> Recent developments in Northern Spain show that the Basque seperatist organisation ETA is ready to call a cease fire. But is this promise genuine and for how long will the peace last?
Following a video statement released publicly to the Spanish media and then the rest of the world on the 10th of January, the Basque separatist organisation ETA, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, in English “Basque Homeland and Freedom”, affirmed their commitment to a “permanent, generally and internationally verifiable ceasefire”.
The video, recorded in Spanish and Euskera, the language of the Basque people, shows three black-uniformed figures, sat at table in front of an Axe and Snake – the renowned symbol of the outlawed organisation. White cloth masks the faces of the three “Etarras” below the traditional Basque beret, as they announce a lay down of arms. However, they still define their continued ambition to push for an independent, socialist Basque state.
ETA was established in the 1950’s, as a youth nationalist movement against the Francoist dictatorship that ruled over Spain. It outlawed all symbols of Basque identity, including use of their language “Euskera”, the oldest in Europe, and any public displays of Basque symbolism. Such as traditional dances, parades and the hoisting of the green and red “Ikurriña” flag of the Basque people.
Since then, ETA has killed 829 people and injured thousands more, both in Spain and France, mainly within the Basque region. The group has been recognised as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, and has over 700 members incarcerated in prison across Spain. The organisation operates from varying covert locations in both France and Spain, with a structure that is believed to be splintered into eleven braches to distort police infiltrations.
The group’s main aim is to force the Spanish and French governments on the matter of self-determination for the Greater Basque Region “Euskal Herria”, which covers four provinces of northern Spain and three in the south of France, as well as amnesty for all currently detained members of ETA.
In the past, the organisation has used armed violence, kidnapping and bombs to highlight their stance. Whilst claiming to only fight those who are “enemies of the Basque people”, many civilians have been hurt and killed through ETA attacks that have taken place on streets, in supermarkets and airports, as well as many other public locations.
Several full time staff are currently held on its pay roster, for which the funds arrive often through extortion, which the group deems a “revolutionary tax”. Frequently ETA demands money from business owners in Spain or France under threats to themselves and their families.
Though the scale of violence perpetrated since the organisations bloodiest period during the 70s and 80s has declined. In the last five years, “only” twelve lives have been taken in the name of ETA, the last being a French guard killed in a shoot out with ETA members near Paris.
Perhaps the group’s most infamous assassination was that of the Prime Minister of Spain and apparent heir to Franco’s dictatorship, Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973. Four ETA members placed 100 kilograms of explosives in a tunnel under a Madrid street, through which Blanco’s car would pass whilst returning home from mass. The explosion was so powerful that the car was catapulted over an adjacent five-story building and landed on a second floor balcony on the other side. It is seen by many as triggering the spiral of events that led to the transition to democracy for the whole of the Spanish state.
Another episode in history, which saw ETA once again take to the world news centre stage, was the kidnap and countdown assassination of Miguel Ángel Blanco in 1997. The conservative Spanish Partido Popular party politician was kidnapped by ETA members, who then demanded the beginning of the transferral of all ETA prisoners to prisons in the Basque Country within 48 hours. As the deadline drew closer, the Spanish and Basque people took to the streets to display one of the largest mass demonstrations ever seen in the country. Their efforts though were in vain, as soon as the deadline passed Blanco was shot in the back of the head twice, with his hands tied behind his back.
ETA’s armed groups usually contain their arms and explosive making materials in forest tunnels or undisclosed attics. In the past propaganda videos have been released by the organisation, showing the military and assassin training of ETA members, using real firearms.
Though consisting of a large number of members, and boasting hoards of pro-ETA graffiti in many cities and towns in the region, civilian support of the radical separatist group is not overwhelming. According to the University of Deusto, which has its campus in Bilbao, one of the main cities of the Basque region and an area that has witnessed several ETA attacks, 64% of people who describe themselves as a Basque citizen reject ETA completely, 10% agreed with ETA’s ends but not their means, and only 1% gave ETA total support.
During the last decade several political parties were founded to continue the Basque quest for independence from Spain, an emotive that is held strongly amongst many Basque people, who do not see themselves as Spanish, instead identify much more closely with Basque heritage and customs. Several of these parties were outlawed during the last decade, including Batasuna (Unity in Basque) and Askatasuna (Freedom), for having supposed links to ETA. This factor which could well have led to the successful election to power of the independence-opposed: current “lehendekari” Basque regional president, Francisco Javier “Patxi” López Álvarez. Although he was born and raised in the Basque Country, he struggles when addressing assemblies in the complicated Basque tongue.
Despite denying links between the peaceful political organisations and ETA, the Spanish government pushed through court procedures to dismember the popular political party Batasuna. It usually gains around 15% of the vote in the Basque Autonomous Community, by claiming links and even dual membership between key members of Batasuna to ETA.
The outlawing of such parties is seen by many as hypocritical of the Spanish government, following the deadly “dirty war” of the 1980’s between the illegally organised death squads “GAL” Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación, in English Antiterrorist Liberation Groups, created by the government to fight ETA. The group was colluded in and carried out several murders, kidnappings and torturing of suspected ETA members and supporters, many of who turned out to be innocent civilians.
Will this peace last?
So is this latest offering of an olive branch a real step towards a peaceful discussion on the issue of Basque independence, or are ETA just biding time to rebuild and restructure internally, following the arrest of several prominent figures in the group during the last few years?
In the days following the release of the latest video from ETA, the Spanish government, headed by socialist President Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero, claimed the group have not gone far enough for the Government to accept a truce. Speaking on Spain’s Antena 3 television channel, he claimed the “definitive end” to ETA is what the Government demanded. Moreover, Spain’s Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcada had claimed ETA to be as “arrogant as ever”, no doubt hoping for a complete downing of arms from the organisation.
It was also revealed that only two months before this latest ceasefire was announced, ETA members had voted in favour of continuing with arms. Also they rejected notions of ceding to Basque Nationalist parties, stating that the group’s political and military strategy was “unquestionable”.
Ten people were detained by the countries Guardia Civil in the eight days following the announcement of the ceasefire, for alleged links to the separatist group. The Spanish government seems determined to stand unwavering and united with its opposition parties in calling for the complete disbandment of ETA.
Any true ceasefire will be widely accepted, not only by the Spanish and Basque people, but also the wider of communities of Europe and the world. The government however, has effectively rejected the truce, undoubtedly still licking its wounds from the collapse of the 2006 ETA ceasefire, which had opened the path to government negotiation, but eventually ended with the bombing of the Madrid Barajas Airport, in which two South American immigrants were killed.