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Pro-independence Basque residents gather to call for a general amnesty for more than 300 members ETA. Pro-independence Basque residents gather to call for a general amnesty for more than 300 members of ETA, Bilbao, Spain, Nov. 18, 2017 (AP photo by Alvaro Barrientos).

After ETA, the Dream of a Basque State Lives On

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

BILBAO, Spain—In Spain’s northern Basque region, residents often joke that “everything is ETA.”

What they mean is that all kinds of seemingly benign behavior—wearing traditional clothing, speaking the Basque language or even sporting tattoos of certain Basque symbols—can expose them to accusations of belonging to the Basque separatist group, whose full name, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, translates to “Basque Homeland and Freedom.”

The dangers posed by such accusations are stark. They can result in jail terms of up to 40 years, as well as mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish authorities. Security forces have been caught multiple times using excessive force and torture against suspected “terrorists” sympathetic to ETA’s embrace of political violence.

While the joke might seem like an exaggeration, certain cases highlight the element of truth at its core. Take an incident that occurred late one night in October 2016 in the Basque-speaking town of Altsasu. At a bar in town called Koxka, seven young men and one woman got in an altercation with two members of the Spanish Civil Guard, a segment of the military that performs policing duties. To this day, it remains unclear what exactly the altercation was about. But according to Spanish prosecutors, a violent fight began inside the bar and spilled out into the street. The Civil Guards later reported that they had been beaten with “blows and kicks from all sides.”

Listen to Raphael Tsavkko Garcia discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 19:28.


This account was quickly called into question, however. The bar owner and a waitress said they did not see any physical aggression either inside or outside the establishment. A video recorded by one of the accused suggests that the standoff never escalated beyond a heated discussion.

Located in the province of Navarre, Altasu is a Basque nationalist stronghold whose population has historically been opposed to the presence of the Civil Guards. Just weeks before the run-in at Koxka, hundreds of young people had organized a demonstration calling for the Civil Guards to leave the area.

In this climate, what might have seemed, at first glance, like a minor, unremarkable scuffle turned into something larger, at least in the eyes of the Spanish judiciary. The eight young Basques were arrested and charged with “terrorism resulting in injury” and posing a “terrorism threat.” They have been held provisionally for more than 18 months and face potential prison sentences of up to 375 years in all for their suspected involvement in ETA.

The conflict between residents of the Basque country and the Spanish authorities over ETA goes back decades, and has persisted even during the final phases of the group’s long, anticlimactic decline. Founded in 1959 as a leftist organization that opposed the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, ETA soon became an armed paramilitary movement that engaged in sporadic but quite lethal violence from the 1960s up until 2010. It is blamed for causing the deaths of more than 800 people in its pursuit of an independent Basque state.

In October 2011, however, ETA implemented a permanent cease-fire. And last year, the group announced its plans to fully disarm.

In April of this year, ETA went a step further, releasing a statement saying it would dissolve. As part of that announcement, the separatist group also expressed remorse for its violent past. “We know that we caused a lot of pain during that long period of armed struggle, including damage that can never be put right,” it said. “We wish to show our respect for those who were killed or wounded by ETA and those who were affected by the conflict. We are truly sorry.”

On May 3, Josu Ternera, one of ETA’s leaders, appeared in a recorded statement announcing that ETA had “completely dismantled all of its structures” and “put an end to all its political activity.” The next day, members of the International Contact Group, which was created in 2010 by local and international human rights activists to facilitate dialogue among various parties to the Basque conflict, organized an event in Kanbo, or Cambo-les-Bains, in the French Basque region to mark the definitive end of ETA’s activities. (ETA had sought to form its state out of territory that included parts of northern Spain and southern France.)

