Basque Country: Thoughts of a return to war as unusual as the bad weather
Resistance to austerity more resigned than militant
A man walks past graffiti sprayed on a bank window in Bilbao’s Gran Via during a general strike called by Basque nationalist unions ELA and LAB. The graffiti reads: “Burn capitalism”. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters
We were having a very good lunch, if a simple one by the standards of this city of world-class gastronomy: scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms harvested that morning, toasted goat’s cheese salad and curdled sheep’s milk with honey.
But the woman opposite me was in despair. She spends her working life promoting Basque culture abroad and always encourages foreigners to visit her country.
The previous day she had met two irate Irish women in the old quarter of San Sebastian. They had two questions that it pained her to answer.
Firstly, why were the narrow streets howling like wind tunnels, propelling buckets of rain horizontally at almost frightening speed? Wasn’t the early summer supposed to be balmy here, ideal for leisurely, sunny strolls around the city’s Belle Époque promenades?
She didn’t like to tell them that the weather had been like this throughout the month. I’ve been visiting the Basque Country since 1975 and I’ve not seen such constant rain in the worst of winters.
We are all getting used to extreme weather but what the Irish tourists could not understand was why nothing but nothing was open in the city.
Here they were, on their first day in the pintxo capital of the world, the place with more Michelin stars per square kilometre than Paris, and every door was shut, all the shutters down.
My friend could hardly bear to explain to these luckless visitors that they had happened to arrive during a general strike. Or that this was the eighth (or was it ninth?) such union protest against austerity policies since 2009.
The Madrid press, which rarely gets anything entirely right about the Basque country, described this strike as a failure.
It certainly didn’t look like that in San Sebastian, though the stoppage had much less impact in the other Basque capitals, Bilbao and Vitoria. True, public transport was still running here, but throughout the old quarter, and even in the comfortable middle-class suburb of Gros nearby, almost every shop and bar was in darkness.
The handful of places where people were still working had a shifty look about them, their lights dimmed, steel blinds sometimes half-down over the door.
The strike was successful here because San Sebastian, and the surrounding province of Guipúzcoa, is the main stronghold of a resurgent left-wing Basque nationalist group Bildu.
This movement has emerged from the ruins of Eta’s terrorist campaign for Basque independence. It has rapidly exceeded its own expectations in proving that the vote can be a lot more powerful than the bomb.
Bildu controls most local authorities in this province and its leaders were prominent at the remarkably small demonstrations by workers backing the strike. The unions involved, ELA and LAB, are both Basque nationalist organisations. Neither of the big Spanish-based unions, UGT and CCOO, supported this stoppage, though they have supported other strikes against austerity.
Ironically, ELA was established as a counterweight to the then-revolutionary UGT in the 1920s by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). In those days, ELA was regarded as a yellow Catholic union, stooges for the local business elite. In more recent times, however, ELA has slipped the PNV’s paternalist leash.
Indeed, ELA now accuses the PNV, which today controls the powerful Basque autonomous government, of imposing regional austerity policies identical to those espoused by the conservative government in Madrid.
However, the small turnout on the streets during the strike led many observers to believe that the big shutdown across Guipúzcoa owes as much to intimidation by flying pickets as to radical convictions among the province’s citizens.
Certainly, the general atmosphere in the city was more resigned than militant. Bildu and the radical unions may find that repeated general strikes with no real outcome bring diminishing returns in terms of popular support, despite undoubted widespread anger at government policies.
Direct intimidation was probably rare, but fear of sabotage was certainly a factor in the thinking of some bar and business owners. This raises the old spectre of Eta’s continued existence, despite its claim to have totally abandoned armed struggle during its current and apparently permanent ceasefire.
There have been recent reports that Madrid’s stubborn (and culpable) refusal to engage with the issue of early release for Eta’s prisoners, and its continued prosecution of Arnaldo Otegi, who played a key role in bringing about the cessation of violence, has strengthened the hand of a minority who want to return to terror.
It’s hard to say if these rumours are well founded but it was remarkable that in numerous recent conversations with well-informed Basques no one paid them the slightest attention.
The Basque war may not be entirely over but hardly anyone mentions it any more. Like the bad weather, but rather more happily, that is an unprecedented change.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of The Basque Country (Oxford, 2008).