Basque politics in the post-Eta era


THE BASQUE CONFLICT has always reflected the viciousness, intimacy and complexity of a family quarrel.

In 2001, I interviewed Loren Arkotxa, then mayor of Ondarroa, an iconic fishing village. He had been a member of Eta – Euskadi Ta Askatuta, or Basque Country and Liberty, the pro-independence armed group – in his youth. He now represented Batasuna, a radical Basque nationalist party that was banned the following year for its refusal to condemn Eta’s terrorism.

He was an avuncular man who wore his contradictions remarkably comfortably. He was a Marxist who owned a medium-sized business, and a Basque nationalist whose proudest achievement as mayor was to have commissioned a cosmopolitan new bridge by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

But those were dark times in Basque local politics. Councillors from the big Spanish parties needed 24-hour bodyguards, because they were targeted, often successfully, by Eta.

There was just one representative of the Spanish nationalist Partido Popular (PP) on Ondarroa’s municipal council when I interviewed Arkotxa. Threats from Eta had forced Germán Lopéz Bravo to abandon his home place, and he arrived at council meetings late, and left early, so that his movements would not be predictable to potential assassins.

“I fully understand why Germán does this, and I take no offence at it,” said Arkotxa, as if this were a generous expression of tolerance. “I would do exactly the same were I in his position.” Biting my tongue, I asked whether he knew the man personally.

“I know him well,” he said. “We used to sing in the same choir as kids. It’s unfortunate that his family’s politics led him to join the PP.” “Let’s just suppose,” I asked, “that one day you somehow learned that Eta actually planned to kill him. What would you do?” “I would do everything in my power to save his life,” he answered without hesitation, and with what seemed like real conviction. “Would you do the same for the PP councillors in another town?” “Ah, well,” he said, spreading his hands apologetically. “I don’t know them, do I?”

This interview, like many others in the Basque Country over the past 30 years, reminded me of an apparently simple question that had haunted me since I first came across it in Joseba Zulaika’s superb and disturbing study of Itziar, his home village, Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament:“But how is this possible?”

The question was asked of Zulaika, a stonemason’s son newly qualified as an anthropologist, by some local women in the summer of 1975. They had just returned from a local shopping trip by bus. On the outskirts of Itziar, two young men rose abruptly from their seats and shouted at Carlos, the driver: “You are a dog!” Then they shot him dead.

Carlos was a popular local man, and the women had all known him since he was in nappies. But he had come under suspicion of being a police informer. The women were conflicted because they admired Eta for its armed defiance of Franco’s once omnipotent military dictatorship. But they didn’t want to see a local boy killed.

At that moment, however, the answer to the women’s question seemed fairly straightforward, within the admittedly grim logic of Eta’s ideology. Killings like this were possible, even necessary, because the dictatorship’s police suppressed Basque culture and identity with brutality, and denied all Spanish people the most basic democratic and human rights.

This was not just the view of the radical left. Across the nearby border in France, the conservative government routinely granted Eta exiles official status as political refugees. Paris saw the group as anti-fascists, heirs to the tradition of their own Resistance against the Nazis. Many democrats, myself among them, had guiltily celebrated Eta’s dramatic assassination of Franco’s hated prime minister, Adm Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973.

What none of us imagined then was that Eta would continue killing for another 35 years, long after Spain became a democracy and the Basques won extensive powers of home rule. We would not have believed that it would be only now, in the autumn of 2011, that we would at last hear Eta announce the “definitive end of its armed actions”.

I first came across the name of Itziar in April 1976, a few months after the killing of Carlos. I was having breakfast at a cafe in Bilbao, where I was teaching English, and the village featured in the newspaper one morning as the scene of further grim events. A Basque businessman, Ángel Berazadi, had been held in a farmhouse near the village by an Eta active service unit for several weeks. He was killed when his family failed to pay a ransom.

Years later, I learned from Zulaika the intimate details of the tragic story of Berazadi. I met two of the four young men who had swapped cooking tips with him, like good Basques do, in his attic prison, and then killed him. In those days, one could still simply blame the repression – pervasive as ever, six months after the dictator’s death – for Eta’s violence.

A quiet German colleague of mine was picked up off the street at random the weekend after Berazadi died, and thrown into a Guardia Civil jeep. “I have a passport,” he querulously told the officer who was kneeling on his chest. “And I have this,” said the officer, reaching for his holster, then pistol-whipping his face until he bled profusely. He was later released without charge, or even questioning.