To those following the situation in the Basque region, the end of ETA came as little surprise. For years, the group had ceased to pose any kind of militant threat, and it had scant political influence. The government of former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who was in office from 2011 until his resignation last month, was able to effectively ignore ETA’s demands that its incarcerated members, who number in the hundreds, be released—a goal that had become the group’s main focus. Among the broader population of the Basque country, support for ETA was limited, in large part because of the group’s legacy of violence.

The dissolution of ETA could complicate efforts by Spain’s new government to maintain the status quo in the Basque region.

This is not to say, however, that enthusiasm for Basque nationalism has gone away. And that is precisely why the dissolution of ETA could complicate efforts by Spain’s new socialist government, headed by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, to maintain the status quo in the region. As long as ETA was around, authorities in Madrid could use the threat the group posed as an excuse to suppress all manner of individuals, political parties and media outlets agitating for reforms in the Basque region. With ETA out of the picture, the logic of “everything is ETA” no longer applies, meaning the federal government may actually be forced to reckon with the frustrations of people who don’t like how they’re being governed.

As in Spain’s Catalonia region, where an independence push flared into a full-blown crisis last year, the Basque population is far from united on what its political future should look like. According to recent polling, full independence is supported by 25 percent of the region’s residents, while 36 percent wish to continue with the current autonomy model.

Yet there are signs that pro-independence voices are becoming more emboldened. The authorities in Madrid may be hard-pressed to keep them quiet.

The Road to Terror

ETA has its roots in the Ekin student group, which was founded in 1952 by students at the University of Deusto in the city of Bilbao. In 1956, the group decided to merge with EGI, the youth group of the Basque Nationalist Party, known by its Basque acronym, PNV. Before long, though, the Ekin students became frustrated with what they saw as the passive approach of the PNV toward the fight against Franco, as well as with the party’s attempts to control the students’ actions. In 1958, a founding member of Ekin, Benito del Valle, was expelled from EGI because of suspected disloyalty, an episode that led to a wider break that paved the way for ETA’s formation in 1959.

ETA’s original makeup included members of Ekin, EGI and other radical nationalist organizations such as Aberri and Jagi Jagi. Determined to seek out new forms of resistance, its leaders immediately began calling for “direct action,” by which they meant direct confrontation against the regime by means of agitation, propaganda and—in time—armed struggle.

Masked members of the Basque separatist group ETA raise their fists in unison following a news
conference at an unknown location, Oct. 20, 2011 (Gara photo via AP).

By the time of ETA’s founding, Spain had already experienced 20 years of rule under Franco, the general who came to power after the Spanish Civil War. Franco embraced violent, repressive policies targeting anyone suspected of opposing his military rule, of being communist, of defending left-wing ideas, or of having links to clandestine parties and organizations that promoted separatist thinking. Residents of the Basque region, who total 2 million people out of a national population of roughly 46 million, were treated particularly harshly, as Franco tried to crush any attempt to promote regional identities over hard-line Spanish nationalism.

This repression proved especially strong in regions that had fiercely opposed him during the war, such as the Basque regions of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. Franco banned the use of the Basque language, Euskara, and forbade the giving of Basque names to newborn children. Academics such as Daniele Conversi, author of the book “The Basques, the Catalans and Spain,” has argued that Franco’s politics amounted to a form of “terrorism,” which is ironic because that is exactly what the government would later accuse the ETA of committing.

At its first congress in 1962, ETA defined itself as a “Basque movement for national liberation.” From the beginning, it sought Basque independence, a vision that was fashionable in light of anti-colonial movements flourishing elsewhere around the world at the time. Yet ETA’s specific identity continued to evolve. By the time of its second congress, in 1963, it was branding itself a “socialist” movement. The following year, it decided to take up arms as a way to achieve national emancipation and to defeat the Franco regime.

Several years later, in June 1968, the group carried out its first armed action: the killing of Civil Guard officer Jose Antonio Pardines Arcay, who was shot dead during a routine traffic stop in Villabona, near San Sebastian, by ETA members Txabi Etxebarrieta and Inaki Sarasketa. The next month, ETA’s members orchestrated the killing of Meliton Manzanas, a police chief in San Sebastian and a Nazi collaborator. Manzanas was shot seven times in front of his residence in the Basque town of Irun.

