The Continuing and Unsavoury Legacy of Basque Separatism in Modern Spain
Foreign Correspondent in Spain, Peter Jenkins, details the legacy of the Basque separatist group ETA and explains the ramifications their terrorism could still have today.
Nothing attracts attention like shock tactics, whether it is an unannounced streaker interrupting a high-profile sports match, an armed campaign against a ruling government or even industrial action carried out by downtrodden miners. The resultant publicity achieved from such actions can lead to various consequences, such as being an influence or inspiration to others to undertake similar activities and causes. In the modern political landscape of Spain, all eyes tend to look towards the autonomous region of Catalonia. With many of the Catalan populace calling vehemently for a Scottish style independence referendum to decide upon its political future, it is no wonder that the situation catches media attention. However, it must be noted that, Catalonia is not the only region with very strong feelings towards independence from Spanish rule.
The relatively small autonomous region, which makes up the modern-day Basque country, for many decades has been home to a varying degree of separatist sentiment.
The relatively small autonomous region, which makes up the modern-day Basque country, for many decades has been home to a varying degree of separatist sentiment. Unfortunately, the political wing of the Basque separatists was suppressed by the fascist regime that ruled Spain for nearly forty years under General Franco. This politically repressive strong-arm, though retaining authority over the Basque people, can be seen as having the effect of creating an armed resistance to Spanish authority in the Basque region. This extended as far as the small part of south-western France included in the greater Basque country demographic. Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), which translates as “Basque Homeland and Freedom”, were the paramilitary group who emerged as representative of the most stringent feeling of antipathy towards Spanish-Castilian governance. Before the days of mass media and its saturated coverage, ETA gained notoriety through targeting members of the civil service – who they saw as fair targets in their attack upon the Spanish state.
Sadly, for the Basque spirit of independence and those caught up in the crossfire of the mindless violence inflicted by ETA attacks, the public feeling in Spain towards the Basque country and potential independence became shrouded by the horrible mist of mind-over-matter tactics. These are often employed by those desperate to make their mark upon the political stage – constantly seeking to find the way most likely to garner the attention of the wider public eye. In a somewhat similar way to present-day Catalonia and its highly publicised saga over independence dividing public and government opinion, the activities and campaign of violent para-militarism undertaken by ETA left the Spanish public in position of alert. Indeed, the legacy of Basque terrorism is one near the forefront of the current political instability engulfing the Spanish state – it could even be argued that those on the extreme militant left in Catalonia are inspired by the ETA.
As a teenager, I can still remember watching the local and news when reports had come in of a foiled plot to detonate a car-bomb aboard a Brittany Ferries service from Bilbao. In the official explanation of this incident, the ETA claimed they had not intended to detonate the said-bomb, but to simply scare the passengers and receive publicity for their cause. This appears to be typical of ETA policy and rings true with many paramilitary organisations that claim to be fighting a noble cause. In reality, over eight hundred people were to lose their lives needlessly at the hands of ETA violence; arguably the most sickening atrocity was the bombing of a supermarket in Barcelona. With the rise of anti-tourist feeling being openly expressed in Basque cities Bilbao and San Sebastian, and some of the radical left-wing contingent in Barcelona feeling that “tourists should go home”, the legacy of Basque terror may be closer to the surface than many would care to admit.
It is perhaps a twist of irony that covers the most pressing contemporary issue regarding Basque terrorism and its legacy. For those convicted of terror-related offences the punishment has been a semi-exile style imprisonment – in the manner of being sent as far away from the Basque region and into a Spanish jail. Depending on one’s level of sympathy with the Basque separatist cause, this may or may not sound like a harsh deal. For the radical left-wing it is, of course, a source of huge resentment. Many houses, and apartment balconies, can be seen flying the banner demanding for the return of the Basque prisoners to Basque jails. Go to some Basque coastal spots and the banners motif may be daubed into the rock-face. And most recently, tens of thousands took to the streets of Bilbao to show their support for the supposed prisoner amnesty – or transfer depending on personal opinion.
The Basque terrorist legacy must be taken aside from its violent connotations and displayed only for its place in the greater socio-political process – thus limiting its tendency to influence future generations into taking up arms.
Some former members of ETA are now sitting in Spanish parliament and their abstentions do wield power, considering the recent and incredibly slender victory for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (who formed a socialist coalition to rule the Spanish state). It seems certain that the legacy of Basque terrorism and their struggle for independence could be a key factor in just how the Catalonian situation unfolds over the coming years.
As a closing thought, the comparison between the Basque troubles and those which affected Northern Ireland for so many years, is an interesting one, in a similar manner that the Scottish and Catalonian situations could, by some, draw up historical precedents. In either case it is clear that the fight for independence has, historically, often been a bloody one. Yet, in a modern world where much greater technological social interaction is possible, I believe it must be time to address terrorist legacies with a position of public diplomacy. The Basque terrorist legacy must be taken aside from its violent connotations and displayed only for its place in the greater socio-political process – thus limiting its tendency to influence future generations into taking up arms.