The struggle of the Basque people for self-determination is one of Europe's most significant and protracted, yet little-publicised, conflicts. While in Madrid recently, Green Left Weekly's NORM DIXON spoke to KARMELO LANDA, a leader of the militant Basque nationalist organisation Herri Batasuna. Landa is a former Herri Batasuna member of the European parliament and headed the group's candidate list for the provincial elections in October.
The Basque country â Euskadi â lies west of the Pyrenees and straddles the Spanish and French borders. It exceeds 20,500 square kilometres and has a population of 2.8 million. Of its seven provinces, the southern four â known as Hegoalde and where the overwhelming majority of Basques live â are under Spanish rule, and the remaining three in the north â Iparralde â are occupied by France.
"The Basque people are perhaps the oldest people in Europe. The Basque language â Euskara â is one of the oldest tongues in Europe and has no relation to any other European language. It has remained pure for thousands of years", Landa told Green Left Weekly. The Basque people are not Spanish, he insisted.
"Spain recently celebrated the fifth centennial of the 'discovery' of America. Herri Batasuna does not consider it a discovery; it was an invasion that resulted in the destruction of cultures in the new world by imperialist Spain. Spain not only is celebrating 500 years of the conquest but also 500 years of the Spanish state. In the year 1512 Spain annexed Nafarroa, a province of the Basque country."
For many centuries, Landa explained, "The Basque country had its own laws, called the Fueros, and ruled itself. However, in 1839 the centralising Spanish state imposed a legislative system that wiped out the Fueros."
Similar developments occurred in Iparralde, Landa added. "In 1789, with the centralist concepts of government that came with the French Revolution, the three Basque provinces in France were annexed and their identity dissolved. The French language was imposed. The only official language to this day in the French Basque country is French."
In the late 19th century, the Basque National Party (PNV) was formed by Sabino Arana "to try to take back [the Basque people's] culture, to try to regain their national identity and win the right of self-determination for Euskadi. Arana created the word 'Euskadi', which means 'Basques together'. This became a powerful movement in the Basque country opposed to France and Spain's destruction of Basque culture."
"One of the main objectives of General Franco during the 1936-39 civil war was to maintain the 'unity' of the Spanish state, to destroy nationalism in the Basque country, in Catalonia and other parts of Spain", Landa said.
Franco's horrific bombing of Guernica in 1937, immortalised by Picasso, was a direct assault on Basque nationalism. "Guernica is very important in Basque culture. It is the site of the famous Tree of Guernica, a very important symbol. Since at least the seventh century, representatives of the Basque people met under the tree to discuss and debate politics."
Following Franco's victory, a terrible wave of repression took place throughout the Basque country. 100,000 Basque soldiers were executed or died in the war.
"After the loss, an entire generation of Basques were demoralised and ruined. The PNV took on a very passive role in the resistance against Franco. The PNV expected the United States to invade and liberate Spain after defeating Hitler", Landa said.
In the long years of the Franco dictatorship, the repression was constant. The Basque language was prohibited. "You were not allowed to speak. When I was at school, if a few words of the Basque language slipped out, I was punished."
The struggle began to revive, said Landa, when Basques "who had no direct experience of the war, who had only seen the repression against their parents, began to rebel against the passivity of the PNV. The new generation saw that the only way of rebellion was the armed struggle." In 1959 the group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna â Basque Country and Freedom) was formed.
ETA was harshly critical of the passive and collaborationist PNV and demanded nothing less than independence. "ETA believed the only way to achieve these objectives was through socialism, forming a socialist government in the Basque country.
"The most active resistance to the Francoist regime from 1959 to when Franco died in 1975 came from ETA. The most famous action of ETA was the execution of Admiral Carerro Blanco in 1974 in Madrid. He was number two in the Francoist government. When Franco died, Blanco was supposed to take over. But when ETA killed him, there was no-one to continue Franco's policies."
Following the death of Franco in 1975, democracy returned to Spain, but "it did not come to the Basque country. While individual liberties were introduced in Spain, the Basque country was kept inside the Spanish state by force."
In 1978, the Basque people overwhelmingly rejected the new Spanish constitution in a referendum. The government reacted by attempting to divide the Basque people. A statute of partial autonomy for the Basque country was passed. The Basque province of Nafarroa was excluded from the new Madrid-created Basque Autonomous Community. The collaborationist PNV accepted the plan and soon controlled the Basque government.
