Basque Country: ETA apology and dissolution an ‘unprecedented historic event’

Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) apologised to all the victims of its violent cmapaign for Basque independence.

Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), which waged a decades-long military campaign for Basque independence, released its “Statement to the Basque Country: declaration on harm caused” on April 8. The statement is an apology for the suffering arising from more than 40 years of violent operations that ended in a permanent ceasefire in 2011.

On May 4, ETA’s definitive dissolution will be announced in a ceremony in the northern Basque province of Lapurdi (in the French Pyrenees-Atlantiques department).

ETA’s declaration expressed “our respect to all the victims of ETA’s actions, in that they were harmed as a consequence of the conflict, whether they were killed, injured or harmed in any other way. We are truly sorry.”

It concluded: “Reconciliation is necessary to bring out the truth in a constructive way, to cure wounds and to build guarantees for such suffering not to happen again in the future. It is possible to build peace and achieve freedom in the Basque Country by finding a political solution to the conflict.”

Positive reactions

ETA’s apology was welcomed by all forces with an interest in overcoming the conflict in the Basque Country, which has long suffered repression at the hands of the Spanish state.

Basque left-wing pro-independence coalition EH Bildu described the declaration as “an unprecedented historical event” that “makes a definitive contribution to peace, social harmony and reconciliation”.

The pro-independence union confederation Patriotic Workers Commissions (LAB) described the ETA statement as “a sincere reflection and contribution [which] lays the foundation for moving forward on the resolution of the consequences of the conflict”.

Aitor Esteban, spokesperson for the conservative nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), governing in the Spanish Basque Autonomous Region (Euskadi), said his party “valued as a step forward ETA’s attempt at reconciliation with the victims and recognition of the damage caused. We think it is an attempt to give an answer to a unanimous demand of Basque society.”

Pedro Sanchez, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), greeted the statement as “a great step forward towards a definitive peace: the recognition of the terrible damage and pain caused”.

Well-known Basque journalist and ETA victim Gorka Landaburu described the declaration as “the most important and critical” ever made by the organisation. However, he said it lacked a political assessment that he urged Basque patriotic (abertzale) left forces to make.

Within Spain’s many associations of terrorism victims, the most appreciative response was that of Robert Manrique, spokesperson of the Catalan Association of Terrorism Victims and himself a victim of ETA’s 1987 Hipercor supermarket bombing in Barcelona (which ended Catalan sympathy for ETA).

Describing the statement in a radio interview as “really very great news”, Manrique said he accepted the apology “despite the damage caused to me and my family”. However, he rejected the possibility of reconciliation.

Some family members of individual victims of ETA attacks were equally pleased. For Carmen Torres Ripa, widow of murdered journalist Jose Maria Portell, “that they should ask you for forgiveness 40 years after murdering your husband is pretty moving. I’m so happy: this was what was needed.

“I would like the GAL [the Spanish state-sponsored Antiterrorist Liberation Groups that murdered suspected ETA members] to also put out a communique asking for the forgiveness of its victims.”

Negative reactions

Negative reactions to the statement were led by the Euskadi branch of the ruling right-wing People’s Party (PP). It said “the truth about ETA is that it is a criminal organisation that has dedicated itself to sowing terror, murder, extortion and kidnapping”.

This view was shared by most terrorism victim associations, which typically made these points:

* ETA was defeated by Spanish democracy. This was the message of all three Spanish unionists forces: the PP, the PSOE and the new right force Citizens. The PP government described ETA’s statement as “a consequence of the strength of the rule of law”.

* There is no political conflict in the Basque Country. According to a communiqué signed by 21 associations of terrorism victims, the Basque national struggle was a “non-existent conflict”. Former PSOE leader and interior minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcalba also said “the only conflict there was in the Basque Country was ETA”.

* It is still the same ETA. The Terrorism Victims Collective said: ETA treats the victims as collateral damage in the imposition of a totalitarian project which neither the terrorists nor their political arm have abandoned.”

* The declaration is a manoeuvre. Dignity and Justice spokesperson Daniel Portero said the statement reflected “cynicism in the highest degree”. He said it was aimed at creating the political conditions for transferring ETA prisoners, presently dispersed in jails across the Spanish state, to jails in Euskadi.

* ETA still has much to atone for. The Association of Terrorism Victims said “The only declaration that we expect from ETA is that in which it acknowledges that it has been the main violator of human rights in the Basque Country and the rest of Spain for decades [and] recognises that the use of violence has no justification whatsoever.”

