Group created by angry young students grew to become brutal, popular force


BACKGROUND:EUSKADI TA Askatuta (Eta) – Basque Country and Liberty – was born out of an obscure study group midway through the 40-year dictatorship of Gen Francisco Franco in 1959.

If Thursday’s announcement really marks the end of the organisation, its history still leaves questions that will divide commentators for generations.

How did a handful of students forge an armed movement that would strike repeatedly and daringly at the heart of a supposedly all-powerful quasi-fascist state?

Why did Basque nationalists, and not their more powerful Catalan equivalents, take up arms in this way? Why did Eta develop an increasingly indiscriminate terrorist campaign when Spain became a democracy, and even after Madrid granted Basques an unprecedented level of autonomy?

How did the group maintain the loyalty of a significant minority of Basques through three decades of prosperity and cultural dynamism? What really precipitated its demise, and what future do its still radical erstwhile supporters face now, without a balaclava in the back room?

A key point is that Eta is a child of the dictatorship and, above all, that it was able to persuade many otherwise well-informed Basque citizens that Spanish democracy was a mere facade for the old, oppressive regime.

The Franco dictatorship had a particular loathing for Basque nationalism. The Basque nationalists were good Catholics, and Franco expected their support in his campaign against “godless communism”. He regarded their loyalty to republican democracy as the worst form of betrayal, and treated them accordingly.

The Basque language, Euskera, was banned from public discourse, even from sermons in parishes where the congregation spoke no other language.

According to some historians, it is often weak nationalisms, and not strong ones, that turn to armed resistance because they fear annihilation. That certainly captures the pessimistic but angry mood of the young intellectuals who formed the early Eta.

But the motor for Eta’s extraordinary political growth was the dictatorship itself. Franco’s knee-jerk response to Eta’s actions made him its best recruiting sergeant.

Every time the group carried out an attack, the Basque Country was saturated with indiscriminate police repression.

By the time Eta carried out its most spectacular assassination, killing Franco’s close confidante and prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, in Madrid in 1973, masses of young Basques supported the group.

Spanish leftist parties had promised the Basques the right of self-determination along with democracy. Fatefully, pressures from the Spanish establishment persuaded them to drop that demand during the transition to democracy in the late 1970s.

A large sector of Eta felt betrayed, and accelerated a terrorist campaign, killing 90 people in 1980, five times as many as it had killed in the year of Franco’s death, 1975.

To the horror of Spanish democrats, Eta retained mass support. Its political front, Herri Batasuna, regularly won 15 per cent of the Basque vote.

The response of Spain’s Socialist Party administration in the mid-1980s often echoed the repression of the dictatorship. Government ministers ran a dirty war against Eta that killed 27. Torture remained a common police practice, and even today it has not been entirely eradicated.

For many of those who supported Eta’s goal of Basque independence, Spanish rights abuses were enough justification to ignore the monstrous shadow that Eta’s campaign cast across Basque life, even as its list of “legitimate targets” expanded ruthlessly in the 1990s.

However, Eta’s failure to grasp the opportunities offered by peace processes in 1998-1999 and 2006-2007, coupled with recent unprecedented police successes, finally alienated even its own commissars in Batasuna, banned for links to Eta in 2002.

Once again, however, the Spanish state seems to have given the radicals a new lease of life. Last spring, the supreme court infuriated much Basque public opinion by banning a new pro-independence party, Sortu, although its statutes explicitly rejected political violence.

Yet another party was immediately formed, which evaded judicial obstacles to win 25 per cent of the Basque vote. Eta may be over, but its political ideas seem stronger than ever.