After two years back in Ireland, I returned to the Basque Country in 1978, and began to write about the conflict for this newspaper. Everything seemed to be changing and mostly for the better. Spain voted for a democratic constitution that December, with provisions for extensive Basque autonomy. Education through the once-banned Basque language, Euskera, was becoming mainstream, and banned Basque emblems were suddenly legal.

Despite promises from the big leftist Spanish parties, however, the Basque right to self-determination was not recognised. After decades at the forefront of the fight against the dictatorship, many Basques felt betrayed. However, many others felt Spain was their natural home. “The Basque Country,” former Basque PP leader Jaime Mayor Oreja once told me, “is not just part of Spain, it is the heart of Spain.” The divisions here are not ethnic. Members of the same family express opposed identities.

A radical sector of Eta remained convinced that Basque identity could be preserved only in an independent state. Just as Spain opened up to democracy, the group launched an unprecedented terrorist offensive, killing nearly 100 people in 1980 alone, six times more than they had in the last year of the dictatorship.

How were such things possible? Outraged Spanish politicians and media denounced the group as merely mafiosi, psychopaths or both, with no political support. But in 1978, Basque radicals close to the thinking of Eta had formed Herri Batasuna. This well-organised coalition repeatedly demonstrated that there was significant backing for “armed struggle” among ordinary decent Basques: it took up to 17 per cent of the vote over the next two decades.

Part of this support could be explained by the often indiscriminate, and sometimes lethal, response to Basque radicalism by the new democracy. Torture remained a favoured instrument in the repertoire of the police. According to Amnesty International, it has still not been entirely eradicated.

IN THE EARLY 1980s, the spiral shifted into an even deadlier gear. Eta was killing many civilians, and more Spanish generals than had ever died in a foreign war. The first Socialist Party (PSOE) government in Spain’s history felt badly squeezed between Eta’s terrorism and threatened army coups. Senior PSOE figures decided to reassure the army that they could play just as tough as the dictatorship.

They launched the death squads of the Gal (Grupos Anti-terroristas de Liberación), which killed 27 people and wounded 90 between 1983 and 1987. Their victims included a few notorious Eta leaders, but also many people with no terrorist links.

In the Basque Country, the Gal’s dirty war offered up just the evidence that Eta propagandists needed. It proved, they told supporters, that the new institutions were a facade for continued dictatorship. Another generation of recruits was guaranteed. That generation’s violence was relentless, pitiless and increasingly indiscriminate. Huge Eta bomb attacks in Madrid, Saragossa and Barcelona took a heavy civilian toll. Then the group’s offensive stalled abruptly, following the arrest of its three most senior leaders, in a single raid in 1992.

But Madrid’s celebrations of Eta’s demise proved premature, as it simply shifted its deadly focus to softer and softer targets, such as ordinary Basque journalists and local politicians. Its extraordinary mystique in its heartlands seemed sadly unshakeable.

What made the attraction still harder to understand was the dynamism and prosperity of Basque life. Eta’s violence was bred not in socially deprived ghettos or townships, but in one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated societies in Europe. This is the home of the Guggenheim museum. Every second village seems to have a Michelin-starred restaurant, and IT and services industries are booming. Yet Eta continued to attract young people, from all backgrounds.

Slowly, however, the influence of the Irish peace process began to percolate through the Basque radical movement, and then 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid bombings stripped any remaining glamour from the political model of “armed struggle”.

Veteran Batasuna figures began to ask Eta once-unthinkable questions when the group failed to grasp the opportunities offered by a promising peace process in 2005. As its armed units buckled under police pressure, its political leadership at last grasped what had been obvious to many others for a long time – that an unarmed democratic strategy for independence might be much more effective than a terrorist campaign.

The current ceasefire has seen an unprecedented surge in support for Bildu, a coalition that supports Eta’s aims but explicitly rejects violence. One in four Basques voted for Bildu last May, and at least as many again voted for other nonviolent Basque nationalist options.

General elections in Spain next Sunday are very likely to return the deeply conservative PP to power in Madrid. Such a government may find a peaceful movement towards Basque self-determination more deeply challenging than a discredited and crippled Eta ever was. One must hope the new government has the wisdom and flexibility to engage positively with the new situation in the Basque Country, one where nobody has to spend their lives shadowed by bodyguards, and all political options are on the table.

I never did learn to answer the question from the women in Itziar to my satisfaction. Now I just hope it never has to be asked again.

Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish DemocracyThe Basque Country