On March 22, 2006, the Basque organisation ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna — Basque Homeland and Freedom) declared a "permanent ceasefire" after more than 40 years of armed struggle, first under the dictatorship of Franciso Franco and then under his appointed successor, Borbon King Juan Carlos. ETA instead called on Basque society to find its way to self-determination through dialogue.
Conditions for peace talks and a political negotiation seemed ripe. In March 2004, the pro-war, neoliberal, neo-Francoist Popular Party (PP) government of Jose Maria Aznar had been kicked out of office following huge mobilisations. It was replaced by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had in part renewed the PSOE at the expense of its factional chieftains and who was also forced to create a parliamentary majority with forces to his left.
Most importantly, the flimsy post-Franco constitutional compromise that had remade Spain as a fake federal state of "autonomous communities" (in order to dilute the national aspirations of Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country) was showing signs of exhaustion.
However, for the police and the judiciary it was business as usual. Batasuna, the Basque left pro-independence party, remained banned and classified as terrorist. The Audiencia Nacional (National Bench, a political court descended from Franco's Public Order Tribunal) staged a mass trial of 45 Batasuna leaders and also added three Basque youth organisations to the political blacklist.
A set of anti-terrorist laws, which included a "Political Party Act" and which had been concocted by the PP and PSOE in the previous legislature, institutionalised the thesis that "anything that surrounds ETA is ETA" — and hence illegal and subject to prosecution.
Under pressure from both the right and the left, the Rodriguez Zapatero government displayed total, if cheerful, passivity. As the months went by, the "peace process" grew as an object of speculation, but Basque prisoners remained in jail as distant as possible from homeland and family, police hunted down "those disposed to violence", and the judiciary carried on bringing down waves of anti-Basque sentences. (At the same time, Spanish troops were withdrawn from Iraq, only to be sent off to the "legal war of reconstruction" in Afghanistan.)
A bomb and a hunger strike
Then the "peace process" dissolved. ETA activist Inaki de Juana Chaos, who was due for release after serving 18 years in Spanish prisons, was given a further 12 years for two articles written for the Basque pro-independence daily Gara. According to the Audiencia Nacional, his articles contained "threats" and indicated "targets" because of the names they mentioned (all publicly known judicial and prison authorities). De Juana Chaos began a hunger strike to the death.
On December 30, ETA blew up the Madrid airport car park, leaving two Ecuadoran immigrants buried under the rubble. The police forces had been warned to clear the area, but — typically — failed to do so.
The government blanched: "ETA has unilaterally destroyed the peace process." But the bomb forced a joint response from the attorney-general and the Supreme Court. De Juana's sentence was reduced to three years, he was put under house arrest and ended his hunger strike.
"The terrorists command and the government obeys", screamed the right-wing opposition, carefully forgetting that the Aznar government had conducted its own "peace talks" with ETA in 1998. The right then launched one of the most outrageous smear campaigns in recent Spanish history. Relatives of ETA victims were paraded on the country's streets and squares and milked dry of their pain and suffering on TV and radio.
The failure of the Basque peace process was a golden opportunity to restore the political credibility of the right. The PP was primed to mobilise its supporters and strained to regain the political initiative it had lost both over Iraq and within Spain after the Madrid train bombings of 2004. The moment for endless ravings about "Spanish unity" against "separatists", "law and order" versus the "terrorists" had returned, and could be used to set the PP's social base alight.
On March 11, three years after the massive demonstrations against the Madrid bombings and the Aznar government's attempt to pin them on ETA, hundreds of thousands of the PP's "normal, well-bred Spaniards" crowded Madrid's city centre. They demanded Zapatero's resignation, and acclaimed Mariano Rajoy, the current PP leader, as future prime minister. Everywhere the Francoist-monarchist red and yellow flag was waved frantically and the so-called "national anthem" was hummed (being a royal march, it has no words, but is good accompaniment for the police horses). Openly fascist symbols and slogans were present. The march confirmed that the Spanish bourgeoisie has never had such a solid party political representation as the PP.
Basque left, Spanish left
The all-Spanish class struggle and the fight for the sovereignty of Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and Catalonia have been closely linked in recent Spanish history. In the 1960s and 1970s the development of ETA and the Basque pro-independence left and their growing resistance to the suppression of Basque language and institutions intertwined completely with the upsurge of working class and student struggle against Franco.
The bourgeois, moderately conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV — now governing the Basque autonomous community) was no vehicle for thousands of militant workers and youth, who formed the mass base of the "revolutionary socialist" pro-independence left in Euskal Herria.
While the majority of the Basque population rejected the new Spanish constitution at the 1978 referendum, the main parties of the Spanish left (PSOE and the Communist Party of Spain — PCE) became staunch defenders of the new regime of monarchist "transition", abandoning their traditional support for self-determination in favour of Spanish national unity.
During the 1980s, the PSOE government of Felipe Gonzalez widened this gap by resorting to the same methods of dealing with the Basque movement as its right-wing predecessors. Paramilitary-police death squads (the infamous Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups) were recruited and financed to kill independence fighters in the Basque lands on both sides of the French-Spanish border.
However, the inevitable decline of Gonzalez (due to his increasing alienation from both the organised working class and the Basque, Catalan and Galician peoples) and the following eight years of PP rule forced a change in the policies and the leadership of the PSOE. Under Rodriguez Zapatero, it is now intent on a "second transition", one that "reforms" the structure of the state towards some kind of federalism at the same time as leaving the constitution untouched.
For its part the PCE, now a component part of the broader United Left (Izquierda Unida), is making its own attempts at clarification, with the inevitable cost in party unity and numbers. The United Left's Catalan and Basque sister coalitions are determined advocates of self-determination, with Esker Batua (United Left in Basque) having signed an electoral agreement with Aralar, a left pro-independence party critical of ETA and Batasuna's "militaristic strategy".
Batasuna itself has proposed a political dialogue open to all parties alongside peace talks between ETA and Madrid. The aim is to "supersede the armed conflict and recognise the Basque people's right to decide their own future". There are more than 600 Basque political prisoners scattered through Spanish and French prisons as well as three generations of exiles living in Latin America and Europe. Their situation must be addressed, as should the current artificial administrative division of the Basque "herrialdes" or regions.
Various social movements are stepping forward in defence of a real peace process, a political solution to the Basque conflict and the decriminalisation of the independence movement. Ahotsak (a cross-party women's forum) and Milakabilaka are two of the most active.
These groups are showing the only way to stop the Spanish right in its revived bid for social and political power. Not a passive and ultimately demoralising confidence in PSOE governance, but a determined pressure for changes from the left. Not the posturing of small circles, but unity in action and mass mobilisation. In the Spanish state we've done it before. We know it pays.
[Victor Cremer is a Spanish revolutionary socialist presently living in Australia.]