Basta. Enough. This word exemplifies the growing attitude toward the violence in the Spanish nation caused by the cultural differences between its Spanish and Basque inhabitants. The 2.1 million people of Euskadi, the Basque area of Spain, speak a different language than typical Spaniards, have a separate culture and society from that of Spain; and have a history of their own. Throughout the decades, these major cultural differences contained within the borders of Spain have continued to cause conflict between the Spanish people and the people of the Basque area. Many within la comunidad autonoma del pais vasco, the autonomous community of the Basque country, have long been seeking to free it from the confines of Spanish borders and have proceeded to do so in a terrorist fashion, although recently there have been attempts by the Basques nationalists to work towards more peaceful relations with the Spanish government.
ETA is a Basque separatist organization in Spain that has taken up many violent practices in its efforts to gain independence for the Basque state. Standing for Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna, meaning “Basque Homeland and Liberty,” this group grew out of the Partido Nacionalista Vasco, also known as the Basque Nationalist Party or PNV. Since the PNV was outlawed by dictator Francisco Franco, ETA retained its headquarters secretly in Paris during his reign. For the past 31 years, it has been the origin of numerous terrorist attacks, bombings, protests, and murders. It is the key player in the violence that has plagued Spain and its Basque area.
The Basque region of Spain jumped back into the world arena most recently beginning in late 1997. By this time, the regional government there had gained partial autonomy from Madrid. It had been permitted home rule by the Spanish Constitution and elected its own Parliament with taxing power and a 6,000 member regional police force. The elected Assembly and administration there controlled education, cultural affairs, social services, and created jobs for its people. It was in December of this year that the 23 leaders of Herri Batasuna (HB), the political voice of ETA, were arrested and sentenced to seven-year jail terms for making a video extolling the terrorist acts of the ETA. This decision by three Spanish judges marked the first time a direct link was recognized between the terrorists and their political allies. Unrest was an expected result of this, marked by the fact that approximately 180,000 Basques supported HB, a party whose abbreviation stands for “popular unity” in Basque. At the time, they had won 12%of the votes in the last general election, down from 14% from the election before.
The violence of the ETA remained backstage for a few months until February, when it continued its violence in the shooting of Alberto Jimenez Bercerril, the deputy mayor of Seville, and his wife, Asuncion Garcia. This was significant because it was the first time the terrorists had targeted non-Basque officials and also because it suggested that all governing politicians might become targets of ETA attack. The shooting incited much protest in Seville, as Jimenez was the fourth official of his status to be murdered in less than a year.
Global attention focused back on HB and the ETA the following month, only this time putting them as the victims of political treachery. CESID, the Spanish secret service that became the successor to Franco’s military intelligence service, were caught illegally bugging the offices of Basque separatists. This greatly damaged the government’s anti-terrorist movement, and proved their promise to reform the secret service to be merely a joke. CESID had set up a listening post above HB offices, and fled when their wires were discovered by a telephone engineer. This discovery infuriated the regional government, run by the Basque Nationalist Party, which backed Spain’s minority conservative government. It responded by demanding that the government in Madrid pull secret police and other spies out of the Basque country and to give their job to the regional police force, the erzaintza. The most significant effects of this incident were the new targets of CESID members by the terrorist ETA activists, and further reform by Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar concerning the work of the secret police.
The renouncement of violence by the former terrorist groups of Irish republicans and Ulster loyalists in fall of 1998 set the stage for what changes were about to occur in Spanish-Basque relations. Since this action placed the ETA as the last terrorist group still active in Western Europe, their announcement of an indefinite cease-fire on September 18, before the October elections in the Basque country, was taken a little more seriously than usual. Skepticism still ran deep, as former supposed cease-fires had only resulted in more bloodshed; however, if proven to be effective, this cease-fire could contribute greatly to the drive for peace set forth by the non-violent Basque Nationalist Party, which happened to be the largest political party in the Basque region.
The announcement of the cease-fire caused the Basque Nationalist Party to urge Prime Minister Aznar to make gestures of good faith in order to better relations between all involved groups. They began to push for the movement of over 500 convicted ETA terrorists from prisons around Spain to those in the Basque region and for even still more autonomy for the Basques. Aznar was not quick to comply because of the three previous broken cease-fires and the elections within the territory in which support for non-nationalist parties was increasing. An issue of the Economist stated, “Basque terrorism has become increasingly unpopular, even among Basques.” However true, this did not mean that the nationalist movement was losing support; it just was moving toward a more mainstream approach. The cease-fire had followed seven months of honored contracts between non-violent Basque nationalist parties and Herri Batasuna. Together, they were hoping to gain more support for their nationalist cause and gain control of the assembly without having to form a coalition with non-nationalist parties.