"When PNV became part of the government, their strategy was to eliminate the Basque left. The Basque left represented by the ETA was the only movement that was threatening the unity of Spain.
"Their idea was to eliminate Herri Batasuna as a political party [HB was formed in 1982 as a legal political organisation], and then with a strategy of police repression and military actions destroy the ETA. This is very similar to the strategy of the Irish and British governments in using moderate politicians to ignore the IRA and Sinn Fin and to try to destroy them."
Herri Batasuna is the only major party in the Basque country that supports independence. Landa told Green Left Weekly that Herri Batasuna differs from ETA only in that it does not engage in the armed struggle and instead uses open, legal means. Herri Batasuna, Landa points out, means "popular unity". It isn't really a political party but a collection of different parties and groups. Herri Batasuna is "progressive, leftist and has the same goals as ETA: independence, national unity, socialism."
The PNV has long dropped any real support for an independent Euskadi, although it often uses the rhetoric of Basque nationalism to maintain its position as the largest electoral force in the Basque country. Herri Batasuna has proposed to the PNV that it join a "popular front of the Basque nationalist parties" to pressure the Spanish government to begin talks with the ETA to end the war and to try to gain independence and restore Basque unity. Landa added that he was recently in Ireland to study the process that has led to the IRA's cease-fire.
Despite reservations about the details of some of the negotiated settlements taking place in different parts of the world, Landa believes, "It is very important for the entire world that these crises end through negotiation and not with destruction and violence".
The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) refuses to enter negotiations despite calls by Herri Batasuna and ETA for a cease-fire and talks. There are more than 500 Basque political prisoners in Spanish jails. "Two years ago, top leaders of ETA were arrested in France and imprisoned. But ETA continues to reproduce itself. They were able to recover very rapidly", Landa told Green Left Weekly.
The Spanish and French governments coordinate their police actions against the Basque nationalist movement. The Spanish government sponsors clandestine anti-ETA death squads which have murdered at least 29 people in recent years, Landa charged. Pressure has been applied on foreign governments â Mexico, Uruguay, Nicaragua and other countries where Basque refugees live â to have Basques alleged to be members of ETA extradited. Landa added there is a complete blackout on Herri Batasuna and ETA in the Spanish media.
"Obviously this stalemate cannot go on forever. The Spanish government is trying to destroy Herri Batasuna, ETA and the other movements as much as possible before eventually having negotiations so that they will be in a much stronger position to negotiate with members of the Basque left."
The PSOE government did begin talks with ETA in 1989 in Algeria but broke off the talks after just one month. The social democratic PSOE sabotaged this peace process, Landa said, because its leaders are incapable of fighting "the true powers that run Spain. Even though they get millions and millions of votes and win elections, they are powerless against what they consider the real rulers, the people who control the army and the banks."
The continuing support for the militant struggle of Herri Batasuna was again proven during October 23 provincial elections. Despite a total media blackout, the organisation won 16.3% of the vote (rising to 23% in the province of Guipuzcoa on the French frontier) and 13 seats in the Basque parliament, making it the third largest electoral force in the Basque country. Herri Batasuna controls more than 35 local governments, has one member in the Spanish senate and two members in the Spanish parliament.
Herri Batasuna maintains excellent relations with social movements in the Basque country despite some problems with organisations with political links with the PSOE and a section of the Communist Party of Spain and its electoral front, the United Left. Herri Batasuna militants play an important role in these social movements and fully support their goals. "You have to visit the Basque country to see all of the social movements that exist â anti-nuclear, groups against military service, ecological groups of every type, feminist organisations, groups for homosexual rights."
Herri Batasuna remains committed to socialism, Landa explained. "Herri Batasuna has never been associated with the so-called 'real' socialism that was practised in the Eastern European countries. Herri Batasuna's project of socialism is in constant development. We have inside Herri Batasuna Marxists, Leninists, social democrats, people of many different opinions. We have very defined programs, but still there is a lot of debate about how to achieve them.
"Herri Batasuna favours participatory democracy as against the representative democracy that exists now. We favour social organisations that are autonomous, that spring up. Self-organisation is very important for socialism to work. We prefer a socialism that comes from the people and not from the bureaucracy. Herri Batasuna is not exempt from the crisis that exists in the left since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are constantly trying to find better ways for socialism to work."