End of an era for ETA?: May Basque Peace Continue

May 16thwe had news of the arrest of Josu Ternera, a.k.a. Jose Antonio Urrutikoetxea Bengoetxea, the former leader of Basque terrorist group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna(ETA, Basque Homeland and Freedom) near Saint-Gervais-les-Bains in the French Alps. The operation was conducted by the Spanish Guardia Civil and the French General Directorate of Interior Security. As Ternera represents some of the ETA old guard, the news was welcome. Yet, some serious questions remain in the present. Where are the Basques and Spain in their peace process? Will further arrests of ETA commandos and ETA leadership ease enough tensions for the Spanish government to resume talks with the radical-Basque left (Batasuna)?

It has been eight years since ETA declared a permanent and verifiable ceasefire and last year, Ternera as spokesperson for the group, declared ETA’s final dissolution.In those past eight years, many Basques have waited for a peace process and negotiations with the Spanish government along the lines of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Even so, successive Spanish governments during this time, both conservative and liberal, have not wanted to negotiate with Basque political parties who in the past supported violence against Spanish security forces, the military and police, as well as contra Spanish politicians.

Since ETA’s inception in 1959 it was responsible for 829 deaths. In its final years, the terrorist group especially targeted conservative Spanish-politicians from the Popular Party. Over its half-century history prior to conclusion, its paramilitary activities were responsible for numerous civilian deaths, military and police killings, criminal extortion, kidnappings, bombings, murders, and assassination-attempts. All of this violence was presumably done in the name of independence for creation of a separate Basque Country or Euskadi—the irredentist idea of political secession of the so-called seven Basque provinces fissuring from both Spain and France.

As a political-military movement, ETA did not arise in a vacuum. It came into being because of the Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco’s (1939-1975)policies of cultural oppression against Basques and Catalans. Franco and his regime tried earnestly to eradicate the ancient Basque-language (euskera) and Basque culture. Basque nationalism though began around the turn of the twentieth century through the writings of Basque politician, Sabino Arana Goiri. But it was not until the 1960s that Basques radicalized toward using violence, developing both a political platform and paramilitary strategies to counteract against the Francoist dictatorship, while also formulating separatist goals for the establishment of a Basque state.

When El Caudillo—Franco—died in 1975, and Spain transitioned to democracy, it should have signaled an end to ETA. However, ETA continued and carried on its warfare with the Spanish police and Spanish military, and later Basque police as well. Its political ideology became Marxist and its politics leftist, favoring environmentalism, feminism, and workers’ rights, though its violence relegated those positions to near-irrelevance. Its primary political rallies became those against the imprisonment and torture of its members and its political adherents. By 2009 polls of Basques showed a mere one percent unqualified support for ETA and a 64 percent total opposition.

When I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Spanish-Basque Country (1996-1997), ETA had changed military tactics toward assassinating politicians and not just members of the security forces. By 1997, when a young PP Town Councilman, Miguel Ángel Blanco was kidnapped and eventually murdered by ETA, it caused massive protests and unrest against “Basque Homeland and Freedom” throughout Spain with millions marching in favor of peace. Indeed, many believed it was time for the Spanish government to publicly support terrorist victims’ rights and to provide monetary support for victims’ families and even pay for bodyguards for threatened politicians.

It was clear then, ETA’s days were numbered. Most Spaniards saw ETA and the radical Basque-left as criminals and not as the revolutionaries the Basque-left considered themselves to be. Even the Mexican Zapatista EZLN leader, Subcomandante Marcos, questioned ETA’s Marxist aims and credentials compared to the poor Indians in Chiapas, Mexico.

In 2010 in Oslo, Norway, while I was working for the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), as a Senior Researcher, I had the opportunity for talks with some of the Batasunaleadership about possible ways forward toward a peace process. My role was altogether minor compared to others such as the South African lawyer and peace activist, Brian Currin–partially responsible for the creation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission–and other notables as the Irish Sinn Féin leadership, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, as well as Nobel Laureates like Bishop Desmond Tutu and John Hume, among other peace dignitaries.

In March, 2010, I was one of the signatories of what became known as the “Brussels Declaration”, read out to European Union (EU) Parliament: We, the undersigned, welcome and commend the proposed steps and new public commitment of the Basque Pro-independence (AbertzaleLeft) to “exclusively political and democratic” means and a “total absence of violence” to attain its political goals. Fully carried out, this commitment can be a major step in ending the last remaining conflict in Europe. We note the expectation that the coming months may present a situation where the commitment to peaceful, democratic and nonviolent means becomes an irreversible reality. To that end, we appeal to ETA to support this commitment by declaring a permanent, fully verified ceasefire. Such a declaration appropriately responded to by [Spanish] Government would permit new political and democratic efforts to advance, differences to be resolved and lasting peace attained.

It was a welcome statement for a total commitment to peace—peace from years of Basque conflict and peace for all the Spanish people.

Now, eight years on from ETA’s formal declaration of a permanent ceasefire, I reflect upon the meaning of Josu Ternera’s arrest and what more can be done toward a Basque peace process. It is heartening that it was Ternera who made recorded statements of an official apology on behalf of ETA to the victims’ families.

In their own words, ETA declared in 2018: “We know we caused a lot of pain during the long period of armed struggle, including damage that can never be put right…We wish to show our respect for those who were killed or wounded by ETA and those who were affected by the conflict. We are truly sorry.” These are truly remarkable words from those formerly hell-bent on achieving Basque independence at all costs—including willingness to die and kill for a political cause.

Unfortunately, the Association of Victims from Terrorism (Asscociación de Víctimas del Terrorismo, AVT), and the other victims’ associations (el Colectivo de Víctimas del Terrorismo, COVITE, la Fundación Miguel Ángel Blancola Asscociación de Cuerpos y Fuerzas de Seguridad del EstadoVíctimas del Terrorismo),rejected the apology as a denial by ETA of its authentic responsibility for its use of violence.

As NYU Fellow Teresa Whitfield describes in her well-received 2014 book, Endgame for ETA:

Spanish intransigence may uphold Spanish ‘principles’, but it also helps ensure that Basque society will remain deeply polarised and significantly hostile to Spain and Madrid. Over many years, ETA had inflicted great suffering on its victims and damage to the Basque Country and Spain. The ending of its armed activities had been unanimously welcomed, and its dissolution would be too. Peace is not worth any price, but nor does it come free.

ETA did in fact announce its dissolution one year ago.

Still, there are deep wounds to heal from the Basque conflict.

In 1960, around the time ETA began as a political organization, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned some of his own words about “personal suffering” in his short essay, “Suffering and Faith.”He observed:

My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. Asmy sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

May there be healing and redemption from the Basque conflict.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).