Inside the Basque struggle &amp&amp

Issue 

BRIAN CAMPBELL, from the Irish weekly An Phoblacht/Republican News, recently visited Euskadi — the Basque Country — which straddles the border between Spain and France. The Basque people have been involved in a long struggle for self-determination. Below are his observations. In the narrow streets of the old part of Donostia (San Sebastian is its Spanish name), posters in six languages proclaim "Freedom for the Basque Country". It is a message aimed at the tourists who throng the streets, walking between the dozens of bars and cafes that make the beach resort of Donostia one of the liveliest holiday destinations in Europe.

One of those bars is owned by Herri Batasuna (HB), the political party of left-wing Basque nationalism. Inside, photographs of ETA [the organisation which has resorted to armed struggle against the Spanish state] prisoners are prominently displayed. They are the familiar faces of political prisoners; smiling young men and women in pictures which induce an anger that they are locked up. The photographs are an immediate connection with the struggle in Ireland.

HB's latest video is on TV, drawing the eyes of the 30 people in the bar. It shows a history of their struggle up to the present day, including images of the Spanish Guardia Civil in riot gear, attacking a Basque demonstration and beating pallbearers at a funeral — more connections with Ireland.

The bartender says there have been lots of Irish and Scottish visitors to the bar this year, people who identify with the Basque struggle. Like many Basques, he is keen to know what is happening with the "Irish via" (the Irish way), the name they give to the peace process.

It is an understandable curiosity. Our two struggles share many similarities. The Basques are waging a campaign, including armed struggle, demanding self-determination and national sovereignty. A European power — in their case, Spain — occupies most of their country, forcing a domination which is cultural and economic as well as military. The French state rules three of the seven Basque provinces. Many facets of the struggles coincide, such as the language movement and campaigns to free political prisoners. Of course, there are important differences, but the parallels between our struggles are striking.

Teresa Toda, deputy editor of Egin, the Basque left-wing daily newspaper, believes what is happening in Ireland has a big impact in the Basque Country. "Last September", she says, "the Basque [right wing] nationalists said 'The IRA has declared a truce and now they can talk [to the government]'. And we kept saying, before the IRA declared a truce there were talks. And that's the big difference. Now they're finally beginning to realise that before the truce there were talks. Everybody, especially the nationalist parties, are conscious that somehow or another we've got to sit down and talk and we better start now. The Spanish — the socialists and conservatives, here and in Madrid — are still not very conscious of that. They are still very much in a hawk position."

In Madrid, Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez was facing questions about his involvement in GAL, an organisation set up by the Spanish government, which carried out 28 attacks in the Basque provinces ruled by France, killing a number of ETA volunteers. Garcia Damborenea, a former Socialist leader in the Basque Country who was responsible for organising GAL, has said that Gonzalez knew and approved of their actions.

It is a scandal which deserves to topple any "democratic" government, but Basque activists are predicting a whitewash. One compared it to the actions of the SAS in Ireland and said the conservative opposition are simply using it to weaken the Socialists in advance of a general election. Others see it as an example of how the power of the Francoist military establishment still rules in Spain.

Right now, the GAL scandal is throwing up complications for Gonzalez's government at a time when it is being urged to negotiate with ETA. But while those calls may be falling on deaf ears in Madrid, the struggle in the Basque Country remains vibrant and wide-ranging.

A characteristic of the Basque struggle has always been that it ranges across all aspects of political and cultural life. Organisations of women, youth, environmentalists, organisations to promote Euskara (the Basque language), to build links with foreign struggles, to campaign on behalf of political prisoners, to combat drug abuse, to organise festivals, all exist independently. Some are members of KAS, a coordinating forum which includes ETA and Herri Batasuna. But it is the large number of organisations which touch every area of life and essentially their independence, that makes for a political culture bursting with energy.

For example, the work to increase knowledge of Euskara has long been seen as vital in building a national consciousness. AEK, the largest organisation teaching the language to adults, teaches 25,000 students each year. In their modern, well-equipped offices in Gasteiz (Vitoria) 1000 students are taught each summer. There, Xabier Ugalde Gulias, AEK's representative in the province of Araba, explains that their teaching methods are aimed at allowing people to communicate on the streets.

"With, say, French or English that is not a problem", he says, "but for us, the most important thing is to link the culture to the language and to transfer that to the streets. It is not just the teaching of a language and its grammar, it is also about the culture of the language, the spirit of the language."

That culture is strengthened by Egin (the Basque-language daily newspaper with a circulation of 12,000), a television station and new writing, theatre and song in Euskara. In a population of 3 million, it is estimated that 700,000 can now speak the language.

AEK in Gasteiz also broadcast programs in Euskara on a remarkable illegal FM radio station, Hala Bedi. The name means "Amen" in Euskara, and the station began life 12 years ago as a provocative two fingers to the clergy, the police and the state. Despite being closed five times, it has developed into a station which "gives a voice to those who have no power, who are suffering", according to Hala Bedi's founder, Miguel Angel Hernandez.

Hala Bedi also gives airtime to Askapena, an organisation best known among republicans for sending a delegation of Basques to Ireland every August. It began as a group which supported the Nicaraguan revolution and it now has many links in South and Central America, as well as in Ireland, Palestine, Corsica and elsewhere. It is an organisation whose work is potentially of tremendous importance to the Basque struggle.

You need only speak to republicans who have returned from a tour of the Basque Country to understand the morale-boosting political education of seeing at first hand another popular struggle.

Juan Jose Pezina, the member of Askapena responsible for international relations, explains that the work of the delegations really begins when they return home. For example, the delegates (known as brigadistas) to Ireland are expected, on their return, to make speeches explaining the situation here, to mount photographic exhibitions, to appear on radio and to pass on what they have learned to the various organisations to which they belong. "Also", says Juan Jose, "the experience broadens their minds, allows them to see that there are other places, other struggles".

And when you consider that Askapena sent a total of 2000 young activists to Nicaragua at the height of its revolution, some for as long as 12 months, and many more to other struggles, the political influence of that is marked.

As Juan Jose spoke in their cramped offices in Gasteiz, final preparations were being made to send a cargo plane loaded with medical supplies to Cuba and to organise brigades to Ireland and to Ecuador.

In their work in South and Central America, Askapena tries to engage in what Juan Jose calls "a double solidarity". "At first", he says, "all our solidarity work was in Nicaragua. We would send medical or teaching supplies or brigadistas who built schools and so on. That kind of solidarity was us giving, giving, giving. We thought they should give us something, not material but ideological. So we started working with that sort of solidarity. From Europe, solidarity with the Third World is usually paternalistic. We are trying to break from that. At times in Europe we feel guilty, but we have to feel we are all in the same struggle."

He adds that while Askapena is working in solidarity with many struggles, "we are also working here for our own freedom". [From An Phoblacht/Republican News.]