "left" and "right" do not mean the same thing there as in other places.

After the 2001 elections, with 43 percent of the vote, the victorious PNV – of Christian-democrat leanings – set up its government in coalition with the United Left, the heir to Spain’s Communist Party.

In the search for a solution to a problem that has not only cost hundreds of lives but also an estimated 10 percent of Basque Country’s gross domestic product, politicians of all stripes are attempting to respond to the same stubborn dilemma: which should come first, peace or self-determination?

According to non-nationalist Basques, peace is a condition for any dialogue, and the Basque government is not doing enough on the anti-terrorism front. The fact that some of its political objectives coincide with ETA’s – although with a peaceful and legal approach – has left the regional government paralysed.

Meanwhile, the nationalists warn of an underlying "political conflict" in Basque society, based on its unsatisfied aspiration of independence. And as long as that conflict remains unresolved, the assassins will continue to have motive for killing.

These being the circumstances, Basque Prime Minister Juan José Ibarretxe announced a proposal in July to convert Euskadi (the Basque provinces) into a "community freely associated with Spain."

The proposal is to be formally presented to the Basque parliament in September. If it is approved by an absolute majority, a negotiation process will begin with Madrid. And if that dialogue fails, the Basque government would put the proposal to a popular vote.

Although the Aznar administration rejects the initiative, it is quite a different story in the Basque Country. The biggest obstacle for convening a referendum is the argument that it would not take place in a context full freedom.

Non-nationalist representatives are continually intimidated by ETA. In the Basque Country, there are more than 5,500 bodyguards protecting people who have received threats.

Of the 1,000 political offices that are provided protection, most are held by the PSOE and PP, parties that represent 40 percent of the electorate.

José Llera, director of Euskobarómetro, denounced what he calls "a lynching campaign" that the radical nationalist movement has orchestrated for political ends, and for which he would leave his post.

Jaime Larrinaga, Roman Catholic priest in the Vizcaya town of Maruru, who celebrated Mass with bodyguards in tow, decided to leave the parish when his name appeared on documents that police seized during an ETA raid, after he had criticised the nationalist stance of the Basque Church.

The PSOE and PP found it very difficult to fill their candidate rosters for the municipal elections in May. They could not attract enough people willing to run for office.

According to philosopher Fernando Savater, 10 percent of a population that does not quite reach three million has left the Basque Country in recent years, himself included. This phenomenon has been referred to as "ideological cleansing".

Given this panorama, a referendum on the Ibarretxe Plan would not be carried out in conditions of equality, say the non-nationalists.

"How can we speak? We can’t articulate our ideas with the barrels of guns in our mouths," says Basque PSOE leader Huertas.

* Miren Gutiérrez is IPS editor-in-chief.

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