Left Basque leader Arnaldo Otegi: ‘Our path to overcome oppression is peaceful and democratic’

Sortu leader Arnaldo Otegi.
July 15, 2017

As the battle for the right of Catalonia to vote on independence rages between the Spanish government in Madrid and the independence-oriented Catalan parliament in Barcelona, major developments have taken place in one of the most famous struggles for independence on the Iberian Peninsula — the Basque Country.

On April 8, Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), which waged a decades-long armed campaign, announced the definitive end to its use of violence in its struggle for an independent, socialist Basque Country. In a statement, ETA declared itself a disarmed organisation, praising the work of Basque civil society in supporting the peace process. However, the group condemned Spanish and French authorities for failing to respond positively to ETA’s disarmament.

ETA was founded by members of the youth section of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the traditional political party of the independence movement. By the late 1960s, facing severe repression by Franco’s fascist dictatorship, ETA viewed the armed struggle as the best way to resist the Spanish state’s oppression and armed occupation of Basque lands.

ETA has led an armed campaign of assassinations, bombings and kidnappings of prominent political and military figures of both Franco’s regime and the post-1978 democratically-elected governments of Spain. It declared a permanent ceasefire in 2010 and began the process of disarming.

However, the Spanish state’s persecution of left-wing Basque nationalists has not eased — despite its official justification of “fighting terrorists” being removed. Several political parties supporting the independence struggle have been outlawed and many peaceful activists arrested, often on absurd, trumped up charges.

Arnaldo Otegi has been one of the most prominent leaders within the Basque abertzale (patriotic) left. A former member of ETA, he was president of the abertzale  left party Batasuna from 2001 until it was forcibly dissolved by the Spanish state in 2013. He is now secretary general of Sortu, which succeeded Batasuna, and a spokesperson for EH Bildu, a coalition of Abertzale political groups.

Otegi has been jailed and tortured several times by the Spanish State. In 2009, he was jailed for his role as a leader of Batasuna, which the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled to be associated with ETA. After an international campaign for his freedom, Otegi was released last year.

Despite the repression, Otegi has played a key role in the peace process and has been central to persuading ETA to abandon its armed operations. Green Left Weekly’s Denis Rogatyuk spoke with Otegi about the Basque struggle. A longer version can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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ETA has announced its definitive disarming. Does this amount to an admission that ETA’s armed struggle has been counterproductive for the Basque independence movement?

We need to put ETA’s disarming into context. I see it in terms of a cycle of change that has taken place all over the world: in the past decade or so, most of the movements that had been carrying out armed struggle have been giving up this strategy to become movements of popular resistance, seeking to build social and democratic forces, including in parliament.

I think we are witnessing the end of a large global cycle, with the passing of outstanding figures like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader] Manuel Marulanda and [Irish republican] Martin McGuiness. That’s the context in which I think the disarming of ETA, a group that has carried out armed struggle for 50 years, has to be seen.

We are very pleased with this decision. We are convinced — not only politically but in terms of revolutionary morality — that the road forward to overcoming oppression must involve peaceful and democratic methods. This is the pathway, and I believe ETA will rise to the challenge by making a historic contribution to the independence movement with its disarming.

Nobody can avoid recognising the level of suffering the armed struggle and government repression have brought to our country. [The Abertzale  left] brought to the discussion three things: removing the armed struggle from Basque politics; recognising the damage done; and recognising that we too are in part responsible for the suffering in the country.

On the issue of ETA political prisoners, the Spanish state seems to be happy to let them rot in jail. Where do you feel the struggle for prisoners is going?

I think we have said quite clearly, adopting as our own the international principles and standards of conflict resolution, that once ETA has disarmed, the issues of the prisoners, exiles and demilitarisation has to be confronted. In our country, we have one police officer for every 20 inhabitants, the highest in Europe: they are Spanish police and the Civil Guard.

I believe there are two levels on which the conditions of the prisoners should change with disarming. There’s the non-political level, covering prisoners of an advanced age or with severe illnesses. They should be released unconditionally, it is a humanitarian issue beyond politics. I put the issue of the Basque political exiles on the same level.

Then, with ETA disarmed, we should start discussions among the various progressive forces about how to review all state-of-emergency regulations, insofar as they affect prison policy.

I think that will be the next step. Here we can work with sections of the Spanish left, with a lot of patience, discretion and caution so we don’t hurt certain sensibilities.

In the Basque region today, there’s a significant left social presence and a political majority that seeks self-determination. What steps do you think Sortu should take to unite these sectors?

Within the Basque country, there is large majority in favour of self-determination, with 57 MPs out of 75 [in the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain]. Out of these, we have 18 and [Spanish-state wide anti-austerity party] Podemos 11, giving the left 29 in total — ahead of the 28 of the [more conservative] Basque Nationalist Party.

So it appears that we have a broad majority for the right to self-determination and a broad progressive majority as well.

However, the question is not one of trying to create a single political and ideological amalgam out of these majorities. What we should build are common alliances and dynamics so that our policies in national terms move forward towards sovereignty and self-determination, while policies on day-to-day concerns shift leftwards. These are the tasks for Sortu and EH Bildu.

At the Sortu Refoundation Congress in January, the party defined itself as “ecological”. What meaning does this have for you?

We have always been ecologists, but now I believe this description has even greater validity. Right now, capitalism is in a difficult predicament. It is weakening the conditions supporting human life.

For the first time, the human footprint is putting at risk the biological and material conditions of human life: that’s one of the legacies of savage capitalism. That’s why when we talk about economic growth and sustainability, the emphasis has to be on respect for nature.

We have a long tradition here of fighting against nuclear power, a long tradition of struggling to keep our natural landscapes intact. This is why Sortu has declared itself socialist, feminist and ecologist.

At a time when probably the greatest contradiction in the world is the contradiction between capital and life, we have to make a clear commitment to intensifying our ecological profile. Today, environmentalism is a crucial component of global anti-capitalism.

The situation that we see today in the Spanish state is different than the one seven years ago. The People’s Party (PP) is in a minority government, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) is in a deep crisis, while Podemos and the alliances in which it participates is constantly pushing the government on various issues. The Spanish state resembles a rotting stake, which, if pulled from different sides could fall. So if the Catalan movement pulls hard from one side, and you pull hard from another, could the stake finally fall and progressive change arrive to the whole country?

I think that the Spanish state is going through a serious structural crisis: the foundations that the post-Francoist regime used to build the country in 1978 are in deep crisis.

For various reasons: first, because the global financial and economic crisis has called into question the economic viability of the country. Second, because Catalonia has started a process that will bring them national independence, and third, because the abertzale left and the Basque pro-independence left have changed their strategies, leaving Spain without an internal enemy.

Thus, I think there is a way to make a significant change in terms of democracy: supporting the constituent processes that Catalonia has been heading and which we want to start in our country. We cannot forget that the key to the 1978 regime is the defence of Spanish unity, its domination is built on this idea. This is why Catalonia has the importance it has, and this is why we also want to initiate an independence process.

If we accompany this with a real dynamic of a Spanish left-wing proposing a multinational state and demanding respect for the right to decide, all this might come together in a change in the regime, a real democratisation.

But we are not very hopeful about that, since the PP, PSOE and Citizens — the parties of the regime — are still in a majority in the Spanish state. That’s why we say we have to follow our own pathway wherever possible: in Catalonia and the Basque Country. 

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