This support did not come. The October 25th elections results showed that the Basque Nationalist Party fell short of their desired majority, which made it likely that they would have to form a pact with a Madrid-based national party that would keep the Basque region within the borders of Spain. Euskal Heritarrok, the successor party to Herri Batasuna that changed its name in fear that the previous December’s arrests of its leaders would lead to it being declared illegal, placed third. Socialist leader Rosa Diez was quoted as saying that these results show that the people of the Basque region “don’t want adventures but a stable framework.” What effect would these results have on the cease-fire? An ETA spokesman said in a British Broadcasting Corporation television interview the day before the elections that that the cease-fire was “firm and serious.” Nevertheless, Prime Minister Aznar continued to refuse to negotiate with the ETA. He further denounced the party after the aforementioned spokesman said that it would not apologize for its violent guerilla attacks, stating that this was an “insult to the memory of the victims of terrorism.”
Six weeks after the cease-fire, Prime Minister Aznar finally authorized his government to talk to ETA contacts. However, he still refused to make direct peace talks until ETA “permanently renounces violence” and laid down its arms. Such talks would mark the first time since 1989 that ETA would confer with the government, and the first time ever for such talks with a conservative government.
Since this time, the Spanish government has claimed to have made “significant” contacts with ETA middlemen. By the middle of December, the government had agreed to transfer twenty-one Basque separatist inmates to prisons closer to the Basque region, feeling that this would be a tremendous step towards peace between Spanish nationalists and Basque separatists. Contrary to this belief, two different Basque nationalist parties deemed this act to be lacking. On December 21, ETA confirmed once again its cease-fire and requested direct talks with Madrid.
While waiting for these talks, several Basque separatists took refuge in France, where they had been regarded as freedom fighters. This refuge was shattered when on March 9th of this year the French police arrested Javier Arizcuren-Ruiz, known also as Kantauri, the leader of ETA’s military wing while he was in Paris, along with five other known ETA members. Kantauri stood accused of at least 18 murders and ordering the 1995 attempt on the life of Spanish King Juan Carlos. Other than this occurrence, it appears that Spain’s Basque region is finally heading toward peace. ETA said shortly after this incident that it would request U.N. observers to oversee the peace effort, although the Spanish government did not see such supervision necessary. Terrorism has subsided, free elections have been peaceful, and the population of the Basque region has shown preference to peaceful negotiations over violence.
What is the cause of this seemingly successful movement toward peace? Some suggest that the growing strength of the European Union has much to do with this. The original push of the separatists was to secede from Spain, a concept somewhat validated by the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. However, today it seems absurd to try to break away from a country which is joining the rest of Europe in blurring its borders and looking toward more political and monetary unity across the continent. To add to its appeal, the EU has contributed extensively to areas within its domain that face economic hardships. Spain is one of the recipients of these contributions, and the Basque area alone has received $1.4 billion in aid in the past two years. While European unity grows, the want for peace follows. Simply put, the people of the Basque region of Spain are sick of the violence, tired of the bloodshed, and less and less supportive of terrorist actions. They are beginning to look toward a more democratic system that brings with it more political tolerance and less unrest.
New advantages within the economic arena in the Basque area are also contributing to the peace movement. The Basques had at one point played a major role in the steel and banking industries in Spain. However, with rising terrorism, industry shifted to Madrid and other more politically sound areas. Now, government subsidies and the prospect of peace have once again attracted investors to the Basque region, like foreign investors such as Arbed, a Luxembourg steel corporation. Unemployment may remain high for the time being, but the blossoming annual economic growth rate of 5.5% is incredible and actually exceeds that of the Spanish nation as a whole.
I feel that this new push towards harmony between Spain and its Basque area will succeed. It is very similar to the situation in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, where the violence was stopped and peace has been maintained. The Basque people are tired of the unrest and are looking toward new ways to achieve their goals of autonomy. I think that they are beginning to see that concessions Prime Minister Aznar is willing to make to their demands (slowly, but surely!), along with less Spanish nationalism and a new look toward globalism and a united Europe, is what they have been seeking for so long.
The violent terrorist actions of ETA have taken the lives of nearly 800 people in guerilla attacks in the past three decades. Their actions and the reactions of the Spanish government to them have produced a course of events leading up to the current cease-fire that has proven only to be bloody and unsuccessful for both sides. The current peace movement has not only stopped the bloodshed, but has also helped the Basque area grow economically. All this adds up to a successful peace movement in the Basque region of Spain, stopping the violence of its past .
R E F E R E N C E S :
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STOPPING THE VIOLENCE
THE MOVE TOWARD PEACE IN SPAIN’S BASQUE REGION