Basque Country: Huge march advances struggle for peace, national rights

January 19, 2014
Huge march for Basque prisoners' rights, Bilbao, January 11.

For decade, the People’s Party (PP) of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has believed it had a reliable political gun in its holster ― unbending opposition to any group or proposal that could be portrayed as linked to Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).

ETA is the left-nationalist armed group responsible for more than 800 deaths in its 50-year-long fight against the Spanish state.

However, since ETA’s declaration of a permanent ceasefire two years ago, this weapon has started to backfire on the PP. A December Deustobarometro opinion poll showed just how much: of those interviewed, 16% thought ETA “was helping consolidate peace in Euskadi [the Basque Country] a lot or appreciably”, as against only 6% for the PP (less than the vote that party gets in Basque Country elections).

Yet the Rajoy government remains locked into its traditional ETA-hunting strategy, with the line that it has nothing to negotiate with the armed group. Unlike peace processes in Ireland and South Africa, the PP is after a “final solution” with decisive victors and vanquished ― there will be no let-up from the Spanish state until ETA is forced to disarm and dissolve.

As for the hundreds of ETA prisoners in Spanish and French jails, they qualify for early release or transfer to jails in Euskadi (Basque Country) only if they individually recant and apologise.

In fact, at the same time as Basque abertzale (patriotic) left has definitively adopted peaceful methods of political struggle, the Rajoy government has stepped up an intense legal and police war against abertzale groups.


This assault has stirred mass anger in Euskadi. This peaked on January 11, when a 130,000–strong march for “human rights, understanding and peace” completely flooded central Bilbao.

The march, the biggest in Bilbao in living memory, was jointly convened by the parties allied in the electoral coalition EH Bildu (led by the abertzale left organisation Sortu), the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the two nationalist trade union confederations, the Patriotic Workers Commissions, aligned with the abertzale left, and Basque Workers Union, aligned with the PNV.

It was the first time in 15 years that the two wings of Basque nationalism had called a joint demonstration. It partly explains why the demonstration was twice as large as the October 5 protest last year against the banning of prisoner rights group Herrira.

Josu Erkoreka, a spokesperson for the Basque government, said: “The demonstration was so large because the vast majority of Basque society wants to stop frustration of the opportunity for peace.”

The main spur to the turnout was outrage with the January 8 arrest of the eight members of the Coordinating Group representing the Basque Political Prisoners’ Collective (EPPK). Their offices were raided on the grounds that the group is an “operational arm” of ETA.

Those arrested, since jailed, were two lawyers and six former prisoners who had already announced their role as mediators explaining the new position of the EPPK with social and political forces in Euskadi.

The arrest came after the December 31 EPPK declaration in support of the peaceful political strategy of the abertzale left and a January 4 press conference of 80 ETA ex-prisoners expresed their support.

Many of the prisoners had recently been released after the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on October 21 that Spanish court decisions extending their sentences were in breach of European human rights law.

The EPPK declaration recognised “in all sincerity the suffering and damage to all sides generated as a result of the conflict”. It backed individual solutions for individual ETA prisoners, a change from the previous stance of insistence on negotiations with the prisoners as a whole.

In a clear exposure of the propaganda purpose of the arrests, the Spanish interior ministry issued a media release before the operation even began. The police also raided the office of senator Inaki Goioaga, elected on the left-nationalist ticket Amaiur in the 2011 Spanish national elections.

On January 9, citizens’ platform Tantaz Tanta (“Drop by Drop”) announced it was calling a January 11 rally to protest the arrests and in support of the stalled peace process.

Initially, judge Pablo Ruz gave permission for the demonstration to take place. However, this ruling was reversed by Judge Eloy Velasco, responsible for the arrest of the EPPK eight due to an alleged link between Tantz Tanta and the banned Herrira.

The spokespeople for Tantaz Tanta then called off the demonstration, but social media in the Basque Country and Navarra immediately began buzzing with the hashtag “I’m going”. This surge of outrage drove the PNV to arrange a joint press conference with Sortu and to announce the new slogan for the demonstration ― which Velasco could find no grounds to reject.