In the trial that followed Manzanas’ death, nine alleged ETA militants received prison terms of up to 70 years for their role in the crime. Six others were sentenced to death, though their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, demonstrations in support of ETA were staged in several Spanish cities and around the world, from the U.S. to Australia. The Spanish government also came under diplomatic pressure from Sweden, West Germany, France, Venezuela and the Vatican, among others. These states all objected to the initial death sentences. In 1977, all of the ETA members who had been convicted in the case were granted amnesty as part of a broader amnesty law for crimes committed under Franco.

“The killing of Manzanas was cheered because he was a symbol of repression,” says Gaizka Fernandez Soldevilla, a Basque historian. He adds that the sympathy ETA garnered for such attacks endured even after it became more indiscriminate in its violence.

ETA’s most high-profile killing was yet to come. In 1973, the group orchestrated the assassination of Adm. Luis Carrero Blanco, Spain’s prime minister at the time. As Blanco’s car drove down Calle de Claudio Coello in Madrid one morning in December 1973, a three-man ETA commando unit disguised as electricians detonated buried explosives. The blast sent Blanco and his car 20 meters into the air and over a five-story building.

Blanco’s bodyguard and driver were killed immediately, and Blanco himself died shortly thereafter. He had been seen as a potential successor to Franco, and many historians believe that his death severely undermined the possibility that Franco’s authoritarian regime would survive him.

View of the scene after an explosion killed Spanish Premier Luis Carrero Blanco,
Madrid, Spain, Dec. 20, 1973 (AP photo).

In 1974, ETA joined forces with other leftist Basque nationalist forces that were grouped together under the Basque National Liberation Movement, or MNLV. As part of its political evolution, ETA members increasingly saw violence as the inevitable result of class struggle, though their views on this question were not uniform. That same year, ETA split into two branches: ETA military, or ETAm, and ETA political-military, or ETApm. The former increasingly focused on violent tactics, though it did not completely abandon politics, while the latter concentrated on politics, though it did not completely abandon violence.

Franco finally died in 1976, at the age of 82, after nearly four decades in power. As Spain began its troubled transition to democracy, ETA began to revise its militant tactics and expand its attacks. This caused it to lose some support among the public, as the bombs it detonated in public spaces inflicted heavy civilian casualties. Indeed, the majority of the fatalities attributed to ETA took place after Franco’s death. Eventually, broad segments of the Spanish population, including many Basques, began to see ETA less as freedom fighters and more as terrorists.

Given ETA’s commitment to violence even after Franco died, it wasn’t hard to see why. Instead of ending ETA’s armed struggle, its leaders saw Franco’s departure as just one step in the process toward eventual independence from Spain. The post-dictatorship period was a golden opportunity, in their view, as ETA calculated that an uptick in attacks would spark a government crackdown that would inspire the Basque population to come to the group’s defense. As history has shown, however, this gambit proved wholly wrong-headed.

‘None of This Should Ever Have Happened’

The deadliest attack in ETA’s history was in 1987, when a car bomb at a shopping center in Barcelona killed 21 people. During the 1990s, though, the frequency and intensity of the group’s attacks began to wane.

The attacks ETA did perpetrate still tended to spark outrage. In 1997, ETA members kidnapped the Basque politician Angel Blanco, who was affiliated with the conservative People’s Party. In exchange for Blanco’s life, ETA demanded the release of its members who were in Spanish jails. When Madrid refused to meet that demand, Blanco was shot in the back of the head; he later died in a hospital after his body was found outside San Sebastian. Millions of people, including many in the Basque region, participated in protests to denounce Blanco’s murder and ETA generally. The next year, ETA declared a truce with the government.

Residents of the Basque region were treated particularly harshly under Franco, who tried to crush any attempt to promote regional identities.

