The casual observer of the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) might have thought that the October 18 declaration of left-independentist alliance EH Bildu and its largest affiliate Sortu would have been welcomed by all sides of politics (see English version here).
The statement, which was read in Spanish by EH Bildu coordinator general Arnaldo Otegi and in Basque (Euskara) by Sortu general secretary Arkaitz Rodríguez, delivered what many have long sought from Euskadi’s abertzale (patriotic) left: acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the 43-year-long military-terrorist actions of its armed wing, Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).
The declaration said: “Today we want to make a specific mention of the victims caused by ETA’s violence. We want to convey our sorrow and pain for the suffering they endured. We feel their pain, and that sincere feeling leads us to affirm that it should never have happened, as nobody could be satisfied with all that occurred, nor with it going on for so long.”
The declaration went beyond the abertzale left’s previous position, which was to regret the losses on both sides of the conflict but stay silent on the responsibility of ETA’s choice of “armed struggle”.
The statement came on the 10th anniversary of the International Peace Conference in the Aiete Palace in Donostia (San Sebastian). The conference’s final declaration called on ETA to disarm and ask the French and Spanish governments for negotiations, and on these governments to respond positively.
Three days later, ETA announced the end of its armed actions. It began to decommission its arms caches in April 2017, and in May 2018 announced its complete dissolution as an organisation.
‘Recognise all victims’
However, the idea that the October 18 declaration would reveal that the defunct ETA now has no role in Spanish and Basque politics has once again been proven mistaken.
That’s because ETA’s decision to maintain a military-terrorist strategy despite the end of the Franco dictatorship — an unmitigated disaster that produced 854 deaths and more than 6000 wounded — split Basque society in half, fragmented its pro-sovereignty forces, and suffocated democratic political struggle.
It also handed opponents of Basque rights a huge asset from which they still reckon to mine advantage, notwithstanding a decade of peace in Euskadi and successive acknowledgments by the abertzale left of ETA’s negative impact.
These admissions have left Spanish unionism with a smaller but still usable set of demands with which to delegitimise the Basque right to self-determination.
The reactions to October 18 reconfirmed this, but with dwindling gain for Spanish unionists seeking to exploit Basque nationalism’s armed past. Indeed, after October 18 the question now looms: when are the People’s Party (PP) and Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), whose governments conducted state terrorism against ETA, going to follow suit?
For example, Maixabel Lara’s husband Juan Mari Jauregui, former socialist civil governor of Guipuzcoa, was murdered by ETA in 2000. Lara welcomed the statement, adding: “What is the PSOE going to do to fix up things in its own house? I believe they have to say something about the GAL [Armed Liberation Groups, government-run terrorist units] and other issues.”
Rosa Lluch, daughter of former PSOE health minister Ernest Lluch, gunned down in 2000, tweeted: “'It should never have happened’: these words mean a lot. A big step forward by the abertzale left in recognising that ETA’s violence caused pain and suffering. The pain and suffering of all victims — all — has to be recognised".
Pro-independence and sovereigntist forces across the Spanish state were positive about the statement.
Exiled Catalan ex-president Carles Puigdemont said that its most “powerful” part was “when they say without any sort of ambiguity that all the grief created by ETA should never have happened".
“Here, finally, is the crystallisation of slow, silent and hard work,” he added, referring to the resistance within the abertzale universe to making the statement, reluctance acknowledged by Otegi in interviews afterwards.
Catalan Premier Pere Aragonès, of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), stressed its “enormous significance” and committed to “accompany the peace process in the steps that are to come”.
Reaction from Unidas Podemos (UP), junior partner in the Spanish government, was similar. Pablo Iglesias, former Spanish deputy prime minister, said that recognition of the declaration’s importance “is a matter of justice”.
Within the PSOE, the most appreciative response came from former prime minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, whose government oversaw the end of ETA violence in 2011. He told eldiario the declaration contained “two important things”:
“The first, a phrase that I believe is the headline of the decade: ‘It should never have happened.' Whoever reads that, doesn’t need to read anything else. And the second, he [Otegi] talks about ethics for the first time.
“I’m not going to be a commentator on the declaration he read. I only ask people to read it, calmly, serenely, remembering what ETA meant for this country for 50 years.”
The opposite extreme of PSOE reaction came from Castilla-La Mancha Premier Emiliano García-Page, after Otegi told an internal EH Bildu meeting that, if the price of freedom for ETA’s 200 prisoners remaining in Spanish jails was support for the 2022 Spanish budget, it should be paid.
This comment was wilfully misinterpreted by Spanish unionism as an offer to the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of a prisoners-for-vote swap (an interpretation he vigorously denied).
García-Page ranted to a Madrid public meeting: “For me it’s an insult to the dignity of the victims and the morality of a country that the heirs of the terrorist gang are proposing an exchange of prisoners for money. It’s so immoral that this revelation in itself shows how they could cohabit with violence".
Effectively, García-Page was channelling the Spanish right’s reaction into the PSOE.
There was nothing new about that, with PP leader Pablo Casado declaring that “Otegi is not a man of peace but a terrorist”, while PP MP Teresa Jiménez-Becerril, sister of an ETA victim, raised three demands: “Start confessing who were the culprits of ETA’s 379 unsolved crimes, stop doing homecoming homages [for released ETA prisoners], and condemn ETA’s terrorism once and for all".
Abertzale left-bashing is so indispensable in the PP and the Spanish-chauvinist Vox’s contest to destroy the PSOE-UP government (which depends on EH Bildu supporting its budgets) that the declaration generated rabid nonsense from both.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal said: “ETA is in the leadership of the State, and we are going to have to vote in Congress for ETA’s budget".
Former PP attorney-general and PP Euskadi leader Jaime Mayor Oreja said: “ETA has not been defeated: it is more present than ever".
In a sense, however, Oreja is right: for Spanish centralism, “ETA” no longer evokes the extinct group so much as the movements — Catalan, Basque and Galician — for self-determination.
A dangerous thaw
ETA’s 40 years of violence helped to congeal politics across Spain, consolidating the PP-PSOE revolving door as hegemonic at the level of the state and the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Convergence and Union (CiU) as born-to-rule administrators of Euskadi and Catalonia.
The thaw initiated by ETA’s 2011 farewell to arms and furthered by the recent declaration threatens that already moribund status quo. This showed in PNV Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu’s irritated reaction (“it’s nothing extraordinary … it wasn’t necessary”).
The PNV stated: “We trust that another ten years won’t have to pass before the abertzale left makes the critical reading of its own existence as an armed organisation that the overwhelming majority of Basque society has been demanding of it".
The PNV then initiated a resolution on ETA in the Parliament of Euskadi which all parties except EH Bildu (abstaining) supported, while PNV president Antoni Ortuzar warned the PSOE: “The abertzale left is a kind of praying mantis, that embraces you, sweet-talks you and…"
PNV nervousness about being dumped as the PSOE’s preferred Basque partner was calmed by Sánchez, who confirmed its line as his own — the October 18 declaration was welcome, but still inadequate.
Meanwhile, in a country with no agreed peace process, the Spanish judiciary’s war on the abertzale left rolls on.
The ETA prisoners are denied a normal prison regime (which would have seen two-thirds of them released by now). And once the European Court of Human Rights found that Otegi had not had a fair trial in the case for which he has already served a six-year sentence, the Spanish Supreme Court decided to retry him.
Little wonder that a 25,000-strong October 23 demonstration in Donostia in support of the rights of the ETA prisoners — attended by some of the freed Catalan leaders — got such strong support.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An expanded version will soon appear on Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]