A farewell to arms?

San Sebastián is not the sort of city in which you expect to discover dark secrets. Once the resort of choice for Europe’s 19th-century aristocracy and strung out along a perfect arc of Spain’s northern coastline, this most elegant of cities stands as an enduring symbol of Europe’s belle époque.

And yet even its mayor, Odón Elorza, admits that San Sebastián possesses ‘a treacherous beauty’.

Barely three years ago, San Sebastián’s old town was the militant heartland of the Basque terrorist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Akatasuna—Basque Homeland and Liberty). Its narrow lanes—the so-called Comanche Territory—were sinister recesses of violent nationalism which seemed entirely out of place in modern Europe. Bloodied footprints left behind by perpetrators of political crimes led into ETA bars where no police dared follow.

Now, a street called Juan de Bilbao is the last remaining bastion of those dangerous days. A sign in a window announces: ‘Tourist! You are not in Spain, nor in France. You are in Basque Country. Welcome.’ Painted on a wall a few doors away, next to the Belfast Irish Pub, is the ETA symbol, a serpent coiled around a hatchet.

 Just across the laneway is the Herria Bar—part of a network of tabernas across the Basque Country whose profits, prosecutors have claimed, directly finance ETA operations—with pictures of ETA prisoners above the bar and a jar prominently placed for collections to help ‘the cause’. The street is still off-limits to Basque police.

However, although ‘Gora ETA!’ (‘Long Live ETA!’) graffiti is still evident throughout the Basque Country, particularly along rural roads and in the old town of the Basque political capital of Vitoria, ETA’s territory is shrinking. In the streets surrounding Juan de Bilbao and throughout Spain it is being whispered that, after half a century, ETA’s time has forever passed.

The first underground cells of ETA were founded in 1952 at the height of the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco’s repression of the Basque Country (Euskadi). After the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1939, more than 20,000 Basques were imprisoned in concentration camps, and 21,780 were executed by Franco. Standing alongside San Sebastián’s graceful curve of sand, the Playa de la Concha was a prison where the sound of Franco’s soldiers executing Basque prisoners could be heard almost every day until 1947.

The founders of ETA considered themselves to be intellectuals. They wanted independence, but their primary goal was the publication of an underground journal and the promotion of the outlawed Basque language, Euskera.

After meeting in 1967 for only the fifth time, ETA published The Official Ideology of ETA, which committed its foot soldiers to an independent Basqueland to be achieved through ‘revolutionary nationalism’. The old guard of leaders was ousted. It would be the first of many splits within ETA, each one signalling a shift towards a younger leadership more committed to violence than distinguished by any ideological sophistication.
On 7 June 1968, a Spanish paramilitary civil guardsman, José Pardines, stopped a car near San Sebastián. Inside the car were Txabi Etxebarrieta, the new ETA leader, and a colleague. The two men shot Pardines. It was the first ETA killing. Txabi would soon be killed in revenge by Franco’s security forces. The cycle of tit-for-tat killings, which would last more than three decades, had begun.

Nonetheless, in the early 1970s ETA was widely viewed as a hero of the underground resistance movement against Franco, just one of many groups battling the repression of the dictator’s fascist rule. ETA was even credited with precipitating Spain’s transition to democracy, for it was ETA which, on 20 December 1973, assassinated Admiral Carrero Blanco, Franco’s ruthless and charismatic right-hand man and chosen successor.

Following Franco’s death on 20 November 1975, it was widely assumed that with the advent of a democratic Spain, ETA would have no reason to continue its campaign of violence. Far-reaching autonomy was granted to the Basque Country in 1979, including its own parliament, police force, education system and powers of tax collection.

But ETA and its supporters had, in the meantime, watched as the transitional Spanish government continued its policy of repression in the Basque Country. ETA decided that independence alone would truly liberate the Basque people and that the only means to achieve this was through violence.

Indeed it would become a paradox of Spanish democracy that ETA killed just 38 people under Franco’s dictatorship, but would go on to kill 779 (including 118 in 1980) under a democracy within which the Basque Country enjoys far greater powers of autonomy than any other region of Europe. Every time ETA killed, the Spanish government responded in kind, even during the 1980s through the use of shadowy death squads with tacit government backing.

In a 1982 interview with the French Le Monde newspaper, an ETA spokesman said simply: ‘Even if [Spain] were to convert itself into a model of democracy, it won’t change things as far as we are concerned. We are not, nor have we been, nor shall we ever be Spaniards.’

After decades of sustained violence, the tide finally began to turn against ETA in the 1990s. France, which had hitherto turned a blind eye to ETA terrorists operating on its soil, began to take the ETA threat seriously. In 1992, the entire ETA leadership was arrested in France.

A new, younger ETA leadership emerged which would, despite a 1998 unilateral ceasefire, continue ETA’s campaign of violence. However, the numbers killed by ETA—14 in 2001, five in 2002 and three in 2003—were a far cry from its bloody ‘successes’ of the 1980s. In 2002, the Spanish Parliament outlawed Herri Batasuna, the political wing of ETA which had consistently received about 15 per cent of the Basque popular vote, thereby denying ETA its last remnants of democratic legitimacy. Failed bombing attempts in December 2003 and February 2004 fed the suspicion that ETA had lost the art of killing and was reeling under the weight of mass arrests (185 in 2002 alone).