That cease-fire agreement lasted until 2000, when a car bomb killed Fernando Buesa, a member of the local branch of the Socialists’ Workers Party, and his bodyguard in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. The same year, Ernest Lluch, a former Cabinet minister from the Socialist Workers’ Party, was shot dead in Barcelona. Again, demonstrations took place all over Spain. Such political assassinations, along with car bombs, definitively undermined the support built up by the group during the Franco era.

The following years were unusually calm. ETA’s last bombing was staged in 2009 in Majorca, killing two Civil Guards. ETA’s last recorded fatality was a French police officer killed in a shootout in 2010 in the French town of Dammarie-lès-Lys.

In recent years, ETA had become a shell of its former self, badly weakened if not totally defeated. In the months leading up to ETA’s dissolution, about 3,000 militants took part in a debate about ETA’s future, of which approximately 1,300 voted on a formal resolution to dissolve. An overwhelming majority—some 93 percent—backed the resolution, having apparently listened to the pleas of a population that prefers a peaceful resolution to the Basque region’s political disputes. In this way, it seems ETA merely confirmed a decision that had already been made by the people it wanted to liberate.

In announcing its dissolution, ETA said former members would “continue the struggle for a reunited, independent, socialist, Basque-speaking and non-patriarchal Basque Country." They will also continue to lobby for the release of so-called political prisoners scattered in jails throughout Spain, or at least for their relocation to prisons in the Basque region. As of June 2018, there were around 200 ETA members and alleged members being held all over Spain, most of them outside the Basque region.

In a statement released on April 8, before the group’s dissolution, ETA issued an apology for the harm caused to its victims and their families. “We know that, due to the various requirements of the armed struggle, our activity has harmed a number of people who had no responsibility whatsoever in the conflict,” the group said. “We have caused grave harm, which cannot be put right. We ask the forgiveness of these people and their relatives. These words will not cure that harm, nor will they make their hurt lesser. We say this with respect, with no wish to cause any further grief.”

Yet the statement indicated that ETA was not actually sorry for the armed struggle itself and its mission to topple the Franco dictatorship. Rather, it was merely acknowledging “errors” committed during the course of that fight. Some analysts see this as an attempt to show respect for those who died fighting for ETA or because of their close association with it.

The statement also included language suggesting that the Spanish government, too, was to blame for a conflict that dragged on for decades, long after Franco was gone. “ETA recognizes the direct responsibility it has acquired in this extensive suffering,” it said, “and wishes to state that none of this should ever have happened or that it should not have lasted so long, since the political and historical conflict had to have a just democratic solution a long time ago.”

For their part, the Spanish authorities have shown no interest in apologizing for their conduct. “The Spanish authorities will not apologize because that would be to admit there was a deeply rooted political conflict,” says Arnaldo Otegi, a former member of ETA who is now a leader in the Basque pro-independence coalition Euskal Herria Bildu, which shares ETA’s political goals but advocates peaceful tactics. “They prefer to talk of a criminal gang being defeated by the security forces, even though they know this story is not true.”

Arnaldo Otegi, a former member of ETA who is now a leader in a Basque pro-independence
coalition, addresses a crowd, Logrono, Spain, March 1, 2016 (AP photo by Alvaro Barrientos).

A New Path to Peace?


The Spanish government has stated that ETA will not “receive benefits” for its dissolution, meaning ETA can expect little change in the treatment and processing of its detained members. “Whatever ETA does or says, it won’t find any loophole for the impunity of its crimes,” Rajoy, heading into his last month as prime minister, said on May 3. “ETA can announce its disappearance, but neither its crimes nor the action of the judiciary to prosecute and punish them will disappear.”

On this question, Pedro Sanchez, who became prime minister after Rajoy’s resignation, seems to be of the same mind, though he announced that his government would work to bring ill and elderly ETA prisoners to the Basque region so they could be closer to their families.

