Political pressure stops Spain from putting Basque conflict behind it

Violence has ended but reconciliation still a long way off


As Julen Mendoza, the quietly spoken mayor of Errenteria, points out the red-brick former factory in the town’s centre, his pride is barely perceptible. But an event that took place inside it will almost certainly be the most lasting legacy of the 35 year old’s tenure. It was here that one of the Basque region’s most dramatic and emotional developments of recent years was played out.

In early 2013, a series of public forums held in the Niessen auditorium brought together people from both sides of the Basque Country’s violent divide in an unprecedented act of reconciliation. Relatives of victims of terrorist group Eta were present, as were politicians who had been on its hit list. Also in the auditorium were former Eta militants, some of whom had been tortured by state security forces. Individuals on both sides spoke of, and acknowledged, the pain caused during four decades of violence.

“We brought together 300 people over four days, people who had never been in a room together,” says Mendoza. The nationalist mayor instigated the process, which also included the screening of documentary films, with the backing of all the town’s political parties. He also gave a widely praised inaugural speech, in which he reached out to both sides in the Basque conflict.

“We heard testimonies that in many cases were very controversial but which were listened to with complete respect,” he says. “I think it marked a watershed for us.”

Situated in the Basque nationalist heartland of Gipuzkoa province, near the border with southwestern France, Errenteria was once among the region’s most notorious focal points of a separatist violence that claimed more than 800 lives. The vast majority of those were victims of Eta’s campaign for an independent Basque state – although some died at the hands of state-sponsored terrorists.

But the four-day event in this town in 2013 reflected a new climate of peace, which continues to this day. And yet, Errenteria remains an isolated case. While the violence has ended, the region and Spain as a whole have yet to see reconciliation as political pressures prevent the country from putting the trauma of the Basque conflict behind it.

End to killings

Crippled by constant arrests of its members in Spain and France, Eta has not killed in Spain since 2009 and, in October 2011, it announced a “definitive ceasefire”. Many of its members have acknowledged the suffering they have caused and, in February of this year, it made the first, timid moves towards disarmament, presenting a small cache of weapons before international inspectors.

“We look to South Africa and Ireland a lot – they are examples of consolidating peace that have worked,” says Mendoza, who, like many nationalists, believes the central administration in Madrid is preventing Spain from following in the footsteps of those countries.

The government dismissed the preliminary disarmament as “more of the same” and refused to recognise the international inspectors, insisting that Basque peace is a purely domestic issue. No truth commissions have been established and no efforts at reconciliation have been made at a state level. Meanwhile, arrests and trials of Eta members continue.

Mendoza is a member of the radical Basque nationalist coalition Bildu, whose legalisation in 2011 and subsequent electoral success is yet another indicator of how things have changed in the Basque region.

“The state, the Spanish government, wants to convey a notion of winners and losers – who has won and who has lost,” he adds. “But nobody wins and nobody loses when you build peace: everybody wins.”

The central administration of Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), would have little room for manoeuvre even if it did want to cultivate a more active peace process. Hardline sectors of the media, powerful terrorism victims’ groups and the PP’s own right wing, all pressure it not to move an inch on the Eta issue. Even Mendoza’s Bildu coalition is eyed with suspicion by many in Madrid.

Move to harmony

And yet, in the Basque region itself, many of the PP’s politicians take a less conflictive approach.

José Manuel Herzog, a PP local councillor in Errenteria, says he was proud to accept Mendoza’s invitation and take part in the town’s forums.

“This situation is much more pleasant than it was previously, when people were entrenched in their positions, when they hated each other and wanted to kill each other,” he says.

Several of Herzog’s friends were killed by Eta and he was once the target of abuse and death threats in the street. He sighs as he remembers what he calls “the days of the killings”, which he says took place about twice a week at their peak.

Herzog does not accept that the Spanish government is failing to consolidate the peace, instead supporting his party’s line that Eta must disband. However, in a television interview earlier this year, he accused certain politicians of cynically opposing Basque peace due to their business interests in the security sector – Herzog strongly hinted that a former minister from his own party, Jaime Mayor Oreja, was one such case.

Those comments drew an outraged response from the right of the PP and, while speaking to The Irish Times, Herzog refers more tactfully to “personal interests of people who want to see a permanent war”.

And despite carefully avoiding any criticism of central government policy, Herzog also suggests there is a lack of action at an official level when it comes to closing the wounds of the Basque conflict.

“There’s a lot more to do before we can all live together in harmony,” he says. “This is in the hands of everyone, but above all those who govern, who need the statesmanship and the vision to unite our society.”

For many critics of the Spanish government’s lack of initiative, the issue of Eta prisoner dispersion is the most obvious area where concessions could improve things.

Distant jails

About 500 Eta members are in prison, almost all of them in Spain and France. However, many are deliberately kept in jails far from their native region. Of 365 Eta members recently listed in Spanish prisons, only five were held in the Basque region.

Xabier Alegría is a typical case, serving his sentence for membership of Eta in Cádiz, on Spain’s southern coast, 750 miles away.

“Psychologically it’s very hard,” says his wife, Itziar Goienetxea. “Your whole life revolves around the prison.”

She and her teenage daughter visit Alegría every other weekend, a 30-hour round trip by bus which gives them 90 minutes alone with him. Goienetxea also talks of the financial strain this creates and the road accidents that have seen 16 prisoners’ relatives die while making visits since the dispersion policy was introduced in 1989.

“It’s not just they that are imprisoned,” she says. “We’ve been handed two sentences: one for [the prisoner] and the other for the family.”

Regarding the future, Goienetxea has mixed feelings.

“We Basques have something in our culture which is very important,” she says.

“In the street, we don’t have a problem, we can sort things out. But the politicians are the ones that have the problem, that’s where things aren’t getting resolved.”

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