* No concessions. A PP Euskadi statement said “ETA achieved absolutely nothing ... They didn’t achieve it when they were killing, much less now that they have been defeated by the rule of law. We owe them nothing.”

Criticism

These positions, which play well in some sections of Spanish society outside Euskadi, are a small minority in the society most ravaged by ETA’s actions and violent Spanish police operations.

Inside Euskadi, as revealed in a July 2017 survey by Euskobarometro, 74% support the transfer of ETA prisoners to Basque Country jails; 85% think that attention should not focus exclusively on ETA’s violence; and 76% believe that “for a good end to the cycle of violence there should be neither winners nor losers”.

In this context, the most common criticism of ETA’s statement by the forces that greeted it as a step forward was the way it divided its classification of victims into those directly engaged in warfare against ETA and those who were never its targets.

For former ETA member Carmen Guisasola, ETA’s declaration “adopted a formula of the IRA’s, making a distinction between those who took part in the conflict and those who didn’t.”

She asked: “Where do Yoyes [Maria Dolores Gonzalez Catarain, an ex-ETA member murdered by ETA for accepting re-insertion into society] and Isaias Carraso [a socialist councillor murdered by ETA] fit in?”

Euskadi PNV premier Inigo Urkullu said ETA should formally recognise all its victims in the same way.

He said: “At the moment of its disappearance, I hope they think about all the victims they have provoked. If they think about all the victims their declaration will have to be clear, sober and intent on making amends — capable of recognising the injustice of the immense pain they have caused.”

The same criticism was made by Socialist Party of Euskadi (PSE), the PSOE’s Euskadi affiliate, and Elkarrin Podemos, the left coalition between Podemos Euskadi and the Euskadi affiliates of the United Left and green party Equo.

These forces honed in on what they detect as the most vulnerable point in the left abertzale position following ETA’s declaration: its lack of an agreed position on whether there had ever been any positive aspect to ETA’s activities.

On April 20, Elkarrin Podemos spokesperson Lander Martinez said: “The overarching question at the moment is what has been gained through so much undeserved suffering. What has been achieved by decades of violence and the fracturing of community relations?

“The challenge — so that nothing similar ever happens again — is to unanimously reply: ‘zero’.”

New phase

ETA’s apology and dissolution will mark the start of a new phase in the politics of the Basque Country. Despite ongoing efforts of Spanish centralism to portray the Basque national struggle and the abertzale left as inherently violent, the underlying issue of a Basque right to self-determination will increasingly become clearer.

However, the ETA factor may not wither away rapidly: the powerful forces of Spanish centralism have every interest in maintaining the identification between the movements for national self-determination and terrorism. Spanish patriotism has no better camouflage for rejecting the right to national self-determination.

Here are three recent examples:

* Eight young men involved in an October 2015 bar brawl with two Civil Guards and their partners in the town of Altsasu in Nafarroa (Navarra), were charged with “terrorism” (carrying up to 50 years jail) and kept in preventive detention for 500 days.

In their trial, now taking place, the prosecution is trying to link two defendants with an ETA splinter faction supposedly committed to maintaining the “armed struggle”. An April 14 solidarity demonstration drew 50,000 to the Nafarroa capital Irunea (Pamplona);

* On April 12, Tamara Carrasco, an activist with her local Committee in Defence of the Republic (CDR) in Viledecans in Catalonia, was charged with “terrorism” and “rebellion” by the arresting Civil Guard. So grotesque were these charges that the magistrate hearing the case released Carrasco on bail after downgrading them to disturbance of the public order;

* In Galiza (Galicia) over the years 2005-2013, minor explosions outside council and regional government offices and radio and TV stations were ascribed to an organisation called “Galician Resistance”, dubbed by a Spanish National Police spokesperson in 2013 as “the main terrorist threat in Spain”.

Yet whether “Galician Resistance” was responsible for these explosions when (unlike ETA) it never acknowledged responsibility, has caused many, including a dissenting judge of the National High Court, to question whether “Galician Resistance” ever existed as a terrorist organisation at all.

The apology and dissolution of ETA — combined with the call for a truth and reconciliation commission for the entire Basque Country conflict — will help all those democrats in the Spanish state who are fighting for the rights of its peoples to decide their future.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear on the web site of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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