Basque Country prospers as Spain flounders


Donostia Letter:On a luminous autumnal day recently, I enjoyed once again the short but lovely stroll from the Café Barandarian to the bar at the Hotel Londres in San Sebastián, a city increasingly known by its Basque name, Donostia.

On a stormy day, and there are many here, the Londres bar is a warm and cosy refuge, plush but not too posh, with panoramic views back towards the city’s old quarter and out across the bay, as dark showers and sudden shafts of silver light play out their drama.

For many years, the political weather in Donostia was equally unpredictable. Indeed, the Barandiaran used to offer, inadvertently, front-line seats for the politico-theatrical ritual of kale borroka (street struggle). This was the point of induction, for many youngsters here, into the even more violent world of ETA’s terrorist campaign in pursuit of Basque independence.

On one occasion, I misjudged a lull in the fighting, and my casual stroll to the Londres turned into an undignified scramble for safety; the police charged through the gardens stomping, as was their wont, on anything that moved.

Aquí no pasa nada, the barman murmured as he poured me a large brandy, though we could both hear boots and batons cracking ribs, right outside: “Nothing is happening here.” It was a way of surviving, I suppose, to think like that, but happily it now seems obsolete.

I was visiting the city to participate in a TV debate on the state of the Basque Country, one year after ETA announced a “definitive” and “unilateral”ceasefire. We were a motley group, ranging from a supreme court judge, and a former conservative minister, to a former parliamentary representative for Eta’s political wing.

Yet the level of agreement among us was remarkable. Nobody thought there was more than a very remote possibility of a return to the violent conflict that has haunted this region since the Civil War. And this despite the fact that Eta has not dissolved itself and the government continues to hold hundreds of Eta prisoners at great distances from their homeland, with no apparent prospect of early release.

Indeed, the situation is replete with puzzling conundrums. For many observers, Eta simply has been defeated, by a combination of police-work and political strategies. Yet an unprecedented one in four Basques voted for its political agenda in autonomous elections on October 21st. Together with less radical Basque nationalists, they now form 60 per cent of the Basque parliament.

Spain as a whole is mired in an alarming economic and social crisis, but the prosperous Basque Country is, so far, relatively insulated from its impacts. Witness the affluent shoppers thronging the fancy boutiques and epicurean food stores of Donostia last week.

At the moment, Madrid’s shrill right-wing media, its conservative government, and even some vocal reactionaries in the army, are all fixated on the pro-independence shapes currently and unexpectedly being thrown by Catalonia.

But it may rather be in the Basque Country, where powerful sectors in indigenous business, as well as left-wing radicals, see Spain as a failing state, that real moves towards a new national configuration may take place.

Whatever finally transpires, it is enormously refreshing to be able discuss these matters, in the Barandiaran and the Londres, without the threat of violence that has shadowed such debates, sometimes all too literally, for far too long.