Why the attack?

What explains this latest offensive, which actually banned a demonstration of the kind allowed while ETA was still carrying out armed attacks?

Arnaldo Otegi, imprisoned Sortu national secretary in absentia, explained the background in a December 18 interview with the Mexican daily La Jornada: “The government of Spain has no interest in peace. It doesn’t want it and longs for the previous scenario in which the armed violence of ETA allowed it to wave around the necessary ‘enemy within’ in order to conceal its own deeply anti-democratic, anti-social and authoritarian character.

“The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for it, to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination.”

The Rajoy leadership is also hostage to its tactic of relentless attack on the Spanish Socialist Workers Party government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (2004-2011) for being “soft on terrorism” and its financial and political boosting of the “victims of terrorism” groups closest to it.

Luis Aizpeolea, a long-time analyst of ETA, said the Association of Victims of Terrorism (AVT), built up by the PP to bludgeon Zapatero, has now escaped PP control, and is shopping around for the best deal from competing right-wing Spanish-centralist forces.

Rajoy now faces three rivals ready to attack his government for the very same “softness” of which he accused his predeccessor.

There’s the PP’s own internal “Tea Party”, led by former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, who claim democracy has lost out to ETA because “terrorists” have been elected to parliaments in Euskadi, Navarra and nationally.

These forces imply that Basque nationalist support for Catalonia’s right to decide represents a further spread of the terrorist virus (Aznar advocates that Catalan premier Artur Mas be immediately jailed if he carries out an “illegal” referendum in the country.)

There’s the “more-patriotic-than-thou” Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) and Vox, a newly-launched outfit including ex-PPers. Vox advocates defending the threatened unity of Spain with a “hard line” anti-terrorist policy and by replacing its 17 “autonomous communities” (states) with “a unitary state with a single government and single parliament”.

Rajoy moved to woo back AVT support by stating that he had never negotiated with ETA and never would (a lie, the 1996-2004 Aznar government, in which Rajoy was minister, shifted 200 ETA prisoners to Basque Country jails after talks with ETA). He said he would study ways to ban released ETA prisoners from standing for public office.

The PP is also planning to include a ceremony with victims of terrorism in its February national convention.


The huge success of the Bilbao march put all parliamentary political forces in Euskadi asides from EH Bildu on the defensive.

The Socialist Party of the Basque Country (affiliated to PSOE) said “the PNV has got into this game [of alliance with Sortu] because its legs have shaken, for fear of losing hegemony within the nationalist electorate”.

For the Socialist Party, the speaker of the Basque parliament, the PNV’s Bakartxo Tejeria, should not have taken part in the march that did not represent an “inclusive political and social consensus”.

But the Socialist Party had no proposal to make about advancing the peace process. And in Navarra, abstention by its sister Socialist Party of Navarra actually allowed a motion condemning the Bilbao demonstration to pass the Navarra parliament.

After the demonstration, PNV president Andoni Ortuzar stressed that Sortu had been unable to control its own base, some of whom shouted out slogans in support of the EPPK at what was agreed would be a silent protest.

He also underlined that the demonstration did not represent “a new stage” in relations between the two wings of Basque nationalism, but “an exceptional response, motivated by an exceptional situation”.

However, while the PNV government has been very cautious in its dealings with the Rajoy government, that may have to change. If, as seems likely, the PP is determined to continue its war against Basque left nationalism, passivity from the PNV runs the risk of losing it support. The “exceptional” may have to become the rule.

As for Sortu, its assessment of January 11 was direct: “The Spanish state is a cesspit of human rights: its only offer to the Basque Country is rejection and denial … [But] the 130,000 of us who demonstrated yesterday showed that with forces united, this country is unstoppable …

“From now on, the challenge is to make sure that yesterday wasn’t a one-off flower, but the beginning of the united work that this people needs.”

[Dick Nichols is the Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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