This approach is entirely consistent with the Spanish state’s treatment of ETA since its inception. Beginning with Franco, Spanish officials used the specter of ETA as an excuse to go after and incarcerate political opponents. Throughout the nearly six decades ETA was active, the government in Madrid took no steps to facilitate a smooth end to the Basque conflict or organize peace talks with the group.

Even after Spain transitioned to democracy, the government did not fully abandon Franco’s more draconian methods. Cases of torture of ETA members are numerous, and several have led to judgments against Madrid at the European Court of Human Rights. Basque newspapers such as Egin and Egunkaria, which the state has branded as instruments of ETA, have been censored and closed.

The Spanish authorities have shown no interest in apologizing for their hard-line approach to ETA.

Perhaps more worryingly, Spanish officials have historically made little effort to win over those segments of the population that were sympathetic to ETA’s objectives, even if they didn’t agree with its tactics. This could end up being a serious error. After all, at various points in its history, ETA has received sympathy not only from much of the Basque population, but also from a significant part of the broader Spanish population.

In theory, the dissolution of ETA creates a path to peace and better relations between Madrid and the Basque region. But it’s unclear whether the government will pursue it.

So far, the Spanish government’s intransigent position regarding the Basque region’s demands for autonomy is reminiscent of how it has conducted itself during the Catalan crisis, which some fear may escalate into an outright conflict.

The recent change of government in Spain has reduced tensions, but the hopes of Basques and Catalans for real and lasting reforms that give them more control over their own affairs are not high. Sanchez has appointed several figures to his Cabinet who are openly hostile to Basque and Catalan interests. A recent meeting between Sanchez and Quim Torra, Catalonia’s new regional leader, proved largely fruitless.

After that meeting, Carmen Calvo, Spain’s deputy prime minister, declared that the notion of “self-determination does not exist in any democracy in the world or ours, so there is very little to talk about.” Calvo also denied the existence of political prisoners in Spain, seemingly discounting the arrest of Oriol Junqueras, Raul Romeva, Jordi Sanchez, Jordi Cuixart and others who have been held for organizing protests in favor of Catalan independence or a vote for Catalan self-determination.

But while little may be expected of the Spanish state, residents of the Basque region are hopeful that they can now deal with its ghosts and open a process of dialogue in order to seek solutions to its internal conflicts.

For Txema Landa, a member of the Euskaria Foundation, an institution that lobbies for the independence of the Basque region, the dissolution of ETA is “great news, despite a bit late, that creates a new space in the political game.”

Jose Manuel De Pablos, a member of Ahal Dugu, the local branch of the left-wing political party Podemos, agrees with Landa that ETA’s departure “generates relief.” But he stresses that “the architect of this decision has been the Basque society itself” and that Madrid had little to do with it.

Two Basque activists from Bilbao, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, expressed optimism that there could be political advances in the region and a decrease in open hostility with Madrid. They say they expect a reduction of political repression against activists pressing for Basque independence. Nevertheless, they believe that demonstrations and other forms of mobilization will continue to be necessary, as the Spanish government cannot be expected to take the initiative in the absence of external pressure.

Such demonstrations are indeed continuing. The Basque pro-independence organization Gure Esku Dago, which translates as “It’s in Our Hands,” is organizing informal plebiscites in dozens of Basque cities to gauge popular opinion on Basque independence.

And last month, in an apparent effort to keep international attention focused on their cause, the group organized a human chain linking tens of thousands of people across a 200-kilometer stretch of the Basque region. Their goal, organizers said, was to facilitate a vote for independence—the same goal ETA said it was pursuing when it came into existence nearly 70 years ago.

Whether they speak for the majority of the Basque region is up for debate. But it’s clear that even with the ETA gone, such calls will continue for the foreseeable future.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian freelance journalist specializing in Basque and Catalan nationalism, human rights and Brazilian politics. He is a doctoral candidate in human rights at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.