Grief and reconciliation in the Basque struggle for liberation

April 19, 2022
Maixabel film
The Basque liberation movement, ETA, waged war on the Spanish state for about 60 years. Photo: supplied

Written and directed by Icíar Bollain
Starring Blanca Portillo, Luis Tosar, María Cerezuela, Urko Olazabal
In Spanish with English subtitles
Showing nationally as part of the Spanish Film Festival

Maixabel deals with real events, with slight abridgement of timelines. In many ways it is a dramatisation of the Spanish documentary, El fin de ETA (The end of ETA), which includes interviews with the real characters depicted here and is available free to watch (in Spanish) on YouTube.

The film’s framework is the violent national liberation insurgency waged by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty — ETA) in the Spanish state between 1968 and 2010. Its subject is the impact on the lives of protagonists on both sides and how such armed conflicts can come to an end.

Its one scene of violence is at the beginning, the 2000 assassination of Juan Mari Jáuregui, leading member of the Socialist Party of Euskadi (Spanish Basque Country), regional affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

Following that, it is a story of imprisonment — the imprisonment of the assassins and the imprisonment in grief of Jáuregui’s widow, Maixabel Lasa and daughter, Maria. However, from this harrowing anguish comes reconciliation.

This is not saccharine-sweet, sentimental harmony, more a heartbroken crawling through suffering towards mutual understanding. This is how human beings grapple with forgiving the unforgivable and healing that for which there is no cure.

Following her husband’s murder, Maixabel stepped forward to lead the Euskadi governments’s Office of Attention to Victims of Terrorism. She controversially expanded its agenda to include not just ETA victims but also those tortured and murdered by the police and government-backed death squads.

In 2011, she began participating in reconciliation meetings with members of the ETA military unit responsible for killing her husband.

As recreated in the film via superlative acting, those meetings are anguished. Slowly, we see remorse expressed, violence forsaken and forgiveness created.

Maixabel’s daughter, Maria, chose not to participate, but spoke with her mother about it.

One of the film’s compelling moments is when Maria, referring to her circle of friends, says: “I find it incredible that the man who has hurt me the most thinks more like me than...” The following moment of silence resounds with the implications of penance and reconciliation.

Maixabel is a powerfully emotional and intelligent movie, but it has its political lacunas.

There is a magnificent scene, worthy of a Ken Loach film, where imprisoned ETA militants debate the politics of individual redemption. It shows the seriousness of their commitment and should open up the question of why young Basques put their lives on the line in guerrilla warfare.

Instead of considering their political motivation, all that is referred to is youthful hero worship of Nicaragua’s Sandinista rebels — an insufficient explanation.

The Basque people have a distinctive language and culture. Capitalism came to Spain slowly and incoherently within a state dominated by the Castilian monarchy, a reactionary Catholic Church and the downgrading or outright repression of non-Castilian languages and cultures.

The right to self-determination for the Basque and other peoples in the Spanish state has never been recognised. Equally, the unified republican consciousness that the French Revolution achieved in France was not replicated in Spain.

During Francisco Franco's 1939–75 dictatorship, the Basque nationalist movement moved to the left. In the late 1950s, ETA grew out of the youth wing of the conservative Basque Nationalist Party and in the 1960s, its guerrilla struggle began.

ETA’s first assassination was of notorious torturer and Nazi collaborator, Melitón Manzanas, the chief inspector of the Social Investigation Brigade. Its 1973 explosion of the car carrying Franco’s anointed successor, Carrero Blanco, was cheered by all democratic Spain.

It was the subsequent Spanish state repression, amounting to an armed occcupation of Euskadi, plus the ongoing denial of the Basques’ right to self-determination, which fuelled decades of resentment that drove generations of youth into the armed struggle.

The film does not touch upon the fact that the Civil Guard and police continued their brutal repression of the Basque sovereignty movement and working-class organisations until well after the formal end of the dictatorship.

However, ETA’s strategy presented it with the same quandaries the Irish Republican Army faced: operating underground meant cutting off or compromising legal, mass political organising. No matter how popular ETA was among many Basques, its methods reduced the population to the role of a cheer squad.

Moreover, ETA’s bombing and assassination campaigns alienated people in the rest of Spain and increasingly in Euskadi itself, especially when its victims included those who, like Jáuregi, were seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict. This handed a prize to Spanish national unionist forces.

ETA’s violent campaign meant “Spanish unionists left and right, fighting among themselves to be seen as the best champion of the growing movement of victims of terrorism, could parade as peaceful democrats even as they denied that the democratic principle of self-determination applied to the Basques, Catalans and Galicians,” noted Dick Nichols in Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal last year.

Also missing from the film is the Basque langauge itself: For example, all the characters, even those who would have definititely spoken among themselves in Basque, speak in Spanish. Indeed, that is an example of the cultural domination that ETA rose up in reaction to.

However, Maixabel operates as a powerful story of remorse, repentence and reconciliation, which the missing elements do not diminish; it resonates with the human story of tragedy transmuted into hope. It is obligatory viewing for anyone wanting to understand the emotional and spiritual impact of ETA’s choice of armed struggle.

The trailer for Maixabel can be seen here.

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