On 27 September 2004, ETA released a video in which it denied that it was experiencing difficulties and promised that ‘the conflict’ would continue until the Basque Country was given the right to choose between independence and remaining part of Spain.

Less than a week later, ETA’s claims were looking decidedly hollow when its leadership was arrested during a joint French-Spanish police operation.

The Spanish government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero described the arrests as the ‘decapitation’ of ETA. In so doing, the government pointed to the fact that ETA’s structure is, unlike al Qaeda’s disparate cells, compartmentalised and hierarchical and therefore highly susceptible to leadership vacuums.

Perhaps the clearest indication of ETA’s decline, however, came in a letter published on 2 November in the Diario de Noticias newspaper in the Spanish province of Navarra. The letter, signed by six senior, imprisoned ETA leaders, stated: ‘Things have never been so bad … You can’t carry on an armed fight through warnings and by uttering threats that are never fulfilled … In current circumstances the armed struggle that we carry out today is no longer any use. We’re slowly burning to death.’

Deprived of its former French safe haven, with its leaders and most of its rank-and-file members behind bars and devoid of a coherent strategy, the last indigenous terrorist group left in Europe is suffering an unprecedented crisis. Perhaps most significantly, ETA’s program for self-determination has been largely adopted by moderate Basque nationalist parties, thereby draining ETA of popular support. A recent poll suggested that 0.6 per cent of Basques identify themselves with ETA.

ETA’s demise has been predicted many times before and no-one in Spain expects that they have heard the last of it. Gorka Espiau, a spokesman for Elkarri, a Basque NGO which favours dialogue with ETA, warns: ‘They may lie low for a year or two, but I am sure ETA will return while the political problem remains unsolved. The weaker they are, the stronger they must show themselves.’

Spain’s senior anti-terrorism adviser, Fernando Reinares, has similarly warned: ‘ETA is in its terminal phase. We know that terminal phases often produce rivalries and fragmentation that can lead to spectacular attacks.’

As if on cue, ETA carried out a series of high-profile attacks across Spain in December during the national constitution holiday, a fiesta which commemorates Spain’s return to democracy in 1978.

Such attacks notwithstanding, in mid-January ETA, in its first conciliatory gesture for seven years, announced that it was willing to enter into negotiations with the Spanish government over the future status of the Basque Country.

In a statement published by the Basque-language Gara newspaper—which ETA routinely calls to warn of impending terrorist attacks—ETA said it was prepared to support proposals made in November by its banned political wing, Batasuna.

Batasuna’s proposal had demanded ‘exclusively political and democratic’ talks with the Spanish government to ‘take the conflict off the streets and on to the negotiating table’. The centrepiece of the proposal was for a referendum in the Basque Country so that Basques could decide whether they wished to remain a part of Spain.

In its communiqué, ETA argued that it was ‘essential that the whole society has a chance to participate in such a process’ and called for talks with the Spanish government on ‘demilitarising the conflict’.

In response, Spain’s Defence Minister, José Bono, told reporters that the government ‘cannot talk to someone with a gun in his hand ... Nobody sensible can sit down with these people.’

However, a day before ETA’s statement was published, the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, told Socialist Party representatives in San Sebastián that he might talk with Batasuna—banned under the Law of Political Parties in 2002—if it was ‘brave enough to renounce and condemn ETA violence’.

The Public Administrations Minister, Jordi Sevilla, similarly left the door open to the possibility of talks, stating: ‘Things are moving quickly … but we await only one letter from ETA, the one that tells us where and when they will lay down arms and abandon terrorism.’

Until there is a renunciation of violence, no Spanish government can accede to ETA’s bid to return to the centre of political life. And yet, fears remain that if ETA’s latest offer is spurned, as in 1998, a younger ETA leadership may emerge from within the ranks of disaffected Basque youth. ETA’s history suggests that a resumption of violence would soon follow.

Amid the overtures for peace, ETA’s statement warned that it remained active and claimed responsibility for 23 attacks (but no deaths) since September. However, it denied involvement in the bomb scare in December at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu soccer stadium. Further, two days after ETA’s declaration, a car bomb exploded in Getxo, an affluent town north of Bilbao, injuring a policeman, leading some to believe that there may already be a split within ETA, with more militant members keen to carry on the armed struggle.
There is also widespread concern that so far apart are the positions of ETA and the Spanish government—ETA wants independence, which the government will not countenance—that ETA could merely use the truce as a cover to regroup and rearm itself as it did in 1998.

The potential obstacles such as these ensure that the road towards a Spain free from ETA violence remains one fraught with peril.

However, 18 months after the last ETA killing—the longest period since the 1960s—such attacks increasingly provide evidence of weakness rather than strength. In the midst of a war on terror which can seem unwinnable, this is no small victory.   

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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